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SEP 10, 2021
New classroom software uses artificial intelligence for speech recognition and running teacher-supervised chatbots to help students practice words and pronunciations before they embarrass themselves in real conversation.
It’s been a busy year for machine learning and artificial intelligence in the growing education technology market, with companies announcing new software products on a regular basis, from homework feedback tools to exam proctors to career aptitude assessments. While some deployments in the classroom have been controversial, the technology’s potential to support the work done by teachers and personalize student learning continues to yield new use cases. One of the latest, from Ireland-based software company Nualang, is teaching world languages.
According to a news release last month, Nualang has developed and launched a self-titled AI-driven digital language learning platform to help students in grades six through 12 practice new language skills before attempting in-person conversations with classmates, teachers or native speakers. The company made a version of its platform available to U.S. educators earlier this year, following a launch that reached close to 1,000 teachers and students in Ireland, the U.K., Germany, Australia, France, Italy, Spain and Mexico.
Stephen Kelly, the creator of Nualang, said the idea for the product came from his experiences learning Spanish and Italian, with few opportunities for real-world practice outside of language classes or chat applications that pair native speakers with learners.
As a student at the Technological University Dublin studying software engineering, he set out to design a tool with which teachers could customize chatbots and simulate discussions with native speakers. Nualang can do this for Spanish, English, French, German, Italian and Portuguese, using AI speech recognition technology to assess and correct pronunciation.
Kelly said he noticed the need for such a program after a recent trip to Italy, where he felt he lacked confidence for basic conversation in Italian.
“I really didn’t feel like there was anything out there to address that,” he said of his experience trying immersive language learning in real-world settings.
Using Nualang’s speech recognition capabilities, Kelly said students can get real-time feedback on accents and grammar to correct mistakes, instead of counting on real people to either notice and correct them or let it pass without pointing it out. The aim was to eliminate the fear of embarrassment that often comes with learning new vocabularies and pronunciations in real-world settings.
“That’s a real confidence boost for students,” he said. “You can practice as many times as you would like at home and make as many mistakes as you like, and now you’re so used to going through [conversation scenarios] to go out into the real world and do with somebody else, with a fellow student or a teacher or with a native speaker.”
According to Kelly, Nualang’s chatbots are controlled by teachers, while the AI mainly does speech recognition. Kelly said the chatbot can have “full-fledged conversations,” but current limitations to AI make it difficult to trust that unsupervised conversations would remain appropriate for children.
“With chatbots and AI, there’s always a chance that it becomes a little bit like a black box, and you don’t really know what the bot is going to come back with. You have to be very careful about that if you’re dealing with a classroom environment and you want the students to feel safe,” he said.
“We have the logic that they need in the hands of the teacher, and that’s why I say teachers can make them as simple or as smart as they like. That whole logic of going down different branches is all managed through our chatbot editor,” he added. “That’s all controlled by the teacher, and that’s for good reason, as well.”
Kelly said he hopes to see Nualang gain traction in the U.S., where he estimated about two dozen teachers are using it as of this week.
According to Nualang’s website, Magalie Lalor, a native French speaker and French instructor at Castlecomer Community School in Ireland, was among one of the first teachers to experiment with the new language-learning tool.
Lalor said it helped bolster students’ conversational abilities, despite the shift to remote learning during last year’s COVID-19 school closures. She said the chatbot roleplay function designed to mimic typical conversations between native speakers and students could prove useful for other second-language teachers elsewhere.
“What attracted me to Nualang language application is the unique voice recognition feature, having the ability to speak the language and practice the pronunciation being crucial in language learning,” she said in a blog on Nualang’s website, adding that the program and its chatbot can be tailored to a school’s curriculum demands.
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