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Intelligent Assistants supporting language learning

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Intelligent assistants can help language learners study in an informal, self-directed manner.

Intelligent assistants (IA), also known as smart assistants or intelligent personal assistants (IAPs), have grown in popularity in the past two decades along with the rise of smart applications, smart technology and the mainstreaming of open educational resources.

The increased popularity of intelligent assistants has in part been led by the improved functionality of the technology, which has allowed intelligent assistants to be used on a global scale.

IA's perform tasks, provide information and deliver services through a conversational interaction with the user, either by using text or voice, using predefined commands and phrases which is intended to impersonate natural language.

Discussing the rise of intelligent assistants, Dr Agnes Kukulska-Hulme, Professor of Learning Technology at The Open University, detailed the ways that these assistants are helping people learn foreign languages in new ways.

Dr Kukulska-Hulme shared:

"The way people use intelligent assistants is usually on their smart phone, examples of which can be Siri or Google Assistant, or on their home smart devices such as Alexa."

"At the most basic level of interaction people will just ask these assistants a question, like ‘what is the weather forecast for today?’ or ‘Play some music from Spotify’. But as these technologies become more integrated into people’s lives, we are also looking at ways in which they can support study queries or study habits, like structuring your day or being helped to structure learning."

"It’s a growth area with lots projects that are emerging in this space which tend to be in computer science or engineering because that is where the technology is being developed, but it is making its way into education also."

With the technology driving the scope for open education to involve people worldwide as well as informal learners, IA's provide foreign language learners with greater opportunity to direct their own learning in informal contexts.

Self-directed and informal learning

Many foreign language learners also practice informally, whether it be with friends in social situations (in-person and online), in shops or centres of commerce, or in private. Intelligent assistants have become one of the leading ways that people can enhance their experience and success when speaking a foreign language.

The most foremost example of this is English. According to Ethnologue, leading authority on world languages, English is the most spoken language on Earth. Based on research conducted in 2020, more than 1.2 billion speak English worldwide compared to the 1.1+ billion speakers of Mandarin .

In relation to foreign language learners of English, many of whom engage in additional language practice informally and intelligent assistance have become one of the ways in which people have been able to learn language in a more self-directed manner.

The opportunities for growth in foreign language learning are expanded significantly by advancements in intelligent assistants and increased accessibility. Adding further, Dr Kukulska-Hulme shared the ways IA can help learners direct their own language learning:

"I think of it as intelligent assistants for study support, but it can also be for language learning and language practice."

"We can consider informal learning and self-directed learning as being one and the same in the context of IA use, with learners being in control of their practical learning habits.

"It is substantially and fundamentally different. There are apps such as Duolingo which have their place to provide regular dedicated learning, and that has its place. But what we are talking about is more of a personalised and interest-driven learning experience, which is more relevant to people's casual needs.

"For example, people who travel abroad to work abroad may join a [foreign language learning] class, but that class will not be entirely relevant to the learner and their needs. It will cover certain things but not others, so the informal learning is often complimentary to that. This informal learning will typically be based on what those people actually need, what they want to know and related to activities that they actually want to engage in."

With the mainstreaming of voice assistants, informal learning can allow for users to have greater control of what they learn. As this method of learning becomes more prominent on a global scale, educators and educational institutions will have greater opportunity to implement informal learning activities and practices in a structured curriculum.

To keep updated with further developments on intelligent assistants and informal learning, stay up to date on the IET website. If you want to implement IA and informal learning activities with your language learning, contact our experts.