Have you heard about ‘Chat Friends’ UPDATED

So a link to a news article arrived in my inbox this morning about a new English conversation study service from a company called SpeakGlobal. According to the article, students can log onto the company’s website and ‘speak’ with a robot that is programmed to “look and move like a human and speak aloud…” Students also speak into a microphone which uses voice recognition software to analyze their responses. All this for only ¥1,980 a month. What a bargain!

The article made me chuckle because it is so typical of the English study industry in Japan. They spent a lot of time and money to create an admittedly interesting and engaging interface, if you like that typical Japanese style of illustration, (personally, I find it a little immature, but I’m sure that their target market is secondary school students), for what are basically services that already exist and are free (SecondLife, Skype, Yahoo Chat, etc.)

They’ve posted a video on YouTube demonstrating their software (the example conversation starts are around 2:01), which is interesting, but I think is pretty typical of an EIKAIWA style conversation that I would say isn’t really English. For example, it includes the phrase, “how about you?” which is a favorite among students, but I almost never hear fluent speakers use. At one point the robot says, “where in the U.S. are you going to?” which is very stilted. A real person would just say, “where?” or maybe “where are you going?” but would never say “where in the U.S.” because it is redundant and neither would they say “going to?” which I guess is grammatically correct (provided that you think it is okay to end a sentence with a preposition), but awkward.

Also, the conversation is basically a Q and A session. I like to call it the interrogation style of language learning, with one person sitting passively while the other answers questions. Real conversations, in any language — not just English, are not like that. People don’t just sit there waiting to be asked a question.

Anyway, I’d wish them luck, but they don’t need it. At only ¥1,980 a month I’m sure that they will have tens of thousands of people signing up. Which is great. I strongly believe that anything that sparks an interest in language learning is a good thing and I hope that once students outgrow this software, they will be motivated to move on to bigger and better things, like talking with a real person.

UPDATE: I received a very nice response from Roma Testa, the director and V.P. of SpeakGlobal, the company that makes Chat Friends. With her permission, I’ve posted her e-mail here.

Dear Cameron,

Well, it has been interesting watching reactions from foreign English teachers here in Japan on the use of chatbots for learning.

The purpose is not to replace people and live conversation, but to offer method which Japanese learners can study outside of lessons, or for those who cannot afford “eikaiwa” lessons, or for most Japanese who never have an opportunity to speak with foreigners. The chatbots are designed for speaking ‘practice’, not conversation.

Teaching in Japan for the past 5 years, I’ve learned that students cannot always think so quickly to give their responses in the classroom. They get anxious, nervous, feel embarrassed, etc. If they don’t understand, they give an answer that is not grammatically correct, or just a short answer to say ‘something.’ The chatbots offer structure and with a transcript of the dialogue, learners can see the sentence structure and learn from it. You cannot do this in live conversation. The chatbots will wait for a reply, so learners can take their time.

There are so many online sites out there that offer speech recognition for ‘speaking practice’. But what is speaking practice? Repeating given text or expressing oneself with one’s own thoughts. Many online sites have learners read scripted text on the screen. Not forming sentences on their own. With SpeakGlobal, learners will now have this chance. If you’ve ever taught Eiken preparation, you know that interviewees must give answers in full grammatical form. The chatbots help reinforce this.

I’ve seen eikaiwa teachers use chatbots in conversation lessons as discussion points. Reviewing pieces of the dialogue and talking about it. The fun part is that you never know exactly how the chatbot will resond and some answers can be humorous.

SpeakGlobal is developing a curriculum now which will be offered free online and will include different levels of chatfriends to help build speaking confidence.

Roma Testa
Kobe, Japan

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