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ChatGPT language learning

Friend or foe? ChatGPT as a language teaching assistant.

The new generation chatbot, ChatGPT, can be a valuable aid to language learning. However, there are major issues to be aware of and challenges to both students’ and teachers’ digital competence, as outlined in a review by Lucas Kohnke and colleagues from the University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Baptist University.

The first chatbot imitating human conversation, ELIZA, was developed in 1966 but more recent developments in computing power, natural language processing and machine learning have led to the rapid development of increasingly intelligent bots. Enter ChatGPT, first released in November 2022, attracting a million users in just 5 days and currently over 100 million.

For language students, ChatGPT is tireless, endlessly patient and available anytime. Anxious or shy students can feel more relaxed working with an AI partner, especially in speaking practice. Since it draws on an English corpus it is well-placed to support English language learning although this can also lead to cultural bias in content.

ChatGPT can answer queries on grammar and vocabulary, including words in the context of any given text. It can go much further than a simple dictionary answer, providing a fuller explanation with follow-up examples and answering further queries. It can also answer queries in the student’s first language if preferred.

ChatGPT can alter the proficiency level of language samples, add in regional dialects, and prepare samples in various styles, such as dialogue, a business email or a recipe. It can also annotate, simplify or translate texts. It can switch between styles and genres, as in the example given of a student who asked it to write an advertisement for an electric company, an email advising a friend on how to save electricity, or a conversation about rising electricity prices.

The review appendix gives further examples of prompts students might use to practice their English, such as asking to have a conversation, draft a short story or produce a short presentation about a topic. To improve grammar, the student could ask for a text to be written in the past tense or the passive voice with explanations of use, or for mistakes in the student’s text to be explained.

ChatGPT can also be used to improve pronunciation; for example “Can you explain when intonation rises and falls when speaking English?” Specific exams can also be targeted, such as requesting sample writing prompts for the TOEFL exam and even more specifically; “Can you provide examples of complex sentence structures commonly used in IELTS writing Band 8?”

For teachers, ChatGPT can produce an inexhaustible range of materials, such as quizzes and reading comprehension questions, open-ended or multiple-choice questions, all catered to specific proficiency levels.

A major concern for teachers, however, is the use of ChatGPT to cheat on assessments. Moves to develop digital tools to spot AI-generated text, such as upgrades to Turnitin, are unlikely to keep pace with developing AI. Consequently, many courses are moving back to invigilated exams.

A further concern is that ChatGPT is currently unable to provide reliable sources or citations and it is not clear how much of the output is paraphrased without being cited.

Unfortunately, ChatGPT’s responses to questions are not always accurate and sometimes plain wrong; this can include explanations for grammatical use. The review gives an example of ChatGPT distinguishing between the use of “house” and “a house” in the sentence “I want a house by the sea.” Although ChatGPT accurately changes “house” to “a house” its explanation is “wordy, repetitive, and inaccurate.” ChatGPT tends to sound very sure of itself, but students must be encouraged to fact check answers.

Undoubtedly, however, this AI genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Teachers need to move fast to incorporate the use of ChatGPT into the language learning process in ways that draw on its strengths and minimises the drawbacks.

Teachers can use ChatGPT as an assistant in the classroom, demonstrating how to interact effectively using questions and prompts, and how to manage and respond to issues around accuracy of content, sources and cultural bias. Rather than avoiding the issues, teachers can plan tasks that use ChatGPT.

ChatGPT can also be used by both students and teachers to create specific plans; for example, “Can you create a vocabulary-building plan for me if I want to improve my nursing English.” Teachers might be especially interested in asking ChatGPT to help prepare for a job interview, for example by suggesting common questions, role-playing the interview and making suggestions for improving performance, such as making a response “more persuasive.”

REFERENCE

  • Kohnke, L., Moorhouse, B. L. and Zou, D. (2023) ChatGPT for Language Teaching and Learning. RELC, 1-14 DOI: 10.1177/00336882231162868
Image courtesy of Library
Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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