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ChatGPT can be powerful tool for language learning

The innovation offers multiple opportunities for language teaching and learning.

BY WEI CAI | FEB 24 2023

ChatGPT – the artificial intelligence-powered chatbot – has sparked heated debates in academia about the possible rise of academic misconduct. It is encouraging to see that teaching and learning centres in various Canadian postsecondary institutions are taking steps to address these concerns.

While recognizing the challenges posed by ChatGPT, we should also consider what opportunities it presents. It may be premature to claim that the impact of ChatGPT (or its later generations named differently or another AI tool) is likely comparable to the revolution made by the computer, its impact on every aspect of our lives may be profound and significant. People have already begun to speculate about its potential influences, but none of us has seen its real power and true potential yet. This AI tool is still in its infancy and will continue to evolve and become more intelligent. Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine what the world will be like as ChatGPT becomes integrated with other technologies, and what the implications will be for human beings. The specific significant impact that ChatGPT will have on various disciplines awaits exploration. I would like to focus on language learning and teaching to demonstrate the power of ChatGPT.

Alignment with language learning theory

As is shown on the landing page of ChatGPT, it “interacts in a conversational way” and can “answer follow up questions.” This means that learners can engage in conversational interactions which elicit negotiations for meaning. Additionally, it can provide immediate feedback, drawing learners’ attention to their errors and gaps in their language knowledge and skills. For instance, when prompted to provide corrective feedback on a bi-sentence (a Chinese sentence construction), ChatGPT shows the meaning conveyed by sentences with bi, its format, a key point to consider, the problem with the provided sentence, and suggests the correct sentence. After a correct sentence is inputted, ChatGPT confirms that it is grammatically correct, provides a translation, and analyzes the sentence based on the format provided earlier. Additionally, ChatGPT gives the feedback “Good job! Keep practicing!” to encourage the user! ChatGPT can modify the difficulty level of the materials to make them comprehensible for language learners. These benefits align well with key concepts of influential theories about how people learn additional languages, such as the comprehensible input hypothesis (acquisition happens when being exposed to input just one step beyond leaners’ current language level), the comprehensible output hypothesis (producing language is necessary for success in second language acquisition),  and so on.

Benefits for language teachers

ChatGPT is a very competent assistant for language teachers and can perform the following tasks:

  • Delegating instruction on facts and fundamental knowledge. Teachers can assign tasks such as introducing facts, linguistic rules, and cultural information to ChatGPT. For instance, teachers of Chinese can use the tool to explain Pinyin (a phonetic notation system that uses the Latin alphabet to represent the sounds of Mandarin Chinese), radicals, strokes, sentence patterns, and Peking Opera. By prompting ChatGPT with a question such as, “What are the rules for using ba-sentences?” (a special sentence structure in Chinese), it can provide a detailed explanation, including its meaning, format, example sentences, and  essential rules for using the sentence pattern. Language teachers can delegate the learning of language forms to this AI tool and hence focus on context-specific and creative activities in class.
  • Enhancing differentiated instruction. Given the diverse backgrounds of students, implementing differentiated instruction is often a necessity. By providing ChatGPT with different prompts, it can generate materials on different topics, genres (descriptive, narrative, expository, and argumentative), at various difficulty levels (such as A1, B1, C1 based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages), and provide additional features, such as translation into learners’ first language, and adding Pinyin. With the integration of other software, the written texts provided by ChatGPT can be converted into the audio format.
  • Creating quizzes, tests and activities. ChatGPT can generate common forms of language assessment, such as cloze tests, multiple-choice tests and true-or-false tests. It can also be used to design in-class activities, such as role-playing, think-pair-share activities, buzz session activities, and others.
  • Developing language learning and teaching materials. With the input of learning objectives, ChatGPT can generate materials consistent with the objectives. It can produce materials on a specific topic (such as dining in a restaurant), function (how to make requests), or with selected words and sentence patterns. The difficulty level can be adjusted as needed. Additionally, ChatGPT can generate lesson plans, word lists and flash cards.

Benefits for language learners

ChatGPT can serve as a tutor or even as a teacher for language learners:

  • Enhancing personalized learning. ChatGPT can generate materials and activities tailored to the individual needs, interests, pace, and language proficiency level of each learner. For instance, by giving a prompt to create a dialogue on public transportation in Calgary in Chinese, ChatGPT can generate a dialogue along with a list of wordswith Pinyin. If learners need further clarification on a particular difficult word, ChatGPT can generate additional sample sentences containing the word in Chinese characters and Pinyin, and  English translations.Additionally, if learners want to practice some specific words or sentence structures, ChatGPT can produce additional texts containing these selected elements. As can be seen, ChatGPT promotes student-centred learning and enhances learner autonomy.
  • Increasing exposure to the target language. . ChatGPT can provide learners with access to a vast array of learning materials. It simulates real-life situations and promotes authentic language use. Increased exposure to the target language can speed up language processing and enhance language proficiency.
  • Providing immediate feedback. Learners can receive immediate feedback on their language use. For instance, if prompted to provide feedback in an upcoming conversation, ChatGPT will identify errors in the language, suggest corrections, and provide explanations to help understand the corrections. This can improve their accuracy in language use, promote reflection on their learning process and outcomes, and enhance their metalinguistic abilities.
  • Facilitating self-evaluation. Learners can ask ChatGPT to generate quizzes for self-assessment so that they can monitor their progress in language learning. For instance, when prompted, ChatGPT can produce quizzes in the formats of multiple-choice and short-answer questions. Once learners input their answers in ChatGPT, it can then grade their responses and provide feedback.
  • Fostering a motivating leaning environment. ChatGPT’s various features allow for conversational interactions and learner-driven control.. Since the interaction takes place with a machine, learners can feel secure and comfortable as they do not need to be concerned with losing face.

Limitations too

In addition to the potential threat to academic integrity, ChatGPT can also provide incorrect or suboptimal responses. For instance, it can give incorrect information on the number of strokes in a Chinese character. It is not as flexible as an experienced human teacher in adapting to specific situations and making decisions based on a range of multifaceted factors and instincts. Grading may not be efficient or accurate. Handwritten tests need to be converted into a digital format, which can be time-consuming. Care must be taken when using ChatGPT to grade student work that involves subjective evaluation (such as creativity, writing style), comparisons between student performance, or that takes the local teaching context into account (such as the degree to which newly acquired words are used in compositions). To overcome these challenges, language instructors need a good understanding of the tool and must closely monitor and supervise students’ learning experience with it.

Wei Cai is a professor and division chair in Chinese studies and Japanese studies in the school of languages, linguistics, literatures and cultures in the faculty of arts at the University of Calgary.

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