Has artificial intelligence rendered language teaching obsolete?

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An applied linguist with a specialization in computer-assisted language learning (CALL), I was keen to read Richard Kern's (2024, this issue) Perspectives column, “Twenty-first century technologies and language education: Charting a path forward.” In this article, Kern identifies several possible directions language learning and teaching might take following the COVID-19 pandemic and recent technological advances. With an interest in how artificial intelligence (AI), specifically speech technologies, might be harnessed to facilitate language learning and teaching dating back to the first wave of AI (Handley, 2006, 2009; Handley & Hamel, 2005), I was particularly interested in Kern's perspectives on the impact the second wave of AI is having on language learning and teaching. As Kern points out, language and technology are intrinsically related. This has never more so been the case than for AI, the aim of which was originally to develop “machines [that can] use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves” (McCarthy et al., 1955, p. 2). As such, Kern draws our attention to the existential threat AI poses to language teaching and the need to learn a language in the first place. In the United Kingdom, like the United States, we find ourselves in a language learning crisis with the uptake of modern foreign languages (MFL) at General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE; i.e., primary and secondary schooling) long in decline and more than 10 university language departments closing over the last 20 years (Kenny & Barnes, 2019). I would therefore like to take this opportunity to explore in more depth whether “artificial intelligence (AI) programs like ChatGPT have all but rendered obsolete the need for personal instruction in languages other than English” (Kern, 2024, this issue, p. XX).

Perhaps it is my background in language engineering, the design of software systems that perform tasks that are dependent on processing human language (Cunningham, 1999), but I believe language educators need a more in-depth understanding of what AI is and how it works to fully appreciate the extent to which AI can replace language teachers and the need to learn a foreign language. After exploring what makes a good language teacher, I explore what AI is and the range of AI technologies that might be deployed in language teaching, before discussing the extent to which AI might replace language teachers.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages8
JournalThe Modern Language Journal
Early online date8 May 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 8 May 2024

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