How AI will reboot language learning

Donald Clark
EdTech entrepreneur and CEO of Wildfire Ltd, … read more
Donald Clark
Cartoon illustration of young man watching his robot companion read a book.

More people learn English through technology than by any other means. Out of 1.5 billion English language learners across the globe, only a fraction have the resources or access to learn the language through formal teaching. Just as the global reach of English has been accelerated by online services, so has its effect on learning. Most of this is informal learning, which in practice is how most of us learn most things.

The explosive access by young people to YouTube, Vimeo, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Google, Wikipedia, social media and an endless array of other services, has given them unprecedented access to English content. Not the dry, didactic content of the course and classroom, but content they crave and find compelling – movies, TV, music, sport, news, clips … This informal acquisition of language is the new norm.

AI is the new User Interface

A new kid on the online block, that promises to revolutionise the online teaching of English, is Artificial Intelligence (AI). Advances in Natural Language Processing (NLP) mean that learners can have a frictionless interface with language content through voice. Amazon Alexa and Google Home are consumer devices that you can speak to and that speak back. In language learning I have switched my Amazon Alexa to respond in German. There are several leaps here: first, that she understands what I say (interesting and useful that one has to pronounce phonetically to be understood) and secondly, that she will respond in German. So natural, dialogue-driven interfaces are now here in our homes.

We can expect a lot more of this speech-driven, consumer device, language learning. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) will also deliver the democratisation of experience – the ability to experience travel, immersion and dialogue with others in a multiplayer environment – allowing us to get powerful, immersive language learning.

Personalised learning

Beyond this, AI offers personalised learning. It knows who you are and can track your progress, as well as adapt delivery to your needs. Like a satellite navigation system in your car, it can use aggregated data from many learners, combined with data from your own learning journey, to deliver exactly what you need at the moment you need it.

One of the first massively adopted, adaptive, online language learning services was Duolingo. Many educational experts question the quality of the learning but an estimated 30 million users are currently trying it – and here's the punch – it's free. If this is what the first, scaled, consumer service can achieve, imagine what is yet to come.


Chatbots, interfaces that allow you to talk to an application online via text or speech, are another godsend in language learning, as they bring dialogue to teaching. Duolingo has dabbled with chatbots and is likely to find that they will bring the scalable, personalised dialogue and immersion that language learning requires. We’ve already seen a chatbot anonymously replacing a teacher at Georgia Tech, and being put up for teaching awards by learners. Chatbots bring naturalistic learning, engagement and personalised dialogue.

Scaling up

One word really matters here – scale. AI is many things and can be used in many ways for improving learning interfaces: creation of learning content, curation of content, control of feedback (adaptive learning), dialogue, immersion, student engagement and assessment. In the same way that the translation of languages has been revolutionised by AI, so will its teaching and learning. AI loves scale, as scaled use, and data, is what allows it to scale quality. The more you use it the better it gets. The demand for English language learning way outstrips supply. The same force that has helped increase the scale of the thirst for English skills will deliver the means of easy and cheap learning – online AI.

Way out there

Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla) and Mark Zuckerberg (CEO of Facebook) have invested in the frictionless interfaces of tomorrow. Musk’s Neuralink wants to interface directly with the brain through a ‘neural lace’ and Zuckerberg through mind reading (optically via lasers). We can already read minds (what words you’re thinking) through scanners, but these are huge and cost tens of millions of dollars. Zuckerberg wants to tap into the part of the brain that results in speech to allow you to think words that will then be typed. Musk is far more ambitious in that he wants to extend cognition. He argues that this has already happened in the sense that we have cognitive extension through the pocket-size, personal and powerful technology that is the smartphone. His aim is to allow us to acquire a new skill or language with little effort.


Agriculture was mechanised and we moved from the fields to factories, when robots mechanised the factories, we moved to offices but as these jobs are being mechanised by AI we have nowhere else to go. AI can create as it destroys, however. We may be able to learn faster and more efficiently at scale, for the one non-scalable component in learning is the warm-bodied, human teacher. Technology has already provided the media and context for language learning without teachers. AI is also likely to provide teaching technology that is always on and finely tuned to the needs of every individual learner on a massive and unlimited scale. Technology may, at some point, even obviate the need to ‘learn’ a new language. It may be simply and quickly acquired as a skill. Resistance, as they say, is futile.

The Digital Teacher Editor asks: What do you think? Are all teachers soon to be replaced by technology? Our take here at The Digital Teacher is that teaching is certainly changing in the world of AI, but that the future is in our own hands. It is up to teachers themselves to learn how to weave technology into their profession. Join the discussion over on our Facebook community.