Designing CoachBot: can robots be language coaches?

We’re lucky enough to welcome to the blog Alex Strick, a writer, researcher and expert language learner as well as a language coach. Here he talks about hCall out Alex Strick 2is approach to learning and how it meshes with From English Teacher to Learner Coach, his background in learning languages, his move to coaching others in languages, not to mention a wonderful tool that he has built for learners: CoachBot. Imagine that our book was an app; well, this would be it! I’ll leave Alex to explain…

I read From English Teacher to Learner Coach only recently. I received a glowing recommendation from a fellow language coach, Lýdia Machová, and the more I read, the more enthusiastic I became. The methods described in the book mesh pretty well with those I developed through my own studies of various languages. This was an approach suited not only to those learning English, but rather something that could (and should!) be adopted by the thousands of native English-speakers who struggle to learn a second language each year.

Indeed, the general message of the book – one I interpreted as ‘we don’t have to wait to be taught; we can learn for ourselves’ – is something that I believe has important implications for how we go about education in the coming decades. (I was especially pleased to learn a new word – heutagogy – for this somewhat hard-to-define practice of self-education). Seth Godin has written about the demise of the system of factory education and others are tackling this from various angles.

I come at language learning from the perspective of almost thirty years of non-native language learning and self-study in foreign languages. I was lucky enough to be exposed to a number of countries and the different languages that were spoken there while as I grew up, and that stimulated my desire to learn further. I was lucky to havCall out Alex Strick 3e parents who studied the language spoken in whatever new country we moved to, and this gave me the lived experience and confidence that learning languages was something that could be done.

Like many in the United Kingdom, I studied a mix of European and classical languages at primary and secondary school, but none of these stuck in a particularly profound way. After I left school, I continued to study languages on the side, eventually shifting into a bachelor’s degree in Arabic and Persian/Farsi. After university, I worked on various research and writing projects that saw me living in Afghanistan. I had to tackle languages like Pashto, for which few materials existed at the time. I grew interested in materials tackling the meta-skills involved in learning languages and self-directed learning in general.

My own personal struggles with language learning seem to revolve on finding ways to keep the process interesting, to vary the kinds of materials I’m using and consuming. I also often find it difficult to get started in my studies, so removing barriers to study is important for me.

I also work as a language coach. I had done this informally for a few years and I noticed that I would often get similar kinds of questions from friends Call out Alex Strick 1and acquaintances. Many (if not most) of the questions, had nothing to do with points of grammar or syntax, but were rather connected to things like motivation and accountability.

This was especially true for students at the stage of the much-feared intermediate plateau. The problems that beginners face are, in some ways, much more predictable and mundane. There are some unavoidable hoops that everyone needs to jump through in the early days of learning a language – learning some basic grammar, phrases and vocabulary as a structure on which you can then build and expand further.

It was thus gratifying to read From English Teacher to Learner Coach make such on-point observations about precisely these struggles.

To bring all of this full-circle: I emerged after these years of studying languages and self-study methods with a strong sense of some techniques and approaches that would really benefit a learner working on their own to master a second language. I had been teaching myself how to code and thought I could combine a need to make a practical ‘experiment’ or prototype with my interest in language learning.

CoachBot is a free tool I designed to deal with this problem. I have personal experience of the paralysis that can come at the intermediate level: there are too many options and you just need someone to tell you what to study and for how long.

If you don’t want to do a particular task, just click to get a new one.

Initial feedback has been positive, though the numbers using the service remain relatively small. I spoke with one student working on his French who had spent a whole month only doing exercises suggested by the CoachBot tool.

My dream is to make this much more fully-functional and fleshed-out as a guide and language coach. Users will be able to store records of their previous study and the CoachBot will make recommendations depending on various parameters like whether they have been studying only one skill and neglecting others, for example. I continue to add tasks to the database on the back-end. I also use the tool in my own language studies. I’m currently refreshing my Dari and Pashto skills and the shorter exercises offer a great way to reacquaint myself with grammatical structures without feeling that I’m ‘studying’.

Alex Strick is a writer, researcher and language coach. Visit https://alexstrick.com to read his blog and http://languagecoach.io/coaching to learn more about working with him to improve your own language skills.

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