On call 24/7: Your new English language teacher is powered by AI

07 Apr 2021

Against the backdrop of the global pandemic where countries around the world have closed their borders to international visitors, researchers from Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University have developed an innovative way to practice speaking English with no human contact required.

Based in the Department of Applied Linguistics at XJTLU, Dr Bin Zou worked with colleagues at the University’s English Language Centre to create an artificial intelligence (AI) platform capable of automatically assessing university students’ speaking practice.

Called EAP Talk, Dr Zou says the new platform allows students to practice speaking English by talking into their device’s microphone with feedback immediately provided through an intelligent colour-coded system.

“The idea is that EAP Talk can be a 24-hour, standby teacher for students to practice English whenever and wherever they want,” he says.

“The system can accurately identify common problems in spoken English language, such as pronunciation and grammar, right down to a single word in a sentence.

“It works by using different colours to indicate the speaking level of students. For example, once a student has finished saying a paragraph, EAP Talk will intelligently mark the perfect pronunciation with yellow while blue is used to highlight parts that need improvement.”

The research – which was published in the book chapter ‘Artificial Intelligence Technology for EAP Speaking Skills: Student Perceptions of Opportunities and Challenges’ in Technology and the Psychology of Second Language Learners and Users – was recently highlighted as one of the most recent influential publications by Chinese researchers from across BMC, Nature, Palgave Macmillan and Springer academic publishing portfolio.

Bringing AI tech tools to the English language classroom

The first of its kind in China, EAP Talk was developed using a range of AI technologies including big data, speech input, speech recognition, speech synthesis, natural-language processing and speech evaluation.

Reflecting on his own teaching experience, Dr Zou says he realised it was difficult to provide one-on-one tutoring for academic English for every individual student even with smaller class sizes; and restrictions on travel due to the pandemic now make it even harder to find English-speaking tutors to practice with outside of classes.

“The AI technology fills the missing role of a teacher after class through technology-based one-on-one practice and intelligent feedback,” he says.

“There’s a huge demand for English speaking practice from Chinese students, and that demand is particularly high in exam weeks and when freshers step into university classes for the first time with varying language levels.

Homepage of EAP Talk

“With many English teachers unable to travel to China due to the pandemic, the demand in China for English tuition outside of the classroom is huge.

“Our automated assessment system is designed to provide university students in an English language education environment with independent practicing opportunities, where students can use EAP Talk to practice on either laptops or mobile phones at their leisure.”

Filling in the gaps

Although interaction in class is an essential part of learning English, Dr Zou also believes there are gaps in such generalised approach and EAP Talk can fill those gaps to complement traditional offline teaching.

“General feedback can be provided by a teacher or classmate during interactive practice in the classroom but it may not include precise comments on the pronunciation of a particular word in a sentence,” he says.

“EAP Talk can pinpoint which specific aspect needs to be improved and in which way.

“Not only can the platform review the speech from a pronunciation point of view, it can also extend to the fluency of the speech, the rhythm, the grammar, and the diversity and clarity of the structure of the speech, providing a comprehensive assessment of a student’s abilities.”

A success with students

Although the platform is still under development, the webpage is operating on a trial basis with more than 3000 users already on board.

Dr Zou says the feedback from students has been overwhelmingly positive, highlighting a range of benefits beyond what he had initially expected.

“The younger generation of students are more receptive to new technology and have really taken to using EAP Talk to support their academic English studies,” he says.

“Some students have said that the platform solves many problems that can exist during face-to-face communication. For instance, even if someone in a classroom setting finds a deficiency in a speaker’s delivery, they may choose not to point it out for fear of losing ‘face’.

“In addition, speaking skills can only be improved when the speaker’s oral English level is higher than the other person involved, which is not always the case.

“Lots of students also spoke about EAP Talk being a great alternative for introverted students who are afraid of expressing themselves freely in English. These students can practice and improve their oral English skills without fear of judgement from peers or teachers.”

Multi-functions of EAP Talk

AI can never replace the role of a teacher

Researchers are continuing to develop and improve EAP Talk with plans underway to deliver the platform to a wider group of learners in the coming months.

And while he is excited EAP Talk’s success, Dr Zou is also quick to point out that even with a ‘perfect’ technology platform, AI can never completely replace the classroom.

“The emotions that go into human communication can’t be replaced by software,” he says.

“The body language, facial expressions and eye contact of both parties are an integral part of language learning and language exchange.

“AI technology can only be an efficient aid to academic English studies, not the only way of learning.”

Dr. Zou shared another good news at the end of the interview. The first issue (Spring issue) of the new EAP journal: International Journal of EAP: Research and Practice has been formally published online https://www.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/journal... It’s open access and free to download. This new academic journal is funded by XJTLU, hosted by the School of HSS, and jointly published by Liverpool University Press and XJTLU Imprint. Dr. Zou works as the founding editor and co-editor of this new EAP journal.Dr. Rining Wei from the Department of Applied Linguistics also works as the co-editor. A group of teachers from the Department of Applied Linguistics, the ELC and ILEAD, XJTLU work in the editorial review board. This EAP journal is also associated with Asia Pacific EAP Association (APEAPA), China EAP Association (CEAPA) and British Association of Lecturers in EAP (BALEAP). Another two co-editors are the Chair of CEAPA and the Chair of BALEAP. Other Editorial Review Board members come from China, the UK, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, etc.

By Ying Jiang

Edited by Tamara Kaup

Photo by Dr Bin Zou

07 Apr 2021