AI and Language Learning: Practice Conversation Skills

A humanoid robot with a simplified face extending its right hand towards a young girl with shoulder-length hair and an orange top, sitting across from each other as if about to interact.

Helping students practice conversation skills is one of the most challenging aspects of our foreign language classes! Your students may not get enough 1:1 time with you, they may not manage to find time to practice with a classmate, they might feel embarrassed to speak out loud in class… So here is something you can try as a language instructor: have your students use an AI assistant as their conversation partner!

In this post we’re going to be covering Gemini, a free AI tool by Google that you can access using your Google login. You can use your UCLA Google account if you don’t love the idea of using your private Gmail address. Gemini supports 46 languages and has a great speaker / microphone tool, so it’s perfect for foreign language practice. Other AI tools you can try for this are OpenAI’s Chat GPT (the basic version is free) and Microsoft’s Copilot (UCLA students will get free access to it in the next few months, and UCLA instructors already have free access).

So how can students use an AI tool like Gemini to practice their conversation skills in their target language?

Come up with a clear and specific prompt.

You want your students to talk to the AI assistant as if they were a classmate who is practicing conversation with them. To do that, come up with a clear and specific prompt you can give your students as the “first question” of their assignment to set up the chat in the most effective way. Make sure to ask for simple language, short sentences, and target-language only, and test out the prompt before you give it to your class! For example:

  • I want to practice basic German conversation using only German, no English. Please act as one of my German course classmates and conduct a conversation with me using very simple German language and short sentences. 
  • I want to practice basic conversational skills using only Mandarin, no English. Please act as one of my Mandarin speaking friends and converse with me. 

If you want your students to practice a specific topic, or if you want to give them grammar limitations, put that in your prompt too. Remember to use a first-person perspective (you’re writing instructions for your students to give to their own AI assistant!). That way, your students can kickstart the chat with all the information the AI assistant needs to have: 

  • I need to practice talking about my hobbies
  • I don’t know the past tense yet, only use the present tense

Keep it short!

Conversation skills are different from writing skills. Ideally, your students should try to keep their questions and answers short and try to focus on using the words they know, without stopping to look up words in the dictionary all the time, the way they would if they were speaking with a person

If your goal is to have your students practice conversation, remind them that conversation mistakes are not as much of a big deal as written mistakes, and AI is… well…. smart. It will still understand what they are trying to say even if their Hindi pronouns are mixed up, if their German Dativ is all over the place, or if their Spanish pretérito perfecto is using the wrong auxiliary. Have them focus on keeping the chat going, without obsessing over grammar too much.

Audio is your friend! 

Have your students use the microphone button in their chat bar and the speaker button next to the answers to turn their chat into a speaking exercise. Ask them to say their sentences out loud, and have Gemini read its answers out loud too. The AI pronunciation is a little robot-y, but phonetically correct!

Mind your privacy and make it fun! 

Have a conversation with your students about privacy. Remind them that when you use Gemini or any other Large Language Model (Chat GPT-like tools), you are talking to a chat bot: they should not share any private or personal information they don’t have to. Yes, the data you share with Gemini stays private (or as private as the rest of your Google account), but we want to go by better safe than sorry. It’s not only the obvious stuff (“don’t give away your home address and bank account”), it’s the small stuff too: do you really need to create a precise digital trace of yourself with exact information about your name, birthday, childhood pet, location of your gym, name of your brother, hometown of your grandma, and a schedule of your daily movements? 

This is not to say you or your students need to be paranoid. It’s just to say, invite your students to take the chance to be creative with the personal information they share. Encourage them to be creative in making things up: Who are you today? What’s your gender, age, nationality for today’s homework? Maybe for today’s assignment you’re a Greek engineering grad student who loves sushi and knitting. And maybe tomorrow you’re a 70 year old Indonesian grandma who’s getting her astronomy degree and likes K-pop. 

Check your students’ work

Gemini is a great tool for your students to practice conversation informally and in their own time, because one of its strengths is that it takes away the time pressure and peer pressure of speaking in class. But if you want to build an assignment based on this, you can ask your students to show their work by sending you a public link to their chat (like when they share a link to a Google Doc). If you want a transcript of the conversation they built in their Gemini chat, ask them to share the chat with you (here are Google’s instructions to share the chat). It’s a straightforward process: your students click on a share button and get a link to a copy of the whole chat that they can send to you, or submit in a Bruin Learn assignment. That way, you’ll have a copy of the chat they had for that specific assignment. Just remember to be mindful of your students’ privacy when you copy, paste, or save the chat links they submit as assignments.

About the authors:

Anna Bonazzi is a Ph.D. student in UCLA’s Department of Germanic Languages. Her research interests include oral history of migration, memory studies, Digital Humanities, and multilingualism.

Wei Si Nic Yiu/ 姚煒詩 (They/Them) is a 4th year PhD candidate in Gender Studies at University of California, Los Angeles. They hold a BA in Women and Gender Studies from University of Toronto and a MA in Gender Studies from Women and Gender Studies Institute, University of Toronto. Their current research explores what a concept of quiet could mean to queering Asian cultures of resistance.

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