Chatbot Experiences of Informal Language Learners: A Sentiment Analysis

Chatbot Experiences of Informal Language Learners: A Sentiment Analysis

Antonie Alm (University of Otago, New Zealand) and Larian M. Nkomo (University of Otago, New Zealand)
DOI: 10.4018/IJCALLT.2020100104
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Abstract

In 2016, a number of language applications released chatbots to complement their programmes. Used primarily in informal learning settings, chatbots enable language learners to engage in conversational speaking practice, which can be perceived as less threatening than face-to-face interactions with native speakers. This study takes a closer look at four second language (L2) chatbots—Duolingo, Eggbun, Memrise, and Mondly—and analyses the experiences which informal language learners expressed on various online platforms (e.g., Duolingo forum, Memrise community, Reddit). Results indicate a degree of curiosity and a willingness to engage in conversation with chatbots. However, learners expressed frustration if the dialogues did not correspond to their learning goals or if they were excluded from using the bots because of technical or payment issues, or discontinuation of services.
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Introduction

Chatbots have come a long way since Eliza, the computer program developed in the 1960s, that gave users the (short-term) illusion of conversing with a Rogerian psychotherapist. Weizenbaum's (1966) aim was to study the “natural language communication between man and machine” (p. 36), yet it is the appealing idea of virtual personal assistants that has prevailed, having led to successful applications in business, personal development and education. Language learners, in particular, can benefit from this development to increase opportunities for conversational practice, starting with talking to their smartphone’s voice assistant, or by using any general app in their second language (L2). For example, Luka advises on restaurants, weather and news; Lark is a pocket coach and nutritionist; Penny, a virtual bank manager; or Hello Hipmunk, a reactive travel consultant. These virtual assistants not only provide good language practice if used in the L2, they also have real-life relevance.

In technology circles, 2016 has been named the year of the chatbot (Olson, 2016). As Dale (2016) points out, a lot has changed in 50 years of chatbot history. The contemporary AI-powered therapy chatbot Woebot illustrates the advances in chatbot development, and in people’s attitudes towards the virtual assistants. Unlike Eliza, who relied on pre-programmed responses (such as: Can you elaborate on that?), Woebot uses natural language processing to adapt and personalise its replies, providing advice based on principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). With the development of technology, people have changed their modes of communication, and short typed interactions have become an everyday occurrence (Dale, 2016). Significantly, people are comfortable turning to a machine to talk about their problems. It is not only the convenience of accessibility; people seem to feel less judged talking to a bot rather than talking to a human (Lucas, Gratch, King, & Morency, 2014).

A keen learner of English might well make use of Woebot to get additional speaking practice. For learners of other languages, a range of L2 chatbots became available in 2016, either as stand-alone apps or as add-ons for language applications. Similarly, these bots enable language learners to engage anytime in language practice, also providing a safe space to hone conversational language skills. Accessible as apps on smartphones, L2 chatbots are not only available to language learners in educational settings, but to anyone who seeks to practise an L2. Godwin-Jones (2017) sees smartphones as the principal enabler of the growth of informal language learning, that is self-initiated and self-directed learning outside a formal institutional setting (Lai, 2019; Lange, 2019). The rise in informal online learning, also referred to as the digital wilds (Sauro & Zourou, 2019) is a topical issue in Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) (Dressman & Sadler, 2020). The use of language chatbots in informal language learning, however, is underexplored.

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