Online 'Chatbots' Help Japanese Learn English
September 14, 2011

Online ‘Chatbots’ Help Japanese Learn English


A Japanese language education firm is claiming that they have invented the first ever artificial intelligence "chat robot" designed solely to communicate with English language students, Danielle Demetriou of the Telegraph reported on Tuesday.

According to Demetriou, these so-called "chatbots" were created by a company called SpeakGlobal. They can be accessed online, and use high-speech speech recognition software that allows them to speak directly to students, in real-time, the Telegraph reporter said.

"SpeakGlobal has developed online robots that look and move like a human, speak aloud and its dialogue lines appear on the user's computer screen," the company in a statement, according to Demetriou's article. "Most importantly, learners can speak into a microphone using Dragon Naturally Speaking — high-end speech recognition, considered the best speech recognition in the world."

Reportedly, there are a variety of different "chatbot" avatars users can converse with through the company's SG World service, which would cost users the equivalent of slightly over $14 each month. The conversational level can be adjusted by the user, based on his or her skill level, and subtitles and translations are also available when needed.

"The percentage of Japanese who can actually speak English freely is in the low single digits," SpeakGlobal officials added, according to the Telegraph. "This is due to the lack of opportunities to practice speaking with native English speakers. While many English conversation schools and online schools exist, some simply cannot afford this luxury."

Earlier this year, English-teaching company EF Education First released the results of what they called "the biggest ever internationally comparable sample of English learners." The study received responses from approximately two million people in 44 countries, including Japan, and graded each nation for their proficiency level in the language.

According to their study, Japanese participants averaged a score of 54.17, or "moderate proficiency" in English. They noted that Japanese students are required to study English for three years in junior high school, and that the average student will receive over 700 hours of instruction in the language, starting in elementary school and lasting until they graduate from a college or university.

"Many teenagers attend private tutoring centers because the level of English knowledge required for placement in prestigious high schools and universities is more advanced than can be attained through the public system alone," EF Education First wrote in their English Proficiency Index (EPI) study.

"Many Japanese companies recognize English as a job qualification," they added. "According to a 2009 survey conducted by IIBC, 50% of companies take candidate´s English skill level into consideration in job applications. English is now used as the corporate language in leading automotive industries and retailers, such as Nissan, Uniqlo and Rakuten, although the practice remains controversial."


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