Why the perfect language-teaching bot might be a long way off … And, some good apps to use while we’re waiting for it

French language learning
By Andy D.

Learning a new language“Alexa, teach me French!”

“Alexa, give me a French SAT Subject Test practice question!”

Odds are you’re not going to get far learning French solely from your smart-speaker, but the world of voice-first technology is rife with opportunity for enriching your learning experience.

Take it from me, I’m a French tutor/teacher as well as a bot designer. My first job out of academia was creating loveable, language-teaching chatbots for a certain handy dandy app that uses a cartoon bird to coerce you into practicing a new language (in case you’re not familiar with said bird: that app is Duolingo, the most successful language learning app on the Apple app store).

Designing interactive software is a lot like teaching. Both are heavily focused on two major design principles: contextualization and personalization. In order to create a comfortable space in which a teacher can help students grow, they need to know the students’ background (context). Understanding a context allows teachers and designers to create more personalized experiences. In other words, teaching and design both involve holistic, situational thinking.

That said, there have not been many wildly successful language-teaching bots.

To create an actual tutor-bot (one that could *gulp* replace me!), someone would have to spend years designing and coding a neural net that adapts itself to each user’s mistakes, assesses what they have trouble with, and knows to choose to drill those particular things. In order to be effective, the bot would also have to personalize the experience for each user. While the tech to handle this task is in reach, the cost, design effort, upkeep, and time necessary to create a truly stellar learning experience from it remains far outside what many ed-tech companies are willing to spend.

That said, there are several decent tech-based options available for practicing your language skills. And, while most are not as interactive as you might like, it’s worth giving them a shot! In that spirit, here are some excellent ways work that French muscle with a bot or app:

Ask Alexa how to say a random word in French:

This dictionary feature is pretty cool way of discovering words you may not know. Once you hear the word, be sure to write it down and try and use it in a few sentences of your own.

Tell Alexa you want to practice a language with Daily Dose:

You may have to wait an hour for Alexa to cycle through all the languages she’s offering on your first use of Daily Dose for her to get to French. But, once you do, she gives you great lessons to listen to. Yes, these lessons are just static content, and not interactive, but the fantastic quality of the recording of the lessons makes up for that.

Daily Dose will give you some good practice listening to conversations in context and simple news reports. And, as a nice bonus, it will also send you an e-mail with grammar and vocab from the conversation you listened to.

See how your pronunciation stacks up with Google Home or Siri:

If you have a Google Home or Android device, or an iPhone with Siri, you can simply change settings to French and put your pronunciation to the test.

This is a good opportunity to try to fix your pronunciation so the bot can understand you. It’s a good preparation for practicing with flesh-and-blood language speakers.

You can also check out this handy app, aptly named Language Pronunciation, which actually rates how accurate your pronunciation is.

Try out FluentU:

This phone app, available on Apple iOS and Android, has amazing content. It offers tons of interactive ways to learn structure in real time, like irregular verbs, in-depth food vocab and phrases, and giving commands. The lessons are fairly basic, which may actually be perfect for you if you’re just starting out.

Listen to easy French radio: RFI:

This is an old standby. Radio France Internationale is the French equivalent of the BBC world service. It provides plain-spoken French news around the clock, with correspondents across Europe and West Africa.

Even better, you can also put your French to the (official) test with the lessons that speak directly to the EU language proficiency practice exams. And it works! I passed my DALF (advanced French certification) with flying colors thanks, in part, to RFI.

Be sure to share any interesting findings in the comments section below. In the meantime, I’ll be standing by until the bots come to replace me!

Andy is passionate language teacher, writing coach, and UX designer, he earned his PhD in French literature from NYU while also helping to create a language teaching chatbot for the wildly popular app Duolingo. 

In his decade’s worth of experience as a French teacher, Andy has come to focus on: leading students in grammar games and drills, having students create and analyze recordings of their own speech, and guiding them through in-depth study of stories, song, poems, newspaper clippings, and film. He is also adept at taking travelers from “frenchophobic” to “fantastique” in record time, using a technique similar to Michel Thomas’ conversational method. As a writing coach, Andy has led applicants through tough admissions essays by helping them form a narrative out of every important tidbit of information they need to convey. He also specializes in helping high school students transition to collegiate writing.

Work with Andy D.!

Have a passion for languages? Check out some of our previous blog posts below!

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How to Hold on to a New Language After a Long Break

A Review of Duolingo: Is it Really Worth Your Time?