Here there be dragons...

"I'm telling you stories. Trust me." - Winterson

Exploring some AI possibilities with Language Learning

Today I booked a hotel for a March Break trip, ordered a coffee and cookies, and had an in-depth conversation with the Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom and War.   And I did it all in Spanish.

And honestly - that's the coolest part of this post.  All the rest is boring background on how that came to be.  Read or not as you see fit :).  

So one of the biggest things that’s holding me back in comfort and usability of Spanish is the ability to practice speaking on a regular basis and a variety of topics - esp when work gets crazy so I struggle to fit in lessons which require a committed time that spans a large number of time zones that don’t include my evening.  And, well, if I’m getting up super early it’s either to exercise or to commute, not to think or talk!   And, well, to the best of my knowledge I have exactly one friend who’s a native Spanish speaker and more often than not there are others with us who do not speak Spanish, so not super appropriate to practice.

A bit before Xmas (?  I think - little fuzzy on dates between extreme work chaos and then Xmas “does the calendar even exist” period ;) the guy behind the Storylearning concept started pushing the Your Teacher AI platform.  I wasn’t holding my breath and they were very clear that it’s new and buggy and developing tech, but I gave it a try since I’m usually pretty willing to be an early adapter, but OMG it couldn’t hold a conversation past 3 exchanges.  And I hate small talk w a passion.   Now, to be fair, apparently “memory” is up soon on the roadmap, so maybe in few months or so it’ll be good, and it would be good to just talk at, but I was ready to strangle it in seconds (worse than trying to convince the grocery machine that the item IS in the bagging area), so noped out of that one.   BIG plus, I’ve since come to appreciate, was the thoroughness and accuracy of their grammar corrections (which you could set how picky you wanted it to be) AND its speed of both recording and displaying answers.   So I may go back to that one some day.  Today is not that day, because despite the advantages, if I’m not willing to talk to it, there’s no point at all.  I was truly amazed at how quickly it drove me insane.  Not a great start.  Although…. Part of that frustration is I could see so clearly how useful it *could* be.

So then I started exploring other options.

Next up was Languatalk, which is where I currently source my instructors from (5/5 stars for teachers - highly recommend! - WAY better than Italki, Verbling, Busuu, or literally *any* other teacher platform I’ve used since starting this adventure) since it seems to be the only one w any significant kind of quality control re competency of the teachers.  They also have a fairly good collection of level-rated videos and podcasts etc.   They have recently started offering a subscription-based AI web-app (Langua) that I was curious about, but it’s not super affordable and I was hesitant after the above exp.

So targeted ads being what they are, I started getting ads for MakeYouFluent - another platform that offers AI learning.  Something about it felt really scammy though, and as I read more reviews I decided it probably wasn’t for me.  This was reinforced when every day they started sending me an ad for a reduced amount off the subscription.  As of this evening I’m up to 85% off ;-P.   Which means if you DO decide it’s for you, I’d suggest doing the intro “placement” test and then ignoring it for a week or so ;).  But to me, that means it’s really not particularly worth paying for.

Moving on, I fell down a rabbit hole but one that proved fairly awesome, in that I found all sorts of options and eventually decided to give TalkPal AI a try - whose app is brand new but apparently has had a web version for a bit (app on the Apple Store only had 1 review and it was 1 star - I will have to contribute something to help fix that).   This one has both free and subscription options, as well as a free trial.   So did read some reviews, but given the whole free option I was mostly just doing due diligence that the company was legit.

And this - for what I need - so far seems fairly excellent.  To be candid, and fair, it’s NOT nearly as good about transcribing the conversation (and the AI is working from the transcription so I’ve at times be marked “wrong” for my spelling or punctuation - when IT did both!) but it’s mostly good.  My biggest complaint there is it’s VERY slow - I keep thinking the app has frozen while I wait for it to figure out what I said.   

BUT - for me - it’s worth the wait, because not only can it carry a conversation, but it can prompt all kinds of options.  I figured I’d start out simple and see what happens.  The first choice was “chat” - I told it to ask me something interesting and we had a whole conversation about what we would do if we could control time, what time periods we’d like to visit and why, and eventually how to bring about social equality in the future.

Now - it definitely still has significant frustrations, and if your answer is long, it won’t show all of it, but the conversation was enough that it got me to talk, and to think, in Spanish.  And that - for me - is the whole purpose.   Other options include: 

  • Role Play (both common and completely fictional scenarios - examples: “booking a hotel” (basic - I did this one and a coffee shop one just to test it out; also cause real life interactions are where I struggle the most), “reporter interviewing a witness” (intermediate), “yearly review” (Professional), “planning a strategy to defeat a dark wizard” (fun).  Lol that last category also includes (amongst others): 

Just the concept of some of these made me laugh

  • Characters - chat with a historic or fictional character (awesome range of people, no idea how much of a “personality” each will have, but they give you a brief bio when you start up a conversation and go from there.  So far I’ve spoken with Athena (goddess of wisdom and war), and Queen Tamar of Georgia.  Lol the list is wild and interesting - I’ll definitely chat w both Loki and Shakespeare at some point ;).  
  • Debates - so many topics, not sure I want to debate w an AI but we’ll see :).  Here’s the first few options.  I haven’t done any of these yet (common - I only found this app yesterday!)
Lots of topics for people to have opinions about ;)
  • Photo mode (describe what you see in a photo).  This one is particularly relevant to me personally as it is one of the questions on the Dele B2 exam.   However, I didn’t love how it “corrected” the answer so will be good practice if I do it and send the screen shot to my *actual* teacher ;).  It’s also good for those whose anxiety kicks in even talking to a robot because there’s no opinion or creativity required.  Literally just talk about what you see.

Now, in reality - Teacher AI (the first one) is definitely the better for actually learning the language (and even they are clear it’s not for true beginners) but TalkPal is stronger - at least for me - for just talking.  Maybe the truth there is in the name :)

What really gets me is that my notes in the first 5 mins were super frustrated w TalkPal as well, but after that I got increasingly excited.  If it has enough variety to hold my attention for a week, I’ll deem it a win :).  I will say though, the ONLY reason it’s useful to me is because my grammar knowledge well exceeds my speaking ability; this means I can critically consider the feedback it gives and reject it if it’s wrong.   Conversely the feedback in Teacher AI was almost all correct.

Neither system lets you go back, or lets you save/print a script of the conversation (would be super useful), and both have the frustrations you’d expect from talking to a machine.   But if they could combine those two systems, it’d make for one very powerful tool.


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