Monday, January 17, 2011

Robots teaching English in Korea

Deep in the South Korean countryside, in the town of Daegu, 30 robots are now teaching English to elementary schools. 

Only not really.

They are about a metre high with a TV screen for a face, and they move around the room singing songs, playing games and reading books.  The robots, which display the avatar face of a caucasian woman, are remotely controlled by teachers in the Phillippines, who can see and hear the children at the same time.

So what it comes down to is...outsourcing.

Which is not a bad thing.  Just economics.

The students are responding well to the friendly-faced machines, and administrators are pleased that the robots don't need sick leave, insurance, holidays, and won't "leave in 3 months for a better-paying job in Japan." In addition, officials who want to expand the program say, the machines can be an efficient tool for many people who feel nervous about conversing with flesh-and-blood foreigners.

Which is a clue as to why the whole program is a farce.

In Korea and Japan, there is already a huge gap between classroom English and real life communication.  Having non-humans teach the class turns this gap into an unbridgeable chasm.  If students feel uncomfortable with sympathetic, trained human teachers whose goal is to lead students to language understanding, then they will be completely lost in the face of real world communication complexities.  Intimate, human to human interaction is crucial to learning a foreign language.  It's a difficult slog, two steps forward one step back, a world of embarrassment and miscommunication where social skills are as important as language aptitude.

That's not to say that robot teachers may not become more and more popular in countries like Japan, where actual communication with native speakers is rarely the goal.  In the Japanese English education system, efficacy is not necessary.  Hence the growing popularity of computer-assisted language learning in general, expensive programs which are designed to remove the human element and inevitably lead to failure.

1 comment:

ARTSOM said...

You make a good point - teaching people skills (which is essentially what language is) via non-people is a lot like teaching theatre through books; you can get a good measure of what's meant to be there, but you can't grasp the (for lack of a better word) 'trueness' of what's going on. Having said that, it is a brilliant side tool, and these kids are only young. I think it's virtually impossible to get large groups of people to true fluency without any sort of immersion (the trained linguistic professional that I am).