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This article was published on June 3, 2024

Babbel CEO: AI will redefine language learning — but won’t replace it

How will generative AI impact the way we learn foreign languages?

Babbel CEO: AI will redefine language learning — but won’t replace it

In our diverse and interconnected world, learning foreign languages is not only a powerful skill, but also essential for cross-cultural communication.

But as translation and interpretation tools become more and more advanced, supercharged by generative AI, a question emerges: will technology replace the need for learning foreign languages?

“AI won’t make language learning obsolete,” says Arne Schepker, CEO at Babbel, which claims to be the world’s first language-learning app. “But it will redefine it.”

Babbel has been in the language education space since 2007. The Berlin-based unicorn now offers over 60,000 courses in 15 languages, targeting the needs of both individuals and businesses. It has also established a holistic approach to language learning, which combines self-study in the app with online classes, taught by teachers.

The company has long been using artificial intelligence to boost the learning process. Use cases span from creating tailored content and enabling speech recognition to monitoring user progress and adapting lessons.

Advances in generative AI will further impact language education and enable more efficient learning pathways, according to Schepker.

From personalisation to speaking practice

“The technology can support anything personalisation-oriented,” Schepker tells TNW.

One area of major potential is content, which Babbel has set its eyes on. “Think about content that adapts to your individual needs, your passions, your interests, and your learning style,” he says.

Studies have found that personalised content can indeed improve learning outcomes in languages and beyond.

My own experience as a language teacher (before I was drawn into journalism) taught me that there is also no “one-fits-all” approach when it comes to designing learning content, nor when it comes to enhancing engagement or motivation. It also showed me the importance of deeply understanding the learner’s level and individual needs.

That’s a point Schepker makes as well. “There’s a lot of potential for advanced AI assistants for teachers, which could not only help them prepare their classes and curriculum, but also provide them with individualised feedback for students.”

Within Babbel’s ecosystem, these assistants would monitor and analyse the learner’s progress during the week before coming to class. This would, in turn, enable teachers to adapt to student needs faster and focus more on managing the dynamics of social interaction — a crucial step to becoming fluent in a foreign language.

According to Schepker, GenAI also has another role to play in what he calls the “in-between” that connects self-study in an app and the live interaction with another person.

This space allows for speaking practice without a human listener. “Imagine something like an avatar tutor with whom you practise new vocabulary, grammar, or a topic to review what you have learnt during the week — much like doing homework.”

Alongside the obvious benefit of having more tools to practise speaking, another potential advantage is more efficient allocation of teacher time.

At the same time, the avatar tutor could also contribute further to battling foreign language anxiety. That is, the feeling of fear and unease when speaking a foreign language.

The phenomenon, which can negatively affect the learning process, has been observed in real-life settings, where learners feel unconfident or uncomfortable making mistakes. Conversely, studies show that practising on mobile apps reduces anxiety, especially when it comes to pronunciation.

Language learning is a “human thing”

According to Schepker, AI is an enabler, which can provide new learning methods and address our transactional communication needs, such as ordering a coffee or giving directions to a taxi driver.

But he doesn’t believe it can replace language learning itself. “Speaking languages is a human thing,” he says. “And as long as we want to converse with another human being, we’ll keep on learning.”

The benefits of foreign language learning and multilingualism are indeed crucial for both society and individuals — especially in an increasingly globalised world.

Research shows that learning a second language boosts overall brain function and improves attention, memory, concentration, and various other cognitive skills.

Numerous studies have also connected language learning to enhanced academic performance, higher employability, increased creativity, and — importantly — communication skills and cross-cultural understanding.

To paraphrase the famous quote of Austrian philosopher Ludgwig Wittgenestein, the limits of our language do define the limits of our world.

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