ESL prof invents ‘chatbot’ to teach English

Mike and Michelle, on-screen robot tutors for English learners will travel to England’s Exeter University next month as one of four finalists for the 2011 Loebner Prize for Artificial Intelligence. Ron Chang Lee, an adjunct English as a Second Language teacher at Pasadena City College, created the robots to give students a chance to practice their English.

Just 15 minutes a day with Mike or Michelle can really help, he said.”It’s just like having a native speaker — they correct mistakes, spelling and grammatical errors. You type in `You is a good teacher,’ and the robot corrects you. `Say you are, never say you is.”‘

Lee taught English in China before earning a master’s in ESL and a PhD in educational technology at the University of Illinois. He started an ESL site  as a class project in 1994  and kept adding topics and conversations.

The robots can detect the 800 most common errors learning English-speakers make, Lee said, and know all the irregular verbs, provide different tenses, explain grammatical terms and give advice on how to learn English.

Most Loebner finalists are computer programmers or developers, not teachers, says Miranda Yousef, who plans a documentary on the prize.

Lee hopes to improve his chatbots, but needs more funding.

Users still have to type in their questions, rather than speak, although he said users with speech recognition software can talk into the microphone.

“But again, speech recognition is not perfect,” he said. “It sometimes makes mistakes, especially when the user has a foreign accent.”

The computer-synthesized voices Mike and Michelle use are “getting closer” to actual human voices, Lee said, but they still sound artificial. And, except for welcoming users to the site, he has turned the voices off to save money, he said.

Lee’s site has become the top ESL destination on the web; combined with his,

Talk (via type) to Michelle here.

POSTED BY Joanne Jacobs ON September 2, 2011

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