How do students learn Chinese from A.I.?

Artificial Intelligence, A.I., is a hot topic, the most advanced technology on Earth. Powerful countries are spending billions on it. And it is no surprise that many Chinese learning tools are labelled with the function of A.I. learning, which is often coupled with cool concepts like “cloud” and “WiFi”. 

I have seen promotional materials for some learning tools, such as a mini robot or an animal figure, which claim that they are equipped with A.I., and that students can learn Chinese directly from them.

So, how do students learn Chinese from A.I.?

Questions and answers

According to the promotional materials of these tools, the A.I. learning is mostly for students to ask questions, such as “how to say hello in Chinese”, and the learning tools will provide answers. 

Students asking questions and getting answers are great ways to learn Chinese, as long as students remember the answers they have got, and continue to come up with new questions. If students could not remember the answers for the questions they’ve asked before, or they run out of questions, their learning stops. 

The responsibility of successful learning outcome is solely rested on students’ shoulders. They must decide what to learn, they must figure out the right questions to ask, and they must make sure to conduct reviews and to check their own progress from time to time.

In this mode of learning, the easiest thing to learn is names of objects. Questions like “how to say tea in Chinese” and “how to say apple in Chinese” are easy to ask and easy to answer. This mode of learning can be carried on for a long time, as there are just so many objects around us! 

However, if students ask “how to express past tense in Chinese”, I don’t know what answers A.I. can provide. It’d better NOT to say “use a particle 了 le to express past tense”.

Another function of A.I. learning is that students can chat with these learning tools by asking them questions, such as “你叫什么名字”. I think this is a great idea and has the most potential to truly help students learn Chinese. Unfortunately, the onus is still on students. Moreover, the promotional materials only give the simplest conversations between students and A.I., and I could not say where the conversation would go after a few minutes.

If anyone would like me to review an A.I. learning robot, I’d be happy to do so and update this article accordingly.

The limitation of A.I. teaching and learning

There are so many movies depicting some artificial intelligence that, after it gained consciousness, it began to destroy humans. One day, these movies may become a reality. Not the “destroying humans” part, I hope, but the “gaining consciousness” part. Until that day comes, humans still have something A.I. does not have.

Humans feel for each other. Humans have imaginations. Humans invent stuff. Humans can love something madly and irrationally. Humans ask “why”. Humans know what life is. All these characteristics are necessary for teaching and learning Chinese. It may sound like a Chinese teacher trying to stay relevant in this A.I. era that, perhaps, these are the reasons that A.I. won’t be able to replace Chinese teachers, not yet anyway.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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