Sean Captain at FastCompany reports that Duolingo—perhaps the world's best-known second-language learning app—is trying to remove the embarrassment of being a newbee in a second language.
The service has unveiled a set of chatbots that users can interact with in order to practice their French, German, or Spanish—with more languages to come. "Practice real Spanish conversations without blushing," is the assurance given to curious users.
The advantage of chatbots is that people will likely not feel anxious about appearing dumb or clueless in a second language while discoursing with a bot. After all, bots are themselves dumb and clueless, not to mention lacking in feelings, so there is no reason for embarrassment for any linguistic fumbles committed while conversing with them.
This new design should indeed make it easier for people to engage with Duolingo and sharpen their conversational skills, at least, up to a point. It substitutes the technotonic experience of speaking with a bot for the socially stressful experience of conversing with a native speaker.
Whether or not the new setup will ease the transition to conversing with native speakers remains to be seen.
I am reminded of some recent research on the use of "robo graders" in schools and universities. Automatic grading software provides a cheap and immediate form of feedback for students on their written assignments. While use of such software has been criticized as a means of student assessment, it has advantages in guiding students to improve their writing skills.
This happens because students may feel embarrassed about criticism they receive from human graders. Yet, the same criticism received from software is perceived positively:
"Comments and criticism from a human instructor actually had a negative effect on students’ attitudes about revision and on their willingness to write, the researchers note. By contrast, interactions with the computer produced overwhelmingly positive feelings, as well as an actual change in behavior—from “virtually never” revising, to revising and resubmitting at a rate of 100 percent."
If this work is any guide, then Duolingo's bots may well help users to overcome some profound obstacles in acquiring a greater measure of second-language proficiency.