Interview with Language Confidence
We recently sat down with Nick Jenkins (CEO & Founder, Language Confidence) and Katherine Connor-Martin (Product Director, Oxford Languages) to discuss how AI is changing the English language learning experience for teachers and learners across the world, and what the future may hold for the industry.
Katherine: Oxford Languages is a department of Oxford University Press that is focused on language data. We got our start more than 100 years ago with the Oxford English Dictionary, and we now offer dictionary and thesaurus datasets in more than 60 languages, as well as other types of language data to support new applications and technologies.
Nick: The idea for Language Confidence started when I was having a career break, after having 2 other tech startups, one successful exit and one not, and teaching English in China. I wanted to give my students the opportunity to practice their spoken English when at home when they weren’t with me in my classroom. I don’t believe AI will replace human teachers for a long time, but in the meantime, our AI-tools can provide a cost-effective alternative or additional practice and confidence building for students learning English.
Nick: We’re an AI-first, education company that’s headquartered in Sydney with offices in HoChiMinh, Shanghai and Delhi. Our focus is on the automation of the teaching and testing of spoken English, delivered via APIs, or plugins, as backend technology. We have 2 core products; a read-aloud or prompted assessment product, and a spontaneous, or open-ended assessment product. All of our products are 100% proprietary and developed using the latest in AI technologies.
Nick: My vision, and the reason I started this company, was so that the poorest children in the world could access high-quality, affordable English education via the technology that we develop. My personal goal is to positively impact 1 billion people through the use of technology that we develop.
Katherine: One trend we’ve observed with our customers is that they are looking for ways to embed dictionary and thesaurus data as part of a seamless experience for their users, so that the users get the information they need without even needing to consciously realize they are using a dictionary. For example, instead of a traditional look-up experience where the user types in a word and is delivered the dictionary entry, we see many of our customers creating experiences where the dictionary data is integrated so that the user can simply click or highlight a word they are reading or writing and be served a definition, translation, or pronunciation data without leaving the page. We also see trends for accessing this type of content via audio interfaces, digital pen devices, and even augmented reality displays. Increasingly, there is also interest in using our human-curated language data to improve outcomes from AI. One of the most rewarding aspects of our business is working with our developer customers to find ways to deliver their visions for new product features that leverage our data.
Nick: There’s a lot of movement in the market at the moment, with the key influencing factor being the still present after-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, whilst now moving into the rear-view mirror, the pandemic forced the offline to online push for all education firms. Another, more recent factor is the hype behind ChatGPT, OpenAI’s latest product that has generated over 100 million active users. The majority of the offline-to-online movement has stuck, even in typically very risk-averse sectors in the education market. The search is now for the betterment of this digital learning. This is exactly where Language Confidence is positioned: providing functionality to improve spoken English confidence and proficiency for digital English education.
Katherine: I’m very hesitant to make a prediction here, because the field is developing very quickly! We’re seeing incredible innovations in AI-powered language tutoring, correction, and assessment, and even AI-generated teacher avatars who look and sound like real people. But as with any form of automation, we expect the best outcomes to come when AI and human teachers are working in tandem, with the AI solutions augmenting and complementing the unique value of the teacher, and freeing the teacher up to focus on precisely those aspects of learning where their skills and experience have the biggest impact on students.
Nick: The short answer is yes. But, I don’t believe this will happen for years to come. As a former English teacher (with my TESOL qualification), I know first-hand the difficulties and many different aspects of teaching English to students of all ages. The language tools that we’ve built now assist just one aspect of learning English, speaking.
Katherine: With AI-powered solutions, students can have access to on-demand learning support that is personalized to their own needs and preferences, and constantly adapting as they learn. They can reinforce their learning independently outside the classroom or tutorial setting. Teachers can also gain insights into student performance to help adapt to maximize the impact of lessons. AI-powered solutions can also deliver language learning to students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to high-quality language teaching, for example those in isolated rural areas.
Nick: There are a whole range of benefits to using our AI-products, both for the company and for the students themselves. For the companies, we know that the integration of our products can increase engagement, retention and even assist with converting student to paying customers. But the real value is for the students, and the use of our AI-tools allows self-paced, autonomous practice of their spoken English, without the need for a teacher and removing the social pressure of being in a face-to-face teaching scenario, which can often present a lot of social pressure. The unlimited, real-time and accurate feedback that’s on-demand is immensely valuable for students learning.
Katherine: Synthetic avatars that can be used to converse and practice in a language are likely to become more common. We also expect to see continuing advances in assessment and correction of errors in spoken language, both in terms of pronunciation and grammar. Expect to see more opportunities to embed language learning in other platform experiences, like entertainment and gaming. There will also be continuing emphasis on data collection and analysis, making privacy and ethical use of data important concerns.
Nick: The adoption of AI tools will become the norm, even is slow moving industries such as universities. That plus the further adoption of AI for the non-bias marking of students' recognized English testing as well.