For all their hype, chatbots kind of suck right now. Not necessarily because they’re fundamentally bad, but because it’s often apparent a good old app or website is more convenient and reliable.
But thanks to Duolingo, we might finally have chatbots that make sense. The company is today launching a set of language ‘tutors’ that in its iOS app that help learners engage in conversation without the pressure or expense of an actual human being.
There are many immediately obvious benefits. Duolingo is already pretty great, but it lacked the personal element afforded by having conversations with a real life teacher. While bots obviously won’t be as eloquent as people, they help bridge the gap between vocabulary knowledge and practical conversation skills.
Working with a teacher or tutor can also be a bit nerve-wracking. You don’t want to look dumb in front of the other person, so you might not be willing to speak up in a class. And in not wanting to interrupt the flow of conversation, you might avoid asking questions like how to say a specific word.
Chatbots circumvent those issues. They’re robots. They’re not going to judge you, no matter how many times you ask a question. There’s a ‘help me reply’ button if you need some suggestions.
The bots have a few different personalities. There’s Renée the Driver, Chef Roberto, and Officer Ada, for instance, and more bots will be added ‘regularly.’ As is the case with so many tools powered by machine learning, the more people use the chatbots, the better they get.
Of course, chatbots only communicate through text, which isn’t much help with pronouncing things, but Duolingo at least lets you tap on unfamiliar words to see translations or hear them spoken out loud. Moreover, the company says spoken chatbots are on the way. Basically, Siri in language-tutor form.