A robot reading a script. The text-to-speech voices at ElevenLabs certainly sound intelligent as well as natural!

ElevenLabs Voices for Free, Custom Language-Learning Material

There’s been a lot on the grapevine of late about AI-powered leaps forward in text-to-speech voices. From providing accent models to in-depth speaking games, next-gen TTS is poised to have a huge impact on language learning.

The catch? Much of the brand new tech isn’t available to the average user-on-the-street yet.

That’s why I was thrilled to happen across TTS service ElevenLabs recently. ElevenLabs’ stunning selection of voices powers a number of eLearning and audiobook sites already, and it’s no hype to say that they sound as close to human as you can get right now.

Even better, you can sign up for a free account that gives you 10,000 characters of text-to-speech conversion each month. For $5 a month you can up that to 30,000 characters too, as well as access voice-cloning features. Just imagine the hours of fun if you want to hear ‘yourself’ speak any number of languages!

Using ElevenLabs in Your Own Learning

There’s plenty to do for free, though. For instance, if you enjoy the island technique in your learning, you can get ElevenLabs to record your passages for audio practice / rote memorising. I make this an AI double-whammy, using ChatGPT to help prepare my topical ‘islands’ before pasting them into ElevenLabs.

The ChatGPT > ElevenLabs workflow is also brilliant for dialogue modelling. On my recent Sweden trip, I knew that a big conversational contact point would be ordering at coffee shops. This is the prompt I used to get a cover-all-bases model coffee-shop convo:

Create a comprehensive model dialogue in Swedish to help me learn and practise for the situation “ordering coffee in a Malmö coffee shop”.

Try to include the language for every eventuality / question I might be asked by the coffee shop employee. Ensure that the language is colloquial and informal, and not stilted.

The output will be pasted into a text-to-speech generator, so don’t add speaker names to the dialogue lines – just a dash will suffice to indicate a change of speaker.

I then ran off the audio file with ElevenLabs, and hey presto! Custom real-world social prep. You can’t specify different voices in the same file, of course. But you could run off the MP3 twice, in different voices, then splice it up manually in an audio editor like Audacity for the full dialogue effect. Needless to say, it’s also a great way for teachers to make custom listening activities.

The ElevenLabs voices are truly impressive – it’s worth setting up a free account just to play with the options and come up with your own creative use cases. TTS is set to only get better in the coming months – we’re excited to see where it leads!

A robot interviewing another robot - a great speaking game on ChatGPT!

So Interview Me! Structured Speaking with ChatGPT

The addition of voice chat mode to ChatGPT – soon available even to free users in an impressive, all-new format – opens up tons of possibilities for AI speaking practice. When faced with it for the first time, however, learners can find that it’s all a bit undirected and woolly. To make the most of it for targeted speaking practice, it needs some nudging with prompts.

Since AI crashed into the language learning world, the prompt bank has filled with ways to prime your chatbot for more effective speaking practice and prep. But there’s one activity I’ve been using lately that offers both structure, tailored to your level and topic, and a lot of fun. I call it So Interview Me!, and it involves you playing an esteemed expert on a topic of your choice, with ChatGPT as the prime-time TV interviewer.

So Interview Me!

Here’s an example you can paste into ChatGPT Plus straight away (as text first, then switching to voice mode after the initial response):

Let’s role-play so I can practise my Swedish with you. You play the role of a TV interviewer on a news programme. I play an esteemed expert on the topic of ‘the history of Eurovision’. Conversational turn by turn, interview me in the target language all about the topic. Don’t add any translations or other directions – you play the interviewer and no other role. Wind up the interview after about 15 turns. Keep the language quite simple, around level B1 on the CEFR scale. Are you ready? Start off by introducing me and asking the first question!

The fun of it is that you are the star of the show. You can completely throw yourself into it, interacting with your interviewer with all the gusto and gumption of a true expert. Or you can have some fun with it, throwing it off with silly answers and bending the scenario to your will (maybe you turn out not to be the expert!).

Either way, it’s a brilliant one to wind up and set going before you start the washing up!

A musical, emotive robot. OpenAI's new model GPT-4o will make digital conversations even more natural.

GPT-4o – OpenAI Creates A Perfect Fit For Language Learners

Just a couple of weeks after the excitement around Hume.ai, OpenAI has joined the emotive conversational bandwagon with a stunning new release of its GPT-4o model.

GPT-4o is a big deal for language learners because it is multimodal in much more powerful ways than previous models. It interacts with the world more naturally across text, audio and vision in ways that mimic our own interactions with language speakers. Demos have included the model reacting to the speaker’s appearance and expression, opening a path to more realistic digital conversation practice than ever.

As with Hume, its voice capabilities have been updated with natural-sounding emotion and intonation, along with a deeper understanding of the speaker’s tone. It even does a better job at sarcasm and irony, long the exclusive domain of human speakers. Heck, it can even sing now. Vocal, emotional nuance – at least simulated – does seem to be the latest big leap forward in AI, transforming the often rather staid conversations into something uncannily humanlike. And as with many of these developments, it almost feels like it was made with us linguists in mind.

Perhaps surprisingly, there’s no wait to try the new model this time, at least in text mode. OpenAI have rolled it out almost immediately, including to free users. That suggests a quite confidence in how impressed users will be with it.

As for the multimodal capabilities, we’ll have to wait a little longer, unfortunately – chat updates are being propagated more gradually, although you may already the next time you open chat mode, you may already get the message that big changes are coming. Definitely a case of watch this space – and I don’t know about you, but I’m already impatiently refreshing my ChatGPT app with increasing frequency!

A picture of a robot heart - conversation with emotion with Hume.ai

Conversation practice with emotion : Meet Hume.ai

If the socials are anything to go by, so many of us language learners are already using AI platforms for conversation practice – whether text-typed, or spoken with speech-enabled platforms like ChatGPT.

Conversational interaction is something that LLMs – large language models – were created for. In fact, language learning and teaching seem like an uncannily good fit for AI. It’s almost like it was made for us.

But there’s one thing that’s been missing up to now – emotional awareness. In everyday conversation with other humans, we use a range of cues to gauge our speaking partner’s attitude, intentions and general mood. AI – even when using speech recognition and text-to-speech – is flat by comparison. It can only simulate true conversational interplay.

A new LLM is set to change all that. Hume.ai has empathy built-in. It uses vocal cues to determine the probable mindset of the speaker for each utterance. For each input, it selects a set of human emotions, and weights them. For instance, it might decide that what you said was 60% curious, 40% anxious and 20% proud. Then, mirroring that, it replies with an appropriate intonation and flex.

The platform already supports over 50 languages. You can try out a demo in English here, and prepare to be impressed – its guesses can be mind-bogglingly spot-on. Although it’s chiefly for developer access right now, the potential usefulness to language learning is so clear that we should hopefully see the engine popping up in language platforms in the near future!

A neon style image of a robot with a speech bubble to illustrate the idea of Swedish proverbs as language learning material

Proverbs and Language Learning : From Folk Wisdom to Classroom

I’ve been crash-learning Swedish (well, side-stepping into it from Norwegian) more and more intensively of late. And one of the most pleasant linguistic detours I’ve made has been through the lush valleys of Swedish proverbs.

Proverbs and sayings have always been a favourite way in of mine when working on a language, and for several good reasons. Firstly, they’re short, and usually easier to remember by design so people could easily memorise and recite them. Secondly, they’re very often built around high-frequency structures (think X is like Y, better X than Y) that serve as effective language models.

Birds in a forest, a favourite trope of proverbs!

Bättre en fågel i handen än tio i skogen (Better one bird in the hand than ten in the forest)

But there’s another big pay-off to learning through proverbs that is more than the sum of their words. They pack a lot of meaning into a short space – drop them in and you’re calling to the conversation all the nuance they carry. Think of the grass is always greener… You don’t even need to mention the second, missing part of that English proverb, and it already calls to mind countless shared parables of misplaced dissatisfaction. And since they’re based on those parables and folk histories that ‘grew up’ alongside your target language, proverbs can grant us some fascinating cultural insights, too.

In short, master proverbs and you’ll sound like you really know what you’re talking about in the target language.

Finding Proverbs

For many target languages, you’ll likely be able to source some kind of proverbs compendium in a good bookshop, as they’re as much of interest to native speakers as they are to learners. When you do find a good one, compilations of sayings are the epitome of the dip-in-and-out book. I’ve picked up lots of Gaelic constructions and vocab leafing idly through Alexander Nicolson’s Gaelic Proverbs in my spare moments. It was definitely time for me to try the same with some Swedish.

Without a good Swedish bookshop to hand, though, I turned to the Internet in the meantime. A good place to start is to find out what “[your language] proverbs” is in your target language (it’s svenska ordspråk in Swedish), and see what a good search engine throws up.

Tala är silver, tiga är guld.

Tala är silver, tiga är guld (Talking is silver, silence is gold)

Local cultural institutions in particular can be rich sources of articles on folk wisdom like proverbs. There are some lovely sites and articles that introduce the wise words of svenska in digestible chunks. My handful of Swedish favourites below are each written for a native speaker audience. They all give potted backgrounds on the proverbs in Swedish, making for some great extra reading practice.

INSTITUTET FÖR SPRÅK OCH FOLKMINNEN

This folk-minded article is a wonderful introduction to Swedish proverbs, offering not only examples, but also exploring the characteristics of proverbs and what makes them ‘stick’. There’s a special section on sayings from the Gothenburg area too, which adds a nice local flavour.

TIDNINGEN LAND

This article from the Land publication offers 19 common Swedish proverbs in handy list format. Even more handily, it paraphrases each in order to explain their meaning. Great for working out what some of the more archaic words mean without reaching for the Swedish-English dictionary!

NORDISKA MUSEET

Nordiska Museet offers another well-curated list, with not only paraphrasing, but etymological information on the more difficult or outdated words.

The Proverbial AI

You can also tap the vast training banks of AI platforms for proverbial nuggets. Granted, the knowledge of LLMs like ChatGPT and Claude may not be complete – training data is only a subset of material available online – but AI does offer the advantage of activity creation with the material.

Try this prompt for starters:

Create a Swedish proverbs activity to help me practise my Swedish.
Choose five well-known proverbs, and replace a key word in each with a gap. I must choose the correct word for the gap from four alternatives in each case. Make some of the alternatives humorous! Add an answer key at the end of this quiz along with brief explanations of each proverb.

I managed to get some really fun quizzes out of this. Well worth playing around with for self-learning mini-worksheets!

A Swedish proverbs activity created by ChatGPT

A Swedish proverbs activity created by ChatGPT-4

AI platforms can also play a role as ‘proverb visualisers’, which is how I generated the images in this article. Proverbs can often employ some quite unusual imagery; letting picture generators loose on those can be a fantastic way to make them more memorable!

However you come across target language sayings and proverbs, you can learn a lot from these little chunks of wisdom. Do you have a favourite saying in any of the languages you’re studying? Let us know in the comments!

ChatGPT French travel poster

A Second Shot at Perfect Posters – ChatGPT’s Image Tweaker

The big ChatGPT news in recent weeks is about images, rather than words. The AI frontrunner has added a facility to selectively re-prompt for parts of an image, allowing us to tweak sections that don’t live up to prompt expectations.

In essence, this new facility gives us a second shot at saving otherwise perfect output from minor issues. And for language learning content, like posters and flashcards, the biggest ‘minor’ issue – the poor spellings that crop up in AI image generation – makes the difference between useful and useless material.

Rescuing ChatGPT Posters

Take this example. It’s a simple brief – a stylish, 1950s style travel poster for France. Here’s the prompt I used to generate it:

Create a vibrant, stylish 1950s style travel poster featuring Paris and the slogan “La France”.

I wanted the text “La France” at the top, but, as you can see, we’ve got a rogue M in there instead of an N.

ChatGPT generated image of a French travel poster

To target that, I tap the image in the ChatGPT app. It calls up the image in edit mode, where I can highlight the areas that need attention:

ChatGPT image editing window

Then, I press Next, and can re-prompt for that part of the image. I simply restate the slogan instructions:

The slogan should read “La France”.

The result – a correct spelling, this time!

ChatGPT French travel poster

It can take a few goes. Dodgy spelling hasn’t been fixed; we’ve just been given a way to try again without scrapping the entire image. Certain details also won’t be retained between versions, such as the font, in this example. Others may be added, like the highly stylised merging of the L and F in the slogan (a feature, rather than a bug, I think!).

But the overall result is good enough that our lovely 1950s style poster wasn’t a total write-off.

Another case of AI being highly imperfect on its own, but a great tool when enhanced by us human users. It still won’t replace us – just yet!

Image tweaking is currently only available in the ChatGPT app (iOS / Android).

Masses of digital text. AIs with a large context window can process much more of it!

Gemini’s Long Context Window – a True Spec Cruncher

Maybe you’ve noticed that Google’s Gemini has been making gains on ChatGPT lately. Of all its recent impressive improvements, one of the lesser-sung features – at least in AI for Ed circles – is its much enhanced context window.

The context window is essentially how much text the AI can ‘remember’, and work with.  Google’s next model boasts one million characters of this memory, leaving other models – which count their own in the hundreds of thousands – in the dust. It blows open the possibilities for a particular kind of AI task: working with long texts.

Language learners make use of all kinds of texts, of course. But one particularly unwieldy (although hugely useful) type where this new feature could help is the exam spec.

Exam Spec Crunching with AI

Language exam specs are roadmaps to qualifications, listing the knowledge and skills students need to demonstrate linguistic competency. But they have a lot of fine detail that can bog us down.

As a content creator, one thing that challenges me is teasing out this detail into some kind of meaningful arrangement for student activities. There is a mass of vocab data in there. And as systematic as it is, abstract lists of connectives, temporal adverbs and helper verbs don’t make for very student-friendly lesson material.

With a massive text cruncher like Gemini, they are a lot easier to process. Just drag in your spec PDF (I’ve been playing around with the new AQA GCSE German doc), and tease out the material in a more useful format for planning:

Take this German exam spec, and create an outline plan of three terms of twelve lessons that will cover all of the thematic material.

Additionally, it can help in creating resources that cover all bases:

Create a short reading text to introduce students to the exam topic “Celebrity Culture”. It should be appropriate for students aiming for the top tier mark in the spec. In the text, make sure to include all of the prepositions from the prescribed word list.

With a long textual memory, it’s even possible to interrogate the spec after you’ve uploaded it. That’s literally just asking questions of the document itself – and, with that bigger window, getting answers that don’t overlook half the content:

If students have one year to learn ALL of the prescribed vocabulary in the spec, how many words should they be learning a week? Organise them into weekly lists that follow a broadly thematic pattern.

Supersized Context Window – Playing Soon at an AI Near You!

For sure, you can use these techniques on existing platforms straight away. However, due to the smaller context window, results might not always be 100% reliable (although it’s always fun trying!). For the new Google magic, we’ll have to wait just a little longer. 

But from the initial signs, it definitely looks worth the wait!

Gemini’s new supersized context window is available only in a limited released currently, and only via its AI Studio playground. Expect to see it coming to Gemini Advanced very soon!

Foreign alphabet soup (image generated by AI)

AI Chat Support for Foreign Language Alphabets

I turn to AI first and foremost for content creation, as it’s so good at creating model foreign language texts. But it’s also a pretty good conversational tool for language learners.

That said, one of the biggest obstacles to using LLMs like ChatGPT for conversational practice can be an unfamiliar script. Ask it to speak Arabic, and you’ll get lots of Arabic script. It’s usually smart enough to work out if you’re typing back using Latin characters, but it’ll likely continue to speak in script.

Now, it’s easy enough to ask your AI platform of choice to transliterate everything into Latin characters, and expect the same from you – simply instruct it to do so in your prompts. But blanket transliteration won’t help your development of native reading and writing skills. There’s a much better best of both worlds way that does.

Best of Both Worlds AI Chat Prompt

This prompt sets up a basic conversation environment. The clincher is that is give you the option to write in script  or not. And if not, you’ll get what script should look like modelled right back at you. It’s a great way to jump into conversation practice even before you’re comfortable switching keyboard layouts.

You are a Modern Greek language teacher, and you are helping me to develop my conversational skills in the language at level A2 (CEFR). Always keep the language short and simple at the given level, and always keep the conversation going with follow-up questions.

I will often type in transliterated Latin script, as I am still learning the target language alphabet. Rewrite all of my responses correctly in the target language script with any necessary grammatical corrections.

Similarly, write all of your own responses both in the target language script and also a transliteration in Latin characters. For instance,

Καλημέρα σου!
Kaliméra sou!

Do NOT give any English translations – the only support for me will be transliterations of the target language.

Let’s start off the conversation by talking about the weather.

This prompt worked pretty reliably in ChatGPT-4, Claude, Copilot, and Gemini. The first two were very strong; the latter two occasionally forget the don’t translate! instruction, but otherwise, script support – the name of the game here – was good throughout.

Try changing the language (top) and topic (bottom) to see what it comes up with!

 

An illustration of a robot scribe writing AI prompts for ChatGPT or Gemini

Power to the Prompts : Fave Tweaks for AI Worksheets

Content creation is what AI excels at. That’s a gift to language learners and teachers, as it’s the easiest thing in the world to create a set of prompts to run off original, immersive worksheets.

AI isn’t great at everything, though, which is why our prompts need to tweak for its weaknesses – the things that are obvious gotchas to language folk, but need explaining to a general assistant like AI. Fortunately, in most cases, all you need is an extra line or two to put it right.

Here are five of my favourite prompt-enhancers for worksheets, covering everything from vocab to copyright!

Five Tweaks for Perfect Prompts

Cut Out the Cognates

Cognates are generally great for language learners. As words that are instantly recognisable, they’re extra vocab for free. But for that very reason, they’re not the ones that worksheets should be making a song and dance about. It’s not particularly useful, for example, to have “der Manager” picked out in your German glossary as a key word. Yes, I worked that one out!

Try this in your vocab list prompts, bearing in mind that not all platforms will work equally well with it (Gemini aced it – ChatGPT sometimes gets it):

Don’t list items that are obvious English loanwords or cognates with English.

Highlight the Good Stuff

You know what I mean by the good stuff – those structures and snippets of languages that are really frequent, and really reusable. I like to call them sentence frames – you can learn them, and switch in other words to add to your own linguistic repertoire.

You can ask AI to draw attention to any really pertinent ones in your target language texts:

Highlight (in bold and italics) the most pertinent key words and phrases for the topic, and provide a brief glossary of them at the end.

Make It Colloquial

Vanilla AI can sound bookish and formal. That’s no good as a model for everyday speech, so polish your prompts with a wee push to the colloquial:

Make the language colloquial and idiomatic, in the style of a native speaker.

Include an Answer Key

It might seem obvious, but if you’re making materials for self-study, then you will find an answer sheet indispensable. It’s an often overlooked finishing touch that makes a worksheet truly self-contained:

Include an answer key for all questions at the end.

Covering Your Back With Copyright

Copyright issues have been bubbling in the background for LLMs for some time now. They produce texts based on vast banks on training data, which isn’t original material, of course. But in theory, the texts that pop out of it should be completely original.

It can’t hurt to make that explicit, though. I like to add the following line to prompts, especially if I’m intending to share the material beyond personal use:

Ensure that the text is completely original and not lifted directly from any other source.

 

What are your favourite tweaks to make perfect prompts? Let us know in the comments!

Lots of websites floating around a central AI sphere

Powered by AI : Some Favourite Tools

If you’ve been following my recent posts, you’ll know that I’ve been embedding AI deeply into my language learning routine.

There are some truly min-blowing ways to incorporate ‘raw AI’ – using direct prompts with LLMs like ChatGPT – into your learning, from live activities with personality, to custom content creation. But likewise, there are plenty of ready-to-run, AI-infused sites that you can use for language fun.

Here are a few of my favourites!

KOME.AI – YouTube Transcript Generator

I came across this when asked by a friend struggling to transcribe a long conference talk video for work. Surely there’s some way to automate that? And sure there was, and it’s Kome.ai. 

It’s not the only transcription service out there – there are numerous ones, competing for supremacy – but it’s the most straightforward, it’s multilingual, and it’s free. It’s also fast, seemingly drawing on already-existing auto-captions where available, before kicking in with other tools where necessary. I pasted in a short news clip about the German teacher shortage – I had a transcript almost immediately.

Kome.ai, generating YouTube transcripts with AI

Delphi’s Digital Clones

Most of the best prompt strategies involve telling AI who you want it to be. Delphi.ai has taken that a step further, by digitally cloning experts in their field – their words and big takes, at least – and making them available to the public. Think ‘coach in a box’.

While the site is set up for those wishing to clone knowledge-imparting versions of themselves (language coach, anyone?), you can browse and chat with many of their demo models. The philosopher collection is particularly enlightening.

PERPLEXITY.AI

AI’s whole bag is text generation. Now, the big tech talk a bit game about these platforms also being digital assistants, but they’re basically content whizzes, and can still be lacking in other task performance areas. Searching seems to be one of these blind spots, which you’ll have realised quickly when faced with Bing’s sometimes laughably off-topic search results.

Perplexity.ai aims to change all that. The developers have taken an LLM, and purpose-designed it for finding sources and answering questions. Consequently, it’s much more useful for learners, educators, researchers, and anyone who doesn’t want their AI to completely miss the point. It’s the future of search.

Web search infused with AI from Perplexity.com

SUNO.AI

AI-generated music has been sneaking up on us all very quietly. It was text generation that was making all the bolshy fuss, up to now. Music was still very much experimental, and out of the question unless you were running models on a powerful testing machine.

But suddenly, we have services that can create whole songs – including lyrics – from a simple prompt. Suno.ai not only gives you that for free – you have ten tracks a day for nothing – but it’s fast, and uncannily good for an early release. And, although they don’t shout from the rooftops about it, it’s also a polyglot!

These aren’t just great, handy, fun sites to use. They also show how broad the brush of AI is, and will be, in the future. They offer a taste of how embedded the tech will become in all sorts of areas of our lives in the coming years.

Are there any emerging AI services you’re a fan of? Let us know if the comments!