As AI becomes more and more a fixture of daily life, it’s not surprising to see it sneaking gradually into the language learning setting. The list of AI-infused apps is growing daily: premium chatbots, word games and other practice tools that are taking app stores by storm.
But before you shell out the cash, be reassured that you don’t need to spend a penny to bring the magic of AI to your own routine. You can achieve exactly the same, routine-transforming effects with a few handy prompts and free-to-access AI platforms.
AI for Free
There is an impressive and ever-growing array of AI chatbots to experiment with, some free, some premium. The difference, largely, is in the amount of environment setup that has already been done in premium apps. This is often just a case of configuring the AI to play a certain role, or act in a certain way. But here’s the secret:
You can do this easily yourself, with no development skills required.
It’s simply a case of good prompting. Tell it, in simple, natural English, the rules of the activities you want to run. Define the way you want it to respond to you. Give it a role to play. And state your limits and boundaries. Get a handle on prompting effectively, and popular, free platforms will more than suffice.
The biggie, of course, is ChatGPT, which has a solid free tier for general use. Google have also joined the game with the commendable Bard, which is definitely worth a look. That said, since Microsoft released their new AI-powered Bing chat mode, I’ve been using that more and more. It has an excellent Creative Mode preset, which gives it more unpredictable, humanlike responses. Just bear in mind that Bing currently limits the conversation to a 30-interaction maximum.
The following examples use French and Swedish to show how I’ve been using it to support my own language practice. Just swap in your own target language as required!
The simplest kind of game to set up is good old basic word play. The following prompt sets up a turn-based alphabet game, which challenges your vocab recall:
Let’s play a word game in French. We have to go through the alphabet in turns, stating a verb that begins with each letter, plus a short sentence using that verb in context. Let’s play!
One of the best things about using AI for these kinds of language games is the capacity for on-the-fly correction and feedback; it can sometimes appear almost human. Below, I started cheating by inventing words, but Bing was far too clever to be caught out!
Playing a language learning word game – and trying to cheat – with Microsoft Bing’s AI-powered chat mode.
Another fun vocab item practice mode is word association. The following prompt sets up a game where the meaning of each turn’s word must be related to the last. If the bot considers the link too tenuous, you lose the game:
Let’s play a word association game in French. You kick us off with a random noun. We then take it in turns to give a word which is somehow related in meaning to the last. If the link is too tenuous, the player loses. Shall we play?
It’s a great way to recycle vocabulary. You might need to play with the prompt to make your AI teacher a little less strict, though. Mine ended up with a bit of a mean streak. Very harsh!
Bing AI being VERY harsh on me in a word association game.
Story Games (with Tutor Mode!)
When you’re ready to take it beyond words, AI is ready for you. One of the most amusing ways to practise with full sentences is storytelling. Try this prompt for a narrative whirl:
Let’s play a turn-based storytelling game to help me practise my French. We build a story by taking it in turns to add a sentence each time. Please keep the language level to about A2, and tell me about any mistakes I make as we go along. The story should be set in the present day. You start us off!
Note the specification of a language level, as well as the instruction to correct your mistakes as you go. It makes the AI response so rich and helpful that it really is a gift to learn from. To tailor it further, try adding instructions about which tenses to use (narrative present or past?), and even vocabulary topics to crowbar in.
Ai chat can prepare you for real-world chat, too. Setting up a foreign language role-play is as simple as describing the situation in as much detail as you like:
Let’s do some role-play to help me practise my French! You play a friendly waiter in a Paris café, and I am a customer. I enter the café and you come over to take my order. You realise I’m learning French and so give me very simple descriptions of all the dishes. But you keep mishearing me, so I have to repeatedly rephrase what I ask for.
This can be as straight-laced or as silly as you like. Sometimes, it’s a case of the crazier, the better. There’s nothing like a bit of silliness to increase engagement and recall.
You can even target the chat more by priming the AI with the actual vocabulary items you want to lever in. It’s a great way to recycle words over and over again:
I want to practise talking in Swedish about family. Imagine you’re a friend of mine and we’re having a chat about our families. Keep the language level to about A2 on the CEFR language scale, and using the following words as much as possible: mamma, pappa, bror, syster, vänner, snäll, vänlig, lita på, besöka
Whether you’re new to AI, or just beginning to experiment with it yourself, I hope these sample prompts give you some useful, fun practice ideas. Do you have any good ones to add to the list? Let us know in the comments!