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[Newsmaker] How will ChatGPT affect English learning in Korea?

Hopes high on bots helping improve English, while educators remain mindful of limits

By Kim So-hyun

Published : Feb. 24, 2023 - 15:55

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San Francisco-based OpenAI’s ChatGPT may not be having quite the impact in South Korea as it is the English-speaking world so far, but it certainly has a demographic here pondering its ramifications -- English teachers, learners and others in the English education business.

YouTube is teeming with videos on how ChatGPT can write emails, correct sentences, figure out the different nuances of words, use idioms and explain grammar – all of which can help people improve their English without paying for classes.

Among titles of the clips are “AI of shock and awe” and “How to learn English for free.”

Some even claim to teach how to produce English study materials using the bot, or how to make money using it for just 10 minutes a day.

Using ChatGPT to replace a private tutor or experienced teacher, however, would be analogous to using an expensive calculator to self-study math, according to David Palmer, who teaches high school English literature at Korea Foreign School in Seoul.

“It’s definitely disruptive technology – a lot of teachers’ resources and even a good portion of language learning textbooks are irrelevant now. But most teachers I talk to are more excited about the time they’ll save rather than the money,” he said, adding that a few colleagues are using the bot to quickly draft lesson plans, quizzes, study guides and text samples.

“It’s still necessary to revise and adapt what it produces, though. You need somebody who can give effective directions to the AI and then curate the results. That’s to say nothing of the interpersonal skills and dynamic thinking that teaching requires.”

Palmer said he has used the bot in teaching his students how to identify, analyze and apply concepts like tone, style and structure in literature by reading a short story by Mark Twain, brainstorming as a class the aspects of his style and comparing their answers to those of ChatGPT.

They found that some of the human answers were more specific, but there was a lot of overlap.

Then he asked the AI to produce a short story about a random topic and of a certain length in the style of the American author.

"It showed that there’s something very human, very distinct and personal about a great writer’s style that AI can’t yet reproduce truly. I know everyone is excited about the next step, but I’m equally excited about what the current limitations tell us about things like critical thinking and art,” he said.

While ChatGPT could assist pupils of higher-level English, it’s not so applicable to young children.

Julia Kim, deputy principal of an English kindergarten franchise of YBM ECC in Pangyo, Gyeonggi Province, said her school has no plans yet to use chatbots in class. For such young kids, learning is focused on speaking, listening and being able to read and write.

“For preschoolers, it’s important that they try things on their own to feel a sense of accomplishment. Online learning during the pandemic was very difficult because there isn’t digital educational content tailored for preschoolers yet,” she said.

She mentioned, however, that teachers could use ChatGPT to make their own worksheets or other materials for homework, in addition to YBM’s materials.

A chief at the Daechi-dong main campus of MI -- a well-known English hagwon, or cram school, chain for elementary-aged children -- who wished to be identified only by his surname Choi, said he thinks of the bot as something like a car's navigation system.

“Kids in this age group should first learn how to find the way themselves, so although chatbots provide good samples of writing, correct your grammar and so on, we are not thinking about using them for class at present,” Choi said, adding that the hagwon’s goal is not just to improve student’s expressions, but is more about helping them use English in everyday life and think critically and creatively in the language.

ChatGPT is a large language model that mimics human speech or writing based on vast data, so it shouldn’t be thought of as an encyclopedia, and it doesn’t have opinions, many point out.

“ChatGPT looks for patterns that are statistically more significant as it spits out text based on human input,” said Stafford Lumsden, chair of the KOTESOL Research Committee, who has taught English in Korea for 15 years.

“Yes, it could help people cut spending on English lessons, but learning, especially languages, is a social process. People like to be social. With a chatbot, we can’t negotiate the meaning of something.”

Shin So-young, head of the policy team at a civic group that roughly translates as World With No Private Education Worries, said chatbots could help adults or pupils who are already motivated to a certain level, and therefore widen the educational gap between different socioeconomic groups.

“Kindergarten and elementary school years are when Koreans spend the most on English education. Regardless of the quality of lessons, not all children sit tight in class at that age, so personal bonding is very important in teaching," she said.

"English-based chatbots could be helpful to motivated students -- usually socioeconomically advantaged children (who started learning English earlier) -- which could broaden the educational divide."

As there are both constructive and destructive sides to artificial intelligence tools -- like deepfake videos that can be practically indistinguishable from actual videos -- educators, entrepreneurs and IT companies must enforce necessary safeguards. However, if educators use the tools well, it could be of great benefit to learners and even help solve social problems, according to Jieun Kiaer, a professor of Korean linguistics at the University of Oxford.

As ChatGPT can free teachers from more mundane or labor-intensive work, human teachers can focus more on what only they can do -- "giving constructive feedback, leading the direction of learning, and motivating students -- which would benefit learners," Kiaer said.

"If we use it well, it could help solve problems of private education in Korea, and deep-rooted problems of educational inequality around the world."