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Japanese School Kids Learn English from AI Robots






Leave it to a robot to teach English classes!


The use of AI (artificial intelligence) robots as assistant teachers for English classes is spreading in elementary and middle schools across Japan.


There are distinct advantages. Students gain more opportunities to converse in English by talking to a robot. This in turn increases their enthusiasm for learning the language. The reduced burden on teachers is also a positive result.



According to one specialist, “The implementation [of AI robots] should be accelerated” in preparation for the full-scale introduction of English classes into elementary schools in the coming two years.


In the afternoon of October 15, 18 first-graders faced a small robot sitting on the desk in front of them in their English class at Doshisha Elementary School in Kyoto’s Sakyo ward.


A girl asked, “Which season do you like?”


The robot responded, “I like fall.”


The smiling students described the robot’s fluent English pronunciation as “very easy to understand — and reassuring, because we can ask a question as many times as we want.”



The elementary school was the first in the country to start using the English language teaching AI robot “Musio X.” It has been using the 20-centimeter-tall robot for about the last two years to facilitate its English program.


The robots are manufactured by AKA, an American firm developing AI engines and robots, and are priced at JPY100,000 (about USD900) each.


Installed with several million bytes of conversation data taken from American TV dramas and English language learning materials, they are able to hold free conversation with students in addition to the usual conversation practice sentences.  


Takashi Tanda, 59, an English teacher at the school, says he sees the effects, even though it's only been a year and half since he began using the robot in his classes.


“Usually students are too shy to speak English in front of people, but their speech volume has increased tremendously because they have conversations voluntarily with the robot,” he said.



Tanda further described the robot’s presence as “a feeling like I have several alter egos.” It allows him more time to focus on each student individually, he said.  


The option of registering each student’s name in the robot's database additionally enables teachers to keep track of each student’s progress. The robot manages and scores their pronunciation and English conversation skills.


Kento Oimatsu, 24, of AKA’s Japan subsidiary, pointed out, “It also lightens the burden on teachers because the grading of individual work is no longer necessary.”


According to the company, approximately 50 schools across the country — including public elementary and middle schools as well as colleges — are now using Musio X in their English programs. Inquiries from municipalities considering the robot have also increased in recent years.


The national school curriculum guidelines slated to go into effect in 2020 call for the full-scale introduction of English language classes for elementary students in grades 3 to 6. This policy is expected to lead to further expansion of the use of robots in the field of education.



Many elementary and middle schools have been hiring ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) to facilitate the teaching of practical conversational skills. However, there is a possibility that robots may eventually replace the ALTs altogether.


Osaka Shoin Women’s University professor Masataka Kan, 60, who is knowledgeable about English education in Japan, explained the situation: “Some municipalities are struggling with burden on their education budgets due to the annual JPY5 million (about USD44,400) for personnel expenses needed to hire a single ALT.”


She compared: “On the other hand, robots come at a lower cost compared to ALTs, and their functions are advancing year by year. ALTs may no longer be needed in the future.”



(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)




Author: Taichi Hamakawa






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