The moment ChatGPT came out and amazed the world in late 2022, I immediately thought “this would be great for language practice”. Except it wasn’t. ChatGPT is simply not a good conversation partner. It’s made to answer questions, not to keep a conversation going. You can use it as a language tutor, but you keep having to ask it to give feedback, ask it to ask a question. It gets tiring.
Of course, a thousand companies had the same idea and language learning chatbots have been cropping up left right and centre. I wanted to recommend the best ones to my English-as-a-second-language students, so I tried them out. Here are my conclusions. I tried to list them from good to bad, but it turned out the language-learning chatbots out there are pretty mediocre, so it has become a list of okay to bad.
This list was created in January 2024. I’ll try to keep it updated.
I am not getting any kind of affiliate money for this list. It’s just a case of me doing this research for my students and figuring I might as well post my conclusions online.
A language-learning chatbot: does it work?
The best language lesson is a one-on-one lesson with a professional language teacher. You get conversation practice, and the teacher cleverly chooses which mistakes to give feedback on. Not everything; she doesn’t want to overwhelm you. Not on grammar structures that you haven’t learned about yet. But when you just said that sentence, do you remember what we talked about last week? How would you correct the sentence? Oh, you don’t remember? Let’s talk about that again.
It seems like a no-brainer that an AI chatbot could emulate this. My research for this article, however, suggests that we are not there yet.
At the same time, my Spanish improved greatly from chatting with these robots. I guess because, as a language teacher, I know exactly what feedback I want and need.
For other learners? I am personally on the side of the fence that thinks any conversation practice is good conversation practice. I don’t think anyone’s language skills are going to get worse from chatting with chatbots. What do you think? Let me know in the comments!
How did I judge these chatbots?
The basic question I had in mind while judging these language-learning AI tools was: how does this tool compare with just chatting with ChatGPT, Google Bard, Perplexity or another text generative AI that wasn’t designed to make conversation or give feedback on language?
The best: gopenpal.ai
Very limited free version, but you can try it out without giving your credit card details. Cheapest plan is 5 dollars a month, which is pretty good, looking at the competition’s pricing.
- good conversation skills, asks interesting questions
- has a “spellcheck” button which gives you feedback on what you just typed (it doesn’t only check spelling, but grammar too, I found)
- also offers lessons (I only tried the chat function, though)
- not free (just free to try out)
Not good, but free: talkpal.ai
Talkpal.ai wants your money, but when I visited it in January 2024 the chat function was free. I wasn’t very impressed, but it still beats character.ai.
- free chat function
- Gives some feedback, making it better than character.ai
- automatic voice output has quite natural sounding speech.
- you cannot switch the automatic voice output off. Very annoying.
- doesn’t ask particularly interesting questions
- the feedback is really bad
- not much functionality yet
Not good, but truly free: Character.ai
Character.ai is the most popular chatbot website out there. People can make their own chatbots by choosing certain personality traits and make them accessible to others. There are some chatbots on character.ai that claim they let you learn languages, but I have not found any that do anything more than just be a chatbot in that particular language. They will give you feedback if you ask for it, but asking for it gets old.
- better conversation than ChatGPT
- choose funny characters to have funny, outlandish conversations with. Like a sexy giant elf, Trump, or a surly gnome.
- doesn’t give feedback
- doesn’t interact like a teacher would, is just a chatbot
Not good, but free: deep English’s chatbot
Deep English is a company that is looking to make money from online English lessons. I’m not sure what their business plan is exactly, the site looks confused.
They have put a page on their site that is ChatGPT with the added feature that you can click a switch that says “correct my English” and ChatGPT will include an English correction in its answer. I found this to be very inconsistent, however.
- theoretically gives feedback (but does not work consistently)
- Corrected my British English into American English (I was not allowed to say “I’ve got a headache”, it told me it should be “I have a headache”)
- ChatGPT is a terrible conversationalist
Not good, but free: lingful.app
I think this one is still being developed. It’s basically just a chatbot right now.
- free chat function
- there’s a Google translate function – as a teacher I actually don’t think this is good at all (you should be able to translate separate words, but not the whole sentence or nothing) but it is at least a functionality that a regular chatbot doesn’t have
- no feedback
- you cannot switch the automatic voice output off. Very annoying
- automatic voice output does not sound natural
Couldn’t try them: language-learning GPTs
If you have a paid openai account. (GPT plus or GPT 4 or whatever it is called nowadays) then you can click on “explore GPTs” in the top left corner and there are some language learning GPTs there. I do NOT have a paid account, so I haven’t been able to try any of these out.
Have you? Let me know in the comments! I am especially curious about the feedback function. Does the chatbot give feedback on the language you use?
Not yet available: DuoLingo Max
I love DuoLingo. They have a great company philosophy, aiming to remain freely available for those with a low income, and employ tons of specialists to make sure their educational science grounding is sound.
DuoLingo rolled out a chatbot as part of a paid tier called DuoLingo Max (they call it “roleplay”) in March 2023, but only for Spanish and French for English speakers on iOS, and only in certain countries.
Looking at the blog post about it, they do just what I want – you have a short conversation with the chatbot, and then it gives you feedback on what you said and how you could have said it better.
I wonder what problems they are running into that is causing them to delay a further rollout? DuoLingo is so fastidious, I can imagine all sorts of things. Feedback not up to scratch? Biased answers? Quality assurance issues? I’d love to know!
Not yet available: Luna by Mondly
I don’t know Mondly, but they also haven’t made their chatbot available yet. The company behind Mondly is Pearson so you would think they also have high ethical and educational standards. I’m starting to see a trend, here.
Only on Apple: EF Hello
EF is Education First, a language-learning company that has been around forever ( I remember dreaming of going on one of their exchange years when I was a teenager, long ago in the 90s.). EF is also rather reluctant to let you try its AI. When you click on the link, you first get sent to online lessons, instead.
After clicking through I have found that the chatbot is already working, but only as an Apple App. It has good reviews, but I do not have any products starting with a lower-case i in my possession, so I can’t try it. If you do, please let me know what you think about EF Hello in the comments below!
It seems to be free.
Couldn’t try them: AIs that wouldn’t do anything without credit card information
Here’s a list of AIs I didn’t try because I love my students, but not enough to give lots of weird sites my credit card details: langotalk.ai, wonderfluent.io, Andy (app on Smartphone – I wasn’t impressed by the minute it let me try it for free)
Here’s a list of pages that did not work yet, I assume because they are still in beta: lingostar.ai, lingosnap.co
Heddwen Newton is an English teacher and translator. She is fascinated by contemporary English and the way English changes. Her newsletter is English in Progress. 1100 subscribers and growing every day!