Chatbotmaker.com is Bokomaru Publication's experimental pronunciation-practice website. As ESL teachers, we have always been struck at how teaching pronunciation can be the least communicative element of any lesson, so we set out to change that. We asked, "How can we make learning pronunciation more like conversation and less like a mechanical drill?" The answer for us has been to explore the wonderful world of chatbots.
A chatbot is a robot you can chat with. In other words, it's an artificial conversation partner that never gets tired and never hurts your feelings. In the past, chatbots were text-only. You typed in a question, hit enter, and the system would return a text-based answer. Now, with the arrival of reliable speech recognition technology, you simply ask your question into your microphone, hit enter, and the chatbot answers your question as if you were having a conversation with a real person over Skype.
Since computers can now listen and understand human speech, 30 language learners in a computer lab can all practice their conversation skills with the same native speaker at the same time. The native speaker will never get tired and will always give each learner all of his or her attention. Because of this, conversation practice with the chatbot can also be assigned as homework. Think of all the English as foreign language learners wishing they had someone to speak English with. Now they do.
With a speech recognition-enabled chatbot, here is no reason to feel embarrassment. There is no reason to feel nervous. If the chatbot doesn't understand your accent, it simply asks you to repeat it again. If you care about the answer, you have to make acceptable pronunciation your goal. It is that simple. Speech recognition in combination with chatbot technology has finally made pronunciation practice available at a distance and consistent with the Communicative Method where all language practice involves the exchange of meaningful messages. So, we here at Bokomaru are very proud to be able to offer this pedagogically sound form of pronunciation practice to language learners everywhere around the world for free.
Our goal now is also to provide every learner the opportunity to create his or her own chatbot on the Chatbotmaker.com website. In this way, the chatbot you create of yourself using a webcam and microphone becomes your e-portfolio of spoken answers to everyday questions. You can record your answer once, a thousand times, or as many times as it takes until you are satisfied with your answer. What a wonderful opportunity for goal-setting and self-assessment! Our students, from beginners to advanced learners, find the process of building their own chatbot tremendously rewarding and confidence building. You'll love it, too.
Chrome users ONLY!
Due to the experimental nature of this project and its reliance on speech recognition technology, currently all the features of the website can only be accessed using Google's Chrome browser. However, you can get Chrome for free, and it only takes a couple of minutes to install. We hope to be able to offer the same degree of speech interactivity to Firefox users and Internet Explorer users in the near future. Watch this space for the announcement.