By Amy Lightfoot, Director of Insight and Innovation, British Council

14 December 2023 - 12:00

Woman sitting looking at the camera with a laptop open on a table in front of her.
We found teachers are broadly optimistic about the potential of emerging technologies. ©

Mat Wright

Artificial intelligence has captured the world’s imagination, generating countless headlines and driving heated debate, says Amy Lightfoot, here she looks at what it might mean for English language teaching:

What do people mean when they use the term AI? Are we always talking about the same thing? We discovered very quickly during our work on the AI in English Language Teaching Report that the term is often being used to describe a whole range of different systems and applications. There is a great deal of work to be done in establishing shared definitions and working to understand the hopes and fears that teachers and learners associate with these emerging technologies.

What are the hopes that people have about AI and what it might help us do at work and home? Are they realistic? Is there a broad understanding of the limitations of AI too?

What about the fears? Is the alarmism we’ve witnessed from some quarters justified? Are teachers about to be replaced by technology in the medium to longer term and is AI speeding up this process? Is AI going to negate the need for people to learn languages at all by providing immediate auto-translation and filling the gaps in for us? 

What about new (and old) divides in access to quality learning experiences? If emerging AI technologies accelerate learning and improve outcomes for the learners with access to them, what happens to the learners without access to AI-enabled resources? Or is the opposite a possibility: will learners without reliable access to high-quality teaching be forced to default to technology-based teaching, while more privileged learners retain the human input?

When it comes to AI, everything, including the term itself, seems up in the air and no one can be sure how things will play out in the future. We hope that our report represents a significant step forward in defining, documenting and practically focusing the discourse on AI in relation to English language teaching and learning.

At the British Council we aim to go beyond reductive or simplistic headlines. Language teaching in particular presents multiple opportunities for the integration of AI-powered technologies. Even before the development of generative AI tools like ChatGPT, we have seen many successful applications developed using the power of AI to create adaptive learning pathways for language learners. 

In particular, adaptive AI tools have the potential to provide learners with access to conversation and language practice anywhere, anytime, and at a comparatively low cost – providing people have access to the necessary devices and the internet.  That is just one example. But as well as considering what learners might gain from access to conversation practice through interaction with generative AI tools, what might they lose? 

For every opportunity that AI-based technology affords, we found corresponding barriers and risks. There is only one way to optimise the effective integration of new technology and that is to listen, objectively to those most directly affected.

Working at the British Council we are fortunate enough to have a great global network of resources at our disposal that enables us to make sure the voices of those most directly impacted by these emerging technologies are centralised. We’ve ensured that learners, teachers, and other stakeholders have been consulted and that their perspectives and insights are reflected comprehensively in our findings and recommendations.

We conducted an extensive review of existing literature about AI in English language teaching and learning, to determine where current research is focused, how the language around AI is taking shape, and what more is needed to enable us to more effectively work towards common goals. The British Council always aims to support the development of sustainable education systems. That means a strong focus on supporting teachers and learners and promoting approaches that are adaptive, flexible, and tailored, always with the ultimate objective of improving the quality of classroom practice around the world. 

We have recognised the importance of helping practitioners to carefully consider the models they choose, because we have found that the large language models that AI-powered tools draw from can carry messages about language use that excludes certain groups, and prioritises certain types of language use over others. Teachers have expressed an understandable and predictable appetite for training that focuses on AI literacy, and our research suggests this will become a key component of teacher training in the years to come.

We have identified potential gaps in research focus, including a pressing need for future studies that explore the capacity of AI to develop the receptive skills of reading and listening.

From our extensive teacher survey, we found teachers are broadly optimistic about the potential of emerging technologies but also guarded about the potential negative implications for the prominence of ‘human teachers’ in the classrooms of the future. We also found that most teachers remain confident of their continued relevance despite emerging advances in AI.

Across the board, we discovered a pressing need to define the definitions, to establish clear and universally agreed principles around its usage so that we can continue to discuss, understand, and explore the impact of AI within and beyond the English language sector. We found that outmoded learning theory can limit the transformational potential of AI, and that AI is in effect constrained by the limitations of any learning theory that informs it. Its greatest power is likely to come from teachers and learners using the tools in innovative ways, integrated with other approaches to learning.

By bringing a plurality of global perspectives to the table we were able to identify the transformational potential not just of big tech but ‘small tech’ too, recognising that it is not always the most advanced technology – or the biggest technology companies – that are best placed to effect transformational change in a variety of different global contexts. 

The optimism and energy and yes even hysteria around AI have permeated conversations in workplaces, schools, and homes worldwide. Now it is time for teachers, learners, and stakeholders to come together to explore ways that we can most effectively harness this excitement and energy into practical, effective research, classroom practice, and learning.

Read the full report.

You might also be interested in: