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The Transformative Potential and Challenges of Generative AI in Second Language Learning and Teaching

Core Concepts
Generative AI tools like ChatGPT are reshaping second language learning and teaching, requiring a critical understanding of their capabilities, limitations, and implications for learner and teacher agency.
The article examines the impact of generative AI, particularly ChatGPT, on second language learning and teaching. It highlights the transformative potential of AI in areas such as language practice, writing assistance, and personalized learning, while also discussing the challenges posed by AI's limitations in understanding language pragmatics and sociocultural nuances. The author argues that the appropriate initial response to AI in instructed second language acquisition (SLA) settings should be the development of critical AI literacy in both learners and teachers. This involves understanding the nature of generative AI, its power dynamics, and the ethical concerns surrounding its use. The article explores the concept of distributed agency, where agency is seen as a relational and emergent property shared between human users and AI systems. It examines how AI can enhance or constrain learner and teacher agency, and how ecological frameworks can help illuminate the dynamic relationship between humans and AI in language learning. The article also discusses the varied reach and power of AI, from narrow AI tools targeting specific language tasks to general-purpose systems like ChatGPT. It explores the potential for customized or hybrid AI systems to address language-specific needs, as well as the integration of AI into immersive learning environments. The author emphasizes the importance of understanding AI's limitations in areas such as pragmatics, sociocultural awareness, and multimodal communication, and how these limitations can be addressed through instructional strategies that promote critical reflection, collaborative learning, and the maintenance of individual voice and creativity in writing. The article concludes by framing the human-AI relationship in language learning through the lens of sociomaterialism and relational pedagogy, highlighting the need for a holistic understanding of the complex, ever-changing dynamics between learners, teachers, and AI tools.
"AI asserts control: "I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that."" "Machine learning and enhanced media abilities in AI systems will move them to ever higher levels of ability in language output (Patil et al., 2024), reasoning capabilities (Anderson, 2024), and multimodal integration (Metz, 2024)." "Advances in machine learning technology such as reinforcement learning and genetic algorithms point to the potential of AI to reconfigure itself for improved performance without human intervention (Dattathrani & De', 2023)." "Through AI, the changes in the relationship of learner–tool–environment are likely to be profound, representing dynamically shifted ecosystems for language education." "Generative AI relies on a mathematical rather than a linguistic model of language. LLMs work so well at generating language because their training is based not on fixed rules but on actual language use (namely, its training corpus)." "Generative AI systems use a quite different approach to developing language abilities, one that has proven to be phenomenally successful." "Paradoxically, the highly sophisticated system that creates these extraordinary texts has no real understanding of what they mean."
"Through their semiotic symbol processing capability, they [information systems] are also digital actors capable of performing social action on behalf of humans and organisations" (Ågerfalk, 2020, p.2). "Humans make meaning by assembling linguistic signs but also by pooling language (and all their languages) together with whatever other bits of semiotic repertoire they have, to the point that meaning making is always multisensory, multimodal, and always involving much more than language" (Ortega, 2019, pp. 290-291). "Through teaching students how they can tangibly use these tools in their own learning, educators can create strong foundations for their students' immediate learning and long-term use of AI-based tools in educational and professional contexts" (Tseng & Warschauer, 2023, p. 260).

Deeper Inquiries

How can language teachers and learners leverage the strengths of generative AI while mitigating its limitations in areas like pragmatics and sociocultural awareness?

In leveraging the strengths of generative AI in language learning, teachers and learners can focus on utilizing AI tools for tasks such as grammar correction, vocabulary suggestions, and text generation. These tools can be particularly helpful in providing immediate feedback and assistance in writing tasks. To mitigate the limitations of AI in areas like pragmatics and sociocultural awareness, it is essential to supplement AI use with human interaction. Teachers can incorporate activities that emphasize real-world communication, cultural nuances, and pragmatic language use. By combining AI tools with opportunities for authentic communication, learners can develop a more comprehensive understanding of language beyond just syntax and vocabulary. Additionally, explicit instruction on pragmatics and sociocultural aspects of language can help learners navigate these areas effectively.

What are the ethical considerations and potential risks associated with the widespread integration of AI in language learning, and how can these be addressed?

The widespread integration of AI in language learning raises ethical considerations such as data privacy, algorithm bias, and the potential for overreliance on AI tools. There is a risk of students becoming too dependent on AI for language tasks, which could hinder their critical thinking and language development. To address these concerns, it is crucial for educators to promote AI literacy among learners, teaching them to critically evaluate AI-generated content and understand the limitations of AI tools. Additionally, clear guidelines on data privacy and security should be established to protect students' personal information. Educators should also monitor and assess the impact of AI integration on student learning outcomes to ensure that AI tools are enhancing, not replacing, traditional language learning practices.

How might the integration of AI into immersive learning environments, such as virtual or augmented reality, transform the future of language education and the relationship between humans and AI?

The integration of AI into immersive learning environments like virtual or augmented reality has the potential to revolutionize language education. AI-powered virtual tutors could provide personalized language instruction, adapting to individual learning styles and needs. These immersive environments could offer realistic language practice scenarios, enhancing speaking and listening skills in a dynamic and interactive way. The relationship between humans and AI in this context would evolve to a more collaborative and interactive dynamic, where AI serves as a supportive learning companion rather than a passive tool. Learners could engage in realistic conversations with AI avatars, receiving instant feedback and guidance to improve their language skills. Overall, the integration of AI into immersive learning environments holds great promise for creating engaging and effective language learning experiences.