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Artificial intelligence used to be something we read about in science fiction, but it seems to be everywhere these days. You see the picture at the beginning of this article? It was made using an AI art generator.
The latest craze to hit the Internet is a fun, but powerful, app called ChatGPT, which uses artificial intelligence to answer questions and commands.
Let’s not worry about that just yet. Instead, let’s see how ChatGPT can be a powerful tool to help you improve your English.
What is ChatGPT and where can you get it?
In simple terms, ChatGPT is a chatbot - you can talk to it. But that’s not what makes it so powerful. You can give ChatGPT creative tasks to do; this is where its strength is.
Let me give you an example. I asked ChatGPT to write a haiku for me and here is the result.
This is great, but I wanted to test it further:
A haiku is only three lines, but ChatGPT can write essays, articles, songs, poems and even test questions. It can also correct mistakes and rewrite passages to make them easier to understand.
To get ChatGPT is simple*. Just go to https://chat.openai.com/ and open an account. It takes less than a minute. To use it, simply type questions or commands in the textbox.
*To use ChatGPT, you need a secure connection. It may not work on some campus WiFi systems. Even on normal WiFi, I found that I sometimes had to try several times to log in.
How to Use ChatGPT to Improve Your Grammar
The first thing I want to show you is how ChatGPT can help you correct the grammar in your writing:
So far, so good, but this isn’t much of an improvement over a basic grammar checker. How about this?
Now things are getting more interesting! You can ask ChatGPT to correct and comment on paragraphs or even an entire page of your writing*. It’s like having a teacher correct your work!
*There is a text limit of around 1500 words for a single prompt (including both the question and answer). Note that ChatGPT is still under development, so this will probably change.
ChatGPT can help you understand the rules of English (or other languages). You can ask it about grammar or language use and it will give you much better answers than a search engine. You can also discuss the answers with ChatGPT for further clarification.
For example, many of my own students are fond of using ‘shall’ and seem surprised when I tell them that it is an old-fashioned sounding word.
Note how the AI gives a very detailed explanation. Instead of a simple yes/no answer, it explains some of the subtleties. In fact, I think it explains it better than me. Perhaps I should be worried about losing my job!
Now here’s something interesting. Imagine that you have been studying the present perfect tense (perhaps with ChatGPT). Now, you want to find some questions to test yourself. You can ask ChatGPT to generate the questions for you!
I really like how ChatGPT includes questions on the structure and meaning of the present perfect tense, rather than just testing you on how to use it. This is something I rarely see in grammar textbooks.
Teachers, this is a simple way for you to generate questions for your students! You could generate 20 questions, then edit out the ones you don’t want, or edit them to make them more culturally appropriate.
How to Use ChatGPT to Improve Your Vocabulary
Let’s explore some ways that ChatGPT can help you with your vocabulary.
Let’s start with one for teachers. Imagine you want wordlists for various topics that you want to teach. You can ask ChatGPT to generate these for you.
Perhaps this list is too simple. We can ask for a more complex one:
As a learner, it’s difficult to know which phrasal verbs or idioms are the most useful to learn. We can get ChatGPT to help. Note the word common in the request.
You could also ask ChatGPT to provide unusual phrasal verbs, more phrasal verbs or even phrasal verbs for a specific CEFR level. You could ask for lists of idioms, academic words or business vocabulary.
Let’s say you want to read an article from a website and you’d like to review some of the vocabulary before you begin. I used this prompt with an article from bbc.co.uk:
As you can see, the output is not perfect - it picked ExxonMobil as a vocabulary item, but it’s the name of a company. However, it did successfully provide a list of useful vocabulary. And it provided the vocabulary as phrases, not just single words, which is really helpful.
What I’ve shown here is just an excerpt from the article. I tested ChatPT with the entire article (706 words) and it was able to process it and generate a wordlist.
What about confusing words? My own students always ask me to help them with “complain” and “complaint”. They always seem to mix them up. ChatGPT can help in two ways. First, it can give an explanation:
Note how the answer is clear and detailed, with examples.
What is the second way that ChatGPT can help? It can give practice questions!
How to Use ChatGPT to Prepare for IELTS
One of the hardest or scariest parts of IELTS is the speaking section. In particular, there is a section where you are asked to talk for one or two minutes on a given topic.
Let’s see how ChatGPT handles this kind of task.
I like how ChatGPT provided a well-organised text with an introduction, a preview sentence, four balanced main points and a conclusion.
I also like how ChatGPT used a good range of vocabulary such as monotonous and novelty as well as idioms such as stuck in a rut. This presentation would score a very high mark in an IELTS test.
Now, you can’t bring ChatGPT along to your IELTS exam, so how can you use it to prepare?
- Choose a speaking topic. There are plenty on this page.
- Make short notes, outlining your presentation.
- Write out your presentation.
- Give ChatGPT the same task and compare your responses. Does ChatGPT have points or vocabulary that you would like to use?
- Put the script aside and record yourself giving the talk.
- Repeat this activity as many times as possible before your IELTS test.
How to Use ChatGPT to Practise Reading
We’ve already seen how ChatGPT can produce a vocabulary list for a reading passage. It can also help you by taking difficult texts and simplifying them.
This can be particularly useful when you want to read business or academic texts, but the language is just a little bit too difficult. Let’s try a business text first:
Would you agree that the simplified version is easier to understand?
Let’s imagine that we have an academic text that gives a definition of quantum entanglement, but we can’t quite understand it. (Academic texts can be really badly written!)
While I’m not 100% sure that a child could understand, a college student with intermediate-level English should be able to understand. And this is quantum physics, one of the most advanced topics in science!
Let’s try William Shakespeare. He’s difficult to understand for a different reason; he wrote his plays hundreds of years ago and they are not in modern English.
We can test ChatGPT with this famous speech from Hamlet.
The output, as you can see, is… interesting. It’s a reasonable if not perfect interpretation which really is easier to understand.
How to Use ChatGPT to Practise Writing
We’ve seen how the AI can write a script for a presentation. Of course, it could write an essay, too, but that would be cheating!
But how about this? Imagine that you need to write an essay on homelessness in the United States. You’ve got your outline, but you can’t think how to begin the essay. Let’s ask ChatGPT.
Let’s keep going:
As I mentioned, copying output from ChatGPT for an assignment is cheating, but it’s a great way to generate ideas, vocabulary and even statistics for your own essay.
What if you are struggling even to put together an outline for your essay? Yes, ChatGPT can help and save time and worry.
Give me an outline for an essay on the dangers of AI to humanity
- Definition of artificial intelligence (AI)
- The increasing prevalence of AI in our daily lives
II. Potential dangers of AI
- Loss of jobs due to automation
- Risk of AI becoming more intelligent than humans
- Ethical concerns around AI decision-making
- The possibility of AI being used for malicious purposes
III. Examples of AI gone wrong
- The Facebook AI that developed its own language
- The Tesla Autopilot accident that resulted in a fatality
- The Microsoft chatbot that turned racist and sexist
IV. Steps we can take to mitigate the risks of AI
- Regulation of AI development and use
- Investment in education and training for the jobs of the future
- Collaboration between government, industry, and academia to address the ethical concerns surrounding AI
- AI has the potential to bring many benefits to society, but it is important to be aware of and address the potential risks it poses. By taking proactive steps, we can ensure that AI is used responsibly and ethically, and that its benefits are enjoyed by all.
Perhaps ChatGPT shouldn’t be so open about the dangers of AI, but that’s another story!
The Limitations of ChatGPT
So far, I’ve been singing the praises of ChatGPT, but it’s time to talk about the limitations.
Currently, when you log into ChatGPT, you see the following message:
You need to take this message seriously. ChatGPT, although incredibly powerful, is still in its testing phase.
Let me give you an example where I found it giving incorrect and unhelpful information.
The answer that it gave is unhelpful at best, and incorrect at worst. What am I meant to do with this information?
When asking ChatGPT to generate multiple choice questions, I occasionally found that there could be two possible answers.
So ChatGPT is not perfect. But then again, neither are teachers! I’ve known plenty of teachers to give incorrect information and misleading questions.
So, despite some issues, I do strongly advise using ChatGPT as a tool. I’ve started to use it with my own students, and they love it!
And remember how early GPS apps like Waze or Google Maps would often send you to the wrong place? But years later, they are much more dependable and rarely make mistakes.
That’s because AI technologies learn and improve over time. I expect that within a short period of time, you’ll find that ChatGPT and other similar technologies make far fewer mistakes than they do now.
For example, when I asked for fill-in-the-blank questions to test “advice” and “advise”, some of the answers in the answer key were wrong. But when I tried again, about a week later, it gave me the correct answers!
What about cheating?
Many teachers are worried that students will use ChatGPT to cheat on their assignments. After all, it can write entire essays!
Well, at least one company has developed software to find out if a text was written by ChatGPT. So, I strongly advise students to use it as a tool and not a way to cheat!
Why I don’t recommend chatting to ChatGPT
Perhaps the most obvious way to use ChatGPT is for conversation practice. After all, it is a CHAT bot.
However, you will not really get a realistic conversation with it. I’ll show you why.
As you can see, ChatGPT can prompt further conversation with simple probing questions. But there is a part of the conversation where we want to turn the focus on the other person. When we do this, we get a very artificial and unrealistic response.
I tried one more time, asking ChatGPT to roleplay:
Oh, well, that didn’t work, but it was fun trying!
Are AIs the Future?
When I was a kid, I dreamed of having an AI robot that I could ask to do things for me. For me, the future is now!
But AIs are still in their infancy. They’re just getting started; just doing their warm-up exercises. They’re like the Internet back in 1995 - not everyone could see the future possibilities.
I urge you as a student, English learner or teacher to embrace artificial intelligence with curiosity and explore the wonderful ways it can help you with language learning (and many other things, too)!