Hello, Szia, Merhaba, this is your teacher...

25th June 2010 at 01:00
Computer tutor that talks in 25 languages reaches pupils lacking English skills

The prospect of computers taking over from teachers moved a small step closer last week after a school in Birmingham employed a computerised talking teacher that speaks 25 different languages.

The virtual tutor can speak anything from Cantonese to Turkish and its services are being utilised by Manor Park Primary School to help with communicating to its pupils who do not speak a word of English.

The new technology follows news last month that one in six primary school pupils in England speak a different language at home - double the amount 10 years ago.

Headteacher Jason Smith recently invested in the hi-tech computer package, called Talking Tutor, which allows his staff to speak to their pupils in their own language.

The software works by a teacher typing a message into a computer and the virtual tutor on the screen speaking to the pupil in their native tongue. It uses top of the range "context-checking technology", which means the translation is not too literal, making the program nearly 100 per cent accurate.

Once the pupil has listened to the message they can reply by typing their own message and the online tutor replies to the teacher.

Mr Smith said the software had transformed his school, giving his staff the opportunity to break the communication barriers that often exist when a new child comes to the school from a different country.

"We have a very diverse school - at any one time there are upwards of 30 different languages," he said. "We have always found this the biggest barrier to integrating a child into the school. The package has enabled us to make quick assessments of a child's basic skills, enabling us to use it as a support mechanism to develop their English and linguistics."

The technology has meant the school can place children into groups, such as those who cannot speak a word of English, those who can speak a little and those who have day-to-day language skills.

Mr Smith says the technology has even led to parents becoming more involved in the school.

"We are using the software to run workshops that are open to parents, so they can improve their English," he said. "Normally parents would not come into school, but now they are working on their English and even coming up with suggestions on how to improve the technology.

"It has really improved cohesion. It's often the first time many people have become involved in the community," Mr Smith added.

But Angela Piddock, headteacher at Wilberforce Primary School in west London, which has more than 20 different languages spoken, said a computer cannot supplant the human element.

"It sounds interesting, and it is something we would like to take a look at, but I don't think it could replace human contact," Ms Piddock said. "It would complement what we do, as we have a very clear induction programme. Wherever we can, we use pupils that have the same first language and our teachers have specific briefs working to induct them, giving support to the pupils."


The latest figures from the Department for Education show that 905,610 children do not speak English as their first language. t This figure has risen by 42,750 in a year, and accounts for 16 per cent of pupils in primary schools and 11.6 per cent in secondaries. t In Tower Hamlets, east London, nearly 78 per cent of children have another language as their native tongue, while Newham has 74 per cent and Wesminster 71 per cent. t In Leicester and Luton the figure is around 48 per cent, compared to 43 per cent in Bradford and 42 per cent in Birmingham. t But in Redcar in the North East, and Halton in Merseyside, less than 1 per cent of children speak English as a second language.

  • Original print headline: Hello, Szia, Merhaba, this is your teacher speaking.

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