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Robots Beyond Borders

The Role of Social Robots in Spoken Second Language Practice

Time: Fri 2024-03-22 10.00

Location: F3 (Flodis), Lindstedtsvägen 26 & 28, Stockholm

Video link:

Language: English

Subject area: Speech and Music Communication

Doctoral student: Ronald Cumbal , Tal, musik och hörsel, TMH

Opponent: Professor Tony Belpaeme, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

Supervisor: Professor Olov Engwall, Tal-kommunikation

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QC 20240226


This thesis investigates how social robots can support adult second language (L2) learners in improving conversational skills. It recognizes the challenges inherent in adult L2 learning, including increased cognitive demands and the unique motivations driving adult education. While social robots hold potential for natural interactions and language education, research into conversational skill practice with adult learners remains underexplored. Thus, the thesis contributes to understanding these conversational dynamics, enhancing speaking practice, and examining cultural perspectives in this context.

To begin, this thesis investigates robot-led conversations with L2 learners, examining how learners respond to moments of uncertainty. The research reveals that when faced with uncertainty, learners frequently seek clarification, yet many remain unresponsive. As a result, effective strategies are required from robot conversational partners to address this challenge. These interactions are then used to evaluate the performance of off-the-shelf Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) systems. The assessment highlights that speech recognition for L2 speakers is not as effective as for L1 speakers, with performance deteriorating for both groups during social conversations. Addressing these challenges is imperative for the successful integration of robots in conversational practice with L2 learners.

The thesis then explores the potential advantages of employing social robots in collaborative learning environments with multi-party interactions. It delves into strategies for improving speaking practice, including the use of non-verbal behaviors to encourage learners to speak. For instance, a robot's adaptive gazing behavior is used to effectively balance speaking contributions between L1 and L2 pairs of participants. Moreover, an adaptive use of encouraging backchannels significantly increases the speaking time of L2 learners.

Finally, the thesis highlights the importance of further research on cultural aspects in human-robot interactions. One study reveals distinct responses among various socio-cultural groups in interaction between L1 and L2 participants. For example, factors such as gender, age, extroversion, and familiarity with robots influence conversational engagement of L2 speakers. Additionally, another study investigates preconceptions related to the appearance and accents of nationality-encoded (virtual and physical) social robots. The results indicate that initial perceptions may lead to negative preconceptions, but that these perceptions diminish after actual interactions.

Despite technical limitations, social robots provide distinct benefits in supporting educational endeavors. This thesis emphasizes the potential of social robots as effective facilitators of spoken language practice for adult learners, advocating for continued exploration at the intersection of language education, human-robot interaction, and technology.