SFU’s English Language and Culture Program (ELC) students practicing their English skills with Virtro's new language-learning app, Argotian.


Pilot program uses virtual reality and artificial intelligence to teach English

December 02, 2019

By Kim Mah

SFU’s English Language and Culture Program (ELC) is giving international students a chance to practice their English skills in outer space—or at least in a virtual universe. It’s all part of an unusual pilot program at ELC, thanks to a partnership with Virtro, a Vancouver start-up supported by SFU VentureLabs.

This fall, ELC students began testing Virtro’s new language-learning app, Argotian. The game-based system combines virtual reality and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to create an innovative learning experience. Immersed in the world of their virtual-reality headsets, students enjoy conversation practice while playing detective on board an intergalactic cruise ship.

“As far as we know, this is the first time that virtual reality and AI have ever been used together to produce a language-learning tool,” says ELC Director Bertrand Lee, whose Vancouver-based program attracts young adults from around the world to learn English and immerse themselves in Canadian culture.

“We’re excited to test the leading edge of this technology.”

Inside the virtual reality world of Argotian.

To win the game, students must solve the mystery of a missing painting by questioning various characters on the ship. Powered by AI, characters listen and respond, allowing students to practice their speaking and listening skills. The system also provides transcripts and analytics so that instructors can evaluate their students’ progress.

The feedback has been encouraging, says ELC instructional coordinator Geoff Taylor: “The majority of our intermediate-level students enjoyed it a lot. The fact that it’s fun means they’ll want to do the activities again and again. It’s like playing a sport for exercise—you’re doing something without even thinking about why you’re doing it.”

According to Virtro co-founder Lee Brighton, keeping students engaged is a critical aspect of learning.

“Language can be so hard to learn, but if we can make it fun or entertaining, then learning will be amplified. Anything that makes learning easier is going to be a huge advantage.”

The missing-painting mystery is the first of many stories planned for the app. Brighton compares Argotian to a Netflix show, with a variety of episodes and stories to keep learners engaged. Virtro’s future goals include rolling out the app for several more languages, with French next on the list, once the English version has been fine-tuned.

“We’re so grateful to SFU and the team at ELC for this opportunity to test it out,” says Brighton. “They’re providing us with valuable feedback and suggestions that are helping us to make improvements.”

Both Lee and Taylor can see the technology’s potential, since it can be challenging for students to find fluent conversation partners. Virtual humans, they note, could be a helpful alternative.

“Of course, Argotian can’t replace the comprehensive instruction we offer at ELC,” says Lee. “But we’re finding it to be a useful tool for building oral and listening skills. The technology is evolving all the time, and we look forward to seeing where it goes next.”