The bots have invaded.
They’re hiding in our phones and idling in our homes disguised as vacuums and “home assistants.” We rely on them for organizing our thoughts, finding information—and maybe doing a bit of light housekeeping.
While your robot vacuum might not be able to respond if you encourage it with a hearty “Du kannst es tun!” (“You can do it!”) as it makes its way over a tough obstacle, that doesn’t mean there aren’t bots ready to talk back.
Robot vacuums aren’t smart enough to converse. They’re designed to sense, not to speak.
But thanks to chat bots, or programs that talk back when you type in (or say) a query, you can get basic conversational practice in German without talking to an actual person.
What Are Chat Bots?
Chat bots (usually spelled “chatbots”) are programs designed to respond to text or audio inputs. Their programmers train them on how to respond to queries delivered through human language, not code. Some of the newest bots learn and improve their conversation skills as more people talk to them.
With so many people talking to bots like Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant and Cortana, it’s no wonder that stores are beginning to opt for chat bots to help out with basic customer service inquiries. Likewise, some chat bots are designed for fun, or to fool people into thinking they’re totally not robots.
Chat bots can be a fun addition to your language studies. Since they have modest language skills—with some being more skilled conversationalists than others—they can act as basic conversation partners. For people who want to practice writing or speaking in real time without judgment, chat bots can act as good (if sometimes flawed) sounding boards.
Chatting with Bots to Improve Your Fluency
One of the great things about chat bots is that they’re trained in everyday grammar and vocabulary. For this reason, they’re good for testing basic word use, as they may not understand it if you use the wrong vocabulary. Some bots are more sensitive to typos than others, forcing you to be mindful of your spelling.
As German-language chat bots require German input to formulate a response, you must consider grammatical structures when typing out a message. Will the bot understand your question if verbs are out of place? Does it care about capitalization? Again, depending on the chat bot, these are skills you may be able to improve upon as you chat.
The best part about chat bots is that conversing with them combines both language production, such as writing or speaking, with language understanding. Chat bots built into text-based tools like Facebook Messenger rely solely on text, while bots integrated into phones or operating systems like Google Assistant involve speech, too.
How to Use Chat Bots to Study German
Incorporating chat bots into your studies is simple. You say something to the bot and get an immediate response.
That said, chatting with bots works best when used to practice language use and understanding; Conversations won’t necessarily be good for creating flashcards.
Some chat bots may not notice mistakes, so don’t rely on them to correct you. In a way, this is similar to talking with a native speaker who forges ahead in a conversation without noting your errors.
Other chat bots aren’t smart enough to discern the meaning of a poorly worded message, and they’ll ask you to rephrase your question. While this can be frustrating, it’s also a useful exercise in trying to get your meaning across.
Chat bots can be helpful for learners who don’t have access to a local language group. While they in no way replicate the rambling flow of a typical conversation, having a conversation with a chat bot is like chatting in German on easy mode. For that reason, chat bots can also be good for people who suffer from foreign language anxiety—generally, the bots won’t judge you!
Bot Best Practices
Because of their limited scope, most chat bots are more like toys than tools. Still, there are ways you can use them to help improve your conversational abilities.
For example, they can be a way to practice real conversations you might have with people in German. You can pretend the chat bot is your landlord, your boss or even a crush. Just know that the practice of formulating your thoughts into understandable German will be more valuable than the actual responses you receive.
While some bots have less than engaging personalities, others are designed to have a sense of humor. If a chat bot says something clever, grab the sentence and make a flashcard from it. It’s likely the grammar will be correct, so it can serve as a good example sentence.
Once you’re comfortable talking to bots, try talking with real people through social networks and meetups. There are a number of places you can connect with people and talk to them in real time. If that makes you too nervous, you can also look at using forums or other asynchronous chatting options.
Finally, bots are not a replacement for other learning methods, but rather a chance to get some extra practice in. For a well-rounded German learning experience, use these bots in conjunction with FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Since this is the content that native German speakers actually watch, you get the chance to experience how modern German is spoken in real life.
Here’s just a brief example of the variety of content you’ll find on FluentU:
Watching a fun video, but having trouble understanding it? FluentU helps you get comfortable with everyday German by combining all the benefits of complete immersion and native-level conversations with interactive subtitles.
This way, you get German immersion online without ever worrying about missing a word.
Just tap on any subtitled word to instantly see an in-context definition, usage examples and a memorable illustration to help you understand how the word is used. If you see an interesting word you don’t know, you can add it to your vocabulary list for later review.
Once you’ve watched a video, you can use FluentU’s quizzes to actively practice all the vocabulary in that video. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab, and review words and phrases with convenient audio clips under Vocab.
FluentU will even keep track of all the German words you’ve learned, then recommend videos and ask you questions based on what you already know. Plus, it’ll tell you exactly when it’s time for review. Now that’s a 100% personalized experience!
4+ German Chat Bots for Stress-free Language Practice
At the moment, there are a number of German-language chat bots available online, either built into operating systems (such as Google Assistant) or accessed via chat tools like Facebook Messenger. Some chat bots are only available on certain platforms (iOS, the Web, etc.), so not all bots on this list may be accessible to you. Even if you don’t have a smart device, however, you can still reach a number of bots directly through your browser.
Google Assistant has a German mode, although you can’t just speak to it in German and expect a response auf deutsch (in German) right off the bat. You’ll first need to change your mobile device’s language settings, which will go into effect systemwide. To change your language settings on Google Assistant, see this guide.
Google Assistant can recognize spoken German, and it’ll respond via text and speech in kind. Its responses are generally informal, using the more familiar du (you) when it’s talking to you.
It has a somewhat airy tone and a decent sense of humor. When asked “wie geht’s,” (“how are you”) its response is, “Auf die Frage habe ich den ganzen Tag gewartet!” (“I’ve been waiting for that question all day!”). Likewise, you can ask it for a joke, for the weather and more.
Note that, if it doesn’t understand you, the Google Assistant will provide search results.
Although Cleverbot is primarily an English-language bot (it was developed to speak English), if you write to it in German, it’ll respond in German. That said, its vocabulary is not nearly as rich as Google Assistant’s. You may get frustrated easily with its responses.
Cleverbot is kind of smart, though not perfect. It has a sarcastic sense of humor. For example, if you type “mein schatz” (“my treasure,” a term of endearment), it will reply, “Du bist so süß zu mir” (“You’re so sweet to me”).
If it doesn’t understand you, it will respond with non-sequiturs. For example, “sag mir ein Joke” (“Tell me a joke,” kind of), its response is “Andrenalinspritze” (“adrenaline shot”).
Further bots are available by the same company, Existor. They’re more English-focused, however.
Duobots are a feature built into Duolingo, the language-learning app. Unfortunately, Android users won’t be able to chat with Duobots, as these chat bots are iOS-only at the moment. Duobots work on iPhones as well as iPads, and they’re accessible through the main toolbar on the German course from the Duolingo app.
Unlike other chat bots on this list, Duobots are specifically designed for language learners. For this reason, features such as word lookups and targeted conversations are built into the chat interface.
The “speakers” on the Duobot tab are also personable, with images to build up their personas. If you make a typo, it’s noted in the chat window. More grammatical queries will net you lingots, Duolingo’s in-app currency. Some chat sessions even feature mini-quizzes sprinkled throughout the conversation.
Duobots are definitely useful bots for unearthing some useful flashcard phrases.
Facebook Messenger Bots
As we mentioned, anyone can build a chat bot. Stores, in particular, like to use chat bots to help answer customer-service queries, as customers tend to ask the same questions over and over. For example, it’s easy for a bot to look up the answer to “wann öffnet Lidl” (“when does LIDL open”). These home-brew bots are often run through apps such as Facebook Messenger or Kik.
If you look on the Botlist site for “Deutsch“ you can find German-speaking bots. Two bots that come up while searching for “Deutsch” are Toni and Howie, although there may be other bots that appear in search results for other German-language terms.
Toni is a chat bot who knows about soccer leagues, although he needs very specifically worded questions to pull up information.
Howie, on the other hand, is a commerce bot who helps answer questions for SATURN, a German electronics chain.
Facebook Messenger bots often are unable to understand poorly worded queries, so don’t be discouraged if they get confused.
As fun as it can be to talk with chat bots, remember that they aren’t the be-all, end-all of German conversation. Chat bots provide more engagement than shadowing, and their automatic feedback beats writing in a journal or on a blog for getting targeted responses in German. That said, they can sometimes talk nonsense, and they can’t always be relied upon to provide accurate, everyday-use language.
If you’re looking for a new tool for your language learning toolkit, give chat bots a try. They provide quick feedback and provide a good test for learners trying to piece together German word order. Given how much technology is advancing with AI and machine learning, the bots will only get smarter and smarter.
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