Berkeley Language Center receives grant to support critical uses of A.I. in language instruction

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October 20, 2023

The Berkeley Language Center (BLC) announced that it received a $150,000 grant from the Department of Education’s International Research and Studies Program to develop instructional materials on critically utilizing machine translation technology in language acquisition.

Artificial intelligence (or “AI”) is rapidly transforming the educational landscape, and UC Berkeley researchers are striving to maximize the societal gains. Large language models are the backbone of widely used tools like ChatGPT and Google Translate. The increased power and ease of use of these tools can improve productivity and knowledge transfer — but they remain controversial among educators who fear inaccuracies and misuse.

Over the past several years, Berkeley Language Center Director Kimberly Vinall and Associate Director Emily Hellmich have researched shifting instructor perceptions of machine translation tools and documented how language learners use these tools to complete writing assignments. 

“This research has made clear to us that language-based, artificial intelligence technologies represent both a source of frustration and possibility in language/culture learning and teaching,” said Dr. Hellmich. “With this grant, we are excited to be able to put our findings into action.”

Despite significant advances in recent years, the use of machine translation tools in language learning is still controversial among language instructors who doubt its benefits and lack pedagogical models for how to approach it. With their new partnership, the Berkeley Language Center and Department of Education are betting that the advantages of the technology will ultimately outweigh the drawbacks — if users understand what they are doing.

In collaboration with UC Berkeley language instructors, the Berkeley Language Center will use its grant to produce open-source and adaptable materials to improve language proficiency. Instructional modules will engage learners in effective uses of machine translation tools while developing their digital literacies — including the advantages and limitations of the technology — and exploring important ethical questions that have implications far beyond the classroom. The center will adapt materials for use in K-12 classrooms, working with the Berkeley World Language Project and community colleges.

“We anticipate that this project will have immediate and long-term impacts on language instructors and students at UC Berkeley and beyond,” said Dr. Vinall.

As part of the grant, the Berkeley Language Center will create materials in eight languages -- Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Dutch, German, French, Filipino (Tagalog), Hindi, and Italian. The center's staff will draw upon the rich expertise of UC Berkeley faculty members who offer instruction in 60 languages across 14 departments. The international relationships facilitated by shared language knowledge broaden students’ perspectives and employment prospects and ultimately help California maintain its place as a world leader in business, technology, and culture.

“The Berkeley Language Center is uniquely positioned to bring together language teaching faculty of all levels,” said Dr. Vinall, “to collaboratively develop materials on machine translation technologies to support not only language learning but also digital literacies and global citizenship.” 

The Department of Education’s grant is further proof of the Berkeley Language Center’s strong embrace of technological innovation. In the mid-1990s, before many people had even used the internet, former director and French professor Richard Kern incorporated French-language websites, online chat rooms, and website development into his classes. Likewise, former associate director Mark Kaiser developed Berkeley Online Language Testing, a web-based application that enables professors to create tests in different languages, and Lumière, an online library of over 20,000 annotated film clips drawn from almost 8,000 films that incorporate 191 languages.

The Berkeley Language Center was founded in 1994 by Dr. Claire Kramsch to support language instructors with training, materials, equipment, and a space to discuss new developments in the fields of language acquisition and applied language studies. The Department of Education’s International Research and Studies Program supports research, surveys, studies, and the development of instructional materials to improve and strengthen instruction in world languages and related area studies in the U.S. education system.

[To learn more about the Berkeley Language Center, visit]