The TTOEFL: The Turing Test of English as a Foreign Language

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Here’s a (controversial)) idea for a language test inspired by the famous Turing test for artificial intelligence WP:

a native speaker of language X engages in conversation with two other parties, one a native speaker of language X and the other a student of language X as a foreign language; if the judge cannot reliably tell which is which, then (and only then) can the student be said to speak language X.

The test could be easily constrained to test for more specific capabilities: one could test for written command of language X by only permitting written communications, test only for accent by limiting “communication” to the spoken repeating of the judge’s written sentences, and so on.

It is simply stated but almost a “thought test” WP — it could be done, but there would be a myriad practical complications and scaling would be a bitch. What’s important about it, though, is that it is a valid test to demand of (foreign) language learning: passing it should at least be its hypothetical goal.

The problem is that ridiculously few people would pass it if it where applied today. And because it seems impossibly difficult most people turn away, dismiss the test as wrong or irrelevant, and sink their heads in the sand (“what shouldn’t be, can’t be right”). Which only highlights the current sorry state of language education. It is NOT asking too much. It is not asking for exceptional performance — it doesn’t ask of you to be a Nobel-prize, a literati, or a rapper. It’s merely demanding average, pick-a-guy-from-the-street native-speaker capabilities. Why isn’t that a valid goal to ask of language education?

You could say that most people don’t need native-speaker level to start benefiting from a foreign language and that’s entirely true. But it is just as true that not reaching it is a serious, frustrating, even painful hurdle to communication. A hurdle that will plague ever more people the more the world shrinks. Some of the world’s smartest people can’t get their r’s right hard as they try. And we mock them for it. (Soon, we will be the mocked ones for not getting our intonations right.)

Well looked, Turing level is perhaps even a modest goal. We all possess it already in the language we are born into and we all contained within us the same language potentiality at birth. So it should be perfectly achievable and shouldn’t take nearly as much time as starting from zero.

Yes, I know. We are nowhere near knowing how to reach such a level efficiently. It’s too hard and too long a goal — currently. But we should at least strive for it. (And be honest with students on what the status quo of our language technology is: no more “Learn to speak Chinese in 21 days!” — for now.) Languages are some of the most complex and powerful artifacts we have created. It’s only to be expected that their learning is one of the most complex and difficult challenges we face.

But it is also one of our most rewarding (and valuable) experiences. I want to commoditize it.

Chances are we are on the brink of Turing level language translation ELZR. Why aren’t we even close to practical Turing level language learning? I’d still want it.

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