Trained by a government-run lab, she is the latest and perhaps most innovative recruit in South Korea’s obsessive drive to teach its children the global language of English.
Over the years, this country has imported thousands of Americans, Canadians, South Africans and others to supplement local teachers of English. But this has strained the government’s budget, and it is difficult to get native English speakers to live in remote areas.
Enter Engkey, a teacher with exacting standards and a silken voice. She is just a little penguin-shaped robot, but both symbolically and practically, she stands for progress, achievement and national pride. What she does not stand for, however, is bad pronunciation.
“Not good this time!” Engkey admonished a sixth grader as he stooped awkwardly over her. “You need to focus more on your accent. Let’s try again.”
Engkey, a contraction of English jockey (as in disc jockey), is the great hope of Choi Mun-taek, a team leader at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology’s Center for Intelligent Robotics. “In three to five years, Engkey will mature enough to replace native speakers,” he said.
Choi’s team demonstrated Engkey’s interactions with four sixth graders from Seoul. Engkey tracked a student around the room and extended a greeting in a synthesized voice.
“How can I help you today?” “Do you have any fruits on sale?” the student said. “Wow! Very good!” Engkey exulted. She sounded a fanfare, spun and raised her arm for a high-five. A screen on her chest showed stars grading the student.
The students were amazed. Still, Engkey can help students practice only scripted conversations and is at a loss if a student veers off script.