Season 2 Episode 10

Magic is in short supply. We live in a world in which the average person has become jaded by technological innovation. This was the main idea in a recent episode of Akimbo, hosted by the renowned technology and business blogger Seth Godin. This particular episode of his, entitled Magic and Possibility, is quite timely. We say that something is timely when something happens at exactly the right time. And why do I say that it was timely? Because on the very same day, that is November 30, that one of the leading lights of the tech and business world comes out saying that there are no longer any innovations profound enough to leave us in awe, that is amazed, impressed, astounded, well, that same day ChatGPT was released by Open AI to the general public.  

Welcome back to Ethos English, the go-to podcast for advanced English learners and the people who teach them. Don’t forget that you’ll find a full text version of the show including links to all of the readings I mention in the show notes at As I go along I paraphrase vocabulary you might have trouble with. At the end of the episode I go over each item with a full definition and an example. 

Now, back to chat bots. Pretty much every magazine, newspaper and blogger has already written something on the subject, so you might say I’m late to the party. When you’re late to the party ​​you find out about something, or start becoming involved in something, later than most other people. Anyway, I wanted to weigh in on the subject, that is, give my opinion, because I think it has so much positive potential for language learners and teachers. 

So, first things first. What is ChatGPT? It’s a chatbot that generates natural-sounding and even somewhat sophisticated text based on prompts. You just go to and set up a free account and tell it the kind of text you’d like.

Daniel Herman wrote a piece in The Atlantic called The End of High School English. Don’t forget, all of the links are included in the show notes at A fellow English teacher, Herman writes the following:

“The arrival of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, a program that generates sophisticated text in response to any prompt you can imagine, may signal the end of writing assignments altogether—and maybe even the end of writing as a gatekeeper, a metric for intelligence, a teachable skill.

If you’re looking for historical analogues, this would be like the printing press, the steam drill, and the light bulb having a baby, and that baby having access to the entire corpus of human knowledge and understanding. My life—and the lives of thousands of other teachers and professors, tutors and administrators—is about to drastically change.” 

He then concludes the essay further on with the following statement:

“Everything is made up; it’s true. The essay as a literary form? Made up. Grammatical rules as markers of intelligence? Writing itself as a technology? Made up. Starting now, OpenAI is forcing us to ask foundational questions about whether any of those things are worth keeping around.”

Now, I’m sorry to disagree with Daniel Herman, but I think all of the hype around AI has got the better of him, that is, it’s affected his reasoning. He seems too easily defeated, too easily convinced of the futility of education. Sure, we’re going to have to test our students’ writing skills differently – maybe with more in-class assignments. But give up on communication skills because computers are learning to mimic us? We’ve had machines stronger than any human for ages and that doesn’t stop us from going to the gym to build stronger bodies. Why would our intellect be any different? I mean you don’t hear people saying, what’s the point of working out, I’m never going to be as strong as a bulldozer? That’s absurd!

In this debate about AI I’m reminded of the Luddites. The movement began in Nottingham, England, in 1811. They were a group of radical, politically active weavers who decided to vandalise new mechanical looms being used in textile mills as this technology was destroying their livelihoods. Nowadays when groups of people oppose new technologies on ethical, moral or philosophical grounds they can be referred to as neo-Luddites. 

Although some people proudly refer to themselves as Luddites or neo-Luddites nowadays, I tend to see it more as something negative, a kind of refusal to accept change. A few days ago an article appeared in the New York Time entitled What Would Plato Say About ChatGPT? The author, the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, points out that Plato was critical of the invention of the alphabet and thus of written language. He saw writing as potentially harmful to the all important function of human memory. Tufekci draws a clever parallel with our own attitude to AI. Are we being shortsighted about this innovation much like Plato was with respect to writing?

I’m going to read a short excerpt which explains how ChatGPT or something like it could be used in the classroom.

“In flipped classrooms, students wouldn’t use ChatGPT to conjure up a whole essay. Instead, they’d use it as a tool to generate critically examined building blocks of essays. It would be similar to how students in advanced math classes are allowed to use calculators to solve complex equations without replicating tedious, previously mastered steps.

Teachers could assign a complicated topic and allow students to use such tools as part of their research. Assessing the veracity and reliability of these A.I.-generated notes and using them to create an essay would be done in the classroom, with guidance and instruction from teachers. The goal would be to increase the quality and the complexity of the argument.”

To give a more concrete idea of how language learners and teachers might make the most of AI, I created a ChatGPT account and gave it the following prompt: write a paragraph about prisons using such, thereby, rehabilitate and parole, that is, I told it the topic I wanted the text on and the specific vocabulary I wanted to be included.

Here’s the resulting text:

“Prisons are institutions that are designed to hold individuals who have been convicted of a crime and are serving a sentence. The main goal of prisons is to rehabilitate inmates and help them become productive members of society upon their release. To achieve this goal, prisons offer a variety of programs and services, such as education and job training, to help inmates acquire the skills and knowledge they need to succeed outside of prison. In addition, prisons also have parole boards that review the cases of inmates who are eligible for parole. However, parole is not always granted and many inmates end up serving their full sentences.” 

What impressed me the most was how natural the next sounded. What’s more, it’s full of incredibly useful collocations that would be useful for a student writing an essay related to the topic of prisons. We have “serve a sentence”, “rehabilitate inmates” and the especially nice chunk “become productive members of society upon their release”. Then there’s parole board, be eligible for parole and grant parole. You could say that ChatGPT served up a fantastic mind map of sorts, a lexically dense and useful paragraph covering key language related to the topic. I think this kind of thing would be a great in-class activity to get students mining useful language, almost like a paragraph long dictionary entry not on a single word but on a concept.

And another thing just occurred to me. What if we built the kind of education system where students aspired to write their own texts and not copy them word for word from a ChatBot? What if we made writing assignments so compelling and rewarding that students wouldn’t want to cheat? What if these new circumstances force us to give students more personal topics related to their own lives? We could take inspiration from the social psychologist James Pennebaker’s work on so-called expressive writing. 

Now, to finish on a funny note, let me share the ChatGPT text that The Economist printed in its pages. As a joke, one of their journalists instructed the chatbot to explain what ChatGPT is using Shakespearean English. And since most stuff by The Economist is behind a paywall, I’m going to read out to you the answer that a chatbot came up with:

“Aye, ‘tis true that, ‘tis a wondrous thing, these Generative Artificial Intelligences, or GTPs as they be known.

‘Tis a marvel of modern science, and ‘tis no wonder that ‘tis taking the world by storm.

But what are they, truly? And why should we care?

GPTs be a type of ai technology that can generate natural language in response to input.

‘Tis a form of deep learning, wherein a computer system is trained on vast amounts of text data,

And then can generate its own text based on what it hath learned.

‘Tis more than mere hype; ‘tis a powerful tool that can be used for a multitude of applications

From creating content to aiding in customer service.”

Thanks for listening! If you enjoy the show, please take the time to rate and review it. This is how I reach new listeners, which by the way, is a lot harder than you think! Also, why not share your favourite episode with a friend who shares your passion for becoming improbably articulate in English? Finally, there’s my Instagram account EthosEnglishWithSean, in case you want yet more regular content. 

Now, here’s this week’s vocabulary:

be in short supply: when something is only available in small amounts

Example: Gasoline was in short supply after the war. (=there was a shortage)

be jaded: someone who is jaded is no longer interested in or excited by something, usually because they have experienced too much of it

Example: Flying is exciting the first time you do it, but you soon become jaded.

be timely: done or happening at exactly the right time

Example: The fight ended only with the timely arrival of the police.

a leading light: a respected person who leads a group or organization, or is important in a particular area of knowledge or activity

Example: A leading light in/of the art world, she was a close friend of the director.

awe: a feeling of great respect sometimes mixed with fear or surprise

As children we were rather in awe of our grandfather.

be late to the party: (informal) find out about something, or start becoming involved in something, later than most other people. 

Example: I’ve just started watching “Game of Thrones”. Yeah, I know, I’m late to the party.

weigh in on a subject: (informal) give an opinion or enter a discussion or argument

A common criticism of influencers is that they weigh in on subjects which they know nothing about.

first things first: used to say that something should be done or dealt with first because it is the most important

Example: First things first, let’s have something to eat.

get the better of someone: If a feeling gets the better of you, you cannot stop yourself from allowing that feeling to make you do something, despite knowing that what you are doing is wrong.

Example: Her curiosity got the better of her and she opened the door and peeped inside.

on moral/ethical/philosophical/etc. grounds: for moral/ethical/philosophical/etc. reasons

Example: The factory was closed on health and safety grounds.

be shortsighted about something: (disapproving) not thinking enough about how an action will affect the future

Example: It’s very short-sighted of the government not to invest in technological research.

veracity: (formal) the fact of being true or correct, synonym: truth

Example: Has anyone checked the veracity of these allegations?

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