Can Google Translate Contribute to Language Learning?

How to arrive at the top of the language learning mountain? It’s you and your own legs, my friend.

The usefulness of online translation crosses the minds of many a student and teacher, in many a language class, in many an institution. Some teachers advocate intelligent, informed use of online translation services, while other teachers abhor it. One teacher-colleague recently suggested to me that Google Translate/online translation was worth trying as part of helping students discover their writing process. This person argued that maybe students would find out on their own that the service was worthless when they got their papers back all marked up. Maybe forbidding students from using online translation will only tempt them to turn to it more often. (I can relate: when you tell me I can’t eat chocolate, it’s literally all I can think about.)

I can see how, if we weren’t in an academic setting where we were teaching students how to write (and speak, read, and listen) in another language, Google Translate and similar services could be practical, even much quicker, than writing something yourself. Yet there are many issues with incorporating online translation use, even informed use of such a service, into a course with a goal of language proficiency development.

First, when students use Google Translate to ‘discover their writing process,’ they are not discovering a process at all, but handing that process over to a machine, instead of letting a computer piece together words (and not always the right words…or syntax, for that matter) to make sentences and paragraphs. They deprive themselves of the opportunity to perform the complicated but cognitively rewarding and ever-more-automatic task of putting words on paper, of thinking about all aspects of a language at once – vocabulary, word order, all those fancy endings, spelling. When you first begin learning a language, just putting a letter or symbol on paper can feel like a chore, and writing a 150-word essay three weeks into German I can seem akin to climbing Mount Everest. But the more you do it, the more automatic and the easier it becomes, and the struggle only lessens.

Second, and somewhat related to the first point, students may not necessarily find out that Google Translate is totally useless once they get their papers back. Because here’s the thing: Google actually gets some things right. A lot of things. More and more things. Google Translate works so well and keeps getting better thanks to something called statistical machine translation. That’s a fancy term for the idea that computers look at millions and millions of documents to ‘learn’ how things are translated between languages, and they pick the translation that statistically occurs the most often. So, Google Translate is always learning how things are translated, as it combs websites that have been translated from English to German, or German to Farsi, or Farsi to Faroese. So students might actually find that Google Translate does most of the work they are supposed to do, but that, as I previously mentioned, they will never learn to do that work themselves if they outsource the writing work to a machine translation service.

We know that the modalities (speaking, listening, writing, reading) are connected, and although we have different words for them, being able to do something well when you speak can and does sometimes translate to being able to do it well in another modality. Reading and listening connect this way, too – being able to do one well can help with the other. Understanding words while listening probably translates to understanding them while reading. So doing the work of writing extends into other modalities as well. Learning to write more and more quickly translates to being able to speak more quickly, to recall that verb conjugation you need, to remember how that one word is pronounced or spelled – basically, the more you do these things, the more automatic they tend to become. When students use Google Translate or other online translation software, they only get half of the opportunities to create that fast recall and automaticity.

Finally, as good as it can get, Google Translate isn’t going to replace humans for a few reasons. First, it’s not good with complex grammar or idioms. Case in point: the English idiom it’s too close to call translates, according to Google Translate, to es war zu nah an rufen in German. Not quite, Google. It should be something more like der Ausgang war völlig offen [the outcome was totally open]. Google’s original answer isn’t even grammatically or semantically close to the actual translation. Second, online translators aren’t good at figuring out which word needs to be used in particular cultural, social, or political contexts. Google Translate has no audience awareness – it doesn’t know what will offend its reader, it doesn’t know whether to translate “you” to something formal or informal. Finally, translations from a machine aren’t always precise or concise as they needs to be – you can see some great examples of that here. Or, just try translating the stream of consciousness that opens Joyce’s Ulysses, as one of my clever colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin once suggested to me. Even better, translate it through a bunch of different languages and back into English, and see what you get. Basically, Google doesn’t have all the sensibilities that humans have, and it probably never will.

You can’t control what students do outside of class, but you can help them see that doing the bare minimum,  letting a machine do the work for them, won’t help their learning in writing or in other realms. Plus, it’s painfully obvious (to teachers) when students have used something they shouldn’t. Weird or yet-unlearned grammar appears. Incomprehensible language pops up (in which case I bust out my squiggly underline, my equivalent of “huh?”). Or, in some cases, the language is suspiciously perfect–even adjective endings, which, at least for beginning German students, are hardly ever perfect!

When we make the use of Google Translate acceptable in language classes, students have fewer opportunities to produce language on their own. On an affective level, we deprive them of the pride they feel when a piece of writing in a foreign language, however short, is 100% their own and is as good as they can produce with their own minds at that point in time. Authenticity and doing one’s own work may merely earn you a slap on the hand if you’re in the public eye (thanks, Melania Trump, Joe Biden, and everyone else who’s ever plagiarized!) but originality still matters greatly in the work of learning a language.

Google Translate is no substitute for the energy and time it takes to do the work yourself and the long-term payoff you get from that investment. Sorry not sorry!

PS – I cannot believe these pages actually exist, but you guys, there’s a page on Wikihow on how to use Google Translator to learn a language. Give. Me. A. Break. Google is not a dictionary!

2 thoughts

  1. Great article. I had a quantitative chemistry professor once that tried something similar with using Word’s thesaurus. He wrote a paragraph then used thesaurus on almost every word. Then read it back and showed how little sense it made. It was an obvious exaggeration, and I’m not sure everyone learned what they should have from it, but I certainly did.

    1. That’s a fascinating experiment…. one I might try out in my writing seminar this semester. Not all thesauruses (-i?) are equal but I don’t find Word’s all that great to begin with! Still, important things to be learned about letting a machine take control of your writing/writing development.

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