Friday, July 25, 2014

Google Translate: Cheating Or Learning?

Writing is a very important part of learning languages. When you try to build a sentence, you use language actively, which means you employ the mental capacities that remain passive when you read or listen to others. Writing helps to comprehend grammar and to memorize new words and expressions. This is why I like asking my students to write something for me for each lesson. Ten short sentences are enough for them to feel what it means to think in a different language, and for me to see what grammar rules I should explain to them. It works perfectly when a student writes his or her text independently. The traditional way of practicing in writing is this: you think of some idea, then open a dictionary (expanding your vocabulary), find the necessary words and try to connect those words (learning and comprehending grammar rules) so that you can get an intelligible sentence. Does it work the same way when a student uses Google Translate instead of doing all the entire job on his or her own?

Of course, Google Translate changes the whole meaning of writing exercises, but would it be correct to insist on not using automatic translation tools? My answer is no. First, it wouldn't work anyway. Human beings always try to find the easiest, laziest solutions. If you see how to complete a task without spending too much energy and time on it, you'll be sure to use this opportunity. It is natural for us to do so. Second, instead of fighting with technology, make it your ally. Take a close look at the text a machine generated for you and work on it. Make this text “transparent” for you. What all do these words mean? Why are the verbs in this or that form? Why is the word order like this?

Also, we are all well aware that automatic translation tools are still imperfect. Google Translate, though one of the best and advanced in this area, is not an exception. Most of my students don't trust Google Translate, and it is for good reasons. So, when you try to write something with the help of an automatic translation service, take the target text and probe it for mistakes. Doing so, you still learn a new language.

As you might suspect, reading and understanding an automatically generated text is not as good as writing a text on your own, but in some situations it may be helpful. I think there's nothing wrong in using Google Translate or any other automatic translation service when:
- you have a very limited vocabulary; looking up each and every word may discourage you soon, so instead of giving up, employ the help of advanced technologies and don't feel guilty about it.
- you lack knowledge of how to build a sentence of a specific type, like, for example, a conditional or compound sentence; instead of waiting for another month when you approach the corresponding chapter of your grammar book, play with a robot – you'll propel your learning and have more fun (remember, having fun is essential for learning language).

Of course, it makes sense only if you don't limit your work by feeding an original text to Google Translate, but rather scrutinize what an artificial intellect produces for you. After some time, you'll realize how surprisingly clumsy automatic translation is and feel more comfortable with building your own sentences.

"Robot boy"
Photo by Gal