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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Nouns And Adjectives In Russian

Maybe you like learning languages but hate linguistic slang. It is not always necessary to know theory to succeed in practice. Many world famous musicians don't know musical notation, likewise you can succeed in learning languages without diving deep into their grammar. However, since adult learners rely mostly on understanding rather than on memorizing, it can be useful to learn some grammar basics, even if you believe that during your school years you developed an allergy to the words like "noun" or "adjective".

While in English, parts of speech are normally identified by their function in a sentence, in Russian, parts of speech look differently and can be identified with confidence by the set of grammatical categories they have, not by their functions.

In English, you can say:
  • Google is the most popular search engine in the North America (Google is a noun here)
  • Google before you ask! (here Google is a verb)
  • I work on a Google advertisement partnership program (and here Google is an adjective)
In Russian, you can't leave “Google” unchanged, you have to form different words from Google. Below are the very same three sentences in Russian:
  • Гугл – это самый популярный поисковый механизм в Северной Америке.
  • Погугли, а потом спрашивай! (Ok, this is not standard Russian)
  • Я работаю над гугловской программой рекламного партнёрства.
So, in Russian, it is not enough to put a word into a different position to make it a different part of speech. We add different affixes and endings, so usually, we can easily distinguish nouns from adjectives or verbs even if they stand alone, while in English it is much harder to do.

Grammar books – both in English and Russian — try to list what nouns mean, but they actually can mean anything – a thing, an abstract concept, a quality, an action and so on. You should never rely on meanings when trying to indicate a part of speech. Nouns describe everything as a substance. A house (дом), Eugenia (Евгения), youth (молодёжь), confidence (уверенность), width (ширина), yellowness (желтизна) – in our minds all these words represent pieces of reality as separate subjects or entities. A thing can be alone or in a company of other similar things – thus, we have a grammatical category of number (singular, plural). A thing can be in a relationship with other things, and to show these relationships we use different cases. For some reasons, we still have an atavistic grammatical category of gender in Russian, which in fact indicates nothing but a set of endings. So, in Russian, nouns are words that represent a piece of reality as a substance/subject and have gender, number and case.

Things have attributes – short, yellow, noisy, stale, wet, etc. Those attributes constitute adjectives. Adjectives represent everything as qualities or attributes. In English grammar books I often read that adjectives modify nouns, which is very different from how adjectives are described in Russian. In Russian, adjectives “belong” to nouns. Indeed, in a pair of words such as “stupid government” (глупое правительство), “government”, a noun, can exit independently, while "stupid" is its attribute and can't exist on its own, it needs something on which to be labeled. Thus, in Russian, adjectives agree with nouns in gender, number and case, or, better to say, they 'inherit' those grammatical categories. Adjectives have typical affixes, such as -ск-, -н(н), -ов- and others, and endings where all the grammatical information is coded. In my example, the adjective гугловской has the suffix -овск-, which means belonging or relating to Google, and the ending -ой showing that the adjective is feminine, singular, instrumental case.

Why care about parts of speech? Mostly because if you understand the difference, it may help you to build grammatically correct sentences and memorize words easier.

1973 первый урок
Photo by Vladimir Varfolomeev