Earlier today, as part of the Vanderbilt Center for Second Language Studies’ “Friday at Three Ten” talk series, Claire Knowles of the University of Memphis gave a talk titled “How do you solve a problem like Google Translate?: The benefits and limitations of two approaches.” In the talk, Dr. Knowles discussed what Google Translate is, how it works, and the attitudes of students and teachers towards the tool. You can find a link to some of her work here.
Google Translate counts has over 200 millions users and uses statistical analysis to generate its results. Rather than translating from L1 to L2, it translates only to English. This means, as Dr. Knowles explained to us, that if you want to translate from Spanish to German, the tool runs Spanish to English to German. This can often lead to inaccuracies, especially when translating from or to less common languages. Perhaps most interestingly, I learned that Google Translate is powered by a large database of texts from which it automatically detects languages and that a larger community makes suggested edits to help in creating more accurate results.
Because the existence of Google Translate in various interfaces, including an app on the Smartphone, it possesses interesting possibilities for use in the foreign language classroom. Dr. Knowles presented statistical information that surprised: almost 98% of students admit to having used Google Translate at some point, either to check vocabulary, for prewriting, or to understand instructions. Of these, 97% of students detect errors of some kind. 87% thought to use Google Translate was not unethical, but that this depended largely on how they used it to learn.
This shows us that not only are our students connected and aware to the tools that they have available, but that instructors should make a point of teaching students how to properly use Google Translate and other online translation tools. When I think back to my own time as a beginner German or Spanish learner, the sheer amount of things I could not say—when I was bursting to speak—was incredibly frustrating. I too, turned to Google Translate and other tools to help me.
The solution (if Google Translate can even be called a problem) seems to be twofold: Firstly, as Claire Knowles clearly stated, students need to be taught the skills needed to navigate Google Translate: how to tell when a sentence is translated incorrectly, how to use the speech-to-speech feature, when to turn to the tool in their studies. Only then can they become responsible and independent learners, something that we should always be instilling in them, and not only in the foreign language classroom.
Secondly, I find the connection between the flipped classroom and translation tools to be a central one. The Vanderbilt Center for Teaching defines the flipped classroom as one that consists of four ideas: 1) first exposure happens prior to class, 2) class time contains incentives to motivate students to prepare for class, 3) class time consists of informal checks to monitor student learning and clearing up questions, 4) in-class activities focus on “higher level cognitive activities” that promote deeper learning.
If students are being holistically prepared through an effectively flipped model for situations in which natural and meaningful communication is to take place, the need for translation tools is lessened. Students instead spend more time describing their vocabulary questions in the target language, and can then be taught to see Google Translate as a bonus in those moments when they want to say or write something in their essays that is specific and significant and perhaps outside the purview of their current ability. Similarly, a flipped, holistic model might allow instructors to work with Google Translate in meaningful ways in the classroom, like error spotting or even pronunciation practice. In this way, as Claire Knowles mentioned in her talk, students “gain awareness as to the complexity of translation and language learning.”
What have been your experiences using Google Translate in the classroom? What kinds of activities did you do with your students? Do you feel that having a flipped classroom makes a difference? Please feel free to comment, I would love to hear your feedback!