Google Translate Doesn’t Work? Google and Language Learning
I often hear people complain about Google translate. “It isn’t accurate”. “It isn’t reliable” and so forth. I am a fan of Google Translate as well as Google Text to Speech(TTS) and here is why.
We live in the age, both of global connectivity, and of rapid advances in information technology. Since the age of 60, over the last 17 years, at a stage in life when, supposedly, our memory and cognitive abilities decline, I have learned or have been learning 10 languages.
The fact that I was able to make meaningful progress in languages as different as Russian, Korean, Portuguese, Romanian and Greek, as well as Arabic and Persian, is the result of modern information technology. In particular I owe a big debt of gratitude to Google, Google Translate and Google Text to Speech, both of which are a big part of my language learning. Let me explain.
Google Translate, Multi-Purpose Dictionary
Computer-based translation technology, such as Google Translate, relies on comparing massive quantities of language content between pairs of languages, in order to establish patterns, or the probability that certain words or phrases in one language will correspond to some other set of words and phrases in another language.
The accuracy of machine translation is dependent on the amount of language content compared. The greater the volume of content, the more accurate it becomes. Thus Google Translate is usually better in languages to and from English, where more such content is available, or for languages with similar word order and structure. Furthermore, the accuracy is constantly improving. In all of the languages where I use Google Translate, it has been improving by leaps and bounds. It is more accurate now than even a few years ago, as more and more corpora of language content are processed using artificial intelligence, or AI.
I sometimes hear criticisms about the accuracy of machine translation, such as Google Translate. But this criticism is either from people who expect perfection, or from people who feel machine translation threatens the job of language professionals. But I am just a humble language learner with no expectations of perfection, and am used to accepting uncertainty as I go about discovering a new language. I just love Google Translate.
Learning With Google Translate
I’m learning Arabic and Persian, at LingQ. It has been a long road, reading a new and still quite unfamiliar writing system. I can look up the meaning of individual words or phrases using Google Translate. In many cases the meaning is accurate, and where it isn’t I just move on. I keep reading in the knowledge that with enough exposure, listening and reading, the language will become clearer. The inaccuracies in Google Translate are not long term problems, but rather short term irritants.
Most often I am reading on my iPad using LingQ. LingQ offers a selection of dictionaries which provide more accurate translations than Google translate of individual words. I use these. Context Reverso is my favourite since it also offers help on verb conjugation as well as providing examples of the word in use. However, for a sense of the meaning of a phrase I need to rely on Google translate.
Google Translate is the fastest off the mark but not always the most accurate or thorough for individual words. Where Google Translate really shines, however, is for phrases and sentences. I can highlight a phrase or whole sentence and Google Translate provides an instant translation.
This is extremely useful, because very often the translation of individual words doesn’t give me a real sense of the meaning of the phrase or sentence.
Google Text to Speech.
When I highlight a word, a phrase or a sentence, I hear it pronounced for me in text-to-speech. This is valuable for all languages, but especially for Arabic and Persian, which use a writing system that is still quite unfamiliar to me. With the help of this, albeit artificial, pronunciation, I can read through material on my iPad or online that would be difficult to read in a conventional paper book. Google helps to bring this material alive for me as I struggle to improve in a new language. Where possible I study and read material where I also have access to natural audio. It is always more pleasant and more reliable to hear a natural voice. The TTS is helpful but still not perfect!
Using Google Translate to Generate Tailor-Made Learning Content
Most of my learning activity is based on listening and reading. The words and phrases that I am learning are those that I find in the texts that I read and listen to. Often, however, I find myself wondering how I would express certain concepts in the language I am learning. I often can’t remember even the most basic vocabulary, or connector phrases, like “in my opinion” or “in other words”. Sometimes I just want to see how longer texts would be rendered into the language I am learning.
In order to acquire the vocabulary I’m looking for, I just write out some text in English, using the vocabulary and expressions I want to learn. Then I copy this to Google Translate to get the translation. The resulting text in my target language is then imported into LingQ as a lesson. I can then save the relevant words and phrases to my personal vocabulary database, and use text-to-speech to better pronounce and learn these phrases.
Google Translate as a Communication Tool
Some people wonder if the availability of machine translation and text-to-speech technology will make language learning obsolete. I don’t think so. I want to communicate with people from different language groups personally, face-to-face, in a real environment. I don’t want to talk through a computer.
Nevertheless, I find that Google technology helps me to communicate in writing, in emails or on Internet forums. This is true even for languages that I speak quite well, but where I’m not 100 percent confident about the grammar or spelling. I will simply type or dictate something into Google Translate and then take the resulting translated version, correct any obvious errors or inconsistencies and use that. I don’t have to worry about spelling. I don’t have to worry about accents or other idiosyncrasies of the language. And the person who receives my text, translated by Google and corrected by me, thinks that I’m quite fluent in the language.
I can interact with people in the language I’m learning, send messages, read answers, and respond using my computer and Google Translate. This form of written communication in the target language helps me learn the language. Needless to say, this works best if you are at a level in the language where you can make the necessary corrections and feel confident that what you are sending makes sense.
Google to Find Language Content
Google provides me with the ability to search for content of interest in the language I am learning. This can be newspaper articles, magazine articles, podcasts or e-books, audiobooks or Youtube videos which all of which I can import into LingQ using our Import Browser Extension. I can simply type
“Iranian Movies” or “Jordanian TV” , or the name of a famous person or author into Google or Youtube and I will find learning content of interest.
Google the search engine enables me to access a library of language content on a wide range of subject matter, at varying levels of difficulty, that far exceeds anything to be found even in the best university library. And it is all digital and can be accessed using modern information technology for enhanced learning.
Google for Grammar Information
If I need an overview of the grammar of a new language, I go to Google. If I need verb conjugation tables, noun declension tables, information on the use of pronouns etc. I just go to Google and type in the relevant terms, “Arabic verbs”, or decline the verb “avoir” , for example. The resources are almost limitless, and instantly available. I can target specific grammar questions or look for PDF versions of summary descriptive grammar resources for different languages. I have found some truly amazing resources in this way.
So I see Google Translate, the Google search engine, text-to-speech, and other innovations in information technology as a boon to language learning, but not something that will replace the need or motivation for language learning. We just need to look for the best ways to use this technology. Then we can continue to learn languages well into our old age.
And the next time you are not happy with Google Translate’s results, or you hear someone complain that Google Translate doesn’t work, just think of the benefits that this technology brings us.