Translating Google Translate to the
Language Classroom: Pitfalls and
Riitta-Liisa Valijärvi & Eszter Tarsoly
The School of Slavonic and East European Studies,
University College London
Language Futures: Languages in Higher Education
Conference 2012
Edinburgh 5-6 July 2012
Google Translate
Launched in 2006:
Algorithms based on statistical analysis:
Background and aim
• We want to explore the possible uses of Google
Translate in the language classroom, in particular
in advanced reading and translation classes, and
on beginners’ courses;
• Language instruction has embraced a variety of
learning and teaching techniques as well as
technologies over the past decade;
• The use of Google Translate and similar widely
available translation software and applications
remains problematic and it is generally not
addressed in the language class room;
Background and aim
• Our paper also illustrates the issues with lesser
used/taught morphologically complex languages;
• We propose ways of incorporating Google
Translate into the language classroom in order to
raise awareness among students of potential
errors, which not only boosts their abilities as
future translators but it also enhances their
analytical skills, and makes them more competent
users of Google Translate.
Is Google Translate good?
• “Just like all computerised translators, it does a job
that is usually good enough to give you the gist of a
document written in a language you don't
understand, but nowhere near as good as a the
results a professional translator would give you.”
• “Its good most of the time. But I wouldn't rely on it
completely. If you want a quick translation of
something, then it does a fair job.”
• “Yup I Use In My Coursework.” [sic]
Is Google Translate a good way to
learn foreign languages?
• “No, it gives you some words right, but it's not good
when it comes to plurals and tenses with writing, and
sometimes the words mean completely different thing
when they do it. Just take a class, or all else fails,
• “No, it's probably worse than memorising a dictionary.
Get classes, talk with natives, watch movies with
subtitles, read books, listen to spoken radio.”
• “Individual words, yes. Complete sentences, no.”
Errors: Finnish and Hungarian
Error in semantic mapping of elements from the
two languages;
Flaws in morpheme and word-form
identification (morphology);
Error in identification of noun-phrases and nonfinite forms (morpho-syntax);
Error in verb and complement identification
Flaws in linking up clauses and other
paragraph-level errors;
Idiomatic language use and the degree of
nativeness of the translation;
Semantic mapping error
En. a compelling terrace >
GT. kényszerítő terasz ‘forcing terrace’
Fi. kisajärjestäjät ‘games organisers’ >
GT. kisajärjestäjät
Semantic and morphological error
Fi. kääntää selkä ‘turn (your) back’ >
GT. translated into the back
Morphological error
Fi. ongelmatonta ‘without trouble, trouble-free’ >
GT. trouble
Hu. házaba ‘to his house’ > GT. ‘if you escaped’
Morphosyntactic and lexical error
Hu. az író háza ‘the writer’s house’ > GT. the home
Hu. az orvos háza ‘the doctor's house’ > GT the medical
Fi. kumarrattaessa ‘while bowing’ > GT.
Clause-linking / textual error
Fi. Bussikuskit taas ovat jo pitäneet yhden päivän
mittaisen lakon ’bus drivers, on the other hand, have
already been on strike for a day’ >
GT. bus drivers communicate again have already held a
one-day strike
How to use Google Translate to teach
Kenneth Beare:
• Google Translate good when the students and the
teacher do not have a language in common.
Google Translate Translation in class
• “Have students write short texts in English, and
translate them into their original language. Using
Google Translate for translation can help students
catch grammatical errors by spotting these errors
in the translations.”
• “Use authentic resources, but provide the URL and
have students translate the original into their
target language. This will help out when it comes
to difficult vocabulary. Make sure that students use
Google Translate only after they have first read the
article in English.”
• “For beginners, ask students to first write short
texts in their mother tongue. Have them translate
into English and ask them to tweak the
• “Provide your own short text and let Google
Translate into the class' target language(s). Ask
students to read the translation and then try to
come up with the English original text.”
• “If all else fails, use Google Translate as a bilingual
Beare: Google Translate, Translated
• “When stuck on a grammar point, search on the
grammar term to provide explanations in learners'
mother tongue(s).”
• “Use Google Translate as a means to provide
context in learners' mother tongue(s). This is
especially useful if students aren't familiar with
the topic area. They can become familiar with
some of the ideas in their own language as well as
in English to help strengthen the learning
• “Use translated search to find pages on a particular
topic. Cut and paste a few paragraphs out, have
students then translate the text into English.”
• “Google Translate translated search is fantastic for
group projects. Often you'll find students don't
have ideas, or are not sure where to begin.
Sometimes, this is due to the fact that they aren't
too familiar with the subject in English. Let them
use translated search to get them started.”
• Problem-based learning: students could use
Google Translate to analyse morphologically
complex forms of nouns and verbs into English
creating their own grammar.
Fi. autolla ‘by car’, päivällä ‘in the daytime’, pöydällä
‘on the table’, tytöllä on ‘the girl has’
• Varying sentences: change the verb which goes
with noun or add one insignificant looking
element to clause or phrase and its translation will
be totally different (e.g. possessives in Hungarian).
• Error correction: give students Google Translations of
texts that have already been translated with the
traditional method and ask the student to explain
where Google Translate gets it wrong.
– Improves metalinguistic knowledge and critical thinking.
• Essay writing with and without Google Translate: ask
students to write an essay in the target language using
Google Translate and then write one without using
Google Translate to check how much the students have
• Translation review/analysis: give students a
Google Translation and a “proper translation” to
compare at phrase, clause, sentence, or paragraphlevel. Students would have to pick which one is
best and also say what is wrong what the one
translated with Google Translate.
• Listing problematic areas: ask students to spot
problematic areas through comparison (e.g. case,
colloquial, non-finite verb forms, possessives).
– Highlights the limitations with the method.
Google Translate: pros
• Applications such as Google Translate help
learners to experiment with the target language
more freely than methods available through
traditional dictionary-based translation;
• Google Translate can save time;
• Google Translate can add variety to classes;
• Students can learn phrases and forms that have
not been taught (cf. phrasal learning);
• Students are using Google Translate anyway both
when preparing for classes and later at work.
Google Translate: cons
• We feel that Google Translate hinders the
development of analytical skills (e.g. in identifying
morphemes, forms that are encountered, parts of
speech or sentence, etc.) which is one of the key
skills to be gained when learning a foreign
• Mistranslation and misunderstanding is an issue,
especially with morphologically complex “small”
• No Google Translate in traditional exams;
• No Google Translate when talking to people.
Conclusions and discussion
• Google Translate is not perfect, especially with the
morphologically rich smaller languages, like
Finnish and Hungarian.
• Teachers cannot ignore the existence of Google
• Students need to be made aware of the issues with
the tool through exercises in class.
• Helpful tool for translators and professionals but
perhaps not for language learners?
• Rules vs. phrases? Accuracy vs.

Translating Google Translate to the Language Classroom