Google Translate: Help or hinderance?

In this age of technology, nearly everything has become digitized and language is no exception. With the rising popularity of apps such as Google Translate, it’s become increasingly easier to find direct translations of various words, phrases, or paragraphs in a matter of seconds. Google Translate serves as an instantaneous tool, providing quick and easy translations at the fingertips of language-learners.

Is this quick and easy method beneficial or harmful toward language’s advancement within an educational environment?

Mila Nazyrova, professor of Russian for Heritage Speakers at the University of Pennsylvania, says this method of learning a new language is most certainly harmful.

“How can it possibly help anyone if the brain is not engaged in the language work of translating?” Nazyrova said.

If a student uses Google Translate for a direct translation of a sentence or phrase, “there’s no stage at which you are actively engaged … it just goes by and nothing is left in the memory,” Nazyrova points out.

Professor Mila Nazyrova
(Photo courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania)

As a professor of language, Nazyrova has seen this issue often. Students arrive in class, having used Google Translate to quickly complete an assignment, but unable to speak and process the language at the same caliber as they had written.

A survey conducted by First Take asked 83 high school language learners about the extent to which they use Google Translate. 100% of students reported using the tool, and when asked to select all that apply, 73.5% stated they use it for one-word translations, 41% use it for sentences at a time, and 10.8% admit to using it entire prompts.

Nazyrova attributes this to the fact that “if you enter more than a word there, then it does the translating job for you. It’s already not my work or the students work, but Google Translate’s work.”

This, however, does little to deter students from utilizing the tool. In speaking with a number of high school students, it’s suggested that the usage of a traditional dictionary has decreased at an alarming rate, with Google Translate being the primary tool for translation.

“I’ve never used a dictionary to translate a language, people don’t do that anymore. Google translate is the go to with that,” said Shannon Thoma, a student at William Tennent High School.

Thoma admits that she has seen entire essays complete with the assistance of Google Translate, stating that “students use it a lot outside of the classroom, and it’s too often used as a crutch.” Rather than putting in the added effort to vigorously and actively process the language, students sacrifice acquisition for ease. This position is reaffirmed by Nazyrova, who states that with a simple “quick translation, you’re not retaining information.”

Shannon Thoma:
William Tennent High School Junior
and Spanish Student

However, not all students use Google Translate in this way. Similarly to Thoma, Samatha Furey, who’s in her fourth year of Spanish, stated, “I sometimes refer to Google Translate if I want to clarify something or if I’m not sure, but I always at least try to do it myself.” A similar sentiment was echoed by another student, Anjali Patel. She stated, “I don’t really look at a Spanish dictionary,” opting instead to use Google Translate, but clarifies by saying “I don’t use it to just rely on it.”

This type of usage leads to questions of Google Translates utilization by students and where to draw the line between a translation and plagiarism.

Nazyrova, she says that she doesn’t allow it either in class or at home. If a student uses Google Translate to prepare homework it is considered plagiarism.

For students, the boundary appears to be more blurred. While both students and teachers seem to agree that Google Translate can be used for one-word translations, appropriate usage beyond this is in a grey area.

The divide between what is recommended for students in terms of proper language acquisition and what students actually use is an issue worth grappling with. While it’s recommended that students use traditional dictionaries and textbooks, many resort to what is easier.

This isn’t just a matter of morality. By taking advantage of new tools, it’s easy for students to sell themselves short, using it as a crutch and, in the process, never truly learn.

Martine Bertin-Peterson: 
President of the Alliance Française de Doylestown
(Photo courtesy of Martine Bertin-Peterson)

As schools continue to encourage more tech-savy classrooms, this issue will become more and more pervasive. The biggest concern for both teachers and students is finding the balance between utilizing Google Translate as a tool (much like a dictionary) versus blatantly plagiarizing.

President of the Alliance Française de Doylestown, Martine Bertin-Peterson states, “reading something or watching something in translation is not the same as really understanding what the language is.”

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