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Should you use Translators in your language learning?

Several years ago, maybe five or more, I was strictly against using Translators. I had a couple of good reasons for that: 1) they made people lazy, 2) they gave bad translations. 

At university I was taught to use a (paper) dictionary to find the word I needed, and I believed it was the right way. It was time consuming, true: often, dictionaries give several synonyms, and I had to check those synonyms to choose the right one. But while checking I learnt a great deal about the words and how they could be used. It taught me some responsibility, if I may say so – don’t take the first word you see, make sure it’s the one you need in your context (or you’ll be ridiculed in the class). 

Then I got Lingvo installed on my phone with its advanced dictionary that included common phrases and examples. Oh, how I liked to read word entries while searching for my word, especially to compare Russian and English equivalents, so many exciting discoveries! But, to be honest, it didn’t make the whole process much faster.

As I was preparing for CPE, a fellow teacher shared the Longman dictionary app with me. And I started to learn to deal with definitions only (likes it even better than my Russian-English dictionary, I felt so “advanced”)). This continued for several years. Later I added Multitran (an online dictionary compiled by translators and interpreters) because it had a multitude of all sorts of expressions and a huge variety of possible translations. But I steered clear of Translators.

Then one day I came across an article explaining a new algorithm Google Translate adopted. I won’t be able to find it now, but I think this extract from Wikipedia summarises it well: “In November 2016, Google announced that Google Translate would switch to a neural machine translation engine – Google Neural Machine Translation (GNMT) – which translates “whole sentences at a time, rather than just piece by piece. It uses this broader context to help it figure out the most relevant translation, which it then rearranges and adjusts to be more like a human speaking with proper grammar””. 

So I got curious but it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that I finally had a chance to experiment and see the improvements for myself. With a friend of mine we decided to learn Spanish together, from A1. But we’re both teachers, so I think it would have been impossible to just take an A1 book and study it unit by unit. By our first meeting we had already studied some basics, but I still hoped we would go slowly and try to produce first sentences within the exercises in the book. 

Insted, the urge to use the language was so strong that 15 minutes into our first meeting we were already speaking in long full sentences with the help of Google Translate. It was so much fun that I even wrote an article about it. And yes, I was very happy with the quality of the translation. Google Translate earned my trust and since then I’ve been using it quite often for all the languages I speak and learn. 

Now, how to use Translators to your advantage?

1. While reading. Yandex Browser has an in-build feature: you can select any text on the page, left click on the arrow and you’ll see the translation (this is how I read authentic French articles). It makes developing reading skills so much easier and faster! But my advice would be to select whole sentences or at least longer phrases, not words – this really affects the quality of the translation. Oh, and it works with YouTube video transcripts too. Life of a language learner is definitely not what it used to be like twenty years ago…  Lucky us today!

2. For writing practice. Let’s say, you’re learning new words and you want to make your own examples with them. A Translator will help you to be bolder with your sentences (or even write stories) and go a bit beyond your current abilities if needed. 

I do it a lot in Spanish and French when I’m not sure of the sentence structure or grammar (although I translate from English). For example, when I was learning jobs in Spanish (this is the beginning of A1), the basic structure would be something like “My father is a musician”. But it’s so incredibly boring, isn’t it? So I wanted to know how to say “My father is a musician, but when he was young he wanted to be a pilot”, and I turned to Google Translate. This will be the case when we learn grammar not with the rules but more as lexis (the lexical approach). Why not? You learn anything better when it’s not just in the book, but something closely related to your life

A morsel of advice here: don’t just copy the text from the translator. Retype or rewrite it but yourself. Also listen to it and read it out loud by yourself.

3. While speaking, including at the lesson. Nothing wrong with that, I think (if your speaking partner doesn’t mind, that is). But I know that many students translate separate words and sometimes do not get what they want. So, given the nature of machine translation algorithms, here, like with reading and writing, it’s better to translate at least phrases unless it’s something that will unlikely have multiple interpretations (like objects or verbs with just one or two meanings).

Lifehack: for every new translation that you need, don’t clear the window, but go to the next line. Then, at the end of your speaking, you’ll have a list of emergent vocabulary that you need but didn’t know. You can then add these phrases to your notebook and explore them further. 

And also: trust your intuition, especially if you’re B2 and higher. If the suggested translation looks off, double check it somewhere else. For example, by using a search engine (here I wrote how to browse in English). 

4. Use corpora (a collection of bilingual texts) instead of Translators, like Linguee and Context.Reverso. There it’s safe to look up separate words or short phrases because you’ll see them in sentences (in context) and that will help you choose the ones you need. Again, it’s easy to copy some of the examples, so do keep track of them. I have a Google Doc called New and Emergent Vocab, so whenever I check something, I add it there quickly. 

So Translators and corpora are cool and our big friends in language learning, especially if you pay a bit more attention to the results of your translations and don’t just say them or copy and paste somewhere.  

Some of my students have shared that they use Translators in the opposite direction: once they’ve written something in English, they translate it into Russian to see if it makes sense =) That is pretty original in my view, and I’ve never done the same. But if it helps, why not) 

And what about you? Do you use Translators? Any lifehacks you could share? And what about corpora?

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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