ISTE Standard 3.4 Evaluate and select information sources and digital tools based on the appropriateness to specific tasks.
My question for this standard is a very specific one: “What measures or criteria can be put in place for WL and ELL students self evaluate when they are using resources such as Google Translate as a tool to enhance their learning of the target language, and when they are using them to take the place of actual learning in order to turn in an assignment?”
In seeking out resources to answer this question I happened across a blog post by Steven Wenz in which he mentions two problems that educators encounter with students utilizing this resource badly: 1) that they copy and paste reading comprehension texts into the website to avoid having to make sense of them in the target language, and 2) that for writing assignments they’ll write in their native language and use Google Translate to render a block of text into the target language. The latter issue is regarded as a bit more problematic by educators because it does not improve students’ writing skills, and because it just feels like cheating (Wenz, para 5).
He then goes on to elaborate how it is that teachers can detect student misuse of Google Translate for writing assignments. Experience in the classroom gives teachers a good sense of which errors fall outside of the range of what is normal for a particular level. I have my own personal favorite Google gaffes that my students turned into me as their own work. One entered into GT “My family has three cars,” and the Russian translation from Google turned that into “My family CONSISTS of three cars.” We had not covered the expression ‘consists of’ in class, so the only source of this would be Google and indeed when I checked it for myself, that’s what came up:
Another student errantly placed a comma in the English version where it had no reason to be, and so “I, like anatomy, and want to become a doctor,” was rendered in the target language as “I am just like anatomy, and want to become a doctor.”
It is clear from Wenz’s informal study and from my own anecdotal experience that teachers have a pretty good idea of when the resource is being abused, though this is frequently difficult to prove. How can we make our students aware of the issues? One suggestion that Wenz makes is to structure writing assignments in such a way as to discourage the reliance on machine translation. (Wenz, Conclusion). For instance if students are given the task of writing blog posts to be read by their classmates, then comprehensibility to other learners becomes tantamount. This is one possible solution.
Another might be to make them aware of the humorousness of mis-translations. Novice foreign language students can sometimes come to class with the misapprehension that all languages share the same syntax, and that learning a language means simply learning new vocabulary that one can plug into a universal grammatical structure. Language teachers and experienced students know that this is simply not true, but how to convey this understanding to beginning students? Perhaps by sharing the available song parodies available on YouTube.
Or students could select a passage from a website from a local organization (their school?) — a text that is not widely known and has likely not been officially translated. Then copy that text first into the target language and then that rendering back into English. Any resulting errors will likely be minor, but nevertheless illustrative. See the example below, taken from a website advertising swim lessons. It was translated from English to Russian and back into English again.
The main standard that students should apply to any writing they turn in for a grade is that they should be able to understand what it is they’ve written. Second, it should also be fairly intelligible to their classmates as well. Here are some rules students can follow to accomplish this goal:
- KISS – Keep It Simple (Stupid) (if there’s a simple way to say it that you already know; choose that)
- WOPO — Words Or (short) Phrases Only (do not look up full sentences or paragraphs as this is where a lot of the ‘funny’ starts)
- POS — Part Of Speech (always check to see you have the correct part of speech)
- GI — Google Images (put the new word – particularly nouns –through Google Images to be sure that it means what you think it means)
- ICU — I Can Understand (if you can′t make sense of what you′ve written yourself, that is a sign that Google did the writing and not you; also your classmates won’t be likely to understand it either)
Students can perhaps work with this really weird mnemonic device to remember: KISS WOPO, POSitive GI, ’cause ICU (I see you). Or maybe someone reading this can think of a better set of acronyms or a way of remembering them. Perhaps language students together with their instructor could come up with their own language specific guidelines for how best to use the resource (for instance the part of speech aspect is quite important when translating from English to Russian as Russian has different words for ‘work’ depending upon its function in the sentence: ‘go to work,’ ‘he works in an office,’ that’s a work phone,’ but it may be less crucial for a language such as Chinese – perhaps).
Ultimately, students should come to understand the limitations of Google Translate. This video may be a good place to start the conversation (and also end it):
In short, if instructors wish to encourage proper use of online translation websites, they need to 1) structure writing assignments to discourage overuse and 2) provide their students with clear guidelines as to how they CAN use it.