Google Translate: Freund oder Feind (Friend or Enemy)?

Google Translate Venn Diagram

Google Translate is an astonishing program. It converts words and even whole sentences back and forth from dozens of languages through multiple modalities; you can type, handwrite, scan, and even say whatever you want to communicate. Its accuracy—at least in French, German, and Spanish, the three languages that I speak—is surprisingly good. At worst, Translate provides an inaccurate, but comprehensible translation that conveys the essential meaning of any given phrase. At best, it could topple the Tower of Babble—at least linguistically, since being fluent in another culture is different matter.

I have recently been living in Berlin, which must be one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Although it would be possible to live and work here without speaking a word of German, I know enough to have a conversation, understand about 80% of what I read, and even watch TV (although usually with German subtitles). My language skills are not good enough, however, to write business letters or to navigate the exactitudes of bureaucracy—both of which I have needed to do in order to rent an apartment and make a life here.

When I first lived in France, in 1990 during my junior-year abroad, I had to figure all out how to accomplish many similar tasks that required understanding linguistic nuance. I remember buying my first long-distance train ticket and ending up in the top bunk of a six-sleeper compartment rather than on the bottom, where I wanted to be. This mistake was due to the fact that I couldn’t remember whether “au dessus” meant “on top” or “on bottom” (the latter is, in fact, “au dessous”—a difference of just one letter). Although this mistake proved to be uncomfortable, since it put me in the hottest part of the compartment and forced me to climb over my fellow travelers, it made me remember the difference between dessus and dessous forever.

Potential travel mishaps aside, learning the subtle aspects of a language has suddenly become a lot less important. Translate will essentially do it for for you, at least when you’re writing. For example, I still occasionally mix up two German words that also differ by one similar letter: Kuchen (cake) and Küchen (Kitchens). (This confusion is ironic since I love sweets, but don’t like to cook.) I also constantly interchange nouns and verbs whose meaning varies with their prefix, like Zufall (coincidence), Ausfall (cancelation), Unfall (accident), and Umfall (falling over). When I’m speaking, this sometimes causes misunderstandings and frequently causes laughter: a train that “fällt aus” is a lot different than a train that “fällt um.” When I’m writing, however, I make fewer errors, thanks to Translate remembering the differences for me. This convenience is as wonderful as it is is problematic, however: I still can’t keep the words straight. In fact, I just had to confirm the definitions to avoid making a mistake here. How will I ever remember the difference if I don’t really have to?

I stopped teaching French about the time that Translate became popular. I have since wondered what it would be like to learn the language now that you can write a paper in English and have it come out in halfway decently French. Although most teachers will probably be able to spot an assignment completed with the assistance of Translate, how are they to grade an essay when they can’t tell the extent to which Translate has been used? Moreover, how are they to teach cultural nuances communicated through idiomatic expressions or differences in formality. Take “tu” and “vous,” for example; the former is the singular intimate and the latter the singular polite (and also the plural) form of the pronoun “you.” The ability to change register by switching pronouns has no equivalent in modern English. Translate frequently uses these pronouns incorrectly by varying among tu, vous (sing.), vous (pl.) in consecutive sentences, even though the subject should remain the same. To an inattentive student, the mistake would most likely be invisible, since tu and vous both mean “you.” The fact that Translate produces such mistakes makes me think that students are probably having a harder time learning French, since it’s all too easy to think that “the computer is correct.” How can teachers expect them to forgo the program, though? The temptation to use Translate is too great and its convenience, too efficient.

I have the advantage of learning and teaching multiple languages, and of being proficient enough in German to spot the mistakes that Translate makes. My experience has also made me a fearless speaker, which has helped me make friends. (Berliners are remarkably patient when it comes to pidgin German.) I am also aware of the necessity of practicing all four activities necessary to learn a language: reading/writing and listening/speaking, which require both the absorption and the production of communication. I wonder, however, how far you can get if you omit one or more of these essential skills? What chance do you have of connecting with people in their own tongue if you allow Translate to be your automatic Ambassador? How do you get a language into your head if you use a tool to think for you?

To learn a language today, both students and teachers are going to have to use Translate in a deliberate way. The program is certainly not going away, and it would be a shame if it did, since now you can communicate with almost anybody. Learning a language has always taken self-discipline, but this character trait may now mean abstaining from some tools, rather than embracing them, as I used to try to convince my students to do with dictionaries. For their part, instructors are going to have to learn how to teach with Translate, rather than barring it from their classrooms or pretending it doesn’t exist. Modern language pedagogy, indeed all modern pedagogy, must carefully implement new technology rather than letting it unwittingly invade their classrooms. The key to getting students to use new tools thoughtfully is to show them how to use them to teach themselves.

I know firsthand the ease and utility of letting Translate do the work for you. It would have been much harder for me to find good housing without being able to understand legal terms and provide technical information essentially in real time. I also know the pitfalls of the program, however, which I overcome through a personal motivation to connect with the people and the culture around me in an unmediated way—the benefits of which I am acutely aware every time a friend invites me for Kaffee und Kuchen in his Küche, which is ganz mein Fall!

(If you want to know what this last sentence means, you’ll either have to use a dictionary with idiomatic expressions or ask a German, since Translate currently doesn’t understand—ein einschlägiger Fall. 🙂 ) 

Tom Armbrecht has a PhD in French Studies from Brown University. Formerly a tenured Professor of French, he taught literature and philosophy to both undergraduate and graduate students at an R1 university before deciding to focus his career on online learning. Tom has been involved in educational technology since its inception, first as a student, then as a professor, and now as an instructional designer. His current position as an Online Learning Architect allows him to capitalize on his pedagogical expertise to create courses that engage and inspire students and teachers alike.

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Google Translate: Freund oder Feind (Friend or Enemy)?

by Tom Armbrecht