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The Promise & Peril Of Using Google Translate In The ELL Classroom – Share Your Ideas

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I’ve written a lot about Google Translate – see The Best Sites For Learning About Google Translate.

And I’ve been thinking long-and-hard about its use in the ELL classroom – specifically, in mine (I don’t think ELLs trying to survive in a mainstream classroom have the same issues – see A Look Back: “Ways A Mainstream Teacher Can Support An ELL Newcomer In Class”).

I’m sure I’m not alone in seeing students at first using it as a learning tool and then, quickly, turn it into a dependency that actually inhibits language-development. I’m not aware of specific research that proves this, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that over-using Google Translate has the potential to produce the same negative effect on brains as neuroscientists are finding occurring as a result of our using GPS and not maps – we lose context and the ability to create “mental maps.” (see The Boston Globe’s article, Do our brains pay a price for GPS? and this Mother Jones piece, Are GPS Apps Messing With Our Brains?, to learn more about that research.

My solution has been pushing students to use Google Translate as a dictionary to look-up word meanings and not to translate sentences they write. Students seem to fairly easily grasp and accept that point – they understand that they won’t be penalized by me for imperfect word use and grammar and, in fact, will be praised by me for trying to construct sentences themselves. And they “get” that they need to do it themselves to truly begin to master writing in English.

Nevertheless, it’s still easy for students to get sucked back into using Google Translate to write because…it is easier than writing without it.

And, of course, Google Translate’s ability to produce translated pages through its image tool can also be seductive. In that case, I encourage students to try to read something on their own first and then, if they are going to use Google Translate, use it to confirm their understanding.

It’s a tricky situation. I think what I’m doing now seems to create a decent balance, and makes sense to students – in class, that is – I obviously can’t control what happens in the outside environment.

What are your thoughts?

Also check out If “Google” is Translating Then I’ll Start Revamping – Guest Post by Naomi Ganin Epstein from Vicky Loras’ blog.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

3 Comments

  1. I’m a newcomer teacher in high school for Beginners/non-English speakers. We have a rule of thumb – Keywords and phrases are always OK to translate so I think we are on the same page there.
    I allow a lot more use of it when students first arrive. In fact, I let them write in their native language and use Google translate depending on the rest of the assignment. If they’re going to take that and work with it a lot, to practice for an oral presentation for example, I might be OK with that as well. It’s definitely a balancing act. We have a lot of conversations about trying to pull back on it so that it does not become a crutch.
    I’m a big advocate of Google translate for content classes in high school. But we should all have clear English language objectives for every class that correspond with their proficiency levels… And where we’re trying to get them in terms of English language acquisition .

    Thanks for this article. It helps us to remember that scaffold so meant to be pulled away.

  2. Balance is hard. But I agree that we don’t want to create a dependency on google translate. I’ve noticed also that if I try to translate a whole sentence in my native language, the accuracy is poor.

  3. Hi!
    I give a detailed breakdown regarding which exercises for ELLs remain useful and only mildly affected by Google Translate and which have become obsolete.
    “If Google is Translating then I”ll start revamping”
    https://vickyloras.wordpress.com/2011/10/15/if-google-is-translating-then-ill-start-revamping-guest-post-by-naomi-ganin-epstein/
    very relevant topic!
    Thank you!
    Naomi

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