If “Google” is Translating Then I’ll Start Revamping – Guest Post by Naomi Ganin Epstein

What a great honour for me to have Naomi Ganin-Epstein, a wonderful educator from Israel, write a guest post for the blog. Ever since I connected with Naomi on Twitter, I am always happy to see her online and exchange ideas and links – she is so enthusiastic and passionate about what she does and she does a fascinating job as well. Thank you so much, Naomi!

Naomi introduces herself:

Naomi Ganin-Epstein

For the past twenty-six years I have specialized in teaching English as a foreign language to deaf and hard of hearing pupils in Israel. I began my carreer as an elementary school teacher but have taught high-school for the last 22 years. I have a B.A. in Deaf Education, a B.E.D. in EFL and an M.A. in Curriculum Development. I’m the author of two textbooks for these pupils. I am both a teacher and a teacher’s counselor. I blog at: Visualising Ideas and on twitter: @naomishema. I live in Kiryat-Ono, Israel, with my husband and two sons.

“Google Translate” has been around for quite a while. Before that there were online bilingual dictionaries, which were, in turn, preceded by electronic dictionaries. Students have been using these to do their homework assignments for years. Therefore, I assume you are wondering why I am bringing up the impact of “Google Translate” on homework assignments at this time and whether or not I’ve been asleep till now!

photo by Gil Epshtein


In order to explain, let’s backtrack a bit.

When electronic bilingual dictionaries were first introduced many teachers were concerned that giving a student an electronic dictionary is akin to giving him /her all the answers! That is simply not true. The English language is complex, many words have multiple meanings, use of idioms is common and the grammatical structure of the language is very different from that of Semitic languages, such as Hebrew and Arabic (Israel’s official languages). A student needs a command of syntax and grammar in order to choose the right dictionary entry for a given context. In addition, he/she must be able to think in a flexible manner when translating and reorganizing words translated into meaningful chunks. Consider the following sentence:
When Dan arrived he found out that there was no room in the car left for him.
If a student chooses the first meaning appearing in the dictionary for every word in this sentence the result will be a totally incomprehensible sentence. The jumble of unrelated words would probably include “left” as a direction, “room” as something with four walls, and “found out” probably wouldn’t be found (in the electronic dictionary) at all!

Knowledge is required in order to use a dictionary efficiently and correctly–using it mechanically will not improve a student’s results. In addition, a student who hasn’t studied at all and looks up every single word in the dictionary will not finish the exam in the allotted time, even if that student is eligible for “extra time on exams”. An electronic dictionary (only a good quality one, of course!) is a very useful tool and I am delighted to have my students use it.

When computers became household items students began using online bilingual dictionaries to do their homework assignments. These were essentially the same as electronic dictionaries – both required the user to type in one word at a time.

However, “Google Translate” changed the rules of the game. Now students can type / paste entire chunks of text into it and get a translation. Regardless of what you may think of the quality of the resulting translation, we have passed the “point of no return”. The ease and speed of the translation process is too enticing. In addition, teachers cannot control which dictionary a student uses outside of class.


At first, I was not too concerned about students using “Google Translate” for homework. Until fairly recently I gave homework assignments on handouts. Students had to sit and type in the sentences they wanted to translate. Typing in the words forced them to actually look at the words and pay attention to their spelling. As that process is slow, some of the students would look at a word to see it they knew it before investing the effort to type it in.

photo by Omri Epstein

But recently I made the transition to giving online homework. I give short tasks which consist of activities usually centered on an unusual picture or video clip (more details about this can be found here). Sometimes the tasks deal with specific language points such as confusing words. No listening or speaking activities are used as my students are deaf and hard of hearing. The tasks are not based on the specific course books which the students use as I teach a myriad of levels and have divided all the pupils into four homework groups based on level (in order to preserve my own sanity!). I am very pleased with the transition – the number of students doing homework has risen dramatically and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the students feel more “noticed” since the change.

Every change is accompanied by new problems and this one is no exception to the rule. I have discovered the full impact “Google Translate” on online homework tasks. The vast majority of the students don’t even bother glancing at the reading comprehension activities – they simply copy and paste them into “Google Translate” and read them in their mother tongue.

Therefore, if “Google” is translating then I’ll start revamping (the structure of the homework assignments that is).

Here are some of the types of assignments I use and what their current status has become:

  1. Open ended questions – these are not seriously impacted by use of “Google Translate” mainly because if the student tries to use it as a shortcut to answering the questions (i.e. student writes answer in mother tongue and copies the resulting sentences in English) the result is very problematic. Example: Q: Why is this building shaped like a basket? The answer I would like to receive is: Because they produce baskets in this building. “Google Translate” ‘s answer is : “That this building produce baskets”. Google Translate DOES offer alternative translations for each word – if a student goes into details with that – I’m happy! However, giving open ended questions for every homework task is not suitable, especially for my really weak students.
  2. Sequencing sentences – one of my favorite reading comprehension homework assignments for weak learners was having them watch a short video clip and sequence the actions shown. With “copy and paste” the entire activity can now be done in mother tongue. This activity is now out!
  3. True / False sentences & Matching Pictures to Sentences– same problem! Out!
  4. Completing sentences with words and phrases from a word bank – this activity still works reasonably well if the word bank is at the bottom of the page, in a box. I’ve seen students working in class this way – they end up copying / pasting the word bank several times in order to complete the sentences. The more the students need to work with a word, the better. These students main exposure to the language is through their eyes, not their ears.
  5. Completing sentences without a word bank. I find this activity works well with the slightly stronger students. Even when the students are using “Google Tranlsator” to translate from both English and their mother tongue, completing a sentence demands demonstrating more of a command of syntax and grammar, yet is still easier (unless structured otherwise) than an open ended question. Once again I would like to emphasize that I am referring to tasks which are not centered on a text.
  6. Grammar tasks – they work well with the new translator as their focus is not on the vocabulary items in any case.

photo by Gil Epstein


Since I’m a firm believer in moving with the times, I’m turning to YOU, my online colleagues for more ideas regarding activities that actively encourage the student to use English while doing homework!

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25 thoughts on “If “Google” is Translating Then I’ll Start Revamping – Guest Post by Naomi Ganin Epstein

    • Hi Naomi!

      Thank you so much for your wonderful post – what great ideas! I had never thought of this topic and I found it so interesting. I love all the activities you suggest! Your students are very lucky to have you as a teacher. Everything you do shows how much you care for them!

      Thank you so much,
      Vicky

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  2. What a meaty and thought-provoking post that I enjoyed reading very much, Naomi. It followed your train of thought the entire way and especially appreciated your attitude of not blaming new technology for completely ruining the way things have always been done, but actually embracing it as a catalyst for adaptation.

    The only problem I regularly encounter with regards to online tools is that of plagiarism. How we get around this usually is to do some in-class writing assignments only. This allows us to compare their abilities we can confirm with those we can’t.

    • Tyson!
      So glad you found the post thought-provoking!
      Writing assignments do seem to be the main way to go and that requires a lot of thought for me in regards to the manner in which to do this for homework. Many of my deaf /hard of students write incredibly poorly in their MOTHER TONGUE, not to mention in English, and a weekly homework task can’t have too many things that need to be corrected. Expect more posts on this as I experiment!
      Thank you for taking the time to comment!
      Naomi

  3. Couldn’t you post the text in jpg format to hinder the copy/paste problem? The students would at least have to read and type into Google Translate. Of course, I read that on a smartphone one can use the camera and Google Goggles to translate, too.

    Just a thought.

    • Scott!
      Interestesting that you should suggest that!
      I HAD thought of posting homework in PDF format but rejected that idea. About a fifth of my pupils don’t have “Office” on their computers (they transfer the WORD files to notepad) and getting all my pupils to install a free PDF reader on their home computer seems a very problematic task (perhaps I would even say “not feasible”).
      I hadn’t thought of Jpeg format – all the pupils can look at pictures!
      It has some drawbacks. It would make sentence completing activities much more complex for the student to answer on the technical level as they would have to have the answers on a separate page. Worth experimenting with the idea – thank you!
      Thank you for stopping by!
      Naomi

  4. So glad you chose to share your thoughts of google translate. Kids think it’s a carte blanche to English, and it certainly helps them understand reading comprehension passages at the “Module A or B” levels* (*Israeli Matriculation exams at the easiest end of the spectrum – for those who aren’t familiar).

    Google translate has given self-esteem back to computer savvy students who are very unsure of their English skills. But the infamous ‘google translate answer’ can be ridiculous if unsupervised.

    So, students can work independently up to a point but then I have to run around from student to student explaining, editing, while encouraging their revisions.

    Great topic. Would love to hear from others’ experiences with this classroom tool.
    – Judih

    • Judih!
      It HAS given self -esteem to weak pupils, I do agree. I see them playing games they couldn’t play before and at least I see them expanding their world knowledge (so important on every level, including reading comprehension itself!).
      The tool is here to stay and I want to make the most of it.
      Since I’m dealing with homework at the moment, I have to give assignments that don’t entail us making believe that the students are doing them in English.
      I bet we’ll be having a lot more discussions on this topic, Judih!

  5. Hey Naomi,
    I’m glad you tackled the G Translate issue. I myself am a frequent user and find it very interesting the way it works and has been improved in recent years. Their translations work but if you don’t have a minimum command of the target language it can deceive you. As you skillfully pointed out, G Tranlate does not offer alternate definitions for a word when a sentence is typed in. And that’s what I tell my students from the go: use it, but know how and when to use it. I believe that more importantly than trying to find ways in which they would not use it, is trying to use it to their favor, purposely. I know that might sound a little too far fetched, but I like to think one day we’ll be able to.
    Meanwhile I would like to add my two cents about an activity that would not be hindered by G Translate: since your teaching focuses the use of grammar, give them sentences in which they have to come up with similar one so that they remain having the same meaning but with an extra lexical item. E.g;
    I want to go to the beach this weekend
    (LIKE)
    I ________________ going to the beach this weekend.

    Even though sts use G Translator, they will have to adapt their choice so that it fits into the new sentence. It might get them some thinking…

    Thanks for the excellent post. And thanks Vicky for triggering such discussion in her blog.

    Regards from Rio!

    • Bruno!
      Oh – you hit the nail on the head when you said:
      “Their translations work but if you don’t have a minimum command of the target language it can deceive you. ” So true!
      Actually, I don’t give many grammar exercises for homework, though I do, sometimes. I certainly will try out your suggestion – hadn’t thought of rewrites!

      On homework assignments I mainly focus on reading comprehension skills, especially getting the students used to answering questions with the relevant type of answer (If it is a “why” question they shouldn’t answer with the name of a place, that sort of thing). Since my students’ command of their L1 is not so great , this is important for them.

      So glad to hear you found the post interesting – thank you!
      Naomi

  6. I loved this!

    I was just watching a story about a UK clothing company that uses Google translations to provide the “cool” Japanese sayings. No one cares, it seems, that the translations end up as structures not found in nature.

    Your talented Google translators could have a career in fashion, perhaps :)

    Here’s a link to the YouTube video: http://youtu.be/FNKWz0ympYE

    It’s in Japanese, but pretty easy to follow.

    Thanks for this, Naomi and Vicky!

    • Barbara!
      Glad to hear that this is a relevant issue all over! I was able to follow the video – thank you for that!
      In regards to fashion though, sometimes things in English are misspelled intentionally so that they can’t be accused of infringing copyright!

  7. Hi Naomi and Vicky!

    What can I possibly add to the above comments? The way Naomi presents the current Google translation services and the activities she prepares to help learners benefit from these are more than enlightening to the rest of us!

    Thank you Naomi and Vicky for another wonderful post! Go go go, iTDi team! :-)

    Christina

    • Thank you so much Christina for your kind words!
      The support of this marvellous online community is encouraging to explore, experiment and reflect. Who else would let me discuss such topics?
      Naomi

  8. Fabulous post! I have experienced much of the same ‘troubles’ with the talking dictionaries while teaching overseas in Thailand. I loved your thoughts on working WITH technology – because we all know we’ll never win the fight against it! I often begin teaching classes on how to use the dictionary and while doing the exercises they need the dictionary less and less. Go figure! I especially enjoyed your feedback on the assignments – very eye-opening. Thanks for taking the time to write such a thought-through post!

  9. Carolyn!
    So glad you found it to be a useful post!
    I couldn’t agree with you more – no sense in fighting technolog. I learned the lesson a long time ago and still find it to be true.
    Thank you for stopping by!

  10. I think we MUST use google translate. Language learning is a skill that we teach and Google translate is a tool that people use. Instead of outlawing or criticizing it, we should be teaching students how to use it better. I tried an assignment last year that really helped my students understand how translators work and their limitations.

    First they wrote a simple paragraph in english on what they did over the christmas break. I chose a simple topic to limit the language level that they would use. They then copy and pasted this paragraph into 3 different translators. They then took one of the translated paragraphs and pasted it into Google translate to switch it back to English. After they created a word document with all 5 paragraphs, they then did some analysis of the different translations of the same word. After some underlining and dictionary-using, they wrote one last paragraph in english to summarize their analysis.

    I did this with grade 8 (13-14yr olds) and it worked very well. I had very little trouble with translators as they opted to use the online dictionaries instead, where they could find example sentences and descriptions to help them choose the right word.

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  13. I’m using Edmodo with my Spanish IV’s and I am realizing a lot of them are using google translate, and I yell at them everyday. I like the idea of typing a quiz in English and clicking translate and giving it to them. My IV’s have semi control over the Spanish language so I know they are still using some thought when reading my post and having to respond to it. What I hate is that some are being lazy and typing their response into google translate and change some things they do not know.

  14. Renee!
    Thanks for commenting!
    It won’t help to yell at them, the translator is here to stay. Its the task we need to change. And it IS hard to do. Lately I’ve been working on tasks that have them try google and see what an awful translation they got!
    Naomi

  15. 1, I think the key to keeping students from cheating with translators is to TEACH THEM the correct ways to use them and when it’s appropriate to use each one, in hopes that they BUY IN to doing their assignments the correct way. Focus on these ideas: How effective is it to learn by reading the text in one’s first language versus applying what you’ve learned in class to read it in the target language? What can and can’t be learned by copying work from a translator? How fast will you learn the language by cheating? What is the purpose of each assignment and can it be met by using a translator/dictionary? I’m in the process of creating an assignment that teaches students how to correctly use the dictionaries/translators (books and online), evaluate the quality of said translators/dictionaries, and decide for what contexts they are most useful (what type of assignments). It will also have them reflect on the morality of plagiarism.

    2. The textbook I use in my classroom has an accompanying workbook that focuses on getting the students to use what they’re learning in each chapter. Therefore, if they use a translator/dictionary, they inevitably come up with different words and especially verb conjugations well beyond their level. I keep reinforcing the idea to them that I won’t ask them to do something that requires a dictionary for more than a handful of words, so if they find themselves using a dictionary – they’re doing it wrong! If I do find their assignments full of new words, I call up the student and ask them to tell me what each of the new words means. If they can tell me (i.e. they learned the new word), then I’m OK with it. If they have no idea what the words mean, then I follow my plagiarism protocol.

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