We help kids learn to speak real Spanish. For life.™

by Erica Fischer on Feb 4, 2013

Online Translators and Dictionaries for World Language Teaching

Blaine-Cook-Northern-Voice-2012-20120616 by roland, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  roland 

Should language classrooms be translator-free, or can online translators be beneficial to learning?

This Thursday at #langchat, educators weighed the benefits and drawbacks of online translators and dictionaries. Although participants agreed that online dictionaries and translators can be a beneficial part of the language classroom, it was also clear that they can become a crutch if not specifically taught and monitored.

Two Sides of Translation

While many participants discussed the value of using online dictionaries in the world language classroom, they were divided on their views of students using online translators. A number of teachers came out fully against the use of translators, while others did not see any real danger in using them to enhance the learning experience.

Teachers concerned with using translators cited ethical problems, inaccuracies in translation and weakened communication skills. Those participants who were supportive of using translators described OTs’ ability to more accurately reflect changing language, engage students through technology and motivate them to increase their personal vocabulary.

Learn the language, not to translate

One important point that was made during #langchat was that students too reliant on translators may be depriving themselves of important learning experiences. @MartinaBex admitted to having plugged all of her Spanish homework into a translator during one Spanish course. She said, “I learned nothing (shocking, I know).”

Several in the forum agreed with @SECottrell that translation requires a high level of proficiency in both target and source languages, and students must first learn the language.

Reminding us to be clear on the objective of the assignment (is it to see if the student can use a translator or if they can use the language?) @SrtaRad prods, “We need to see what THEY know…NOT a machine.” More bluntly put by @SraHoopes, “Google does the work, Google gets the points.”

Other reasons to avoid translators:

  • They may hamper the students’ learning process by allowing them to use words they don’t know. @Senoralopez said, “…they really cheat themselves because they are not learning.”
  • @Thevirtualapple says students will ultimately benefit from “figuring out meaning from context”
  • @Madameaiello is “afraid students won’t know how how to interact [in] real-time.”
  • @MartinaBex worries that students will have no back-up oral skills should the device’s battery die
  • @SraSpanglish shared her blog with the Top 10 Reasons an Education Is Better Than a Translator
  • Some teachers complain that translator us in class is not an accurate depiction of students’ language abilities. @KirbyFecho says, “I avoid computers/tools when doing in class writing assessments. We want to see students’ language abilities, not Freetranslation‘s!”
  • Others speak of translation inaccuracies as a key reason to avoid them. @DiegoOjeda66 observed, “Google can’t keep up (for now) with current uses of daily language.” @SraSpanglish joked, “We should totally have a blog for translator mistakes that we see!”

Ethical Concerns

Debating how serious of a crime use of an OT is for student homework, some teachers, like @donna_shelton, warned that plagiarism is a serious offense. She said, “[Students] cheating w/Google Translate is [a] serious problem at [the] university level where writing must be done out of class.” This type of behavior can often lead to expulsion and loss of credit, although some high school teachers complained that their students didn’t really take it seriously. @MartinaBex said that she confronted her students about plagiarism and “they did NOT understand why it was a problem!”

An important distinction was made, however, as some teachers felt that using single words or translated phrases was not akin to copying full paragraphs of translated material. @HeatherMartens2 said, “Students using translators for sentences and paragraphs is plagiarism. [The] goal is to teach them to use them like a dictionary.” @KMachinRBE agreed and expanded this definition: “For single words and translation while reading, no problem. Submitting whole sentences and paragraph translations as [their] own? Plagiarism.”

While some teachers like @mweelin, actively discourage translator use in class to avoid plagiarism, other teachers see it as a natural condition of the teaching experience. @CristinaZimmer4 said, “Copying is a problem with anything, though. Guess you just have to trust them enough to want to learn something.”

Technology and the Teacher

Regardless of its pitfalls, our #langchat posters had to admit that translators are here to stay, so it’s best to figure out how to use them to our advantage.

@DiegoOjeda66 helped make the connection between online translators and Texas Instruments calculators, and @emilybakerhanes linked their use in both language and math as a tool that can be manipulated only once the basics have been mastered. Calculators, dictionaries and translators are all great tools, concluded @esantacruz13, but “we have to teach [students] to use them the right way or they’re useless.”

Many teachers agreed that this is the real need: to teach students how and when to use online translators properly. @SEOCottrell said, “Translation is a high-level skill that requires proficiency, not promotes it. We need to communicate this to students.” @Lclarcq responded, “[The] issue is to promote judicious use which requires self control, often hard for adolescents.” @CristinaZimmer4 was emphatic: “Students read and write more IN class because of technology. Teach [them] how to use Word Reference in class so as to use [it] well.”

Tucking OTs into your bag of teaching tricks

Participants disagreed about whether online translators and online dictionaries are equally beneficial. Although the terms are often interchanged, it was clear that many prefer to use only the online dictionaries. As this field covers more terrain, the boundaries between the two will likely continue to blur and offer ever more information-rich returns.

Preferred Translator: Google Translate

When is it okay to let students use it? “For summative assignments”, says @senoralopez. Only after the fact does @SECottrell allow them to use it “to check reading comprehension.”

These group games with Google were offered:

  • @DiegoOjeda66 suggests students play “In how many ways can you say the same thing?”
  • @DiegoOjeda66 also encouraged teachers to incorporate Google Translator Voice as another character in student conversations.
  • @DiegoOjeda66 said to have students translate a text to the L2, then compare with the Google Translate version. Make it a competition.
  • @CristinaZimmer4 suggested using Google Translate to “translate Spanish slang to see how it comes out in English.”

For more advanced levels, @mme_henderson uses Google to “create writer’s notebooks in Evernote with authentic language from blogs, forums, etc.”

Preferred Dictionary: WordReference

Posters raved about this resource that puts words into context, offers loads of alternatives and lets users hash out the nuanced meanings in long-threaded forums.

Students at @Catherineku1972’s school use the WordReference app on their iPods, while other teachers visit the website to make a point of showing their students how to correctly look up a word online.

Resourceful ideas:

  • Explore nuances, idioms, slang in their forums, says @SECottrell
  • Build off vocab lists to create sentences, write a short story or draw pictures, encourages @esantacruz13
  • After reading the definitions in WR, do a Google search to read it in context of articles, recommended @cadamsf1 and seconded by many

More recommended online dictionaries

Linguee is the tool @mme_henderson uses for phrases in context.

Lingro (The coolest dictionary known to hombre!) was introduced to several Spanish teachers by @dr_dmd

French teachers have two dictionaries Le grand dictionnaire terminologique (GDT) and Le dictionnaire multifonctions

Plus the Bonpatron spell-checker that @KirbyFecho claims “helps students autocorrect without giving answers.”

Brain as the Source, Translator as the Resource

@CoLeeSensei gives this advice to her students: “I tell them to use their brain as the source and their translator as the resource.” The underlying theme of this thread was summed up by @SenoritaClark, identifying the necessity to “teach students the confidence they need, so [as to] not rely on tech as a reflex.”

Ways to ensure true learning and appropriate use of OTs

  • Do writing exercises in class is the consensus; @mme_henderson likes to emphasize that writing is a process.
  • Use class time to engage students in live interaction, urges @lclarcq.
  • Assign homework that can’t be copied; @esantacruz13 recommends reading or watching a TV show, while @CristinaZimmer4 suggest listening acts.
  • Avoid dictionary dependency by prompting students to “Use what you know, to say what you want to say,” encourages @profeslack.
  • Encourage circumlocution instead of over-referencing. @SraHoopes explains what she does in her class: “Lots of circumlocution practice so they won’t feel the need to use translators.”

Additional word-acquisition and language-learning websites

  • @esantacruz13 suggests Duolingo language courses, “where most of the learning happens by translating.”
  • @LauraJaneBarber loves Quizlet for more translations and general learning.
  • Students of @srashrader download flashcards, Quizlet app and Edmodo on their phone
  • A word game played on phones, @lclarcq says “my students new craze is Ruzzle.”
  • To help teach writing, @mme_henderson pointed to a Pinterest literacy page.

A Final Reflection

Although there were a number of excellent comments and ideas shared about how, when and if translators and dictionaries should be used in the world language classroom, distilling a consensus was a difficult task. @Dr_DMD attempted to give a succinct set of standards for using translators and dictionaries in order to reflect the group discussion.

  • We value proficiency over translation.
  • We value relationships with kids. Teach them a better way and help them see why and how it is better.
  • Offer a rich authentic linguistic environment, and offer students voice and choice to engage in good L2 acquisition.
  • Help students learn how to use good tools, digital and others, with excellent critical thinking opportunities.
  • Help kids avoid the translation game, but have fun making fun of it too! it IS FUNNY!
  • Laugh often and enjoy your students!

Thank You!

As always, thanks to all our participants and moderators for sharing your great ideas and discussion! #Langchat and all these resources wouldn’t exist without your support each week.

Be sure to join us next week for another great discussion on #langchat! Feel free to let us know what you’d like to discuss by visiting our topic suggestion form. Also, check out the full archive of Thursday’s chat.

#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.


Elementary in Spanish
Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

No Comments

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

This site uses cookies to improve your experience. Click I accept to consent. More info: Privacy Policy