Students using online translators in a world language class can be a difficult topic – is it appropriate? When is it acceptable to use an online translator? How can we teach our students to know when it is OK to use a translator and when they must not use one? It is important for our students to understand the limitations of an online translator, and in which circumstances they can and should be used.
Many teachers do not allow students to use online translators at all, for assignments or for assessments. This doesn’t keep students from using them, especially on work that is done away from the classroom. If you don’t want your students to use a translator, it can be helpful to explain your expectations so that students don’t feel as if they need to turn in work that is at a higher level than they are capable of producing themselves.
I have found that many students – particularly in first year – feel as if their work should be similar to what they can do in their native language. Only once I show them examples of what appropriate-level work should look like do they relax a bit and realize that they are capable of accomplishing the assignment without resorting to a translator!
Another issue that students may have is feeling as if they simply can’t write in the target language – they don’t know where to start. I find that using anchor charts as starting points can be helpful – the anchor chart can be used as a crutch for assignments until they internalize the phrases and constructions.
Students build confidence to the point where they don’t feel the need for a translator, or if they do use one, it if for new words and structures they haven’t seen before – not the things you’ve been working on in class!
How can teachers teach about using online translators appropriately?
The first step is to admit that students WILL use online translators. Even the best student will want to say something that they don’t know how to say, and most people don’t have a French-English dictionary these days. The key to teaching students appropriate use of translators is to address it head-on rather than just adopting a “just say no” approach.
I am very honest with students about what online translators can and can’t do. In the past, translators have been horrible. They’ve improved a lot in the past decade, and sometimes you can’t tell the difference between human-produced and computer-produced translations.
But this is a problem for students – the translators will likely produce language that is too good – it will use phrases and verb tenses that our students don’t understand, haven’t seen, and couldn’t possibly produce on their own.
Again, sharing expectations with students can help. I explain that I do not expect them to write on the level they can write in their native language – they will sound like little kids in French for a while, and that’s OK! Just for fun, I do share some examples of horrible Google translate fails including songs that have been sent through multiple translations before returning to English.
Another important step is to explain when using online translators is acceptable and when it is absolutely forbidden. You may allow them to use online translators on homework assignments or classwork, but not on exams. It needs to be clear that this is the case and what the repercussions will be.
If a student who is struggling in class gets caught using a translator and they get a 0 on the assessment, they may feel that it is worth the risk – after all, they were going to do badly on the test anyway and there’s a chance that they might not get caught.
If the student knows that the consequences will be that they need to come in for extra help and then retake the test in front of you, the reward of using the translator goes down – they might fail the test without the translator, but if they get caught, they won’t be able to just take a zero – they’ll have to put MORE effort into coming in for extra help and doing a retake!
Or, you might have a different view of appropriate use – it’s fine to use an online translator to look up a word, but not a sentence. You might allow students to write in French, then enter it into an online translator to check for accuracy.
Whatever your stance on using online translators, the most important thing is to let your students know clearly what your rules are for their use. They are too easily available to ignore, and the ease of use makes them very attractive to students. Showing your students their limitations, uses, and your rules for when using online translators is appropriate can help you to have a realistic policy and “keep the peace” in your classroom on this topic.