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The Google Translate problem

I read on social media groups for language teachers that many teachers have stopped setting written homework to pupils because the latter are resorting to Google Translate so often. Instead these teachers are setting learning homework or exercises with apps such as Memrise. This is, in a way, understandable, but it's also very regrettable.

If written work is done in the classroom it leaves less time for listening and speaking, which it is harder to plan for as homework. Time is already too limited for MFL so to restrict that time for listening and speaking even further is bound to hinder the progress pupils can make. Second language acquisition occurs primarily through receiving understandable messages and communicating, not so much by doing written drills, writing paragraphs or learning individual words from lists of apps. If you do less listening and communication in class you limit the progress students can make. Put simply, if students do not do written homework I believe they are likely to get poorer results.

I have to confess that my first reaction, on reading that written homework has been abandoned because of cheating with Google, is why cannot the school culture or individual teacher ensure that pupils do not cheat in the first place? If classroom control is firm, expectations high and sanctions clear, then resorting to Google Translate should be a rare and unacceptable event. In many schools this is the case. Using Google Translate is the equivalent of copying from a friend.

If anyone is tempted by the argument that using Google is real life task and should be encouraged, I would gently suggest that the classroom is not the real world. In our field of MFL we have a duty to help students develop proficiency in a language. Using Google won't help much in this regard, or at least there are much better ways!

I would also ask whether the teachers who have dropped written homework have fully thought through the implications for planning. I would still support the traditional model of using the classroom for doing as much speaking, listening, reading as possible, along with some writing, then using written homework to reinforce the classroom input and practice.

Now, if the battle has effectively been lost with a class and a teacher cannot limit the use of Google, what steps can be taken to mitigate the situation?

Well, firstly you could enlist Google Translate to create useful exercises. Here are a few ideas:
  • Provide a TL text, invite pupils to translate it electronically, the ask them to create their own exercises, e.g. a set of false sentences, a true/false task or TL questions. Pupils could still use Google Translate to help create these tasks, but students would still have to engage with the written text more carefully.
  • Provide a written TL text or short texts with errors and ask students to rewrite and correct them. This would be hard to do by using Google Translate.
  • Set a written TL text to summarise. Invite students to translate the source text into English with Google, then write an English summary in their own words. Then tell the students to translate back their summary into TL electronically. Students should check the final TL summary for accuracy.
  • Provide a source text in English, tell students to translate it electronically then highlight TL words by word class (e.g. verb, noun, adjective, adverb). Although this demands no language manipulation it contributes to syntactic awareness and comprehension.
  • Distribute texts in hard copy print form only so that students have to copy across text. Only a minority would scan, I would suggest.
None of the above tasks are as valuable, in my view, as activities which get students to create sentences themselves using their knowledge of vocabulary and syntax. These activities allow students to recycle language and build up long term memory and proficiency.

Now, if you still think writing cannot be set at home and rely on vocabulary learning (which has its own issues, of course - principally how can you be sure pupils are spending enough time on it; or what do you do if, when tested, pupils get consistently low scores)?

Other forms of useful comprehension can be set:
  • Get students to do listening or video listening tasks with worksheets. Students would have great difficulty using a translation app to complete much of the task.
  • Ask students to record homework which might have otherwise been written. In this case, even if Google was used, students have to invest more in the task by doing reading aloud.
  • Set gap-fill comprehension tasks with written texts (with or without options). Google could help but significant engagement with the text would still be needed.
  • Set TL multiple choice tasks on written texts.
There is no doubt that Google Translate poses significant problems for language teachers, and I sympathise with those who feel they cannot win this homework battle, but by putting up a really strong front (supported by whatever whole-department or whole-school mechanisms are needed) and setting written tasks which discourage simple direct translation it is possible to limit the damage.


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