Can You Learn a Language with Google Translate?

If you need something translated from one language into another, what resource do you turn to?

Google Translate, of course!

Since its launch way back in 2006, there have been few translation services that are as widely used, by both language learners and non-language learners alike. 

It is so popular, in fact, that in 2018, Google reported that the service translates approximately 143 billion words every day!

But how good is Google Translate, really? Is it really the best tool to use if you need a quick and accurate translation?

Today, I'm going to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Google Translate as a language learning tool, as well as all the ways in which you can use the service to benefit your learning.

So, what is the purpose of Google Translate really?

That much is obvious. Its purpose is to use a process called “machine learning” to take text that is in one language, and quickly and reliably translate it into another language. The system is not perfect, but in most cases it delivers free, reasonably-accurate translations in a pinch, without having to rely on human translators. 

It’s simple to use, too. All you need to do is type the text in your “starting” language on the left side, and then pick your “destination” language from the dropdown list on the right side.

Once you’ve done that, Google instantaneously serves up the translated text on the right-side text box. Quick and easy!

But how can we, as language learners, get the most mileage out of Google Translate?

I have a few key strategies, which I will share with you now.

1. Never Translate Single Words

This is more of a recommendation than a strategy, but if you follow it, the quality of the translations you receive from Google Translate will be much, much better:

When you use Google Translate, never, ever use it to translate single words!

Behind the scenes of Google Translate, the program is really a complex series of machine learning algorithms and neural networks that have been trained to translate words and phrases based on context. 

In language learning terms, “context” refers to the surrounding “environment” that a word or phrase finds itself in. Context is what is used to determine which meaning of a word is the correct one in a specific situation, even if the word itself has multiple meanings.

That’s why, for example, when I say a phrase like “birds can fly”, you know that the word “fly” is referring to the verb “to fly”, rather than the pesky, buzzing insect known as a “fly”, or even the “fly” found on a pair of pants. 

Machine translators need context to understand language, just like humans do. If you type the word “fly” into Google translate, it will have no idea if you’re specifically referring to the verb “to fly”, or any of the other possible meanings. So it will just pick one for you. 

As a result, since you most likely don’t understand the language that “fly” is being translated into, there’s a decent likelihood you’ll end up with an incorrect translation without even realizing it. 

So again, please remember to always use multiple word phrases or sentences when you input language into Google Translate. It’s the only way to ensure even a reasonably accurate translation. 

2. Create Instant, Bilingual Texts with Audio

Although I just spoke about how you should always make sure to throw at least one entire phrase or sentence into Google Translate at a time, there’s actually nothing stopping you from translating texts that are much, much larger. 

On its main “text” page, Google Translate allows you to translate 5,000 characters at a time. That’s more characters than I’ve used to write this entire blog post up to this point!

However, if you have an even larger text to translate, you can turn to Google Translate’s Documents tab, which allows you to upload entire text documents to be translated.

Why is it useful for Google Translate to be able to translate entire documents at a time?

Because this means we can use it to create bilingual texts with audio (affiliate), all in a moment’s notice.

How do you do this?

First you need a text in your target language. You should always start with an authentic target language text (affiliate), so that you are not learning from incorrect or inaccurate language.

When you have your text, you can type, paste, or upload it to Google Translate, and have the system translate that text into your mother tongue.

A few moments later and...voila! You’ve now got a bilingual version of your original text, in both your target language and your native language. You can then use a resource like this to read through the original “foreign” version, using the translated version as a guide when you get lost, or want to know the definition of a word.

I’ve been using this process recently in my Danish learning, and it has been amazingly helpful:

First, I grab the subtitles from a video on my favorite Danish YouTube channel, called WTF er det? 

Then, I simply copy the text, paste it into Google Translate and I’ve instantly got an interesting and enjoyable learning resource.

There is one problem with creating bilingual texts with Google Translate, though, which you may have already thought of:

Google Translate’s translations are often decently accurate, but not accurate enough to be considered perfect, or at least equal to what a human translator would give you. 

Though this may seem worrisome at first, we need to remember the reason why we’re using a machine translator in the first place: to get a free and quick translation that’s at the very least comprehensible

The translation into your native language does not have to be perfect. It has to be good enough for you to understand the text in your target language. In this regard, I think that Google Translate does a respectable job, especially compared to other translators, and even earlier versions of Google Translate itself.

If you’re still worried about getting as accurate a translation as possible, there are a few things you can do:

  • 1
    Translate simple texts
  • 2
    Translate between “close” languages.

1. Translate Simple Texts

The more complicated a text is, the more likely Google Translate will have a hard time translating it. So, as much as you’d like to use the service to get a quick and free translation of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (Бра́тья Карама́зовы), the end result probably isn’t going to be very useful to you.

To get as accurate a translation as possible, you should stick to simple texts, like the ones normally written for the benefit of beginner and intermediate language learners. Anything more complex (like slang, academic articles, or literature), and the translations might look like gibberish. 

2. Translate Between Close Languages

There are certain linguistic features that can make it easier for Google Translate to give you a reliable translation between two languages.

The most useful of these is probably syntax, which is the set of rules that govern the order of words in a sentence. Languages that share the same order of elements (the order in which grammatical subjects, objects, and verbs appear, for example) can be easily translated back and forth.

Languages that are “genetically” related usually share the same syntax, so if you are using two languages from the same language family (or even a larger grouping), your ultimate translation will be much better.

In this way, it is very easy for Google Translate to translate reliably from Spanish to Italian, Italian to English, English to Polish, and so on. Even unrelated languages that have the same word order (like English and Chinese) can be translated more accurately between each other.

But what if you’re learning a language like Japanese, and your native language is English?

You’re not entirely out of luck. Google Translate’s ability to translate between syntactically different languages (English and Japanese, Italian and Korean, etc) has improved dramatically in recent years, but in general, the translations still remain quite flawed, and often confusing.

Fortunately, though, there are a number of other translation products available that do a better job at translating between these specific languages, and many of those have the same features as Google Translate.

3. Prepare Yourself for a Target Language Conversation

Another engaging and smart way to use Google Translate is to use it to prepare speaking sessions with your tutor or language partner. When you have scheduled time for a conversation, be sure to spend at least twenty minutes beforehand preparing yourself. You can do this by using Google Translate to research words and phrases that will be useful in your upcoming conversation.

Let’s assume that you and your tutor or language partner do not have a conversation topic chosen in advance. As a result, you can decide to talk about any topic under the sun.

I’ve always found that it’s easiest and most motivating to talk about topics that we care about. Topics that motivate and interest us. That make us tick, so to speak. 

So pick a topic that you’re really passionate about, and then imagine the kinds of things you can talk about when you bring that up in conversation. You don’t have to do this in your target language just yet—just imagine what a conversation on your chosen topic could look like.

Then, try to simulate the conversation in your target language. You can even play the role of your “partner” too, if you’d like. 

As you do this, you’ll realize that there are things that you want to say in your target language, that you don’t actually know how to say.

No worries! That’s what we need Google Translate for!

Whenever you find that there’s something in your simulated conversation that you want to say, but can’t, simply throw it into Google Translate, and write down the result. Then, keep your list of “unknown” phrases with you, and try to use them when you actually meet with your speaking partner. 

That’s what I do every time I have a conversation with my Hungarian tutor. 

For example, I often love learning about astronomy, cosmology, and space travel. So, whenever I learn a new language, these are topics I often try to talk about in that language.

So one day, last year, I was meeting with my Hungarian tutor, and decided to talk about the moon landing. That’s not an easy topic, as you can imagine. There were all sorts of words and phrases that I would need to learn, but didn’t yet know. 

So I acted out my conversation alone, and then turned to Google Translate. I typed in phrases like:

  • “The lunar module finally landed”
  • “The astronauts were tired”
  • “Men walked on the moon”

Notice how I don’t put single words, and insead put phrases or short sentences. Remember the rule—no single words, ever!

Once I had my translated phrases, I was able to put them to use effectively when talking to my Hungarian tutor. 

Even though this technique often does often go according to plan, it’s useful to remember that conversations are often unpredictable. Sometimes, your conversation will take an unforeseen turn, and you’ll realize that there’s a phrase or two that you need, but don’t know how to say in your target language. 

Again, no need to worry! As we’ve already mentioned, Google Translate is super fast, so you can always just open it up on your computer or phone, and get a quick translation on the spot. Since your tutor or language partner is with you, you can also get immediate feedback on the correctness of the translated phrase or sentence!

Now, with that piece of advice, you might be worried that using Google Translate during a conversation is like cheating on an academic exam.

Trust me, it’s nothing of the sort. If you use Google Translate in this way, you’re using it to facilitate conversation, rather than allowing yourself to get stuck in those awkward moments where you’re desperately trying to think of a word you need, but it won’t come. 

Seriously. If you’re worried about this, I recommend that you actually tell your partner or  tutor upfront that you will be using Google Translate for quick translation. There is freedom in truth, and no shame in using technology to facilitate communication and help you speak better. 

Remember: a conversation (in most cases) is not a level test, or a performance to be critiqued. It is a connection that benefits both people the easier it naturally flows.

Conclusion

So there you have it. These are just three ways in which you can use Google Translate.

To wrap it all up: 

For language learning, Google Translate is neither a blessing, nor a curse. Rather, it is just a tool that when used correctly, can help you quickly find decent-quality translations between two languages.

You can use it to create bilingual comprehensible texts (affiliate), to prepare conversations and use it on the fly to help you find words and expressions you don't know or still can’t use.

All in all, I think Google Translate  is a great tool. It is free, easy to use and intuitive in most situations. It does have its limitations, of course (especially for certain combinations of languages) but the overall quality of the translations are constantly improving. 

In any case, I think it is best used by beginner or low-intermediate learners, and with combinations of languages that share a similar syntax.

Now, how do you use Google Translate? Have you always used it in the same way, or has your use of it changed over time?

Let me know in the comments below!

Written by Luca Lampariello

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  • Another equally useful tool for translation is “REVERSO” which you can download directly to Mozilla or Google Chrome (as browser extensions). It gives you the possibility to translate literally or entire sentences on YOUTUBE or NETFLIX subtitles. The moment the pointer goes to the word or phrase, the video suddenly stops, giving you plenty of time to examine what you are looking for.

  • I find it helps in translation comprehension. It is often helpful to get an overall view if text before an in depth translation.

  • Thank you for this very useful video Luca. I have been using Google Translate already, but not in the efficient and effective way you describe.

  • Thank you for a wonderful post! I have been using Google translate to learn German and French for a long time lol, and sometimes I find it even more useful than learning app because it corrects my grammar and word use(a translation version verified checkmark is supposed to be the correct one), and with it I can know right away how to say what I want to say in my target language. Although it’s a one sided and non-interactive tool that can’t fully replace a real teacher or be as informative as a grammar book, if used correctly, GT is certainly be a really helpful, fun and time saving way to quickly learn something new.

    A fancier tool that I use is GlotDojo extension for Chrome, it allows you to watch netflix, youTube, coursera, amazon prime, Udemy etc with dual subtitles and uses the open source from Google Translate to instantly translate when you click any word on the video subtitles or webpage content. The best thing is it’s free and I’ve also been using it for a while now, super nice.

  • I think google has improved a lot its system. Right now I use it for checking the meaning of English to English. Although I know there are many good free dictionaries, but definitely, it is a very good one. Sometimes I don’t know how to pronounce a word and I look for the word on google and I play the pronunciation. I think it is a good tool.

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