How To Turn Auto-Translation Into Your Language-Learning Friend

Tools that translate for you automatically might be hurting your ability to learn a new language, but they don’t have to be!
A street with the English and Chinese version of "look right" spray-painted on the ground

While auto-translation tools are far from perfect, they’re getting better all the time. With the push of a button, you can translate an entire website into the language of your choice (assuming it’s supported by your auto-translation service). While there might be some wonky grammar and word choice, you can at least get the gist of what the translation is saying.

The main problem with auto-translation tools is that they don’t leave much room for learning. Even if you do really want to master a new language, having auto-translation at your fingertips can be an irresistible temptation. But if you give up too early on trying to understand something, you’re  missing out on valuable brain exercise.

Auto-translation doesn’t have to be the enemy of learning, however. If you adjust how you use it, you can turn it into a helpful learning tool. Here are a few of our tips to do just that! And with all of these, keep in mind that you shouldn’t rely solely on what the auto-translation says.

Never Translate A Whole Page

It is, of course, enormously convenient to translate a whole webpage. The auto-translation icon is right up there, taunting you to use it. But this is the surest way to make sure you won’t learn anything. Once a page is translated, it’s hard to see what the original version said.

If you do translate a page, however, you should do it after you’ve done your best to comprehend what you read in your target language. Even if you want to give up halfway through, try to hold on and focus on what you do know rather than what you don’t. Checking after you’re done will reinforce what you understood and help you figure out what you didn’t. Which brings us to the next tip.

Actively Compete With The Translator

Even knowing that auto-translation is imperfect, it can be good for testing your own abilities with a range of texts. If you run into a tweet in your target language and think you know what it means, you can test your own translation against the one that’s given. To check the answer, though, you’ll have to consult a more detailed dictionary (either online or offline) and check a grammar guide. It’s time consuming, but this is a great way to quiz yourself on your comprehension and build your skills.

Use Auto-Translation Tools For Words, Not Sentences

One of the features of Google Translate is that it will give you more information than a direct translation. If you enter a single word to be translated, it can give you multiple possible translations and some context. This is great, because it allows you to see that translation is more than just a one-to-one conversion from one language to another.

Google Translate doesn’t work as well with longer phrases. It will still give you its best approximation of a translation, yes. But instead of giving you multiple options for what a word could mean, it will only give you one. The best way to use Google Translate and other translation services is one word at a time. This isn’t dissimilar from how you would use an old-fashioned dictionary (which may be an even better option than auto-translation). It’s not as fast, but it’ll help you learn more about the language.

Take Advantage Of Audio Features

If you’re using Google Translate or similar translation services, there’s likely an audio feature. While sometimes this means listening to clunky robot voices, these tools are improving, and many have words and phrases spoken aloud by real humans. Most of the items on this list are primarily for your reading and writing skills, but this one allows you to work on your listening. And to add speaking to the list, mimic the pronunciation you hear.

Double-Check The Grammar

One of the most difficult things for translation tools to do is make sure all of the grammar is correct, and that’s where some of the biggest problems can arise. Think about the phrase “I read.” This short sentence could be translated into another language to mean either “I read before” (past tense) or “I read regularly” (present simple tense). These kinds of translations require a lot of context to get right, which is trickier for computers than for humans. In these scenarios, you’ll want to find a more reliable source for grammar information.

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