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So I’m sure that you’ve heard more than a few times that Google Translate is a downright heathen when it comes to actual translations.
And if you’ve used it enough, you’ve probably also realized that it’s translations can be much too literal. 3 years ago, you could search the phrase “how are you” and simply receive “how” “are” and “you” mashed together in a sentence that didn’t even exist in your target language.
But fortunately, Google Translate seems to have changed the algorithm behind its service. And the company has actually enlisted help from a global native community.
So suddenly, you don’t have to be scared to translate words and short phrases. You can actually use translations between your mother tongue and target language as the valuable tool it is.
I know, I know. You’ve probably heard that translation is right next to being the devil when it comes to learning translations. That it only encourages you to mentally switch back and forth between your first language and learned language.
But in moderation, and with reliable translation tools, your only downfall would be in not using it. It’s the only real reason why learning a second language can be so much quicker than learning your native language.
As children, we had nothing to guide us except visuals– leading to about 8 years of learning before our speaking and reading could actually be considered “solid.”
After all, it’s even been proven that the U.S. average literacy score is Level 2, or basic, literacy– equivalent to literacy levels at age 7-9. (according to the latest Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies)
Yet adults are able to learn languages in as little as 6 months; a speed that could never be achieved through solely visuals and listening.
So instead of fearing Google Translate as a block for your language progression, I can give you 6 reasons you shouldn’t.
All based around the right ways to make sure that you don’t let the tool turn you into a joke among natives.
Only use verified translations
You may notice that more and more translations today are becoming “verified.” Meaning they’ve been corrected and/or confirmed by the hundreds of bilingual users within Google’s “Translate Community.”
It’s much more than some machine-based algorithm pulling words from a database. Google Translate was even able to add 5 more languages earlier this year, which they’ve attributed towards “the active involvement from [their] Translate Community members.”
And don’t worry– Google doesn’t actually display a translation unless a multitude of users have confirmed the translation.
Allowing native speakers to contribute to their algorithm ensures that translations properly reflect the connotations and context surrounding phrases.
It ensures that the translations represent their English (or another language) equivalents rather than being identical to the literal words.
Like the phrase “how are you?” translates to “bạn khỏe không?” in Vietnamese. Which is the Vietnamese customary greeting when asking about one’s well-being but literally translates to “you fine no?”
So while a machine would likely return the word for each this global community creates a reliable source you can actually use to sound like a native.
So this also means that you shouldn’t rely on a non-verified translation. If the translation doesn’t have the little check-mark, then you should refer to another source.
There’s too much that could wrong when relying on Google’s “scraping” of the web. Because Google will return some pretty wack sentences once you delve deeper than what the community has confirmed.
It may still be right if it’s not verified, but I wouldn’t recommend taking the risk.
Only Translate single words and short phrases
The biggest and most blatantly obvious ill-fated translations that Google Translates returns are the ones where a user inserts a whole paragraph, page, or essay.
Your teacher will know. Natives will know. And people who are actually fluent in the language will know.
Because 9 times out of 10, when a machine is your sole translator, you will too end up sounding like a machine.
Paragraphs and/or groups of sentences are never verified by the Translate community. They’re simple too long and unique to whatever the heck you’re talking about.
So if you must translate from one language into another, then break up your input into phrases. Phrases provide context that ensure you’re using the right version of each word, and they’re largely verified.
Use it in conjunction with other resources
This one should probably go without saying, but Google Translate should not be your only means of learning a language.
Use the tool for translations on the side of your main forms of learning. The best translations will always be provided by native speakers. So even when Google Translate returns a pretty believable phrase or term, you should still confirm it through humans and actual teaching platforms.
If multiple sources can confirm a translation then you know it’s right. And since Google Translate only returns one main translation of your searched term, you can check with other sources on whether that’s the only way to say it.
For example, I had a native speaker tell me the Vietnamese word for “government” was “chính phủ.” Yet Google Translate tells me its “chính quyền.”
But they’re actually both right. While only knowing one wouldn’t be an issue when I’m talking, I’d be bamboozled when someone used the other term.
And in any case, this situation could potentially lead to a debate which you, as a new learner, are bound to lose.
Make sure you refer to definitions
There are words in English that have multiple meanings, that we as native speakers have never thought about.
When you search an individual term, you’re going to receive a “main translation” and possibly multiple other translations referring to the term’s alternate meaning(s).
Take the English word “get” for example. You can say “did you get what he was talking about”, “did you get hurt”, “did you get my gift” “did you get there in time” or “you better get out of here.”
And get means something different in all of those sentences. Most other languages have different terms for each of those circumstances.
The Spanish language has 36 different ways of expressing “get.” So you have to read the definitions, and synonymous words to make sure you’re actually using right word.
Google Translate returns “obtener” as the primary translation, yet that word would only work for when someone is obtaining something. If you were trying to say “did you get there in time,” then you you would need to use the word “llegar.”
So take advantage of the hover feature and and click on the secondary translations that seem to best match what you’re trying to express.
More than likely, you’ll then receive a community verified English equivalent that’s a more specific translation than an ambiguous word like “get.”
Use the Frequency ratings as beginner’s guide for what to start with
When an English word has multiple foreign language equivalents, Google Translates provides the search frequency levels for each word it returns.
These ratings indicate how often a translation appears in public documents, and are pretty good guidelines
And while these by no means imply that you shouldn’t also learn the less common terms, I’d suggest you start with the higher-frequency words.
If words with 3 blue bars are “commonly searched” then they’re also commonly used within the language in general. So if your goal is reaching conversational fluency sooner rather than later, you should prioritize accordingly.
Try to learn as many words in the order of:
- Common translations
- Less common translations
- Rare translations
Eventually you’ll have to learn all of these, but it’s a rare asset to have their “use” levels on open display like this.
Plus since these are words are “commonly translated,” that in itself implies they’re the terms beginners typically start with.
So it can give your own self-teaching routine a bit of direction that follows institutional curriculum.
So what now?
My mission with this site is to help other atypical language learners who, like myself, are simply too broke (or preoccupied) to travel.
Why wreck your bank account when you can experience language immersion from the comforts of your own home?
I don’t know either. Personally, using my own self-teaching methods I’ve acquired more Vietnamese in just a few months of learning than in 3 years of Spanish courses.
It’s almost shameful.
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If you’re interested in learning how to both simplify the language acquisition process and the keys to efficient digital immersion, then make sure you sign up for your free copy of Everything to know about the “Naturally Simple” approach to language acquisition.
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As always, thanks so much for reading and I’ll see you in the next one!