Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Google Translate for Academic Writng?


The other night, and in view of the fact that my students were facing an imminent submission deadline, I tweeted a number of hints and tips for polishing up essay drafts prior to submission. In all honest most of those suggestions were nothing more than the standard liturgy of procedures which any Stella Cottrell reader would doubtless be familiar with. The one exception was my suggestion that if a students first language was not English, and they were struggling to express an idea clearly, that they could try writing in their first language and then running it through Google Translate.

There were some incredulous responses, which quickly made me realise that adding such a tip was probably unwise. Not because such a suggestion might not benefit students in such a position but because the use of such resources really needs to be accompanied by some sort of explanation. Like a government health warning on a packet of cigarettes.

First of all, after a fair number of years teaching study skills for higher education students has shown me that by far the biggest barrier to student success is the English language. This is particularly (perhaps specifically) the case in the College where I teach, and which boasts approximately 64% BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) students, and doubtless a significantly higher percentage of students for whom English is a second language. There are many things which an institution can do to support students for whom English is a second language, and most of those support mechanisms will revolve around things like additional study skills support, writing workshops, and embedded activities within the curriculum which help students develop their understanding of the conventions and structures of academic writing.

The reality is, though, that students for whom English is a second language will always find themselves to some extent at a disadvantage in their studies. They will find it a greater challenge to read the increasingly complex texts they have to deal with, and they will find it a greater challenge to write the increasingly complex ideas that they need to express in their writing. As much ESL support as they get, it is difficult to provide specific support for a student who may be fluent in everyday English but who now finds themselves having to explain about the absence of the transcendental signifier with clarity in a linguistics essay (the irony of which is, I’m sure you would agree, rather pleasingly Derridean).

Google Translate is arguably the most sophisticated commercial translation tool available - and almost certainly the best one you can use for free. Instead of simply correlating with language dictionaries, it looks for patterns among existing translations which can often pinpoint the most relevant translation according to genre. What is interesting about this, is the possibility that it can sometimes detect the academic nature of its source.

The increasing availability of such tools has caused some people concern. Certainly there are potential plagiary issues which I have no intention of explaining in detail, because I do not want to write a manual for plagiary. However I would suggest that there are certain legitimate ways in which such tools can be used as an effective support mechanism for students whose first language is not English.

1) Reading: As mentioned above, students who may be fluent in everyday English are going to find the kind of texts they are reading on a degree course increasingly problematic. Such problems are not primarily lexical (a student with English as a first language is likely to find the definitions of advanced subject-specific words just as new as anyone else), but syntactical. The denser and more convoluted the ideas being explored, the more dense and convoluted becomes the language expressing them. Most of us can probably recall those occasions when faced with a seemingly impenetrable text trying furiously to wrestle some kind of sense out of it. For many, the route through that wall of obscurity is to try and find new ways of thinking about the text - looking at in in new ways, trying to find different ways to say the same thing. Of course this kind of linguistic flexibility is something which is going to be inherently more difficult if English is not your first language. Putting your impenetrable paragraph into Google Translate and seeing it in your first language will not produce a perfect result, but it does offer students the opportunity to look at the text from a different perspective, and this in itself might be a means by which they can break through to an understanding of the text itself.

2) Writing: Again, Google Translate will never work as a means by which you can simply write an essay in your first language and translate it into academic English. Although potentially possible, the algorithms for such a piece of software would be far too complex and specialist. However, again it can be a useful tool for those moments where a student becomes stuck. There are few thing more frustrating than grading an essay where you are certain that the student is attempting to express something complex, ambitious and important - but that the language barrier has mangled the idea so much that you cannot in fairness reward it fully. Writing that idea in a first language and running it through Google Translate can potentially offer a new structure for the expression of that idea that might help see it in a new and clearer light. This could be particularly helpful at the later stages of an essays composition, when students are reading through their work and trying to refine the expression of short sections of their essays, or trying to achieve complex links between points.

Of course there are dangers with all of this. The academic writing and EAP support co-ordinator at my College noted the concern that students become dependent on technology like Google Translate, instead of taking opportunities to work through language issues and come to a more sophisticated use of language themselves. Similarly, there is a danger that students see Google Translate as an end-product, rather than merely an ideas generator. There are, as mentioned, certainly health warnings which need to accompany the use of such technologies.

However, there are a few reasons why I have started to suggest to students that they could try it. To begin with, all students have free and open access to the resource, and there is no reason why they cannot use it. It is not as though a student could be penalised for using it, so until HE institutions start to ban the thing it remains a legitimate tool. Secondly, although I have heard comments which imply that this might be providing students with an unfair advantage, I could not disagree more. Students with English as a second language are at a huge disadvantage from the beginning. Using a tool like Google Translate does not unfairly advantage them. Indeed, it does not even come close to levelling the playing field. It has the potentially for giving them just a little bit more support - and that seems to me to be fair enough.

I am by no means adamant about these suggestions, and by no means utterly convinced of the value of Google Translate. I tend to suggest to students ‘if you are really struggling, see if it helps’. I would certainly welcome any alternative view or experiences...