The Perils of Google Translate

Posted on 18/06/2012


My students typically look at me sceptically when I beg them not to use Google Translate. She just wants to make life more difficult for us, they think. Which is not true. She doesn’t realise I have a finite amount of time available to me. Which is not true either. She wants me to think about the word and come to an intelligent guess based on context and based on what we know of the language, as well as other languages including our own. Well, that is closer to the truth. Yes, it takes longer that way – but it’s all part of building their “linguistic intelligence”, which will in turn will make future language learning more effective.

But the main reason is this: Google Translate is extremely unreliable.

Many words in many languages have more than one meaning.  A computer program has no “linguistic intelligence” – no “feel” for language and how words relate to each other and to their context – and therefore no way of knowing which meaning to choose, which can lead to all kinds of problems and misunderstandings.

When you use a real dictionary – on paper, on CD-ROM, as an app, or online – you are given the list of possible words. Yes, it takes a couple of minutes to read through the list and intelligently decide which of the meanings is most likely to be right for the piece they are reading, or which word they should use in their writing. But the end product is the real language – or at least much close to it than Google Translate will get them.

I try to explain all of this, and they still think I am being mean.

So I like it when examples like this one in the Guardian pop up to prove that I am not.


— for more hints and tips on language learning, buy Conquering Babel: A Practical Guide to Learning a Language here in the US and here in the UK.

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