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translation tools

How Much of a Language Can You Learn from Translation Tools?

Translation tools are typically associated with saving us the need to learn languages, but leading names in the industry claim they can be used to help people with their language studies.

Microsoft in particular insists Skype Translator will help kids learn languages in school, after concerns were raised about the demo video it released last year. But can tools like Skype and Google Translate really help us master foreign languages?


The challenge of accurate translation

The Skype Translator demo that created a talking point in language education.

As with all translation technology there’s always the question of accuracy when relying on machines to calculate the finer details of a language. The fact remains that translation tools are somewhat inaccurate, even when it comes to translating simple phrases and sentences.

This doesn’t mean they’re useless as a learning tool, but it’s important you understand their limitations and use them accordingly.

Google translation in Spanish

Google translate turns “I’m hot” into a potentially troublesome “I’m horny” in Spanish.

One hurdle translation machines face is that direct translation rarely works, but the real challenge for software is understanding context.

Google translation Spanish

The shot above shows Google’s translation of the English word “press” into Spanish, which it translates as “prensa,” meaning press in the journalistic sense. But in English you can also press a button, press an issue, press a shirt and assign many other meanings which don’t translate in Spanish. In fact, Google comes up with a total of 23 other translations with their own unique context battles.

We’re only talking about one word here too, so you can imagine how difficult it is for computers to translate entire documents – especially when you consider the simple error we pointed out above.


A problem with translation itself

While it’s difficult to imagine machines understanding context any time soon (if at all), let’s be optimistic and assume they eventually will improve enough to become accurate translators. But as far as language learning goes, there’s even an issue with translating for learners.

In the words of this article on language learning, “Translation teaches learners about language, but not how to use it. Translation does not help learners develop their communication skills.” Again, this doesn’t mean that the process of translation isn’t useful for language learning, but using it alone prevents learners from thinking like a native speaker of their chosen language because translation doesn’t take context and culture into consideration.

Translation was originally designed as a business tool for people with language fluency – like our voice over UK team working with professional translators and foreign voice artists, for example. It was never designed as a language learning tool for people who need to adopt a fresh way of thinking as they cross linguistic boundaries – so its use is limited.


The role of translation in language learning

While translation presents a barrier of sorts for language learners, it can still prove useful in a controlled environment. But it’s always worth remembering that human translators are linguistic experts who understand the limits of translation alone – and they apply this to their work so they can capture an accurate meaning. Translation in the hands of people without linguistic expertise, however, can be counterproductive for language studies and it’s important learners understand this throughout their journey with foreign languages.