What is the future of Google Translate and EAP? 5

There is a plethora of technological tools for students to assist the use of an additional language is many contexts. There are also myriad sites devoted to the discussion of use, development and exploitation of these tools, whether this is in EAP or beyond- and many of these are excellent. However, one tool that is very often overlooked is the one that has, perhaps, the greatest potential to disrupt our practise in EAP. It is not very often discussed by the practitioners. This tool is Google Translate.

We have all, I am sure, had the experience of looking at the translations done by Google Translate, and laughing at the lack of accuracy it produced. But it is getting better all the time, and is now capable of some fairly sophisticated translation, at least at the sentence level. A recent study (full disclosure- a colleague and I) found that translations using Google from Malay contained around 5 errors per one hundred words.  If you triangulate with another study of error rates in IELTS, you come out with the translation software writing at a level of around 6.5 IELTS, if measured only in grammatical terms.

Of course, it would be stretching things too far to say that GT can then write perfectly. It can only work (at the moment) at the level of the sentence. It cannot even begin to move things like patterns of organisation, academic conventions or argumentation across languages. It works reasonably well with the sentence, but fails utterly when we consider the paragraph, let alone the intercultural rhetoric level.

However, the question is not whether Google can write perfect English- the vital question is whether Google can write better than the students’ own interlanguage. If a student can use the translation to produce writing that just about makes the grade- why would they go to the expense, and effort, and time, and frustration, and annoyance of becoming a competent EAP writer. They know that they can write in Translate, and produce something that is acceptable.

Of course, the motivation issue applies here. For HE students who are motivated by the love of their subject, and who want to become an active part of the academic conversation, Google Translate is probably not a suitable tool. But what about the students who are only motivated by the final degree, and the job opportunities this will afford them in their home countries. Possibly homesick, possibly alienated, probably very frustrated with the whole UK university system, they are unlikely to want to become part of the discussion Instead, they just want to pass their assignments. If Google can do it better, than they can, why not? We know that these students exist- are their number large enough to be significant?

Is using this technology to help your writing cheating? I am an appalling typist and the spell check and autocorrect are working away quietly in the background to help me write (somewhat) polished English. If that’s an acceptable use of technology to improve writing, why isn’t Google Translate acceptable for those born in a non-English speaking family? If there is a line between the two, where is it?

I’d like to suggest three possible futures of EAP and Google Translate.

In the first, the EAP community declares the use of translate verboten. The Academy accepts this judgement, and even Google blocks its service from servers based in UK universities. Students continue the long and difficult process of learning Academic English, despite the widely available, free of charge service available through the phones and tablets they all carry.

In the second future, it becomes clear that students are able to do fairly well at university by using this technology. Their essays are readable, and many of them learn the accepted patterns of argumentation. Lectures are made available on university websites with automatically produced subtitles. Students download books and articles that are translated by Google, and upload essays produced the same way. The high level managers of an increasing number universities realise that this is opening up a vast market of students who cannot make the grade in English, and abandon English Language entry requirements. The first ones to do this generate a huge amount of income through students who cannot speak English, but who can make do with a tablet and a decent web connection. Across the sector, EAP units are increasingly seen as an expensive irrelevance, and are closed down.

In the third future, EAP embraces and adapts itself to a world where Google Translate is widely available. It recognises that using the software judiciously can help the students reach their goals faster. Instead of getting bogged down in moths of study expanding their grammatical and lexical range, the students can use Translate to leap this hurdle, and more quickly get into the deeper academic literacies needed for meaningful study in HE. In a move analogous to the adoption of the calculator into the Maths classroom, EAP becomes able to help the students become effective and valued members of the academic discourse community faster and more effectively.

The future has a nasty habit of not conforming to our predictions. However, I strongly believe that the EAP community needs to engage with Google Translate. We need to work out what the limits are of its use, and we need to work out how to use it effectively for the good of the students that we teach.  I don’t want to sound all “doomsday scenario”, but creative destruction is a real thing. Disruptive technology is merciless. We need to face up to it now.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts

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5 thoughts on “What is the future of Google Translate and EAP?

  • Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

    As an EAP instructor also familiar with the attempts by only a select, small group of students to submit a piece of writing translated from GT, I’m actually not opposed to its use when controlled by the instructor. As you allude to, it can actually provide useful comparison between its accuracy and its lacking ability to fit the culturally-bound requirements of university rigor. I’ve written about it once or twice myself. When it does improved to the point of indistinguishable authorship, it still doesn’t prepare students for in-class writing (e.g. exam questions) or particular genre (e.g. lab reports with discipline-specific conventions, language or otherwise). In my experience, more of this type of on-the-spot writing is being mixed in with group work and take-home assessment.

    What actually caught my eye though is the more problematic statement: The high level managers of an increasing number universities realise that this is opening up a vast market of students who cannot make the grade in English, and abandon English Language entry requirements.” Is this really true? Are UK university registrars foregoing EL requirements in favour of money? If so, I’m quite surprised. Canada even requires native speakers immigrating to Canada to write it before they can gain permanent residence.

    • Profile photo of Mike Groves
      Mike Groves Post author

      Hi Tyson
      Thanks for the comment.
      The idea of reducing the language requirement in the face of GT is pure speculation- just one of the three “futures” I had imagined. However, just to illustrate, Bath university- at the top of the rankings for Accounting (as an example) has an IELTS requirement of 7.0, while Bolton, at the bottom has a requirement of 6.0 (http://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/). Being a top ranked university has marketability in itself, being at the bottom doesn’t- however a reduced language requirement might.
      I have been in meetings where people have been throwing around ideas for increasing recruitment, and the idea of lowering the language requirement has come up. It is generally dismissed because students with the lower grade couldn’t cope, and would likely fail in their first year. However, if technology could compensate for this, it must be a temptation for at least some institutions.
      As I say, this is just speculation- but the pressures are there.

      • Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

        Ahh, so lowering it below its current standard–vast difference between that and abandoning it altogether. Foundation programs like the one I teach have the marginally lower EL requirements than direct entry (e.g. 5.5 – 6.5 for my program; 6.5+ for direct entry). Until there’s a Star Trek-like universal translator, lowering it too far will not work even if Google Translate was somehow magically adaptive, simply because writing isn’t the only skill needed to cope at the university level.

  • Jonathan Smith

    I agree broadly with the points that Mike Groves has made, and particularly with his point that the EAP community needs to engage with Google Translate. The way that it works is that it uses a set of algorithms to compare the inputted text to texts on the Internet including similar strings of words, where translations of those texts (presumably checked by real people) sit alongside the originals. So the more translations made (think of all those translations of EU legislation, or transcripts for TED Talks), the better Google Translate gets. As a result a student writing in Italian about employment law is likely to get a better Google translation than a student writing in Swahili about astrophysics.

    We’re not going to stop students using Google Translate, and why should we even try? I think a better course of action is to integrate training on the use of Google Translate within the EAP syallabus, and to encourage students to use it judiciously as a learning tool, for example to learn low-frequency subject-specific noun phrases. So I’m interested in phonology, and I now know that the German for “voiced dental fricative is “stimmhafte Zahnreibelaut” (I might have got the adjective ending wrong!)