Google Translate and Academic Integrity

CaptureI think digital linguistic tools like Google Translate are great. But like many tools, I have seen Google Translate abused by EAP writing students in submissions of wonky single-word “synonyms” and incomprehensibly translated passages that the student thought I’d never notice.

I try to counter potential abuse with a bit of education and training, rather than outright banning the use of Google in class. The key point I try to drive home is that most Google translations sound ridiculous, and that once a student hits even a low intermediate level, the texts that they themselves can produce are actually much better. It’s a matter of breaking the all-out reverence many students have for machines and showing them that when it comes to language, humans still trump computers in many areas and that they should trust their own language ability more.

I think there are a few ways to do this: the short way and the long way. Revealing Google Translate’s shortcomings by explaining in detail how it works would be the longer way. If you go this route, Larry Ferlazzo has an amazing list of resources here on Google Translate and how it works. Another interesting video is this article from a few days ago on Gizmodo, entitled Why You can Never Rely on Google Translate. If I were teaching an EAP class of applied linguists, computer science and/or engineering students or if out coursebook had a unit on IT or technology that I wanted to expand on, I might bring one of these videos or articles into class.

If I wanted to cut to the chase, though, I would rather prepare a short demo to show my students how Google Translate is not a substitute for good writing or good tools. I’d distribute a short text in digital format, perhaps something we’d read together in class, and ask students to put it through Google Translate into their L1, and then comment on some of the structures and vocabulary shortcomings they came across in the translated text. Moral of the story: “This is what it’s like to read a text that’s been fed through a translator! Doesn’t it sound silly? Don’t sell yourself short by submitting something like this to your teacher!”

A personal pet peeve of mine, though, is the use of Google Translate by intermediate or advanced students as a dictionary for single words when its so clearly inadequate and there are so many great digital dictionaries and collocation tools out there. If I’m working with a class who share the same L1, (Spanish, for example, in the example below), I’d pop up the entry for a common word as entered into Google Translate and into something like the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary, and put them up side-by-side on the projector. A discussion on collocation, parts of speech, phrases/chunks, register, etc., would be bound to ensue.



Ideally, some discussion about the shortcomings of Google Translate as a tool for writing, and the presentation of some more helpful alternative tools acts as preventative medicine and prevent me from having to bring it up in a lecture on academic integrity should an term papers get submitted with machine-translated passages. Your mileage may vary…


5 thoughts on “Google Translate and Academic Integrity

  1. hi Jennifer

    if we assume that one of the reasons that students use Google translate is its easy availability then we could try to demo other equally if not more accessible tools such as Google Search?

    in this way they at least have other options when trying to check their language use. i have shown students how to use Google search and other Google tools and some of them were very interested in such approaches compared to relying on Google Translate (or other tools such as Reverso which is popular amongst some here)

    i talk a bit more about that here –


    • OK, so using Google search as a corpus, interesting article! What it comes down to, as you’ve said, is getting people to think twice about their fallback option and training them on tools that better suit their needs.

  2. Hi! Interesting post (as usual). Have you read Mike Groves and Klaus Mundt’s article in the ESP Journal on Google translate? It’s not quite what you are talking about here but might be of interest to you? The abstract is copied below:

    A recent development in digital technology, machine translation (MT), is improving in its ability to translate with grammatical and lexical accuracy, and is also becoming increasingly available for students of language for academic purposes. Given the acceptance of other digital technology for teaching and learning, it seems likely that machine translation will become a tool students will rely on to complete their assignments in a second language. This would have implications for the community of practice of academic language teaching. In this study students were asked to submit an essay in their first language and this was then translated into English through a web-based translation engine. The resulting English text was analysed for grammatical error. The analysis found that the translation engine was far from able to produce error-free text – however, judging in relation to international testing standards, the level of accuracy is approaching the minimum needed for university admission at many institutions. Thus, this paper sets out to argue, based on the assumption that MT will continue to improve, that this technology will have a profound influence on the teaching of Languages for Academic Purposes, and with imaginative use, will allow this influence to be positive for both the students and their instructors.

  3. “Thus, even if MT finds acceptance in EAP practice, students will still require sophisticated knowledge of how academic English works, ‘deep literacy’, as Davies (2007, p. 51) calls it, so as to be able to verify the suitability of their translated texts and to appropriately amend them where necessary. This means that MT is not likely to threaten the status of EAP; and it will not replace human input (Quah, 2006). Instead it may change the face of EAP – and that is why a good awareness of the tools at our students’ disposal is of such crucial significance. It will allow us to stay abreast of technological developments and the needs effective EAP teaching must address.”

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