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Collaborating in the Language Classroom with the Google Translate Community
by Shawn M. Higgins

This lecture suggests how students can collaborate on translation projects using the statistical machine translation tool Google Translate. This activity leads to discussions about technology in relation to the classroom, plagiarism, labor and telecommuting, and collaboration.

This lecture was originally given in an undergraduate course called "Academic Skills B: Vocabulary and Grammar" at Temple University Japan Campus in Spring 2015. The students in this class were from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Pakistan; none of them were native English speakers, and all of them had near bilingual or sometimes trilingual fluency. Some of the learning goals of this course were: to analyze the role and usage of standard American English in speech, writing, and literature; to acquire and use accurately general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career-readiness level; and to write and speak with an awareness of the stylistic aspects of academic American English.

This lecture took approximately 30 minutes to introduce and demo, a significant amount of time on the parts of students working on translations and writing outside of class, and then approximately 90 minutes for presentations and discussions. The following is an outline of the lecture unit:

1. Poll the students about which dictionaries they use most frequently, which dictionaries they always carry with them, which they would consult for personal use, which are better for academic purposes and which are not, and which are their personal favorites for any particular reasons. This leads to a discussion about the hierarchy of dictionaries in terms of publishing houses, editorial practices, number of entries, frequency of updates, etc.

2. Introduce Google Translate, the Google Translate app, and the Google Translate Community. Have students sign up for a Translator account using their Gmail accounts at this address: Google Translate Community Blog. Demonstrate how the Translate, Match, Rate, and Validate features work and what their purpose is in adding to the Google machine.

3. Instruct students to add more then 100 pieces of information to the Google machine in any combination of the above-mentioned features. Students should pay particular attention while they work to what kinds of translations are being asked for by Google Translate. Students should take notes on any emergent trends, questions they might have during the process, or moments of frustration in terms of difficult/impossible translations. After students complete more than 100, have them take a screenshot of their contributor page so that they can show you the number of their completions in connection to their Google account.

4. As a prewriting exercise in preparation for the class discussion about the project, give the students these questions to think about: What kinds of mistakes/errors did Google Translate ask you to translate? Why do you think Google had trouble with these? If you cite a definition from a print dictionary, you can easily cite it. However, citing Google Translate is not so easy because there is not one author or editor. What do you think about giving credit to identifiable sources and using sources like Google Translate in your academic work? Since you added to Google Translate, would you cite yourself?

5. The following can either be completed as an extended at-home writing assignment or carried out as an in-class discussion. I began an in-class discussion by expounding on topics such as this: "As pocket computers become more powerful and laptops more ultra-thin, students increasingly turn to digital platforms like apps, software, and websites as their sources for educational tools. However, while traditional dictionaries have identifiable editors and collaborators that compile and define the words recorded within, online translation tools like Google Translate rely instead on a community of volunteers to constantly edit the machine’s algorithmic analyses of previously translated digital texts. While these digital tools provide resources that might be impossible to locate otherwise in specific areas (such as an English to Myanmar/Burmese dictionary), they can be error-laden, incorrect, and even misleading in the information which they provide. Furthermore, without a list of collaborators to attribute the work to or a group of editors or publisher to hold accountable, these commonly used tools pose problems for students looking for credible and citable tools in their writing and research." This should open up to the students' responses about their experience as members of the Google Translate Community.

Inside Google Translate by Google Videos (2010) Ever wonder how Google Translate works? And are you "working" for Google when you volunteer your own translations as part of the Google Translation Community?