Why Language Students Should Avoid Online Translation Tools

Multilingual translation online concept. Close up of multi language keyboard and translate word key in blue color with clippingpath.

This writer personally knows a woman who has spent more than a decade teaching both English as a second language (ESL) and Spanish. I’ll refer to her as ‘Mary’ moving forward. One thing I can tell you about her is that she hates online translation tools. She hates them so much that she will not allow her students to use them in their studies.

A general consensus suggests that online translation tools are good. But are they? That depends on what you use them for. If you are just trying to get by in a conversation that has no real importance, perhaps an online translation tool can give you enough to work with. But for anything more than a casual conversation, such tools are inadequate. They can even be harmful.

Differences in Dialects and Vocabulary

The first thing to know about online translation tools is that they don’t do a very good job recognizing differences in dialects and vocabulary. Take Spanish. Did you know that the Spanish spoken in Spain differs quite a bit from what is spoken in Central and South America? Furthermore, Spanish varies quite a bit between New York City and Puerto Rico.

An online translation tool doesn’t distinguish between how Spanish is spoken in different geographic locations. It utilizes a standard vocabulary that is guaranteed to not be identical across every dialect. Thus, translating from Spanish to English, or vice-versa, may not produce the right vocabulary words to correctly convey meaning.

Not Accounting for Cultural Influences

Another problem with online translators is that they cannot account for cultural differences. If you need an example, visit the Plurawl website. Plurawl is an apparel brand that focuses on the Latino, Latino, and LatinX customer base. Many of their T-shirts have messages printed in Spanish.

One of their more popular messages is ‘hoy se baila’. Type that into Google translate and you’ll get back ‘today we dance’. Mary can translate that phrase word-for-word and get it correct. But because she is not Latina, she does not have the cultural reference to understand what it would mean to a Puerto Rican or Dominican customer buying a T-shirt from Plurawl.

Much of what goes into translating from one language to one other is related to cultural understanding. Online translation tools simply cannot accommodate for cultural influences.

Incorrect Meaning or Intent

The best online translation tools can do is provide a word-for-word equivalent between languages. Again, such limitations are no big deal for casual conversations of no importance. But when critical communication requires a thorough understanding of the information being discussed, online translators just don’t cut it.

One of Mary’s ESL clients complained of having a terrible time communicating with English-speaking colleagues in the U.S. For the record, he was a native Spaniard who lived and worked in Madrid. Upon further inquiry, Mary learned that he was cheating, so to speak.

Rather than diligently working to learn English, he wrote what he wanted to say in Spanish and then used Google Translate to convert it to English. Then he used Google Translate to convert their responses from English back to Spanish. This led to frequent misunderstandings that prevented the team from working together in a cohesive way. Many mistakes were made because intentions were not clear.

Anyone seeking to learn a foreign language would do well to stay away from online translation tools. These cannot account for differences in dialects, vocabulary, or cultural influences. They also cannot understand intent. It is far better to put the work into the thoroughly learning the language. That’s the best way to avoid misunderstandings.

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