Learning a foreign language: what automatic translators can do for students


Automatic language translators can be learning tools. As long as you know how to use them and integrate them into a range of educational devices.

Will you be able to maintain your attention until the end of this article? Will you be able to ignore your email notifications or the advertisements and article suggestions that may appear through the tabs open on your browser? How long before you get distracted?

Our attention plays tricks on us, but it is essential for learning, especially when it comes to writing in a foreign language. What’s the point of mobilizing so much effort, you ask me? Isn’t it enough to open any online translator to switch from one language to another? With advances in artificial intelligence, are these tools not effective enough today to be relied upon?

Research in didactics which focuses on the teaching and learning of written production in a second language allows us to take a step back from the tools available to learners and to understand the challenges of a practice such as the use of translators. How are they useful? For who ? Under what conditions?

Write in a foreign language

Maintaining attention requires significant effort. Reading or writing are acts that are not natural for humans and require explicit teaching. This is secondary knowledge , that is to say which allows us to respond to a social objective, while primary knowledge – such as oral language, face recognition – is acquired through impregnation and adaptation.

Acquiring secondary knowledge, such as writing , requires a significant effort of attention and particular motivation. Who doesn’t remember tracing letters, learning conjugations, receiving comments on their spelling? “Careless errors. Read again! Clumsy. » Does that mean anything to you?

Now imagine that you are working in a language that is not your native language. Words don’t come naturally to you. Every language you know is trying to find its way to your pen or keyboard. And, on top of that, you spend so much energy remembering your irregular verbs in English or German that you forget to check whether your idea still fits your goal.

Selecting and ordering the right information takes time, but this time costs your attention. In other words, after writing in a foreign language, you get tired.

The contribution of digital tools to language teaching

Work on the effects of digital technology on attention shows that, while its integration can be beneficial to learning, it can also represent a source of distraction and disperse students’ attention.

In the case of using artificial intelligence tools for writing in a foreign language, studies show that the use of these tools could, in theory, represent an advantage. Using applications capable of generating text based on a context or of translating should be able to help text creation, that is to say the production of words and sentences. Rather than getting stuck on a lack of vocabulary, a little translation with DeepL or Google Translate can help you produce correct text.

By reducing the number of search and information management operations in memory, we would save time. By saving time, we would save money and better distribute our attention. Wouldn’t the final text then be of better quality?

In practice, as you can imagine, nothing is less certain. On the one hand, the results obtained with artificial intelligence are not 100% reliable and, on the other hand, it seems that only people who are already experts in the target language benefit from tools based on intelligence. artificial.

Automatic translators: towards more injustices?

Concretely, if you are a beginner in a foreign language and you are writing a text, using a translator like DeepL will not really help you in writing. Yes, you will be able to find certain vocabulary words here and there, but you will probably not be able to make the right suggestions in the tool, nor to judge the quality of the proposed result. You’ll probably spend as much attention using the tool as writing your text. In short, you won’t learn much.

Conversely, if you are already proficient in this language, you will be able to make more appropriate requests , evaluate the translator’s responses, and even easily integrate them into your work. You are already able to direct your attention to certain aspects more than others. And if, by chance, you already have technical mastery of the tool, you are doubly advantaged.

We must understand that the use of translators or other tools based on artificial intelligence will not reduce the distance between those who already know and those who do not yet know, on the contrary! Whether at school, high school, or university, the promotion of digital tools or translators must be surrounded by guidance, that is to say, support that gives everyone the same chances of success.

Learn to use automatic translators

Let’s say you want to write a message to someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you, but you are a beginner in that language. You need to make your message as correct as possible and using a translator could help you. The problem is that you probably don’t have the skills to check that the result provided by the translator corresponds to your intention.

By using a translator without asking any questions, you risk ultimately learning nothing at all. So you start by translating, okay, but then you have to question yourself and place your attention on certain aspects of the language in particular: what are the words used? What are the polite expressions? What conjugation tenses are preferred?

With DeepL for example, if you select a sentence in the text you have just translated, its equivalent in the original language is automatically highlighted: this allows you to identify particular passages and focus your attention on certain expressions. You can also click on a word to get synonyms, definitions, grammatical information and pronunciation. The objective is to have an active attitude towards the translator.

In the case of writing a message, the translator will not give you an answer about the sociolinguistic or cultural codes specific to the language you are using, you will probably need additional help – when it comes to distinguishing between more sustained or more familiar registers, knowing which polite formula suits the context

On the teaching side, it is important to include translators in a path defined in advance and to consider them as helpers among others. And, it should not be assumed that everyone knows how to use a translator effectively. Barysevich and Costaris, for example, propose setting up a training workshop on the use of DeepL .

Ultimately, far from revolutionizing the way you learn a foreign language, AI-based tools are only capable of reinforcing something in you that is already there. It’s everything we do in addition to using them that is decisive for learning.

Author Bio: Maëlle Ochoa is a Doctoral student in second language teaching at the University of Bordeaux