The Pros and Cons of Google Translate

google-on-your-smartphone-1796337_960_720The Pros and Cons of Google Translate

I know tons of teachers who rely on Google Translate to communicate with parents and students. Other teachers rely on or When we talk about the caveats of electronic translations, they often tell me, “Parents figure out what I mean.”  While digital translation has come a long long way in the last few years, I still caution you to be wary. Just because a parent can figure out what you meant to convey does not mean it’s a good translation. Take for example the directions on the nail stickers I purchased below.


Product Description:

  1. Influenza A dresser, color and dry on low.
  2. Removing its products on the film, cut patterns soaked 10 seconds to 20seconds (winter can be warm).
  3. A face wet with water,gently slide the pattern to move to the satisfaction of a surface point.
  4. Water and dry with paper towel.
  5. On a teansparent nail polish and dry.

This was the actual packaging the stickers came in. Clearly an inferior electronic translation has been used. While I figured out that “winter can be warm” probably means the water can be warm, I was left questioning what “influenza” had to do with nail appliques. Technically, I did figure out how to use these nail stickers, however, it was not without some trial and error. There are times of course when Google translate has been an absolute life saver.  However, relying on it to batch translate your classroom newsletter, permission slip, etc. is not such a good idea. In my experience using digital translations work best with languages that share similarities with English (including Romance languages, languages that are derived from the Roman/Latin alphabet, language that share similar syntax and/or have cognates). This particular example came from China, where I can only assume it originated in Cantonese or Mandarin.  Arabic, also tends to offer a more garbled interpretation in my experience.

If you must use electronic translation software, make sure to have the child or parent respond back in some way so that you can assess the clarity of the message and that it was received correctly. One thing you can do to reduce the chance of miscommunication is to simplify the message. Avoid idiomatic expressions, multiple meaning words, slang, and figurative language. Keep in mind, some words or concepts may not have an exact translation and even a simple word like “up” has hundreds of meanings in English. Consider if you typed in “the student threw up.” You are more than likely going to get a translation that makes it sound as though the child is playing ball rather than hurling into the trashcan in the corner of your room. Use the word “vomit” instead for a more precise and accurate translation. Keep in mind, vocabulary usage and meanings vary from country to country (consider how widely Spanish is spoken across the globe), some words may not even have a direct translation in the target native language, and that parents and students from underdeveloped countries may lack background knowledge to understand the message, even if they do know the words.

For newsletters and calendars, use picture support to clarify when you can and use consistent language so that parents do not have to constantly find someone to translate. If you can find someone who speaks the language to double check for errors, it’s a good idea. Sometimes Google Translate may be all you have available to you, and that’s okay. It certainly is convenient to pull out your phone when you need to communicate, just be aware of the caveats and keep in mind the limitations of such software. Most parents are very forgiving of miscommunication if they sense that you are doing your best to accommodate them, build relationships, and involve them in your classroom community.


To learn more about communicating with ELs, check out this article What is Comprehensible Input? 



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