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Could machine translation be useful to language learners?

December 23, 2023 — Tatsumoto Ren

Relying on translations interferes with the natural process of language acquisition. Hence, translations are harmful to language learners. This is true for human-made translations as well. Machine translations are even more dangerous, because they often introduce errors and inaccuracies.

It is permitted to translate individual words for the first couple months of learning the target language. We think it is acceptable to do so because there is no other option since the learner can't use monolingual dictionaries yet. But later on learners are expected to switch to monolingual dictionaries and stop depending on languages other than their TL. When translating individual words, it's generally better to use a dictionary app (see GoldenDict-NG, for example) instead of a machine translator. Dictionary apps are more versatile and can display results from multiple installed dictionaries. Besides, you need to get familiar with them to get ready for the monolingual stage, and it is a good idea to start early.

Note that if a word you're looking up is a concrete noun, e.g. dog, cat, kettle, elephant, the best way to understand it is by using pictures instead of words. This advice is especially useful when making Anki cards.

One of the reasons we advise against translating is that nuances always get lost in translation, especially when dealing with languages that are very different, such as English and Japanese. Therefore, if you have a gap in your knowledge of the language that you want to fill, if there is a structure that you partly understand but not completely, it's unlikely that an English translation of a sentence, especially done by an imperfect machine algorithm, will help you grasp what that structure really means, or help you understand the nuance because those things tend to get lost.

Another reason is that the natural process of language acquisition only happens when we imitate the environment in which babies learn their first language. Obviously, babies do not rely on translations to understand messages in their first language. When we read translated sentences, we understand the meaning in translation, not the original meaning. The important features of the message in the target language get lost.

To acquire our target language successfully, we have to understand the messages in their raw form, as we do in our native language every day. And the way we do that is by doing mass immersion, of course. You acquire the real meaning of an expression only after hearing it said in your immersion dozens of times. If you can't understand an expression even after looking up individual words, the best course of action is to search for various example sentences that use the expression.

I have observed that AI-powered translators, including ChatGPT (GPT 4, etc.), often generate translations of poor quality and should not be used. Although this may change in the future, the lack of improvement thus far does not inspire much hope.

Tags: faq