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When Is It OK to Use Google Translate in the English-Learner Classroom? (Opinion)

Anyone who has any empathy at all knows, it’s easy to understand why an English-language learner would choose to constantly use Google Translate in their writing.

And, as every teacher of ELLs knows, overuse of Google Translate (and similar tools) can be hindrances to language acquisition.

Today’s post will explore various strategies educators use in the classroom to try to strike a balance.

Personally, I sound like a broken record with my constant refrain when students are writing: “Use Google Translate for words, not for sentences!” Sometimes, they even listen to my plea.

You might find some additional ideas at The Best Ideas for Using Google Translate in the ELL Classroom.


Wendi Pillars, NBCT, has been teaching nearly three decades, both overseas and stateside, in grades K-12. She currently teaches biology and earth science and works with multilingual learners at the high school level. She is the author of Visual Impact: Quick, Easy Tools for Thinking in Pictures. Connect with her on Twitter @wendi322.

First, let’s acknowledge just how daunting it can be to be thrown into an English-only biology (or other) course as a language learner. It’s not easy for native speakers, but one thing everyone has in common is that there is A LOT of new vocabulary and there are endless new topics. Biology is like its own language, and that realization is what keeps me working on ways to help everyone access the material more effectively.

I think it’s useful to consider some of these questions first, though, as we think about how and when to either curtail or encourage the use of translation tools because it’s context-driven and I believe every situation is different:

1. What are the learning objectives?

Will the translation tools help multilingual learners access content and demonstrate their understanding more effectively? OR will overreliance on translation hinder their ability to practice and develop their authentic language skills? Sometimes, it’s much more efficient to translate, but what is the overarching goal?

2. Is it a language scaffold or a crutch?

Can translation help ensure multilingual learners understand the instructions, for example, so that they can approach their work with more confidence? OR could it become a crutch that inhibits them from actively trying to engage in language practice? I know it’s become far easier for students to translate entire pages of text at a time and to rely on peers to interpret my questions.

That means I have to decide whether or not that’s OK; I’m often OK with newer learners reading the translations or even getting supportive interpretations for a few weeks, but they are typically expected to respond in English, even it it’s one word from a word bank. I also provide reading and listening assignments with text-based questions to build their confidence in using specific English vocabulary related to the lessons and to help them see what they can do.

3. What is the context of use?

Connected to the idea of a scaffold, in specific circumstances like independent reading or mini-research assignments, translation tools can support multilingual-learner access to information and enhance their understanding, BUT it can really dampen the development of their listening and speaking skills, particularly in real-time communication scenarios, like working with a partner or reporting out facts. Providing sentence starters, word banks, visual vocabulary, and content-based phrases can be incredibly supportive.

4. How urgent are their needs?

Allowing students to use translation tools in class can deprive them of the opportunity to build confidence and “fail in safety.” Yes, it takes more time to allow them to navigate their assignments, but chances are high that your class time is the only chance they have to use the English language they’re encountering. Most of my multilingual learners use their native language throughout the day, and we are in essence, teaching English as a foreign language. Hence my goal to expose them to as much English usage as possible and to provide a variety of opportunities to speak, read, write, and listen in English.

5. How does it affect cognitive development?

It’s possible that translation can reduce what is known as “cognitive load” and allow multilingual learners to focus on understanding content and ideally make some connections between languages. (i.e., reflecting on language structures and being able to compare translations with information provided by the teacher).

However, too much reliance on the native-language use might just bypass the mental processes they should be building to actively think in English and to solve language-related challenges. This also includes building self-confidence in their language-learning journey and learning to ask for help from others. The sense of urgency for developing these abilities is powerful with older learners seeking jobs and accessing a ton of content while in high school.

6. How do peers and parents view its use?

In other words, what support do your students have for learning English? Some families will push for their students to really optimize their opportunities to speak and work only in English, while others are supported by their peers and parents to use translation assistance. Either scenario has its pros and cons, and both can boost their motivation and confidence, BUT they can lead to potential stigma or misconceptions about their language-learning abilities and thereby affect their self-esteem. It’s tricky!

I hope that these questions and perspectives can guide teachers in making thoughtful and well-informed decisions about the viability of translation tools with multilingual learners in their classrooms. It truly is context-driven and it helps to understand your students’ language growth so that you can better nurture authentic language development and communication abilities. Translation isn’t always easier, but remember, our multilingual learners bring a wealth of knowledge, both cultural and intellectual, and it’s a gift to honor that.

A ‘Growth Mindset’ Is Needed

Maria Cruz formerly taught English for Speakers of Other Languages. She is currently the instructional technology coach at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Va.:

When my district went to 1:1 laptops a few years ago, I embraced the change as a welcome paradigm shift. But digital classrooms bring a distressing problem for ELLs: overuse of Google Translate.

When a student is reliant on Translate, it signals a lack of confidence in his own cognitive skills. Before they had on-demand access to translation software, their diffidence may have manifested as copying from other students’ papers or disassociating from the lesson altogether. So while it might be tempting to cast aspersions on the translation tool, it is not the source of the problem. The cause of the student’s reliance on Translate is that they believe they are incapable of acquiring a new language.

Learn to handle complex tasks like translation through a growth mindset

Kara Lawson, the head coach of Duke University’s women’s basketball team, has gained a following for her motivational talk about what it means to “make yourself someone who handles hard well.” Although Lawson is speaking to athletes, her message projects the feeling many teachers want to convey to ELLs who rely heavily on translation programs.

As a teacher, I introduce Lawson’s message in a context that newcomers can easily identify with: reflecting on their own growth from when they first enrolled at their school in the United States. “Do you remember how confused you were the first week after your arrival? You couldn’t find the correct classrooms, you didn’t know how to buy lunch, and there was no way you could remember all your teachers’ names. How do you feel now?

All of those previously difficult things—places, names, routines—are exactly the same, but you have adapted to handle it better. Your mind became stronger to meet the challenge, so now it is no longer challenging. The same will happen for English-language proficiency if you accept that you can handle hard things better. You must believe that your brain is smarter than Google Translate.”

Craft classroom cultures that support risk-taking

To move students away from heavy reliance on Google Translate, they need to trust that the classroom is an environment where mistakes are inevitable and will be met with empathy. This is where building relationships becomes key to learning growth.

For SLIFE (Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education) students who may never have experienced success in school, vulnerability can be an uncomfortable feeling. A student who has not built a foundation of trust with their teacher might think, “School already makes me feel inadequate, and now you want to take away my best tool? Nah.” But Google Translate is the equivalent to training wheels, meant to be removed when the operator is still unsteady but understands the basics of balance and self-correction.

Teachers must continuously reinforce the idea that students cannot wait for English acquisition to get easier—every student can make the mental shift to meet the hard task of learning English starting right now.

Not Specific to ‘Domains’

Teresa Amodeo is the ESL/language-acquisition program district coordinator and multilingual-learner specialist for District 302 in Illinois:

This is a hot topic and a frequently visited conversation piece currently where I am at. I see Google Translate as translation of the masses. What I mean by that is, Google translates the “bigger” picture of things. It’s not necessarily specific to domains or contents. With that, it can then be a “lost” translation that doesn’t provide support or accuracy due mostly to context and dialect errors if not enough content is given. Or, perhaps, there are multiple meanings of the word, and Google uses the most common one.

Thus, utilizing Google Translate for documents, assignments, class content, and lengthier, formal, community-based agendas isn’t tremendously useful as there are errors and the context of the piece isn’t always effectively received.

However, when students who are reviewing directions or a word that is challenging for them, and the words are more “universal,” utilizing Google Translate can be helpful. I would not encourage Google Translate on a daily basis; however, in those quick times of need where context or dialect won’t necessarily affect it, I let it happen.

In regards to my response when students use it, I clearly emphasize the importance of checking it over with myself, a teacher, or a peer to ensure it is done correctly. I lead with a positive message that it is great that they have found a resource; however, it should not be the only tool, nor should it be used for everything.

Thanks to Wendi, Maria, and Teresa for contributing their thoughts!

Today’s post answered this question:

How do you respond to your English-language learner students using (or overusing) Google Translate in class when they have to write something in English?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here.

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