What I’ve learned so far about student translator use.

My two teaching areas are English and French. I haven’t taught English for some time, but there are some pretty reliable tools available now to catch incidents of plagiarism. Translator use is considered plagiarism in second language classes, and it’s no exaggeration to say that plagiarism is rampant in high schools. Simply put, work completed with the help of a translator is not representative of an individual student’s learning. It’s not their work.

There is no software that I am aware of (and I’ve looked) that can detect examples of student translator use in second languages, and so as a teacher I’ve had to develop a skill set that will allow me to recognize when it’s happening.

In my school district, schools have wifi networks which students can use, and most of my students have some form of internet connected device they bring with them to school. Having the internet at your fingertips can be a great tool, but it can also be easily misused, and students need to be taught how to use it effectively. In my high school classes, all students arrive with the knowledge that the internet offers a range of free translators. In some cases, they have even been encouraged to use them by a parent, friend or teacher. Discouraging this habit takes time, patience, and careful structure of my instruction.

Signs that work has been produced with a translator

Most of these signs are not found alone, and in and of themselves don’t always mean that a translator has been used, but they are red flags. Text or speech will contain some mixture of the following:

  1. Verb tenses and other language structures will not match what the student should be able to do without assistance. In any unit of instruction, there will be core concepts and high frequency vocabulary that I will see in most students’ work. Every once in a while I may see a related word or concept that has not been taught but may be connected. Situations like this can be tough to figure out – sometimes they are the result of diligent dictionary use, but sometimes they can also be warning signs of translator use out of frustration at a limited vocabulary.
  2. Verb tenses and language structures used in student work are not taught at this grade level. It’s critical for me to be familiar with what students are expected to know, understand and do at a range of grade levels both above and below what I teach. For example, a student at the beginning of French 8 should only know and be able to use a very limited range of verbs, and only in the present tense. If I see an infrequently used verb used in another tense, chances are it’s not that student’s work.
  3. Agreement doesn’t match (i.e. the student is a girl, but all agreement is in the masculine). Languages like French require the use of masculine and feminine endings, and certain prefixes or suffixes. Google Translate doesn’t do a great job with words containing prefixes and suffixes, and areas like masculine or feminine, etc. are places where it does not handle these situations appropriately. There is no check box to say “translate this as though I am female”, and so it uses the default masculine forms.
  4. Mistakes are not grade level appropriate. This is a bit hard to define, and almost a case of “I know it when I see it.” After having taught students at the range of grade levels we encounter in high school, I know what they are expected to learn at each level, and what mistakes typically would occur at those levels. If I see something turned in that has no mistakes, or mistakes that would be made by a student at a higher level, chances are it’s not the work of the student who handed in the assignment in question. If the mistakes are more typical of a student in a younger grade, that could also be indicative of translator use because when you look something up with a translator, there is no reason to learn it.
  5. Idioms are not included and if translated, do not make sense. High school students tend to use a lot of idioms in their everyday interactions, and do not tend to adjust this habit when using dictionaries and translators, unless reminded to. Translators do not typically generate idioms as part of their translation, and so the phrase, “That guy is hot!” is translated as, “Ce mec est chaud!” (Google Translate, July 2, 2018). The word “mec” is slang, meaning “guy”, but in a slightly less familiar translation, the dictionary suggests “gars” or “type”. The word “chaud” does mean hot, but in the sense of having an elevated temperature, and not in the sense of being attractive, which is how students would typically use it. This is the kind of error that a student would not catch or correct, because they lack the context to be able to judge when to use one word versus the other.
  6. Word choice is advanced and/or does not reflect vocabulary taught in class. Translators do not have a setting that allows the user to translate a phrase as though they are a student in a given grade, and will simply generate what the most common translation might be for a word. Students will tend to trust the translation blindly, and will not rephrase to use classroom vocabulary, just copying the phrase directly.
  7. Does not answer the question. This may not be indicative of a translator, but can suggest that an alternate source was used. If I ask a question that is specific to my students and my course, they should not be able to find online texts or sections of the textbook that they can copy. They should have to put found materials in their own words.
  8. Quality is inconsistent. Some parts of the student’s work will be 100% correct, and other parts contain many errors. This happens when a student tries to do a portion of the work using their background knowledge, and uses a translator for other parts.
  9. Sentences are more complex than a student could make on their own. This is often a product of frustration, as students naturally tend to express their thinking as they would in their first language. They usually don’t have an equivalent skill level in their second language, and so they use a translator rather than try to rephrase.
  10. Student will lack basic vocabulary knowledge. If students are chronic translator users, then over time they will develop learning gaps due to their reliance on the translator. They will not know words that should be a part of their lexicon if they had legitimately learned the material. This is something I notice more in conversations than in writing, but can appear in both contexts.

Finding a solution

Two questions I’ve learned to ask myself before trying to implement a solution are:

  1. Why is this happening?
  2. What skills do my students need in order to avoid translators?

At the beginning of each semester, I go over the fact that use of a translator is plagiarism, and I let my students know that work completed with a translator cannot be counted as evidence of their learning. If I see some of the signs listed above in a student’s work, I have a conversation with them about why they chose to use a translator, and almost inevitably the answers are one of those listed below:

  1. I was in a hurry and just wanted to get it done.
  2. I’m not good at French.
  3. I was embarrassed to ask for help.

We talk about why using a translator doesn’t actually solve any of those issues.

  1. If s student is in a hurry, the fix is likely teaching them better use of a planner/calendar/time management skills.
  2. Every student in the class is a language learner, not a language expert. To get better at something, you need to practice it. Skipping the step of learning the vocabulary just makes a long term weakness that’s harder to solve down the road.
  3. If asking for help in front of other students doesn’t feel comfortable, use some other options. Trying things like waiting until after class, emailing me, or sending me a Twitter message are all alternate strategies that can be used to ask questions. Not asking for help just guarantees the problem will exist for longer.

Most students will use a translator as though the assignment they are working on requires them to fill in blanks, and does not need to result in any long term learning. The skills I need my students to develop over time are not simple recall tasks. I need them to develop a range of vocabulary and grammar skills that will allow them to use skills listed in our curriculum document, such as adapting their word choice to suit the audience or context, and telling a story with complex verb tenses and connecting words. They can’t do this if they use a translator. If I ask a student to explain their word choice in a given assignment, they can only explain it if they chose it. They can only learn how to improve it if they are able to learn a range of words and verb tenses that apply to different contexts.

Some solutions I’m using:

  1. I use a translator myself from time to time so I know what they are likely to produce. Translators are constantly updated, and if I want to be able to recognize something, I need to know what it looks like. It doesn’t take long before patterns start to emerge, and I can get a sense of what student work completed with a translator will look like.
  2. I frequently use open ended questions that ask students to demonstrate thinking and pull multiple sources together.
  3. I model how to adapt text for guided writing. This is a strategy I learned as part of an Intensive French workshop, and involves taking a mentor text, identifying areas of it that represent a structure that students are working on, and then changing those portions of it so that the finished product becomes a new text that represents student work. This is different than using a translator, because it maintains a workflow in the target language, using learned structures and learned vocabulary. Students learn the strategy in class and don’t go outside of course material.
  4. I deliberately structure questions to require critical and creative thinking, so that student work must be original. This will often be accompanied by a reflection exercise which asks students to track and explain their process.
  5. If I suspect outside assistance, it may not be the result of a translator, but it’s worth asking where the information came from. It’s also worth watching future oral/written production and seeing if it matches. Also, I try to have lots of target language, face to face conversations with my students as I circulate. I get to know their abilities, and they benefit from the interaction and opportunity to practice, always at an appropriate level.
  6. Emphasize process over product. I ask students to explain their word choice and grammar. If they wrote it, they should know how to do this, and rather than being an accusatory interaction, this can lead to discussions of how to improve word choice and expand vocabulary, which is something students generally want to do. I also emphasize the importance of sharing ideas with peers and doing revisions to implement feedback, which can only be accomplished if students are the authentic authors of their work.
  7. I occasionally use have assignments in class that are supported with classroom resources (representing learned material) but no electronics to give a baseline for assessment. Whatever a student is able to do at home should match pretty closely with what they do in class using notes and other class resources. This is also a great opportunity to have conversations with students about how they are using their resources. Over time, they usually start to see connections between concepts and structures, and it happens quite often that a student will find a new use for an old resource if they use it in class.
  8. I use visual dictionaries with only target language on it, and no English. This encourages students to use images to represent word forms, and reinforces their learning by using visual, text and auditory input. With the popularity of social media such as Snapchat and Instagram, pictures are a commonly used tool of self expression for students and one that they easily connect to.
  9. I stress the idea that there is more than one way to express a given idea. If students feel there is only one right answer, there is more pressure and incentive to use a tool that will help them find it.
  10. I encourage students to develop a personal vocabulary. Even though they are learning a new language, some of the expressions they learn will sound like the way they normally express themselves in their first language, and others will not. Whenever possible, I encourage students to find expressions that feel and sound natural to them, and that way they are more likely to use them. They also tend to be more invested in learning the context in which they should use those expressions, which increases the likelihood they will use them correctly going forward.
  11. I’ve written my assessment criteria in a way that requires students to use known vocabulary and language structures in their work. If any of the signs of possible translator use appear in student work, I review the criteria with them and ask them to come in and redo the assignment with my support if needed, to show their learning.

My end goals are that my students will learn the skills in the curriculum, and that they will demonstrate that learning in an intellectually honest way. They develop self-confidence and pride in their work that, while not a part of the grade they receive in a given course, become powerful learning tools that move them forward in my class and others.

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