EBEFL asks: should we use translation software?

I was recently presented with an almost flawless piece of writing from a students whose English level precluded her producing such an almost flawless piece of writing. Initially I thought, “oh no…we have to have *that* conversation”…

In her tutorial the student guilty confessed to using translation software. I told her I was surprised because google translate famously produces awful translations from Japanese to English. “ah” she said, “I didn’t use google”.

She directed me to a site called DeepL. I threw a bit of Japanese in from Wikipedia and this is what I got out.


Now this isn’t perfect but it’s pretty damn good. For good measure I threw it into google translate and got a pretty good rendering too.

google translate

I was quite surprised at how good the Google Translate version was. But I shouldn’t have been . Sure, it was an endless source of comedy in 2004 when it produced weird and wacky sentences, but that was 15 years ago and technology moves on (in 2004 no one thought computers would beat humans at Go any time soon, that happened in 2015. There is an excellent documentary about it online). Google translate switched to using “Neural Machine Translation” around 2017 and this has reportedly led to much better quality translations.

So, is there any point in banning students from using translation software to write their essays anymore, particularly in EAP contexts? We wouldn’t mind them using dictionaries to translate words, and rather than just banning them, perhaps we could focus on getting them to use this tool more effectively? It certainly beats receiving a paid for or plagiarised submission.

Let me know your thoughts.

8 thoughts on “EBEFL asks: should we use translation software?

  1. I’ve been pondering this since my wife showed me DeepL. It depends what we want, doesn’t it? If we want to foster language acquisition, then we need a deal with students that they don’t use it. If we want academic essays, then we need to teach using tools effectively.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah I’m really stuck on this…if EAP is about supporting students to do well..why wouldn’t they use this technology? Isn’t it our job to teach them how to use it better? That being said…it feel…wrong somehow.


      1. I think it’s wrong to misrepresent one’s work as being based on one’s own (internal) language resources. I think we might end up moving EAP for writing articles toward conforming to discourse organisation and the language stuff might be put on a back burner or dealt with in a strand for lecture and seminar participation. But, that’s not really my area.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Didn’t know about DeepL. Good to know.

    Some time ago I saw a talk by Jake Groves and Rina Fokel DeVries from Birmingham University who did some research into the topic They found (as I think we all can guess) that student use of translation software is a reality, and make some suggestions as to how to use it as a teaching tool. Here is a link to a similar talk Jake Groves did at a conference on the topic at Nottingham. (Haven’t seen the other talks, but they could be interesting) https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/conference/fac-arts/clas/translation-technology-in-education%E2%80%93facilitator-or-risk/videos/conference-videos.aspx#TranslationandlanguagecheckingtoolshowaretheytobeusedJakeGrovesRinaFokeldeVries

    They recommend changing assessment criteria to focus less on language and more on content and discourse (translation technology is sometimes not great at cohesion, in particular at whole document level and it can’t create a good argument with cited evidence).

    What such tech also can’t do is affect speaking, such as the ability to participate in seminars (and hence process content more deeply) and it won’t help with paper-based exams (when we go back to them).

    There is definitely a lot to consider, in particular with this year’s move to teaching online and no paper-based exams – how can we assess? Does it change our role away from language teaching, to something else?


  3. Second go at posting – sorry if I’m spamming….

    Hadn’t heard of DeepL. Good to know…

    Some time ago I saw a talk by Jake Groves and Rina Fokel de Vries from Birmingham University who did some research into this. They found (as maybe we all know) that student use of translation technology is a reality, and have some teaching suggestions. A version of the talk I saw is available here: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/conference/fac-arts/clas/translation-technology-in-education%E2%80%93facilitator-or-risk/videos/conference-videos.aspx#TranslationandlanguagecheckingtoolshowaretheytobeusedJakeGrovesRinaFokeldeVries

    In particular, there are suggestions for changing assessment criteria to focus on content and discourse rather than language. This is because translation tools still aren’t great at cohesion, particular at a macro-level. Also, they can’t write an argument with referenced evidence as support…

    I think knowing students use these tools can actually free us to focus on discourse level writing, but also to focus on other language skills such as speaking and listening to help performance in lectures and seminars.

    Also there are implications for next year, with all of the teaching and assessment moving online – how should we teach for and assess an electronically produced timed writing, for example?


      1. interesting post and lots to think about there.
        With the move to WordPress, you can set up the blog to automatically post comments from people who’ve you’ve approved comments from before if you want to.

        Liked by 1 person

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