Translator Use in the Spanish Classroom

translator use spanish class

The Good & the Bad of Translator Use

If you’ve spent any time in a language classroom, you’re likely aware of some of the challenges of seeing signs of translator use in your students’ work. While translators are generally a great tool to help the general public communicate in a language with with they are unfamiliar, problems arise in the classroom environment.

For starters, the work is no longer the students’, but rather the work of a computer program. When students claim this as their own, it is a dishonest representation of “their work.” 

Second, translators aren’t perfect, especially without proper context! Have you ever had a student write about going “espalda” to a place or describing they they “lato” cook well? As frustrating as it is to read this type of work, you can’t help but get a laugh out of it!

Of course, there’s also the case of full sentences and paragraphs written in beautiful, advanced language with use of subjunctive, relative pronouns and more! When the student is not in an advanced course or not a native/heritage speaker, this can be quite fishy! 

Let’s talk about some ways to avoid these issues as much as possible with your students!

Tips to Minimize Dishonest Translator Use

5 tips minimize translator use spanish class

Tip 1: Discuss it with your students!

I love to start the year off with a discussion about translator use and, particularly, translator fails! There are some fantastic videos out there to show students that translators are NOT perfect and this alone can discourage a number of students from taking the easy way out. 

HERE is a parody of the song Let it Go after it was put through several languages in Google Translate. I use this one regularly in my classes. This gal’s page has loads of similar videos! 

Tip 2: Handwritten drafts for digital assignments

One of the biggest culprits of improper/dishonest translator use is digital assignments. Students already need to use the computer and it’s just too easy for them to jump over to Google Translate to do the work for them. Here’s how I help to avoid this: handwritten drafts.

Are students completing a digital project? Awesome! Don’t steer away from digital assignments because of translator use. Just ensure that students complete a handwritten draft of their work, preferably in class, before beginning the digital component. Doing this in the classroom allows students access to you for support (and paper dictionaries to learn a single word, if you allow). 

I ALWAYS require students to submit the draft sheet in to me on the day the project is due. Why? Because if they still resort to using a translator, I can compare it to their handwritten draft work and typically there’s a huge disconnect. This helps to start the conversation with the student about what happened.

Tip 3: Teach students to use a dictionary

Dictionaries and translators aren’t always one and the same! I always discourage students from websites like Google Translate or Spanish Dictionary because these have the capability of translating entire sentences for you, verb conjugation and all.

Instead, guide students to use a paper dictionary or online dictionary like Word Reference (my personal favorite!) that doesn’t have full translator capabilities. 

It’s important to teach students how to use a dictionary appropriately because they’ll inevitably need to learn new words during their language-learning career (heck, I still do from time to time!). Teaching students to use them properly will help them to select the correct word (poder/puedo instead of lata) and then apply this to their work on their own.

My favorite lesson during the first month or two of school is this Word Reference How-to for Spanish Class. Students will learn how to properly use Word Reference to find the word they actually need!

Tip 4: Allow students a limited number of "dictionary words"

It can be discouraging for students eager to learn a new language to be told they cannot look up anything new. What if they are really into archery and that particular word didn’t make it on the vocabulary list? 

For any open-ended assignment/project, allow students a limited number of “dictionary words” they can look up on a site like Word Reference. Depending on the length of the assignment, I limit this to 3-5 words. Students are required to add a section to their assignment that lists the word they researched and the Spanish term they found. 

This gives students the ability to learn a select few important words, while still being reminded that the majority of their work should come from what they’ve been learning or have already learned. 

Tip 5: Know and disclose the consequence(s)

Your students (and their parents) should be well aware of the consequence(s) of dishonest translator use in your classroom or at your school. Look at your school’s academic integrity policy to follow those guidelines. Will students receive an automatic zero? Will they be allowed a redo at 50%? How many instances of academic dishonesty lead to a more severe consequence?

Make this prevalent in your syllabus, at back to school night and even on individual assignments/projects where there may be more of a risk of translator use. The more you can remind students and parents that this is not acceptable and that consequences will follow, the fewer excuses you’ll have to deal with!

What if a student still submits translated work?

You’re reading student work and see all the obvious signs of dishonest translator use. How do you approach this situation? Here are the steps I follow:

5 steps student translator use

1. Do your research

First, take note of the red flags of the student’s work. These will be helpful talking points. 

Second, did the student submit a handwritten draft or any in-class work relevant to this assignment? Can you cross-check with that and see if there’s a huge disconnect?

2. Pull the student aside

Find an appropriate time to discuss with the student privately. I personally like to do this right at the end of class as other students leave so that the student doesn’t have time to come up with excuses or “explanations” for “their work.”

3. Calmly inquire about points of confusion

Avoid coming at the student in an immediate accusatory tone. First, ask questions – calmly. Tell the student that you have some confusion or questions about their work and would like them to explain.

Did they use “lata” instead of “poder?” Ask them to explain that sentence to you (Red flag: they can’t tell you what lata even means)

Did they use advanced forms like subjunctive in their work? Same idea. Ask them to tell you the sentence in English. 

Another idea is, before showing them their original assignment, to provide them a sentence in English and to have them write it for you on the spot in Spanish. This proof can be extremely helpful to explain to parents the disconnect you’ve found in their student’s work.

4. Ask for an explanation

Again, calmly ask for an explanation. “So, I see that what you’ve written here and what you submitted on this project are much different. Can you tell me why?” or “Hmm you’ve used this verb sepa but aren’t sure what it means or what verb tense you’ve written it in? Can you tell me what happened?

Oftentimes, students will fess up because they don’t really have a plausible explanation to answer your questions. 

5. Think it over, if needed

Perhaps you’ve gotten clear evidence that the student submitted dishonest work. In those cases, let them know the consequence – ie. parent contact, zero on assignment, etc.

Still isn’t clear? You don’t necessarily have to provide the student will a consequence right away. Let him/her know you’ll think about what will be done next and let the student go. Perhaps the student didn’t fess up but you’re clear it’s not their work and you’ll invite them to complete it again in class at lunch under your supervision. Take time to apply the appropriate consequence for the situation.

Discovering translated work from your students can be quite discouraging. Hopefully these tips help to reduce those instances and convince your students to submit honest representations of their work. ¡Suerte!

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