Editorial Note: I mistakenly credit this extension to Google in the article. It is actually the work of Use All Five. (Visit Use All Five now)
When I received a tweet from Rich Bailey asking if I’d seen the new Google Chrome extension, Language Immersion, I stopped by the article at Lifehacker to have a look. The video at the top of their post, which I also share above, gives a brief introduction to this new language learning tool, but I felt a more in depth look was needed to really understand it’s usefulness for language learners.
The basic idea behind Language Immersion is that with the click of a button, various amounts of the text on any webpage can be translated into one of the the 64 available languages that Google Translate supports. Translated portions of text are highlighted in blue and when clicked on, revert to the original English. If the “Speak Translations” is turned on, you will also hear a computer generated audio of the selected text read by a native speaker. The Language Immersion interface allows you to pick your language, your immersion level and to turn both the audio and the highlighting on and off.
It all seems pretty slick and a useful tool for language learners. But is it?
Since moving to my Mac two years ago I have used Safari for all of my web based work and so for me the first real hurdle was in moving to Chrome. It would have to be a pretty fantastic tool for me to make the switch permanently but in the name of science, I powered up my Chrome browser and installed Language Immersion.
It is free, it loaded up in no time and the experiment began.
Once loaded, you’ll find a small square icon for Language Immersion to the right of the Chrome search bar as seen in the picture below. By clicking on this icon, the Language Immersion interface opens up on the right side of the screen. It is relatively small and out of the way, but may cover some text on certain sites. For most blogs with a right sidebar dedicated to social buttons, advertisements and other extras, it is not an issue.
After opening up the extension, you will need to chose the language you would like the text translated into and the level of translation: Novice, Intermediate or Fluent. By clicking on the tool button next to the language you can also turn the audio and the highlighting on or off. Click the blue “On” button to get started.
I tested the extension out first at my own blog, reading through articles using both Turkish and Spanish, experimenting with different levels of fluency and listening to the audio readings of the text. At The Everyday Language Learner blog, I have installed the Google Translate plug-in so that with the click of a button my entire site can be translated. You can translate this entire blog into any one of the 64 available langauges right now by heading up to the right corner and selecting your target language. Try it!
In many ways this is similar to what Language Immersion does.
The differences are what make Language Immersion an effective and useful tool for language learners and, while the program still has a lot to be improved upon, it will be a great addition to any language learner’s language learning toolbox.
The first thing that Language Immersion does is to allow you to select how much of the text you would like to be translated. It seems a bit of a stretch to use Novice, Intermediate and Fluent as the levels, but it works better than the reality which seems a bit more like: a little, a little bit more and everything. The selection of text seems pretty random at this point, sometimes choosing nouns, sometimes transition words and sometimes verbs. In this regard I found it more helpful to just chose fluency and translate everything.
You can get a feeling for what the program does in the series of screen shots below. Each is from one of my more popular posts explaining the idea of comprehensible input and each is translated into Turkish.
In looking at the Turkish it becomes apparent that translation at the sentence level is better than translation at the word level. Spanish is better translated than Turkish in general and I assume that languages closer to English in structure will almost always lead to truer translations.
At the word level, word selection seems to be random: one word selected at the novice setting, seven words and then eight at the intermediate level, twelve words and then everything at the fluent level. Even at the fluent level though, not all text is selected. Testing it on several sites I found that the opening sentences are almost always left untranslated and that only about 50% of the rest of the paragraphs were selected. Never was I able to have an entire article translated into either Turkish or Spanish.
Another feature that Language Immersion gives users is the ability to click on the highlighted text and to have it immediately revert to the original English. This makes taking a quick look back for clarification convenient and easy.
I did run into one problem that is worth noting: As I was reading an article at Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income blog, I received no translation and the message below (right corner). I guess Pat is just packing in too much great content – even for Google!
Another feature is the ability to scroll over a selected text and hear the translation spoken aloud. It is a computer generated audio but it is obvious that native speakers were used to build the audio files. Some languages seem more fluid than others. Many seem like they are using the voice technology of the 1980’s. A few didn’t play at all. I am not sure how useful this feature is though. It may be a nice feature to hear individual words spoken, but if you are looking for quality listening material (and you should be looking for lots of quality listening material) there are just so many better options: podcasts, handcrafted audio, audio books, etc.
One main problem is that, even at the fluent level, only one sentence at a time is read. It would be nice to see the whole paragraph read. Also, make sure you just roll over the selected text to hear it and not click on it. This way you can hear it and read along.
If you are interested, I recorded the program translating a short snippet of an article at the BBC in eight languages which you can listen to below.
People often complain about the quality of translation or the lack of “authentic” language of translations in parallel texts and translated novels. In those cases, I don’t really care about the quality of the translation as long as the target language is grammatically correct and the basic information is the same. I’m concerned with getting comprehensible input and all I need for that is a close approximation of the story I am reading where the same basic facts match up.
As long as the English gives me the basic background knowledge to make the Turkish or Spanish more comprehensible, I don’t really care if the translator got and expression or a detail wrong. As long as it is good Turkish or Spanish, it will be good for my learning of Turkish or Spanish.
And this is where Language Immersion runs into some difficulty. I don’t always know if the Turkish is correct grammatically because Google doesn’t know if it is correct. Actually as I look at the Turkish, I know that portions of it are not grammatically correct – endings are wrong, conjugations are omitted and forms are used incorrectly. The translation is pretty good – better when whole sentences are translated and a lot better than I would have imagined a computer could translate – but it is not as if a native Turkish speaker is making the translations.
Spanish and all of the Latin based languages are undoubtedly a lot better. The structural differences between those and English are quite small compared to languages like Turkish. And so it will be that some languages will undoubtedly be better translated than others.
And so I have to ask myself the question: If I am looking for comprehensible input, will using this tool give it to me with a high enough quality to be an effective part of my language learning journey? I guess the answer is – it depends. All languages will allow you to see how certain words are translated. All will probably translate simple sentences fairly well. But in every language it is highly probably that many structural mistakes will occur. There will be problems.
So as we look at all that Google Chrome’s Language Immersion extension has to offer – the good, the bad and the ugly, I have to ask myself the question — Does any of that matter?
To me, it doesn’t. I’ll be switching to Chrome!
My main need as a language learner is not perfect comprehensible input, it is more comprehensible input! More time in Turkish and Spanish. More Turkish words crossing the recesses of my brain. More Spanish sentences in front of my eyes.
I am busy though and you may not know it, but I am lazy too. Google’s Language Immersion is great then because it takes away the excuses, gives me more time in the language and more than any other thing, puts Turkish in front of my face when I am reading the things I like and love to read.
Is it perfect? Certainly not. But it will get better. I suspect that the next version is already in the works. There are tons of things to improve upon and I think Google will make those improvements fast.
I do think that if you are an English language learner, this is a goldmine of opportunity. You don’t need the Turkish or Spanish or whatever your native language is to be perfect, you just need it to give you the background knowledge that will make the English more comprehensible. And that is what it does. You can now get the basic idea of an article – the main points and core vocabulary – before you tackle it English. This is a great way to create more comprehensible input.
Soon I hope I will all be able to use it in this manner too. At this point, it only works from English to other languages. When Google adds the ability to go from all of those other languages back to English, then I’ll have a great tool for getting comprehensible input. I know it is possible because Randy Hunt has been doing it on The Yearlglot blog as seen in his post: Guest Reading: La Nacion. I’ll then be able to read Turkish newspapers and get a quick scan of the English translation to build my background knowledge. That the English won’t be perfect won’t matter. I’m just looking for the information that will open up the Turkish to me, to make it more comprehensible.
I also look forward to the day when I can work between Turkish and Spanish. That will be a great day. I’ll open up a Turkish article online and then be able to get my quick look through Spanish allowing me a bit of a Spanish review at the same time. Two birds with one stone.
Google Chrome’s Language Immersion extension is a great step forward in our ability to create an immersion like experience where ever we happen to live. There are loads of issues right now and it is by no means – nor will it ever be – a silver bullet for learning a new language. For me though, it is about keeping the language in front of my eyes. My friend Pat Flynn writes about passive income. Language Immersion creates a way for us to create passive immersion. And the more passive immersion we can create for ourselves, the more opportunity we will have to learn quickly and effectively.
What do you think? Have you given Google Chrome’s Language Immersion extension a try? If so, drop down below and share your thoughts.
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