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Using Google Translate to understand Hebrew? That’s no way to improve

Rapidly improving technology is allowing new immigrants and tourists that visit Israel to understand what product they’re looking at on supermarket shelves, or when they sit down at a cafe without an English menu. Yet is this the best way to improve your Hebrew? Probably not.

You don't need to be an advanced Hebrew student to know that this is just plain wrong!

Do you remember back in elementary school, how the arithmetic teacher insisted that you learn how to learn times tables and long division without a calculator. It was super annoying, right? Turns out that’s how they’re still teaching it today - young students learning how to do multiplication and division, such as 12/4 or 1024 times 362. Sounds hard, but they end up successfully learning. Why? Because they are learning critically, and activating the relevant parts of their brain.

One of hundreds of Google Translate fails available online for your enjoyment.

Today, the most commonly used dictionary in the world is Google Translate? And honestly - it’s an amazing invention. You can go into any web page, post on Facebook, and even today, scan a sentence written in a foreign language and read it in your native tongue one moment later. They’ve also added audio in recent years. At UAB, we do use Google Translate from time to time, however, its ability to be used as a tool for language learning is questionable.

In order to fully understand this question, we need to understand how the algorithms work and develop. Google Translate compares texts and essays in different languages, take Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky for example. The algorithm compares the words written in English and Russian for example, and from there you get a translation of words or sentences. As long as there are more texts in different languages, the translation needs to be more accurate. The problem? When talking about sentences, the translation is more accurate, so when it comes to individual words, they are taken out of context and are poorly translated.

One of our favourite fails!

Around a month ago, one of our students, who was born in Russia, left her vest at the Ulpan, and in the pocket was her key. She used Google Translate and sent us a message reading that her “key was in her bra” that she left at the Ulpan. What happened is that she looked up the vest in Russian, and the Hebrew translation gave her the word bra - which of course is something completely different.

Just like we learned to multiply and divide without a calculator, that’s how we try to teach a new language - we don’t want to reach for a dictionary when we don’t understand a certain word. The magic happens when we stop and think for a second, and try to understand. At UAB, we discourage our students from using Google Translate when learning for two reasons - one is to prevent embarrassing mistakes (like bra instead of vest), and also to learn how to think in a new language. Our students come out on top as a result, and become fluent in Hebrew - no exceptions.

Try it yourself - next time you don’t understand something, put down the phone and close Google Translate. We promise, you’ll go far.

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