One thing I like to do to build up vocabulary in another language is to learn new sentences and words from Google Translate. I don’t know a word or phrase and I look is up.
But it’s possible to come out sounding unnatural if you just rely on Google Translate. You might translate into the wrong gender, politeness level, or just learn the wrong way of saying things.
So here are five tips to learn languages via Google Translate.
Of course, this is just part of the whole language learning process. We’d recommend learning words and phrases and sticking them into a flashcard deck (we prefer Anki — it’s very powerful and it’s free), and combining it with a tutor (on italki) to really drill things home.
How to Learn Languages with Google Translate — In a nutshell
Google Translate is an excellent resource for building vocabulary and phrases. It’s not a teacher, but hopefully with the below tips you can build up your arsenal of things you know how to say.
Here are five tips I’d suggest for learning new words and sentences via Google Translate.
- Learn some basic grammar of the language, so you don’t get caught out sounding weird
- Do Google searches (image, or just text) on translated phrases to makes sure they exist in the wild
- Use a sentence bank as backup to look up unusual (or very colloquial) phrasings
- Translate from a similar language as a base (not just your mother tongue)
- Learn how to read the writing system at some point
Learn Some Basic Grammar First
Tip number one is that you do have to learn some basic grammar.
Grammar is boring and I usually recommend people not overdo it when they’re focusing just on learning languages for everyday communication. (As an example, I often forget the names of types of pronouns, but I still know the difference between “want to share this with me?” instead of “share this with I?”)
But when you learn languages from a translator, you need to know some grammar. Here’s why. Google Translate will take your input sentence and it will give you an output sentence that:
- Might be in the wrong gender (addressing male or female) or wrong plural form (addressing a group of people or singular), or
- It might be at the wrong “politeness” level, a feature of most languages
- It might contain an unfamiliar grammatical concept that doesn’t exist in English, like a case or a noun class (and it will take too many examples for you to figure out what’s going on).
So what I’d suggest is you first learn about the grammar of the language. For example, if studying French, the things to know are that
- There are six conjugations (I, you, he/she, we, you plural, they)
- There’s a “polite” form (vous) that’s the same as “you plural”
- There is a male and female gender for nouns, and adjectives agree with them, but verbs don’t have to.
Now, when you translate sentences, you have context for the grammar it tries to teach you.
So if you translate “how are you” in French and you see “Comment allez-vous?”, you’ll see the “vous” and know “aha! this is formal!” and adjust the phrasing as necessary.
Tip: You can sometimes “trick” Google Translate into translating using an informal tone or a different gender with surrounding words (that you don’t actually need).
E.g. you can translate “how are you, friend?” or “Are you tired, woman?” You’d never say these out loud (unless you lack social skills…), but the translation will be correct.
Do Google Searches
Tip number two is to do some Google searches on the results if you aren’t sure about them.
If you translate a very colloquial phrase like “I was going to that but now I can’t be bothered” you might suspect how good the translation of “can’t be bothered” would be.
So if you do some searches on the results, whatever they are, you might find things like YouTube clips or even songs with that phrase in them as the title or lyrics. That’ll give you some confidence that it exists out there in the wild.
Sometimes Google will even correct it for you in the search results.
For example if you translate “I can’t be bothered” into German using Google Translate, you get Ich kann nicht gestört werden, which is a literal translation (something like “I cannot be distracted/perturbed”).
Doing a Google Search on the exact phrase gets you no promising results, just a few suggestions for how to better say “I can’t be bothered”, including Ich habe keine Lust or Ich habe keinen Bock.
Use a Sentence Bank as Backup
Tip three is that when you’re unsure, use a sentence bank.
There are some sentence banks you can search, like Speechling. That has a database of about 10,000 sentences of some common languages for study (but not at present Arabic or Hebrew), and you might find some inspiration there.
Another sentence bank I really like is Reverso Context. Again, it doesn’t have every language in there. And its database seems to come a lot from public translations like subtitles. But it’s really good for colloquial phrases!
E.g. based on the last section, I really did start to wonder whether in German people say Ich habe keinen Bock more (as I only learned of that phrase in writing this article).
So I did a search for it and here’s what I get. This is enough proof that the phrase exists (and keinen seems to be the right case.)
Translate From a Similar Language As a Base
An unusual tip is to translate from another, more similar language — even if you don’t know it fluently.
For example, translating from Italian to French will retain the politeness level, grammatical gender, and sometimes even nuance more accurately than translating from English to French.
Translating from Korean to Japanese will also retain a lot of the grammatical features that the two languages have in common, e.g. nuance in verb endings, and politeness levels.
If you don’t know a similar language fluently but you just know it a little, it’s still a useful check.
Learn how to read the writing system
Finally, Google Translate is a good way to learn to read the writing system of another language, but it’s also a good reason to learn it at all.
Firstly, for most language, Google Translate will show a transliteration. And for those languages it’ll also give you an audio — and the audio is pretty accurate!
But even though Google Translate’s audio is good, the transliteration isn’t always a correct representation of how the language sounds. Sometimes it’s just off. In Russian and Korean, I find the way they transliterate some words would have led me down the garden path.
For a very simple example, “thanks” in Russian, “спасибо”, is transliterated as “spasibo“, when it sounds more like “spasiba“, as “о”‘s pronunciation changes. Go check this out on Google Translate and you’ll see what I mean — the audio is correct and the written form is not.
So learn the writing system, how to read it, and its rules and quirks — exceptions and so on. You’ll need to in order to not get tripped up by the transliterations.
This is thankfully less necessary for Chinese, whose writing system is quite hard. The transliterations in Google Translate are very good.
Notes — Languages you can’t learn from Google Translate
The main language I’ve studied that I find Google Translate almost useless for is a colloquial Arabic dialect — Egyptian or Levantine Arabic.
It’s really frustrating, because my interest in Modern Standard Arabic is largely intellectual (and so, limited, because I’m a practical person). Google Translate and other machine translators probably do a good job with MSA, but that means different words, grammar, and even pronunciation.
Google Translate can work well translating from any Arabic dialect to English. But that’s a one way street. It’s not even good for checking or correcting (so you can’t put in a sentence you’ve made in Egyptian Arabic and see if it translates) — it’s focus is on helping people being understood.
So for Egyptian Arabic or Levantine Arabic, I’d still recommend a tutor.
Hebrew works in a basic sense. I find the translations quite good. But there’s no audio and no transliteration, so I have to rely on other resources like Forvo and Pealim to understand how to pronounce words. See my list of Hebrew learning resources for more.