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Addressing the Elephant in the Classroom - The Use of Online Translators in World Languages

By Simone Aguilera

Some of us are old enough to remember the experience of leafing through a dictionary to find the definition of a word. I particularly enjoyed taking the routes to my linguistic discoveries by searching for words in my paperback English-Portuguese dictionary. Today, we can easily look up the meaning of words and sentences in a digital online dictionary or thesaurus and be almost guaranteed an accurate translation. With a Ctrl C and Ctrl V, entire paragraphs are translated, and minimal post-editing is needed. For all the efficient output these tools offer, they also pose serious challenges in education.

The use of online translators (OTs) in World Language courses has become chronic, and one of the most detrimental forms of plagiarism in foreign language acquisition. Just ask any World Language teacher (aka unicorns), and they will tell you how OTs have completely changed the landscape of language learning. It has become the elephant in the classroom - the conundrum too complex and burdensome to solve.

So how did we get here? Well, it certainly hasn't happened overnight. OTs are becoming increasingly more popular as they grow more sophisticated. Today, World Language teachers see this form of plagiarism in the classroom every day - from novice to advanced level courses. These are five identifiers of online translator tools used in the classroom:

  1. Vocabulary is sophisticated beyond a student's language proficiency or course level.
  2. Vocabulary is not appropriate and does not match past and current knowledge.
  3. Vocabulary is appropriate, but the output is not authentic in nature (idiomatic expressions, context, or registers of language).
  4. Written assignments tend to be flawless, sophisticated, and above course level; meanwhile, speaking proficiency falls below minimum course expectations.
  5. Assessments and tasks such as quizzes, oral presentations, and classroom discussions result in poor grades or a student's lack of participation.

I worry that by not finding constructive ways to address OTs, we are perpetuating this form of plagiarism - and what is worse - we are stagnating learning potential and halting students' ability to acquire a foreign language. OTs keep language learners from achieving crucial learning goals aside from proficiency in the language, like expanding cultural perspectives, building resiliency, identifying appropriate resources, and thinking critically.

According to a statement by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), the "Proficiency Guidelines are intended to be used for global assessment in academic and workplace settings [..]"[1] Therefore, these guidelines should be shared in the classroom to educate students on how they can meet content standards now and in the future. Can-do statements, learning objectives, and self-assessments are perfect tools to empower students and guide them on their progress.

How we begin supporting our World Language educators is equally crucial. A good start could be the creation of guidelines that address not only the submission of plagiarized work but also templated communication that clearly outlines steps that will redirect and encourage students to:

  1. Read and follow directions for each assignment carefully.
  2. Complete practice activities, including vocabulary reviews and eBook activities, before beginning assignments or taking quizzes.
  3. Use vocabulary lists (past and current) to increase the repertoire of words, expressions, and phrases.
  4. Build upon the assignments that have already been completed in past units.
  5. Connect with the teacher for specific questions. Teachers are students' best resource.
  6. Realize that making mistakes is part of learning a language. It is a necessary part of achieving proficiency.

Teachers should be encouraged and expected to reach out to and keep an open communication channel with students. It will ensure that teachers are familiar with each of their student's unique situations. Some learners may live in homes where caregivers are heritage speakers, and others may have reached different proficiency levels by engaging or working with community members who don't speak English. Getting to know students' experiences with languages beyond the classroom will prepare teachers to take the best course of action and address individual learning needs.

Once there is a need for a course of action, school administration must support teachers and student learning by having in place a plagiarism policy that specifically discourages OTs. Under the student handbook, VHS Learning explicitly addresses the consequences involving OTs under the plagiarism policy. VHS Learning World Language teachers are equipped with a set of templated messages that highlight plagiarized work. It includes naming specific assignments with detailed explanations and examples of the teacher's observations as part of comprehensive feedback. Then, students are directed to focus on the student handbook policy regarding the use of OTs.

VHS Learning believes that every student deserves the opportunity to learn a second, a third, or even a fourth language. They deserve to feel challenged yet supported throughout their journey. They also deserve to learn a language effectively and arrive at a proficiency level on their own merits while given the proper tools and supports that help them identify and utilize the appropriate learning resources.


Simone Aguilera is the coordinator for world languages curriculum at VHS Learning.

[1] “Seal of Biliteracy Comparison of Scales Talking Points.”, American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, (