Friday, 28 December 2012

The Google Translate plague

Image credit to Webster University
One of the most frustrating things you face when you teach English is seeing students plagiarise. The irony, however, is that plagiarism might be underestimated as a technique when considering what happens in some classrooms. But first, let's stop and ask, what is plagiarism? What do you need to be able to plagiarise? Some skills are surely involved. One skill that comes to mind is the ability to use a search engine as a tool for research on a given topic. As minor as it may sound, it's still considered a skill. A plagiariser is usually expected to use the search engine for its primary purpose: to search for information. What skills are required in this action of searching? I would say at least, the ability to select (hopefully critically) information from a specific source and not the other. The plagiariser chooses that specific piece of writing over the other to 'steal' because they can see that perhaps it is the most relevant to their topic or the closest to their linguistic abilities. Even though they are misused, those are still skills. In other words, regardless of the obvious fact that this is still considered an academic offence, there is nevertheless, a certain level of critical thinking in the process.

What is happening in many English classrooms in Oman is beyond horrific, though. And I mean horrific in the sense that not much critical thinking is involved in their plagiarism style. If many of them are going to abuse academic integrity anyway, then to my horror, I at least wish that they'd do it with some element of critical thinking. At least, I might be relieved to know that their researching ability is alright and that they can actually critically select what they want to 'steal'.

Yet unsurprisingly, whenever there is a writing task in an English class, I see uneasy faces. It's not difficult to understand where their frustration comes from, since many public schools graduates that are enrolled in higher education are much below standard in both English and study skills. They struggle, and that's understandable. Yet the big challenge in many Omani classrooms is to get the students to feel motivated enough to work hard and submit a genuine piece of work regardless of the kind and number of mistakes in it. What many of them fail to realise, is that they're in a classroom to actually learn and not just gain points in a competition to go on to the next level. It may sound uneasy for some, but if we don't accept that we have gaps that need to be filled or rather amended, our education system would keep running out of breath while trying to catch up with the better educational systems around the world. Hence, we will never be satisfied with the standard of public schools graduates.

I started my post with a rather strange appreciation of the skills needed to plagiarise. The reason is because a lot of students do not even bother about all skills mentioned. So if they don't use those skills and they don't produce their authentic work, then what do they do? They simply go to this tool which was created for great purposes, none of which I am sure is to help students cheat: . They simply paste their Arabic text in there and get a ready made piece of writing in English.

The messily-translated chunks of language submitted can be outrageous but hilarious at the same time. And I say it's messy because as a machine translator it translates things literally in terms of meaning and discards any grammatical rules of the second language most of the time; it simply follows the word order of the translated language. The effect, my respected readers, can be speechless, as you realise. One student for instance, typed all the Arabic he wanted to express and clicked to translate it into English. Apparently the student wanted to translate the word 'feather' (singular) to English. Note that the Arabic word for feather and badminton (the sport) is the same. The student ended up submitting something that is along the lines of 'the badminton of the bird'...which is interesting if you think about it; but maybe in a fictional text rather than non-fictional prose?

I pause and take a deep breath while I mentally try to convince myself that these mistakes are interesting according to the descriptivist views of linguistics (it's a survival mechanism). Can it get any worse? Until this plague ends and this will only happen once treated from its very roots, I'll keep scribbling with my red pen on students' work a big O and a slash that crosses between two small circles to signify: 0%.