Google Translate vs. The Telephone Game

Raising student awareness of the limitations of Google Translate.

Many of us rely on Google Translate as a tool to get through to the English language learners in our classrooms, as do many of the staff, students and parents in our community. It can be a fantastic support, enabling lesson modifications and differentiation that did not previously exist, but it is also important that it’s users understand it’s limitations. Automatic translations often subtly change the meaning of phrases, and when repeated those changes can accumulate for drastic results.

One way to demonstrate this is by using Translate to play the infamous “Telephone Game” (also known as Chinese Whispers). Rather than repeating a word or phrase to the person next in line to see what mistakes accumulate along the way, try changing between languages multiple times in Google Translate. In order to work properly, each phrase must be translated into a new language, swapped with the previous language, then translated again. Repeat enough times for interesting results!


4 thoughts on “Google Translate vs. The Telephone Game”

  1. I’d love to try this one day. I encourage students to only Translate one word at a time and, if I am beside them, I ask them to check all the definition options to see which seems to fit best. It is a good feeling when a student makes the connection to the right context.

  2. What a great idea. Trying this. Also love the use of technology in this post! It’s also interesting that in some languages it seems to work better- like from English to Finnish it seems to cause less confusion than from English to Japanese.

  3. Sounds great fun and very useful at all levels and abilities; for instance in Grade 11 TOK students have to consider different ways of knowing one of which is Language and this would be a fun way to demonstrate how misleading language can be when translated and lead to a useful discussion on the values and limitations of language.

  4. Matt! I love this post. I love the two pieces of technology that you integrated to share the idea, too! The short video caused me to stop and play the game myself to test it out with languages I know…and like Marcelle, I found that the closer the languages (in my case English, Spanish, French, German and Italian) the closer the translation. Definitely a learning experience for our students with language or letters/characters more distant form the target language.

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