Bonne idée in theory

The other day, while I was searching for a completely different Google Chrome extension, I came across an interesting one called Language Immersion for Chrome, which had the intriguing strapline “learn a new language while you browse the web”.

It describes itself as “an experimental extension that aims to simulate the experience of being immersed in a foreign language” and is powered by Google Translate.  It  works by translating certain words and phrases on any webpage into the target language of your choice (any of the 60 or so supported by Google Translate), substituting the translated phrase for the original on the page (it highlights the translated bits so you can spot them more easily) .  For instance, if you had la langue set to French vous pouvez see something comme this.   The context of the surrounding words in a language you can speak (I’m not sure if it only works for pages in English or for other source languages) enables you to grasp the meaning and the repeated exposure helps to cement the word in your head.  I think it is supposed to mimic, to some extent, the way that children naturally acquire language more-or-less by osmosis rather than sitting down to memorise long vocabulary lists.

The tool offers a couple of extra features, which are selectable as options.  One is the ability to click on a highlighted/translated phrase to revert it to the original language, enabling you to check your understanding; this feature is reversible, so you can click again to get the translated version back.  The other facility is the ability to hover over the phrase and hear an audio clip of it being spoken, handy if you want to work on your pronunciation.  Also, the tool enables you to specify your fluency level in the target language (on a sliding scale from “novice” to “fluent”), which alters the proportion of the page to be translated and possibly also the choice of the words translated (though I assume the words are selected pretty much at random and if it can’t find a translation for a particular word or phrase it picks another one nearby and tries again; I doubt it maintains lists of approved phrases to translate for each language and level).

So far that sounds like a pretty useful tool.  Unfortunately there are a couple of reasons why it didn’t work altogether smoothly and why, in consequence, I’ve removed it from my browser at least for now.  It takes a while to load the translations and the audio feature only seems to be available for certain languages and can be quite slow to kick in even with those ones.  There is also, of course, the problem of the inherent inaccuracy of a machine translation in the first place. I  spotted plenty of mistakes when I tried the tool using Welsh (which I speak quite fluently) and French (rusty but passable) so I’m sure there are also lots of mistranslations in the other languages.

To some extent those problems may get alleviated, although probably never solved entirely (especially the machine translation issue) as the software (both the extension and the GT backend) continues to be developed.  However, I don’t know whether I will use it again in any case.  I’m not sure of the pedagogic value of inserting random phrases from another language into a stream of text; it may be quite handy for reviewing and extending vocabulary but doesn’t necessarily offer any great benefits over more traditional tools like flashcards, and it doesn’t show you how to actually use the words idiomatically in the target language.

I think I’m more likely to get benefit from continuing to look at websites in the languages I’m trying to learn (when available – there aren’t that many written in ancient Greek!). Google Translate can be quite a handy tool for checking understanding of specific words and phrases with this approach, especially as there are several browser extensions available that let you select some text and get a translation immediately; however, I generally prefer to try and read to get a general idea of the gist of a passage without getting too bogged down in the details of individual words.  As with the language immersion extension, the surrounding text often helps you to get an understanding of an unfamiliar word, but if the surrounding text is also in the target language that gives you a much better feel of how the word fits in context.

I suppose it may be interesting to start trying to learn a more-or-less completely unfamiliar language (for which trying to read a website entirely in that language may be too much) with the immersion tool and then switch to (or at least supplement with) websites in the target language once I begin to acquire sufficient vocabulary.   This might be helpful as part of an attempt to learn a language but I suspect that it would work better in conjunction with other language-learning tools than trying to use it on its own.