Language Hunting with Google Translate

alone language hunting silk road image

What can a language hunter do when you're all alone in the wilderness? (Image CC Jonathan Kos-Read)

The only true limit to rapid language acquisition, through the art of Language Hunting, is finding a fluent speaker. A speaker, with time to share their language over lunch, or a cup of coffee, or passing the time while waiting in line.

But what if you can’t find a speaker of your target language? What if you are all alone?

Well, as long as you still have an internet connection, there’s a little free service provided by a company (whose name you may have possibly heard before), that offers an interesting way to make your eventual hunt with a fluent speaker as productive as possible.

WARNING: Static resources of any kind, including texts, recordings, phrasebooks, dictionaries, and in this case a translation robot, must always defer to the living form of the language as spoken by an actual human being, in accord with ALIVE, the prime directive of accelerated learning. These resources, at their best, are excellent questions to drive your language hunting of a fluent speaker.

For example, after reading a word that the dictionary claims to correspond to the English word “cup” in your target language, as a language hunter, you must ask, “In what context(s) is this true (if ever)? In what contexts is it not true? Was it true once, but the language has shifted? How does it vary in different situations? How does it differ among dialects?” This rule is called THE BOOK OF QUESTIONS. You can read more about this and other rules of language hunting in The Language Hunter’s Kit, available online.

With this warning under your belt, we can now have some fun!

Welcome to the wonders of Google Translate, (click on the picture below to enlarge it). Go to the website, and we’ll start playing with Russian as an example.

"What is this?" Russian Google Translate language hunting image

Using the translator is fairly self-explanatory. Write in the box on the left in English, and choose the target language on the right (in this case, again, let’s do Russian). I’ve started to build my first game, “What?”, by typing “What is this?”. I recommend starting with the word “this” as a default.

The first problem is you’re looking at the written orthography of the language, which will start intervening between you and your fluent conversational ability right away. I recommend putting a sticky note over the target language box, so you don’t have to see the written form of the target language, and can maintain the most rapid absorption of the spoken language, until you have finished the RACE TO THE PARTY.

“But!” you may say, “where’s the speaking part?”

Google translate language hunt symbols imageAh! Well, in the lower right corner of the box on the right,  you’ll see a series of symbols. One of those symbols is a tiny speaker. Click on it!

That’s the magic of Google translate. The next step is obvious – now answer your question!

Google Translate 3 image

Now continue, making your series of games, clicking on the little speaker to add each new BITE-SIZED PIECE. Build a game (for more info on how to do this, see The Language Hunter’s Kit, and check out our Youtube or Vimeo channels), then practice it over and over with an imaginary (or real) friend.

Once again, and you can’t know exactly when, you will eventually (perhaps immediately) build a game with some goofy off-base articulation of your target language. Incorrect grammar, idiom, or even pronunciation. “Isn’t this a bad thing?” you may wonder.

Even while you’re hunting live, your fluent speakers of the target language might suffer from all kinds of problems; they might be confused from juggling English and their native language; might misunderstand your SET-UP; might speak a different dialect than you’re expecting; might decide not to correct you out of politeness or shyness. You must always hold whatever language you hunt lightly, as a temporary answer, to be verified and affirmed through future hunts.

The language you get from Google Translate then becomes just another application of this understanding. In addition, research shows, that students who make predictions about the answer to a riddle, a math problem, or the results of an experiment, have far greater retention of the “true” answer whether they were right or wrong to begin with. So this is good stuff.

You can use Google Translate to build a rough, “good enough for now” path through the RACE TO THE PARTY, for exploring your target language with a live fluent speaker later. You will have much more success than anyone else relying on nothing else but static resources or input-only for their language acquisition. And you can layer in other resources, such as immersion via media in your target language (podcasts, television, movies, etc.).

Other issues to consider with Google Translate:

  • Which accent in which dialect of your target is Google Translate offering? This information isn’t provided. Proceed cautiously.
  • Not all languages have the option of the little speaker in the corner – Google often only provides written translation. For example, there is no audio translation for Irish/Gaeilge (yes, I looked!).
  • Typing and thinking in English to elicit translations from Google Translate will tend to encourage old mental translation habits that slow down learning. This is just one of the pitfalls of hunting language this way; stay focused on building games, playing through them, and thinking in the target language as soon as possible.
  • Hunting language this way will cause your pantomime skills (emoting with body language, sculpting situations with sign and gesture) for eliciting language from live native speakers to atrophy. The more you use this crutch, the more they’ll atrophy. Test the games you build with this on live speakers as soon as possible.

In the end, this is a distant second best to having a fluent speaker with time to share their language – but it’s still pretty cool.

UPDATE 4-10-2012: For your convenience, here are the languages available for hunting (i.e., they have an audio feature in addition to the standard written translation on Google Translate):

Human voice:
  1. Dutch
  2. English
  3. Finnish
  4. French
  5. German
  6. Greek
  7. Haitian Creole
  8. Hindi
  9. Hungarian
  10. Italian
  11. Japanese
  12. Korean
  13. Latin
  14. Norwegian
  15. Polish
  16. Portuguese
  17. Russian
  18. Slovak
  19. Spanish
  20. Swedish
  21. Tamil
  22. Thai
  23. Turkish
  24. Chinese
Robovoice (annoying, tinny, difficult to understand or copy-cat, may be improved or upgraded at some point?)
  1. Esperanto
  2. Icelandic
  3. Indonesian
  4. Latvian
  5. Macedonian
  6. Romanian
  7. Serbian
  8. Swahili
  9. Vietnamese
  10. Welsh


It turns out that you can get spoken Irish, if you combine Google Translate with this service: Cut and paste the google translation into the box you’ll find at the other link – it will pronounce any written Irish you paste into it!

This makes me wonder if this service is available for other languages, that Google doesn’t support with voice?


Microsoft’s Translator also has speaker options! Try it:


2 thoughts on “Language Hunting with Google Translate

  1. I’ve done Chinese some weeks ago, so at least this is missing from the list above. I used it to create small soundfiles to practice my pronunciation, because I need more practice with their tones. thanks for the post!

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