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:


People Are Knowledge

The Wikimedia foundation recently recognized that the Global South (India, Africa, South America, and so on) was under-represented on the internet and on Wikipedia, and that much of future growth will come from these areas.

Achal R. Prabhala,  in partnership with the Wikimedia foundation, made the video above illuminating one of the cultural gaps between the Global North and the Global South; i.e., the reverence for written citations, rather than oral citations. For cultures with an oral emphasis, it is the stories, conversations, and living processes that carry the knowledge of the community, rather than books, periodicals, etc.

We can scramble to get these banks of knowledge into writing, sure; and/or we can bridge the cultural gap by meeting them where they’re at – by recording in video and audio the living tradition and memory of what the culture and its members carry.

I find this thrilling; as you watch the video, just imagine using Language Hunting to document each language in an oral citation via a chain of conversations (as we’ve begun with Irish), so that the citation becomes accessible to any ear, no matter what its mother tongue.

I’m so inspired by this, and will be looking for ways to support the Wikimedia Foundation’s efforts to connect the vitality and expertise of the Global South with the Global North.

Language Hunters Spring 2012 Workshop, March 30-April 1, in PDX area

aurora accelerated learning language hunting image language revitalization

The hop fields in the countryside outside historic Aurora, OR. (Image copyright Ian Shane)

Coming up this March 30th we’ll be holding a whole weekend of Language Hunting in Aurora, OR, just outside Portland. These immersion training opportunities are unfortunately rare nowadays, due to other projects, so if you’ve been wanting to learn the craft of language hunting, sign up now!

You can register here.

Factory-based Learning vs. Experiment Based Learning

kids experiment children learning

CC Jason Holmberg on Flickr

In the world of second language education, there is a mainstream approach that you could call “factory-based” learning. Essentially, you are told all the answers (all the “parts”) – the grammar, the vocabulary definitions, etc., and it’s up to you to put them together, to assemble intelligible language through speech and writing. You require an authority who has designed the system to do your work.

Whereas Language Hunting offers you another approach – “experiment-based” learning. You make observations, you hypothesize, you experiment, and then you have your “aha!” moment when you get results. You never finish experimenting – you hold all your “answers” lightly – but in this way you become self-sufficient at this process of absorbing fluency in new areas.

In the end, it comes down to this. Do you want dependent learners, who need you to progress? Or do you want self-sufficient learners, who can also teach you a thing or two?

Language Hunting at Ignite Portland 10

willem larsen language hunters endangered languages ignite portland 10

Willem Larsen on the stage of the Baghdad Theater at Ignite Portland 10 (image CC Aaron Hockley,

On February 9th, in Portland, OR, I had the chance to give a talk on the Language Hunter’s perspective on how we can support the revitalization of endangered languages.

Here’s a link to photos from the event – there were lots of great talks that night.

Check out the Ignite Portland homepage for more information on the event.

New eBook – “the Language Hunter’s Kit”

Language Hunter's kit cover page eBook

The cover to the first complete text on Language Hunting, new in 2012

With the help of the good folks at, I’ve just released a work-in-progress version of the first complete book on Language Hunting, the Language Hunter’s Kit.

LeanPub offers a format where readers can purchase the eBook before it’s done, get a sneak peak, and ask questions and offer feedback that will improve their experience and make the book serve their needs better. Often a book will be published when it is only 10% done.

There is a lot more to add to the Language Hunter’s Kit book, but already it’s chock full of diagrams, instructions, stories, and tools for improving your langage learning.

As always, our goal at Language Hunters is a world full of players teaching each other to Language Hunt and become multilingual. The best way to address the world’s endangered language crisis is to remove the need to choose between languages!

And of course every copy of the Language Hunter’s Kit eBook you purchase helps fund our work.

Buy the Language Hunter’s Kit here.

Help us finish the Irish Language Hunt video series

We have 30 days to raise $3500 to complete our Irish Language Hunt video series. We’ve already put 400 man-hours into the project. Please visit our kickstarter project page:

And please tell everyone you know – by supporting this project, you support the development of the Language Hunting system for all languages. We’re already using what we’ve learned so far to plan our collaborations with other language communities.

The Irish Language Hunt is ON!

We’ve just completed a experimental series of videos in a race to “get you to the party” (achieve basic conversational fluency) in the Irish langauge (Gaeilge).

We eventually plan to have 4 Laps around the racetrack, the last two of which will get you fluent in reading and writing. So far we’ve only completed Lap 1.

If you enjoy the video above, you can start playing through Lap 1 right now. Click here to begin!

Rules of Accelerated Learning, #13: Nested Complexity

sea turtle image nested complexity accelerated learning

Observe a master navigator at work, partway through a voyage. (image CC cloning girl)

This is part of an ongoing series on the fundamental rules or “patterns” of accelerated learning. Each rule is very contextual; these are not silver bullets or cure-alls.


When you are progressing through successive stages of proficiency in a target skill…

There are many models of learning out there, but they are often too general, abstract, speculative, or based on knowledge-about rather than FLUENCY.

  • It’s common when learning something new to have to go back to the beginning, and relearn things all over again, in the light of a new understanding you’ve gained. By avoiding this in the first place you can save tremendous amounts of time.
  • To really learn or teach how to do something, you must start at the most basic level of performance and rise through ever-increasing levels of complexity, becoming fluent at every step along the way.
  • Delaying fluency until you’ve had an overview of an entire skillset only means you have to start all over again to actually learn it, this time doing it for real.
  • “Maturity”-type models of learning (such as the Dreyfus Model) don’t actually tell you what to do at any particular point in your learning.
  • There are fewer ways to learn something quickly than there are ways to learn something slowly.
  • Finding a narrow path through a skillset, that you can then share with other learners/teachers, allows you to collaborate on making it even faster and more effective.
Therefore, observe your target skill at all the levels of proficiency, and map out the fastest route to fluency accordingly.
  • Rough out 4-5 main levels of proficiency, and tag them to fingers on your hand according to GESTURE.
  • When you reach a “fork in the road” along the way through the rising levels of proficiency, and both paths are equally effective, choose just one to collaborate on.
  • If there is no one who has organically learned the target skill, you’ll need to establish the levels of proficiency much later by first FLUENCY HUNTING your way through it on your own. By looking behind you, you’ll then see the path that you’ve left, and can share it with others.
  • Be aware of the overall path to mastery, but don’t engage in discussion or speculation about higher levels; focus in on the one you’re working on right now.
New teachers and learners experiencing accelerated learning often want to “jump” levels due to curiosity or impatience, to get more of an overview or exposure to the skill. This is of course the slippery slope back to knowledge-about rather than fluent mastery; call the rules of play and keep on hunting!