Google Translate for Android

It appears to me that people make different choices when it comes to how they spend their time waiting for things. In the waiting area at a doctor’s office, you might see people reading magazines, chatting in person, staring at the ceiling or their toes, watching the door that the nurses come out to call names — or on their phones, playing Angry Birds, talking, using Facebook or Twitter, text messaging, etc.  A few days ago, I saw a photo online showing a popular food stand at a university campus. Not knowing anything about the food, my attention was drawn to the little lights line with the people line—every single student was looking at their cell phone while they were waiting. If phones, especially smartphones have become such an important part of students’ lives, perhaps phones could help them academically also?

The answer is yes. The problem is with so many apps on the market, I had a hard time decide where to start my introductions. I will begin with a free application that has outstanding user reviews, and it is also the one I have on my Android—Google Translate. (Android / iOS)

As of June 2012, Google Translate can translate text between 64 languages, including all the languages we offer at Reed, and has received an average rating of 4.6, with a five-star percentage very high comparing to most smartphone application reviews I have seen.

Based on research as well as my personal experience using the Chinese-English Google Translate, I concluded a few pros and cons.


1) Interface. I like the simple and clean design of the interface. No advertisements, no confusion. You can switch inbetween languages by using the drop down menu. Remember, you have 64 languages to choose from.

2) Full screen mode. I find this helpful especially for learning Chinese characters, Russian and Arabic letters, the accent markers in French and Spanish, and many others. The user can choose to view the words/characters in full screen mode; thus, the written form is very clear and easy to see. You can exist the full screen mode by tapping the “X” in the corner.

3) Listen to the translation. Often, language learners may have excellent reading and writing skills, but their speaking and listening skills are not as good. This may be especially true when they are not learning the target language in an environment where the language is spoken. Google Translate does not fix this problem, but it does provide students the proper pronunciation of words.

4) Voice search available. It’s efficient! There are times when language learners know the pronunciation of a word, but not the spelling. Voice search comes handy in this situation. For example, one of your Chinese friends asks you to buy “???” for him while you are at the store, but you don’t know the characters. What you can do, is to simply say “???” and Google Translate will provide you the target language you need.

5) Conversation mode. In my experience, I don’t think users could have a real conversation with the phone in Google Translate. But I do see a good use of the conversation mode, where users can repeat after the native speaker, allowing users to practice pronouncing the word until the phone recognizes the pronunciation.

6) Translating SMS messages. When students are texting their friends in the target language, it is possible that sometimes students need some help in the language.

Choose “SMS Translation” on the main page, and  your phone will bring you to your message box. Choose the message you want to translate.


1) Potential for mistranslation Translation may or may not reflect the actual meaning or the exact meaning. Not every word in one language has the exact pair of word in the target language. For example, in English, “cotton candy” and “marshmallow” are two different things, but the Chinese translation is the same for both words, “???.” One can not rely on translation to learn a language well. Students need to know how to use translators appropriately to help them learn the target language.

2) Complex sentences Google Translator may not be the best tool to translate long and complicated sentences. It is likely that the translation would sound not right although most times you can get a sense of the main idea. For example, when I translated a text message from a friend “Sounds wonderful. See you guys next week.” The Chinese was not perfect although the meaning was there.

There are other flash card/game type smartphone applications that students may use, and I will discuss those in the future posts. Google Translate is not perfect and it may not be the best choice for everyone, but it does have some very nice features that language learners can explore. While waiting for a bus, or in line to get coffee, or sitting outside enjoying the sun, students can take a few minutes to look at their search history, and review the words that they had looked for before. By looking at those words again, students could self-evaluate: “Do I know these words now? Or do they still look unfamiliar to me?”

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