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Effects of Online Translation on Morphosyntactic and Lexical-Pragmatic Accuracy in Essay Writing in Spanish as a Foreign Language

The use of online translations (OT) services such as Google translate increases as more pupils gain 24/7 access to computers, often provided to them by their schools in 1-1 laptop programmes. So far, few studies have examined in detail pupils’ use of computers in foreign language writing (FLW). Studies of the use of OT in FLW are even less common, with a few exceptions such as O’Neill’s thesis of 2012, examining the effects of OT on written FL texts.
The present study takes a closer look at the technology use in two groups of Swedish pupils (age 17) studying Spanish as a FL. Each of the 56 pupils participating in the study has a personal laptop provided by the school. One of the groups (A) had free access to the internet, and to the spelling and grammar checker in Microsoft Word, whereas the other group (B) was restricted to the use of paper dictionaries and had no internet access. During the autumn term of 2013, 148 Spanish essays on four topics were collected from the groups. Screen recordings of 33 pupils’ writing sessions, from both groups, were made, and accompanied by classroom observations, a short survey and interviews to some of the pupils.
The screen recordings reveal an extended use of OT in the group with internet access; some essays were almost entirely machine translated. Parting from the hypothesis that the use of OT would lead to different errors than the use of paper dictionaries, the essays were analysed for morphological, syntactical and lexical-pragmatical errors. Significant differences between groups A and B were found for several error categories. All in all, group B, without internet access, made a higher percentage of errors and wrote shorter essays, which is not surprising. However, group A made more mistakes in choosing the right verb mode, using appropriate personal pronouns, and using correct conjunctions. Group B made more mistakes in verb conjugation (often creating non-existing forms), in adjective congruence and article congruence, and in the use of adverbs (often confusing adverbs and adjectives). Many of the errors in group B can to a large extent be explained by the fact that the pupils had no access to automatic corrective suggestions or automatic translation, as did the pupils in group A. Flaws in OT can account for many of the incorrect personal pronouns in the essays from group A. The differences in correct use of verb mode and conjunctions are more difficult to explain and deserve further investigation.
In the presentation, effects of OT will be discussed in more detail, with a focus on pedagogical implications for FL teachers.


Kent Fredholm    
Department of Language Education
Stockholm University

Kent Fredholm has a background as a teacher of Swedish, Italian, French, Spanish, Latin and Mandarin Chinese, teaching pupils between ages 12 and 75 for the last decade. He is currently performing ph.d. studies in Spanish at the Department of Language Education of Stockholm University. His current studies concentrate on the use of information and communication technology among pupils learning Spanish as a foreign language, with particular focus on digitalised writing strategies, grammar learning and online translation. Earlier studies and interests have concerned symbolism in Italian and French 20th century literature and pupils’ motivation for foreign language studies.


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