May 032015

I wouldn’t like to live without Google translate but relying on it is a VERY dangerous thing – as illustrated by the great graphic below from Verbalink. So it is with very great pleasure that I introduce a their guest post….

With people all over the world connecting and communicating with each other, the demand for easy-to-use translation services has been steadily growing. Technology has been attempting to reduce the need for human intervention in various tasks for hundreds of years. A very successful example of this is travel agencies. Before websites like Expedia, you had to contact an actual person who would then manually coordinate your vacation. In today’s world, planning a lavish trip to Vegas is as simple as logging into these websites, typing in some information and clicking a button.

On the other hand, some tasks seem impossible to accomplish without humans. For example, how could a robot or computer program write a movie script or make artistic decisions while creating a film? In roles like these, the human mind is a vital and perhaps required element. This has certainly seemed true of translation, a skill which earns many people a decent living. In an attempt to break this barrier, Microsoft unveiled the Skype Translator. The idea behind the Skype Translator is that rather than translating written text, it supplies an almost-instantaneous translation of human words. Following the release of the Skype Translator, Google took its own version of the voice translation app public.

At Verbal Ink, we provide human translators which allows for both improved accuracy and a more natural sounding translation. Skype Translate wasn’t available at the time of the test so we decided to compare the proficiency of Google Translate with our human translators. For this test, we used Adriana as a translator and Gaby as a judge of both Adriana and Google’s translations. The first round of translations was done using a Spanish marketing document while the second round was done using Spanish audio spoken into an iPhone using the Google Translate app.

But the question remains: Are these services a viable replacement for having a human translator? The answer is no. While Google Translate will provide a partially correct translation, our tests showed it to be overly formal and produce a product that overall didn’t sound like a natural speaker of the language would. In addition to this, some words were missed entirely and placed into the translated text in their original form.

That’s not to say there aren’t uses for Google Translate. In our tests, Google Translate did a sufficient job of providing the gist of the translated text. The main issue with Google Translate is that it translates each word individually rather than translating an entire sentence or phrase and providing the proper context in which the word was used. If you’re trying to translate a single word or figure out the gist of a paragraph, Google Translate will do a sufficient job. Our human translators were most useful when translating documents with more complex language, such as legal and financial documents.

So if you’re wondering what a word means or how to say “I love you” in another language, Google Translate and its competitors will fit your needs perfectly. However, it would be wise to avoid using them to write your next Spanish paper or fake fluency in another language!


 Posted by at 2:00 pm
Oct 182013

Here’s our latest 90 second video English lesson. (As always, the video is also available with a clickable transcript at

This is one of many curious British and American differences that I’ll be exploring in my webinar for IATEFL this Saturday (19th Oct 2013), along with questions like ‘Are Americans really more direct?’ and ‘What’s the role of sarcasm in American English?’
To join the webinar, follow this link:
It’s suitable for English teachers or anyone with an interest in linguistics and British and American differences. It’s free and open to all so hope some of you can make it.

 Posted by at 3:51 am
Dec 022011


Last September, I wrote a post about gender  which prompted a response from Marc Leavitt. It was just too enjoyable to leave lurking in the comments, so with Marc’s kind permission, I post it again here. Over to Marc…

To posit an evolutionary predetermination for the way men and women speak is like saying that dogs bark and birds sing. I base it on nurture, not nature. Women speak like the English, and men, like Americans.

If my female editor wants me to fill in for a vacationing colleague, here’s the scenario:
She: “Hi Marc, how are you?”
Me: “Fine, Lois, how are you?’
She: “Pretty good. How was your Labor Day? Did it rain where you were?”
Me: “OK. No, it was cloudy.but it didn’t rain.”
She: “That’s good. We had a few sprinkles, but everything turned out OK. Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you that Nevin’s on vacation next week.”
Me: “Good for him.”
She: “I wanted to ask you, do you think you might be able to sub for him on the editorial page?”
Me: “Yeh, that’s no problem.”
She: “Oh, gee, thanks a lot! That’s great!”
Me: “Sure.”
Here’s the reverse:
Me: “Hi Lois, howyadoin’?
She: “OK, how are you? Did you have a nice weekend?”
Me: “Fine. Listen, Nevin’s on vacation next week. Can you sub for him?”
She: “Sure, no problem.”
Me: “Thanks a lot.”
This is one example of my experience in the way in which men and women differ in their exchanges, but I think the roles are due to socialization and longstanding tradition. Men are taught to get to the point right away, women, to set the scene before they make a request. I’m not implying better or worse, just different aspects of communication.

So what do you think? Is your reaction, “But Marc, you’re promulgating a stereotype here”? Or are you thinking, “Marc, you might have put your finger on something here”? And could Marc be right that, “women speak like the English, and men, like Americans”?


Some other posts on directness and indirectness:

Are Americans more direct?

Whimpish Imperatives

The rhetoric of outrage

Gently, gently



 Posted by at 2:09 am
Aug 022011

Many years ago a friend passed on a funny document, knowing how much I’d love it. (Thanks Roger!) I’m not sure of its origins but as I understood it, it originated at Royal Dutch Shell where it was circulated as a joke between Dutch employees who were often struggling to understand the indirect remarks of their British colleagues. I could be totally wrong about that though, so readers do please tell me if you know anything about its history.

It’s three lists: phrases British people say, what they really mean and what their Dutch colleagues understood. Needless to say, what’s said and what’s understood are very different things.

If it’s hard to read my much copied version, you might like to check out another version that turned up on the Economist blog a while ago.

When I’ve shown it to students, I’ve often wondered if it would work better as a video exercise, so they could hear the tone of voice and see the accompanying body language. So when I get time and can find a willing British English speaker, I’ll have a stab at making a video. So watch this space and please tell me if you think your students might find it amusing. Also, do you think Americans would be as indirect?

 Posted by at 8:25 pm
Jun 102011

I’m very interested in the curious relationship benefits that can result when human beings are ambiguous and don’t state their intent clearly. So I was delighted to discover Steven Pinker exploring the issue in this RSA lecture.
It’s a terrific talk, but if you don’t have time to watch the whole 11 minute video, try to watch it from 7 minutes in. He uses a wonderful example from the movie ‘When Harry met Sally’ to illustrate and explain why direct on the record statements can be less comfortable and more awkward than indirect ones. And if you don’t have time to watch any of it, in short he maintains it’s because lack of mutual knowledge helps us to maintain a fiction.

Click here to read another post on ambiguity in polite requests

 Posted by at 10:37 pm