A Machine Translation Activity

Joe Suzuki-Parker, Rissho University

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: Machine translation, error analysis
  • Learner English Level: Intermediate to advanced
  • Learner Maturity: University
  • Preparation time: 5 minutes
  • Activity time: 30-40 minutes
  • Materials: Worksheet (Appendix A), Questions sheet (Appendix B), writing utensil, internet accessible device, link to an online machine translator such as www.deepl.com.

Due to advances in machine translation (MT) technology over the last decade, students are increasingly relying on it to assist them in their language learning. It is therefore important to show them how to use MT effectively. This hands-on activity provides students with a scaffolded exploration of the capabilities of MT compared with manual translation methods, and aims to raise awareness of nuance and errors that can occur when switching between languages.



Step 1: Make sure students have access to the internet.

Step 2: Print one worksheet (Appendix A) for each student.

Step 3: Print and cut one questions sheet (Appendix B) into slips.



Step 1: Start a discussion by asking students whether they use MT and how they use it.

Step 2: Explain that there are two main ways to use MT: for practical purposes (simple copy and paste), and for educational purposes (to better understand word usage, conduct error analysis, compare and contrast the L1 and L2, etc.) Today they will learn how to use MT as an educational tool.

Step 3: Put students into small groups.

Step 4: Give each student a worksheet.

Step 5: Give each group one of the Japanese questions from Appendix B and have the students copy the question to their worksheet.

Step 6: Explain that their goal is to translate their question to English and ask the instructor to answer it. 

Step 7: Tell groups to manually translate their question to English on their worksheet. While not allowed to use MT at this time, students can use a Japanese to English dictionary.


Question:「肘をあごにつけら れますか? 」

Student: “Can you connect the elbow to chin?”


Step 8: Provide a link to an online MT.

Step 9: Instruct groups to translate their Japanese question and copy this MT generated translation to their worksheets.

Step 10: Tell groups to compare the two translations and identify any differences.



Student: “Can you connect the elbow to chin?”

MT: “Can you put your elbows on your chin?”


Step 11: Tell the students that they will receive a translation by an instructor who is proficient in Japanese and English.

Step 12: Provide the corresponding English translation slips for students to copy to their worksheets.



Instructor: “Can you touch your chin with your elbow?”


Step 13: Ask students to compare the three translations and identify any differences or mistakes in their own translation (if any).

Step 14: Explain that by comparing and identifying differences in the three translations they can hopefully see some of the strengths and weaknesses of MT in assisting translation.

Step 15: Referring to the MT and instructor translations, have students make necessary corrections and rewrite their translation on the worksheet. This is an important step as it encourages students to use their own wording rather than simply copying either translation (which can be considered plagiarism).



Student: “Have you ever tried touching your chin with your elbow?”


Step 16: Have groups back-translate their English question to Japanese and compare it to their original Japanese question. This crucial step highlights how meaning is manipulated by MT as it moves from Japanese to English and back to Japanese.


Original:「肘をあごにつけら れますか? 」

MT Back-translation:「肘であごを触ってみたことはありますか?」


Step 17: Finally, conduct a Q&A session with questions from Step 15.



This activity gives students a clearer understanding of both the current utility of MT in assisting translation, and how to use it more effectively in their language courses.



The appendices are available below.