My Dictionary / Translation Apps: A Full List of Their Strengths and Weaknesses (December 2018)

Happy Winter Solstice Everyone!

Inspired by my previous article in which I detailed the various strengths and weaknesses of my language learning apps, here I am in another direction—looking at my dictionary and translation apps.

And again, you can probably guess which one leads the list. Not in terms of quality, per se, but in terms of recognition…

Google Translate

Good: Excellent for phrases, alternate translations readily provided, text-to-speech very good when it is provided, enables users to meaningfully contribute and correct any issues, some offline support available

Bad: Support worse for the rarer languages by a significant margin, transliteration sometimes lacking or confusing, not to be used in translating large swathes of text from languages that don’t have a lot of political power, the general problems with machine translation are present (e.g. not specifying gender-specific language or formality registers), usually not a place to turn to help if you are an absolute beginner.

I’ll go into each of these:

Excellent for phrases – This is the biggest drawcard of Google Translate. Simple things you may need in conversation (e.g. “I don’t feel well”, “you are beautiful”, “have fun!”) will be accurately provided and noted with a check-mark, indicating that the translation community of native speakers have found the phrase overwhelmingly accurate. (This can still have some issues e.g. with the Burmese gender-specific versions of “I” both being marked with a check, but if I refer to myself with a female pronoun then I would turn heads).

Alternate translations readily provided – Define a single word and you’ll get synonyms and related words. If you write a conjugated verb (e.g. “eaten”) you’ll get the infinitive form underneath (“to eat”). Helpful if you’re trying to wrap your head around complicated verb systems (such as in the Romance Languages or Finno-Ugric Languages).

Text-to-speech very good when it is provided – I also see no issues with the tones either (in Thai or Vietnamese, for example).

Enables users to meaningfully contribute and correct any issues – I’ve gone ape on some of the Yiddish “translations” available and provided correct versions. You can do the same with your fluent languages as well.

Some offline support available – SUPER helpful if you’re doing “immersion” out of your home country and you don’t have coverage. The sad reality is that it doesn’t exist for every language available in Google Translate.

Support worse for the rarer languages by a significant margin – Burmese song lyrics look like word salad when machine translated into English. Languages like Samoan, Irish and Yiddish tend to not fare much better.

Transliteration sometimes lacking or confusing – So in Lao some of the vowels go before the letter and others go on top or after it. Google Translate has difficulty rendering this into transliteration so what it does it render ແຂວງ (the Lao word for “Province”, pronounced “khwε̌εŋ”) as “aekhuang” in transliteration. Urdu and Persian don’t even have transliteration as of the time of writing.

Not to be used in translating large swathes of text from languages that don’t have a lot of political power

machine translation says no

The general problems with machine translation are present (e.g. not specifying gender-specific language or formality registers) – No further explanation needed.

Usually not a place to turn to help if you are an absolute beginner – And I probably didn’t even need to tell you that.

 

Glosbe

Good: Aims to be THE LARGEST collection of language combinations anywhere, HUGE translation memory, translation memory hugely reliable, indispensable for learning languages from the developing world.

Bad: Long list of languages that requires you to ctrl-f frequently, no telling which languages have good representation in the translation memory or not except by trial and error, sometimes the quotation mark function can be wonky and give you all forms of the words in quotes rather than the specific phrase you’re asking for.

A godsend for my studies of languages of Oceania, Glosbe is something I highly recommend to anyone whether you’re learning Spanish or whether you’re learning Marquesan. The translation memory, which includes collections of subtitles, phrase databases and missionary materials is VERY well put together with over 1 BILLION entries in it across hundreds of languages.

If you’re learning a language from the developed world, like Italian, Finnish or Bulgarian, you’ll find the collections from OpenSubtitles very useful as they are built into the translation memories. However, if you’re learning a rarer language with a developing country, don’t lose hope! A lot of materials from the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormon Church have also been rendered into many of those languages as well. And even in English Creole languages like Tok Pisin, they’ll try to stay away from English loan words as much as humanly possible in their translations.

I haven’t noticed any significant issues with the translations themselves (although one time a Samoan sentence showed up in the Marshallese database!). You can also find very specific phrases as well and genuinely learn sentence structure. Even if you’re stuck with only using missionary material, you WILL find sentences that will be genuinely useful for conversations.

This is probably one of the most powerful language tools in existence right now and you NEED to be using this.

Freelang

Good: HUGE collection of languages, user-friendly, not a lot of typing required, a built-in quiz game, some of the dictionaries are VERY thorough (e.g. the Finnish-English one has scientific vocabulary), all dictionaries are reversible, dictionaries from English, Spanish and French all in huge quantities (some of them are unique to one particular language, e.g. Galician-Spanish), all dictionaries can be downloaded for offline usage, you can also print dictionaries from the computer (or use the print preview function to get them in another format).

Bad: Quiz game can be confusing, not a lot of grammar, some of the dictionaries are small but good nonetheless, some special characters get jarbled, transliterations can sometimes be an issue

Freelang dictionaries are VERY useful for advanced beginners to…well, advanced speakers, even. But it does depend on the language. Because your language can have anywhere from 400 entries to 40,000…but the entries are usually helpful regardless of how small the dictionary is!

Also the collection of languages is STAGGERING. And no problem with offline usage at all (provided you install the dictionaries you want while you’re online).

There is also an in-built quiz machine you can use. You can choose words from the dictionary to go on your study list. In older versions in the early 2010’s I could figure this feature out but not so much anymore. Maybe someone from Freelang is reading this. J

Overall a very good tool that has been, again, indispensable for my studies.

Anki

Not really a good bad anything: You can use it as a dictionary if you put enough flashcards in it. You can also convert Memrise courses to Anki as well and use THEM as dictionaries.

I can’t find of a decent way to end this article. Let me know what dictionary apps YOU find useful.

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