As a reading and writing task, I asked my students to analyse and explain two paragraphs of a challenging newspaper article.  One student’s laughable submission made me question what web tool out there could possibly have ‘helped’ him.

I asked students to read this CBC  article about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Near the end, Macdonald analogises the limits of free speech with a physical fight and uses this to compare it to the Occupiers’ behaviour and image.  He also refers to George Carlin and Wall Street Journal paper readers with regards to the threat of OWS movement taking down the 1% waning.  I knew it would be challenging to understand and that students would more or less suggest they do understand when they don’t.  So, the aforementioned reading and writing task was left for homework to email to me.


The Occupiers also managed to cross even American boundaries of free speech, which are probably the most liberal in the world. Loosely, the courts here have defined speech limits as the right to swing your fist, as long as you stop at the tip of the other fellow’s nose. Setting up tent cities in public parks, denying that space to fellow citizens, leaving trash lying about or relieving yourself in public spaces impinges on the other fellow’s nose. All the reports of sexual assaults and drugs didn’t help, either.

The Occupiers rose up, muddled about and, in the end, neutered themselves. If they were a threat to what George Carlin used to call the real owners of this country, they aren’t much of a threat anymore. And now winter is coming. No wonder the Wall Street Journal, the sacred text of all those smug, ridiculously rich, unpunished incarnations of greed, was sneering and rejoicing in an editorial today about the police raids on the tent cities.

Student submission:

Occupiers hitting touch ball on American free speech, however, the so-called free speech is just allowing you to swing your fist, as long as you don’t really hurt others. The homeless who tent in parks, even try to swallow up the parks, also, they don’t care about the parks and tend to hurt others.

They get together messily and destroy themselves in the end. These groups of people are unworthy of paying too much attention. It is winter now, and those homeless have to suffer the cold weather, that’s why the Wall Street Journal, which secretly stands in the side of those illegal rich, is laughing at the homeless.

Now, I’m usually willing to give the benefit of the doubt; most students had trouble fully explaining everything in the excerpt.  But I’m not a moron.  No student wrote this twisted gibberish on their own.  It has signs of being translated by a machine like inappropriate unrelated vocabulary choice (e.g. “hitting touch ball”) or referring to the Occupiers as “homeless”.  What throws me off about a translator as culprit is that the original text is in English.

So, my questions to you are:

How does a student take something like the original and turn it into the submission?
Is there a synonymiser web tool out there that could take L2 to L2 to create this mangled meaning?

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18 Responses to It’s like my student used autocorrect

  1. Dan Ruelle says:

    I’ve found that if a student’s electronically submitted writing generally makes sense when you skim it and don’t focus on reading it in detail, it’s probably Google Translate. Google translated writing appears to be decent at a glance (individual words are usually spot on) but if you actually read carefully, there are a lot of style, register and collocation obscurities.

    For pieces like this where it’s virtually incoherent, I tend to find it’s students translating individual words or phrases in isolation (usually with a shoddy online bilingual dictionary) then piece it back together. However, there are instances (much like your example) where even this kind of translation seems unlikely because it’s so “mangled”, as you very nicely put it.

    I’ve tried asking my students just out of curiosity, reassuring them the assignment wasn’t worth any marks and the writing was so horrendous, but the students have always been tight-lipped about it.

    I feel your pain reading these kinds of assignments!

  2. Bekah Palmer says:

    My best guess would be Original –> Translate to Native language –> Write summary in NL –> Translate back to English. That would explain some of the weird phrases if they were NL idioms that really don’t transfer.

  3. Louise says:

    I wonder if the student hasn’t translated certain words or idioms into L1 to understand it, looked up a L2 synonym and using this has created a summary? I’d say that was a very diligent (if a wee bit daft) student who perhaps deserves compliments on his/her skills at figuring out ways to do things. But better still, as Dan writes above: I think this student needs to be quizzed as to how he/she got here and can perhaps manage to some arise the gist of the text orally.
    (I apologise for typos as my iPhone in a jiggly train is not ideal and can auto’correct’

    • seburnt says:

      Thanks for your optimism, Louise. The student, however, is failing and has no hope for passing the year. Thus his motivation for producing quality work is likely minimal, though that’s not exactly a change over semesters.

  4. Kristin says:

    What about taking the original, using Google translate (or similar) to turn that into Japanese (or whatever the ss’ L1 is) then back again into English…??? I actually tried this just now and it doesn’t work quite as well as I thought it might , but maybe it depends on the L1 that the ss are going to/from???

    • Carol says:

      Google translating back and forth was my thought too. I’d be curious to know what the student’s L1 is.

      • seburnt says:

        Their L1 is Mandarin.

        • Carol says:

          It doesn’t seem to be as simple as google translation and back again. But I’ll look forward to finding out what tools they used, and how they went about it (if you find out) because I’ve enjoyed what they produced. In particular, I like “hitting touch ball on American free speech” and “They get together messily”

  5. DaveDodgson says:

    Hi Tyson,

    I would expect that the student read the article but then wrote their homework assignment in L1 before using Google Translate or some such programme to convert it to English. It’s amazing how many people think that actually works accurately!

  6. I can think of two options.
    The student used Google Translate to translate the text into his L1 and in this form he read it. Then, becasue he knew he wasn’t supposed to copy from the text he tried to rearange the words in L1 and then translate it back.
    The other option – he did read it in English but proceeded as Dave described.
    How are you planning to proceed with this?


  7. Carolyn says:

    Yes, i’m curious to know how you’ll proceed. Though i think the subject is interesting, i find it frustrating that students (mine included) refuse to believe they can do the work without this kind of help.

  8. seburnt says:

    Thanks everyone for your insightful speculation. This particular student isn’t known for his effort or motivation. I have come to the conclusion that he likely translated word for word (or small chunk) into Mandarin first. Then paraphrased it in Mandarin before using a translator to send it back to English.

    There is little I need to do beyond suggesting I know this and that he rewrite it. There are no large-scale consequences to this because it was a homework task, not a graded one. Despite repetitive insistence that neither plagiarism nor translation will work in the long run in longer assignments, that we cannot be fooled no matter how amazing you think the English must be and that it devalues your confidence level by believing you need to do things this way, students continue to do it for a variety of reasons.

    Unfortunately, this student is one that has already been told that because of an extremely low effort and resulting grades, he mathematically cannot pass the year and his admissions offer will be revoked as a result (all students know of this condition coming in to the course in September). Though he was warned several times before it was too late, his motivation nor effort ever improved. Now it is too late and I feel I should focus on students who not only have a chance at passing, but also want to.

  9. […] 16, 2012 by Carolyn | 0 comments Last week Tyson Seburn of 4C wrote a blog post about how one of his students used translation software to do his homework.  This caused me to […]

  10. Anna K says:

    As for your story about the “odd” translation. What could also happen is:
    1. L1 Original Text>Online Translator>L2 Translation
    2. L2 Translation>Online Translator>Modified L1 Text

    You never know, the Modified L1 Text may have used similar words/synonyms to spit out a really broad (ahem) interpretation of the original L1 text. And a similar process might be used by the student to complete their writing task.

    It’s like taking a photocopied sheet and running it through the fax machine 5-6 times, through regular paper and thermal paper, and re-photocopying it to see what you have as the end image–and it doesn’t look pretty.

    I remember one Grade 7 student I had in my FSL class who tried to “write” her essay in French by plugging in her English text through an online translator. What spat out from the computer appeared to be near-flawless French text, complete with with sentence structures and grammar and that are not seen or used by students unless they were in a Grade 12 French class (or perhaps even francophone). Even more bizarre was halfway through the “French writing”, two sentences were clearly “written” in Spanish, and then concluding in French again.

    It makes me wonder if some students really think we’re that blind that we wouldn’t catch what is obviously cheating, plagiarism, or other forms of academic fraud.

    Some students might even think that these kinds of classes are becoming less and less relevant to them because of the translation tools readily available–“Why do I need this English (or other language class)? That’s what Google Translate is for!”

    Call me “old school” but I think about the only way we can absolutely guarantee “no cheating” on a written language assignment is to remove/disable the translation/spell-check/grammar-check features/software from school computers, ensure that smartphones are put away, paper dictionaries are available to students, and simply have all the assignments done during class time. It’s incredibly stringent and a tad unrealistic, which is why we give our students the benefit of the doubt and trust them based on the honour system.

    • seburnt says:

      Yes, Anna, some students do think we’re blind, stupid or won’t care. Add to that, they see what is spit out and the structures it uses and because it’s “beyond” their level, they think it must be well-written, unaware that it’s actually gibberish to a native speaker.

      I personally have little issue with their choice of electronic devices in class, but when it comes to written assignments or exams, it’s important to have ones in-class and take home, so that some comparison can be made. Beyond that, I’m looking to turnitin next year to facilitate this.

  11. Anna K says: is an option. Correct me if I’m wrong–I believe the way these kinds of anti-plagiarism services work is by comparing the submitted text against a database of papers and assignments already previously submitted and determining what percentage of the text is genuinely original and what percentage has been copied or lifted from other people’s work. Unless there are similar papers of equally badly translated English already input in the system, it might be difficult to judge the paper as being “plagiarized”.

    However, I would not be surprised if the Turnitin software has a feature where it runs it papers through a translator to see if common awkward phrases appear in various languages.

    • seburnt says:

      No, you’re right. It’s not exactly traditional plagiarism. Turnitin also compares to original texts, btw. Still, the real problem isn’t that we don’t know if the student wrote it or not, it’s how to address it.

  12. Emily says:

    Well, if one is going to plagiarize, presumably it would be in order to produce a good result, right? So if you plagiarize/cheat by using electronic aids instead of your own ideas, and what you come up with is something unacceptable as decent English, then you’ve proven not only that you can’t apparently write something decent on your own but also that you can’t even RECOGNIZE what’s acceptable.

    On the other hand, if you do use electronic aids, and you turn out a product that is not perfect but pretty good, that seems to show that, while you may not have come up with the desirable result all on your own (i.e. produce a comparable result under any circumstances), you could at least tell what was good enough to turn in. Which, while it may not be entirely above board, is one way of doing things effectively.

    So that second student, in my mind, is still getting SOMEWHERE, whether or not the school approves of the methods used.

    What the heck IS “hitting touch ball” supposed to mean??

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