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Using Google to study languages

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


During my time in Taiwan, I’ve come across a fair number of people who want to learn English and thus ask me questions. In return, I ask them questions about Chinese. Even though this is in essence a fair trade, I have noticed that the kind of questions we ask are different. Some of the questions I get could have been answered with a dictionary (the obvious place to look), but some of them could also have been answered using Google. Since dictionaries should be the default place to check for answers regarding words, I won’t bother to discuss that. Instead, this article will be about how to use Google (or any other search Engine, of course) to learn languages. I’ve found that there are four useful things you can use a search engine for. Note that I’m not talking about using a search engine to find useful websites and forums, this is about using the search engin itself. This is what you can do:

– Verifying word usage
– Comparing word usage
– Check grammar patterns
– Learning through pictures

Verifying word usage – As soon as we leave the very basics of a new language, we usually have some idea how to say or write something, although we might not be sure if it’s correct. Sometimes, we know what a word means if translated into our native tongue, but we’re not sure if it can really be used in the context we want to use it in. In this case, using Google will be a great help. simply search for the word you’re looking for and browse through the results and see if any of the matches what you want to say.

If the word is part of a brand name or very common, you might have to skip the first several hundreds of hits, because you don’t want the word to be part of a headline or title, you want it in a sentence. If you think that a sentence requires a certain preposition, search for the relevant part of that sentence (don’t forget quotation marks!). The number of hits will tell you if the preposition is right or wrong.

Comparing word usage – An even more powerful tool is comparison, although this is a bit more limited in scope. If you can’t decide whether alternative A or B is the correct one, use Google fight (or simply do two separate searches) and see which version comes out on top. This is probably the method I use the most when writing articles in English, such as this one.

Check grammar patterns – So, you’ve learnt the grammar pattern, but you’re not really sure how it’s used? Well, do a search for the pattern and see what you find. More often than not, there are plenty of examples telling you how those words are used. Sometimes you’ll be surprised at how seldom textbook patterns are actually used, compared to abbreviated or modified informal ones!

Learning through pictures – Using Google to search for pictures of the word you don’t know what it means is quite useful, especially if it’s something fairly concrete, such as a bird, a colour or an object. The dictionary might not have it, but once you see it, you definitely know what it is. This is especially useful if there are no good dictionaries for your native tongue and the target language (this is the case for me, so if I look up something and I’m not sure what the English word means, a quick picture search will usually do the trick).

Three words of warning

Using Google instead of asking real people isn’t a panacea. In fact, there are at least three real dangers, which I will talk about briefly now. First, the hits on Google might be completely irrelevant. For instance, the words might be next to each other, but in two different sentences with a full stop in between! This problem can be overcome by checking the hits you’re viewing. Of course, you can’t verify all of them, but you can make quick estimate.

Second, there is no guarantee that the articles you find will be correct, because a lot of people posting things on the internet aren’t native speakers (I think what I write is mostly correct, but I’ve probably polluted the internet a bit as well).  Of course, native speakers are sometimes mistaken to, or simply slipped on the keyboard. This problem is hard to overcome, but consider using a corpus (a corpus is a collection from a certain language and might include spoken as well as written sources, see the links below), even though this isn’t guaranteed to be correct either.

Third, you will find examples how the language is used, which isn’t necessarily the officially correct way and thus might not go down well with your teacher. This problem is language dependent, since some languages might have very strict formal rules which differ a lot from colloquial usage; other languages might not. This problem is very hard to get around, so if it’s really important, real human help is necessary.

Then why?

If there are so many disadvantages with using Google, why not ask a friend directly? That’s a good question. The reason I think this method is so useful isn’t because I don’t have friends to ask or because I don’t want to ask them. Rather, it’s because I want to ask them questions that I can’t find out for myself (like the third problem above). Most of the time, the problems above are not relevant or can be overcome, and then there is no reason why you should need to ask other people to help you. Save your friends’ valuable time until you really need it!

Some useful links

Google
Google fight
British National Corpus
Corpus of Contemporary American English

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