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by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 25, 2011
We’ve recently heard about students using translation programs to help them study for the TOEFL. Using translation programs is what an EFL speaker would do; it is not what someone who’s trying to become an ESL speaker would do. Two weeks ago, we discussed the differences between English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL). We pointed out that the more of your native language you hear, speak, and read every day, the less success you will have on the TOEFL. To excel on the TOEFL, you have to not only passively surround yourself with English in as many formats as possible (news, entertainment, casual conversation, internet reading, and so on), but you also have to actively communicate complicated ideas in English every day. (Sorry, but ordering coffee doesn’t count!).
Perhaps you’re already using a lot of English in your everyday life, but consider whether you are using software such as Google Translate to switch material into your native language in order to understand a difficult passage in a news article, for example. This is not helpful overall for learning English, and it can be even worse if you’re studying to take the TOEFL exam, for two reasons.
First, translation software can be good if you want to check the meaning of a particular word or phrase, or if you already have a sense of what it means, but if you do not have a general idea of the meaning already, you might get a completely wrong translation and never know it. Translation software is often wrong–for example, it will leave out important words, and change the meaning of the passage–and unless you’re fluent in both languages, you’ll never know. Therefore, only use translation programs to fine tune a meaning you already mostly understand.
Second–and this is the bigger problem–if you are in the habit of using translation software when you come across a hard passage of English, you’re not going to have the skills to handle the difficult materials on the TOEFL exam. Figuring out words from context, recognizing metaphorical language, remembering the different forms of each part of speech (especially verbs!) are all skills that take a lot of practice to master, even for students whose first language is English. If instead of practicing these skills you’ve been letting a translation program do all the work, then you won’t suddenly be able to use these skills on test day.
So minimize your use of translation software. Otherwise, you might save time now, but you’ll very likely lose TOEFL points later.