On the journey to fluency, you might think of Google as a road.
You use it to get to important places—like language courses or study materials.
You might not realize that Google is a language learning destination itself.
Here’s how to unlock Google’s potential for foreign language fluency.
- Use Image Search for Visual Learning
- Use “Site Search” to See Vocab in Different Contexts
- Get the Gist with Machine Translation
- Check Your Language with Pattern-friendly Searches
- Get Free Literature for Your Language
- Be a Language Tourist from Your Sofa
Use Image Search for Visual Learning
What, to you, is the difference between an easy chair, a couch, a sofa and a recliner?
How about a garbage pail, garbage bin or trash can?
Words for physical objects can sometimes be perfectly clear to native speakers, but maddeningly tricky to pin down. As a language learner, this can make it difficult to build a vocabulary base that you’re confident in.
So instead of memorizing dictionary definitions, try adding Google Images to your vocabulary building regimen. Just look up a foreign word that you’re learning, and you’ll quickly see how the image results can give you a much more precise, nuanced understanding.
Here’s a perfect example. The standard English translation for the Chinese word 外套 (wàitào) is “raincoat” or “coat.” But when I searched for images, I realized the word refers to all kinds of things that I might call a “sweater” or “windbreaker” in English. It’s clearly a broader definition than I realized!
Take a few flashcards or a vocabulary lesson that you’re working on, and see what discoveries Google Images brings to you.
Use “Site Search” to See Vocab in Different Contexts
When we take writing classes in school or study literature, we eventually learn that some words belong in some contexts and others don’t.
You wouldn’t use Dr. Seuss words in an academic paper, and if you’re writing a diary you probably won’t use the same language as Shakespeare.
When you learn a foreign language or teach one to yourself, you run the risk of being unsure about this sort of thing. Without someone to guide your writing, you really don’t have much of a way to tell if you’re using the right words in the right situations.
How can Google solve this problem?
With a simple trick called “site search.” It’s very easy to use.
You just type “site:” plus the name of a website, plus whatever you’re looking for. Then the results that come up will be restricted to that one website. This is a great way to look for posts by one author on a blog, for instance, or find all the times that a country is mentioned in a news publication.
And as for language learning, you can definitely try non-English search queries too. Let’s say you’ve just learned the word mochila (backpack) in Spanish. If we search different websites that run the gamut of nonfiction, news and entertainment, we’ll find a few different examples.
If I search a photography website, I’ll find articles about adventure or hiking backpacks made for photographers. A fashion website gives me advice about different styles of everyday backpacks.
Each of these has their own related vocabulary and writing style to describe the same vocabulary word you just learned—making for perfect reading practice and well-rounded communication skills.
Get the Gist with Machine Translation
Lots of language learners decry Google Translate, and not without reason. Everybody’s heard of the inaccurate or flat-out hilarious results it can come up with, and nobody should use it as their only learning resource.
But if you’re careful with it, Google Translate can fill an important gap in language learning.
How many times have you struggled to understand a long article in your target language? Next time that happens to you, put it into Google Translate to get the gist in English. Since you can see the two texts side by side, you can connect them mentally and start learning the patterns.
You can even hover over the sentences with your mouse and see the relevant translation light up on the other side!
Don’t worry, it’s not cheating to use a machine translator. When used correctly, it’s a step towards comfort with the structures, rhythms and common words in your target language.
Check Your Language with Pattern-friendly Searches
This is probably the biggest secret for language learning with Google, and here I am, giving it away.
How is it that search engines give you the result you’re looking for in the top two or three results, almost every time?
It’s because search engines like Google are massively powerful pattern-recognition and pattern-analysis machines.
If enough people click on a link, that means it’s valuable and it goes “up” in the search results. And if enough people type “faceboko” and then click on “Facebook,” Google knows to suggest an alternate spelling for you.
What else is based on patterns? Language.
From sound systems to verb conjugations to adjective declensions, every language in the world follows (mostly) predictable rules and patterns. You can take advantage of this through strategic foreign language Google searches.
Let’s say you’re unsure about a particular grammatical construction. Just type it into Google and see whether you get a suggested alternate phrasing or see different versions of it in the top results.
To narrow it down, put the search inside quotation marks and Google will look for that exact phrase all over the internet. This will also help filter for websites that are written entirely in your target language.
If you get very few results (say, under 500,000) you’ll know your phrase is off. If it’s a short but incorrect phrase, you can often find the correct version within the search results or as suggestions at the bottom of the page.
Get Free Literature for Your Language
A lot of people never get beyond the images, maps and videos tabs on Google results. But did you know that there are also enormous indexes of published books and academic papers, absolutely free?
Google Scholar and Google Books have tons of public domain material.
Google Books lets you search the text of millions of published books, ranging from rare and out-of-print foreign books to the newest bestsellers. Got a book on your shelf you practically know by heart? See if you can find it online in your target language!
And if you’re linguistically inclined, there’s no better resource than Google Scholar for in-depth academic papers. Some of them are way over my head, but others are absolutely fascinating.
For me, these are the most helpful when I’m struggling with a complicated aspect of grammar that doesn’t have the slightest equivalent in my native language.
The formal analysis of language in these papers isn’t for everyone, but try it out—you may find a few gems.
Be a Language Tourist from Your Sofa
One of the reasons I travel is to go speak and hear other languages. The people and places around the world are cool I suppose, but as someone with a passion for languages, that’s what really drives me to go places.
And if you’re reading this article, you might be in the same boat. When you get to your destination, will you be prepared?
It’s a powerfully strong psychological effect to look around and see not a word of your native language. Depending on where you go, you might end up far away from bilingual signs or English advertisements. This can really be overwhelming for some people.
So before you go, look up some of the places you’ll visit or dream of visiting on Google Street View and see what it’s like to be surrounded by foreign-language text all the time. Check the definitions of the most common words you see on street signs or business names.
This is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in your target language from home. Plus, it’s fun and a great study motivator! It makes your language seem more relevant and might even inspire some travel plans, if you don’t have them already.
And if you do have a trip booked, Street View tourism will make you less intimidated and more ready to enjoy your travels once you’re there.
If you want to take a quick detour off the Google highway, consider trying a virtual immersion platform to replicate the experience of living abroad… from home. One example is FluentU. It uses short video clips about all kinds of culturally-relevant topics and combines them with interactive subtitles to streamline the language learning process.
If you know how to use it, Google can find just about anything for you.
Language learning online has never been easier, and now that you know how to go about language learning with Google, you’ve stepped into a brand new world of resources.
Whether it’s checking grammatical patterns or looking up images to help you understand definitions, there’s no better time than now to get started!
Yassir Sahnoun is a content strategist, writer, polyglot and co-founder of WriteWorldwide. You can learn more about Yassir at YassirSahnoun.com.