Understanding letters with Google Translate App 📱

On the 10th of May I participated in a second language class in Amersfoort. The topic of today’s class was ‘te laat!’ and after a short introduction of the lesson I had the opportunity to speak with the people individually. While the rest of the participants were doing their weekly assignments I had the opportunity to do some small tests in a separate room with the people, one by one.

For the tests I used some example letters that were provided by the municipality of Amsterdam. The individual participants (3 men & 2 women) were asked if they could tell me what was the goal of the example letters without using their mobile phones. None of them could tell me what the goal of the letter is. This is what I expected since the participants are in the first phase of learning Dutch. I asked what the participants would do when they would receive such a letter from their municipality. The participants told me that they usually take the letters to their contact person or the NVA (https://www.nva-amersfoort.nl) and ask them to explain the letters. One of the participants told me that she often goes to her neighbor if she receives a letter. When I asked how the participants felt about this situation, I got the answer that they were ashamed and that they would rather not ask someone else, but that they didn’t really have a choice. Especially when the letters contain medical information it felt awkward for the participants. Although it is not easy for them, it was a pleasure to her that none of the participants threw away the letters while leaving them unopened.

In the second phase of the test I gathered some information about their phone usage and about the properties of their phone. Just as I already figured out last session, all of the participants of the language class make use of high-end smartphones with applications like WhatsApp, Facebook, Viber, ING-app and Rabobank-app for example. 4 of the 5 participants had the mobile application of Google Translate on their phone and told me that they use this very often. The participant that didn’t have the Google Translate application immediately downloaded the app but unfortunately we discovered (and she remembered) that Google Translate is not supporting her native language Tigrinya. She showed me that she instead uses the 50 languages App (https://www.50languages.com).

Last session, I showed one of the participants the functionality of the Google Translate application and told her that she could use it for understanding letters. She told me that she had been using it in the last two weeks. She translated a dutch written letter into spoken English and was able to fulfill the goal of the letter.

In the next phase of the test I asked the other participants if could tell me what was meant with the letters by making use of their smartphone. I observed how they made use of Google Translate and took some important notes. 3 of the participants translated the letters to Arabic and the other participant translated the letters to English. Although the participants could now tell me what was meant with the letters the translation delivered by Google Translate was still doubtful since the concrete details were still a bit vague. One of the things I discovered was that the participants also took the salutation, the address details and the date information into the to-be-translated information and this lead to some confusion. It makes sense that the Google Translate app does not recognize that this information should not be taken into account when translating the important parts of the letter. I learnt some important things in today’s sessions about the functionality of the Google Translate and aspects that could be valuable to take into account when writing letters for citizens:

  • The optical character recognition technology of the Google Translate app works 100% secure on the example letters I used during this test sessions.
  • Google Translate cannot no deal with the native language of Eritrea (Tigrinya).
  • The participants know how to deal with the Google Translate app although due to differences in languages they do not always understand the structure of a letter.
  • Be aware that the translation of the Google Translate app is not always perfect and that this could lead to confusion.
  • Highlighting the important parts of a letter could be meaningful when people want to translate a letter.

In a next session I will work towards an infographic that makes the usage of Google Translate more easier and accessible, besides I will make some recommendations that could be applied to letters in order to make sure that they can be understand by all participants. I will test the infographic and the recommendations that could be applied to a letter in an upcoming session.

Today’s session was ended with a small graduation ceremony. One of the participants of the language class passed the course and treated the others ( including me) on some nice chocolates. Which felt very special since the graduated person himself was fasting because of the Ramadan.

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