I think for a majority of students learning a foreign language in modern times, using Google as a search tool to find word meanings is a pretty common activity. Even for translating––although it often isn’t my “first line of defense” when trying to understand a word or phrase––often I’ll end up doing a search just to get some extra context.
But there are other ways to use Google to help those learning a foreign language, some of which may not be too obvious. One of them is to verify how common certain expressions or word pairings are, and while that has its own pitfalls I still think it can provide valuable information. (I wrote an article on this topic several years ago here).
In this post I wanted to discuss another trick to use Google to give you extra pieces of information to help in your language learning: Google autocomplete suggestions.
I’m fairly sure most of you know about this feature, but just as a quick summary it is when you type something in a Google bar and, in near real time, suggestions for related things pop up.
So how does this help language learning?
One way is to enter in a word you just learned, and you will see related terms, what is sometimes referred to as “colocation”. This is particularly good for nouns since it will often give verbs that go with them.
For example, if you just learned the word for a music band (バンド) and you want to see how to start one, you could put it in バンド plus the particle を (a reasonable guess when a verb acts on an object). When I did this I got things like:
It turns out that these are all very useful phrases. Here are my rough translations just in case you are curious:
- (I will) Start a band
- Let’s start a band
- A friend who has a band
The important point here is that these are common phrases, meaning they are likely to be grammatically correct and phrases that many Japanese people have actually used in searches. Also, this is not information you can quickly get from a full Google search; it might take a few minutes, or longer, to filter through results and read a few articles. Dictionary lookup is typically pretty quick, but dictionaries have (at least historically) been known for being slow to update, so it is not uncommon to find old phrases in them.
Sure, you may have to look up words to fully grasp what these phrases mean, but when you’re done you’ll have an expression that is likely to be natural and usable in daily life.
Another way you can use Google suggest is to learn about new pieces of culture. For example, if you enter in “赤ちゃん” (baby), one of the first few suggestions is “姓名判断” (seimei handan), which is the practice of predicting things about a baby from the number of strokes in their name. It’s important to note that this is not the same thing as the search results themselves, since 姓名判断 was not on the first page of search results. Another thing you’ll notice when entering single words is you’ll often get the word 英語 suggested, which is from Japanese-speakers trying to research how to say that word in English.
Finally, one thing to keep in mind is that Google may change their suggestion algorithm at any time, so I wouldn’t consider this a reliable way to learn anything. Also, I have also seen some differences between browsers. For example, the auto-suggest feature may get shut off in certain situations, like when there is a slow network connection detected.