One of my second-year students emails me a paper with a suspiciously wide-ranging vocabulary. I smell the usual rat, google the suspect sentences like mad but find no convincing evidence of plagiarism. My gut feeling, however, tells me that something has gone awry and, rightly or wrongly, I award the paper the lowest possible mark, hoping she’ll offer a justification. A good one. She comes at once to my office and explains that the over-rich vocabulary comes partly from Google Translator and partly from plain, straightforward googling. There are, of course, no rules against using that or online dictionaries at home. I ask the student to submit a second version, as the paper needed anyway some revision, and will base the final mark on it, no grudges kept.

I explain the case to someone outside the university and he tells me that he’s not sure this is the right solution, considering we value our students’ language skills. Let me explain his reasoning: when writing an exam no dictionaries or thesaurus are allowed and this means that students are assessed on the basis of their actual (written) command of English. In the case of papers, as this girl shows, since Google and all the linguistic tools that the internet offers are available, the results are ‘distorted.’ Students produce, in short, texts at a higher level than they can actually command. I want to suppose that this is not negative and that Google has allowed this girl not just to produce a better paper than expected but also to learn new vocabulary –we’ll see whether she ever uses the phrase ‘dour criticism’ again, though.

This happens in a week in which I’m also employed translating into English an essay I wrote originally in Spanish. Translating your own words is mind-boggling not only because you discover that your command of two languages is always bound to be asymmetrical (some things I know in Spanish I don’t know in English and vice-versa) but also because translating requires thorough rephrasing. At least 20% of the essay is now new. I also understand why literary writers say they never go back to their texts once they’re finished if they can help it, for I feel quite embarrassed by some of the passages (did I really mean that? Couldn’t I have put it in better words?) Anyway, I use Google all the time, as I did when I wrote the Spanish version, to check that some expressions and idioms do indeed exist. I don’t use Google Translator, as I think it produces texts that require too much revision but I don’t know what I’d do without WordReference. I don’t use, then, just the store of words lodged in my brain but the vast pool outside it. Happily for me and for whoever might read me.

This brings me back to the girl student. Also, to a piece of news published this week in Barcelona: “Schools propose exams with internet access”( The argument backing this proposal is that in real life nobody relies just on their memory and it makes perfect sense to integrate the ‘enhancement’ tools we do use also in assessment (as the Danes have done…). Some assessment can still be based on mnemotechnics but new forms of cyber-assisted examinations can (or should) be introduced. It seems we’re already doing that by having traditional exams in the classroom and asking for papers! Not forgetting that the possibility of allowing students to bring notes and dictionaries into the exam classroom has always existed, though it may anathema for many teachers.

For me the key issue is time: a student writing a paper uses other sources and aids at his or her discretion; in exams time pressure might even affect students negatively if they’re allowed to check internet sources. Just think of the time that we spend googling our way into cyberspace to make our own words sound richer… and imagine yourself doing it within tight time limits for an exam. Um, not for me, thanks.

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