The web is, of course, a limitless source of authentic reading material for students of Chinese (not to mention other languages). But only quite advanced students can read most unadapted web pages. So there has been a fair amount of excitement online (Lifehacker, Engadget, EdSurge newsletter) about a plug-in for the Google Chrome browser called Language Immersion for Chrome that aims to turn any webpage into level-appropriate reading material for language students. Well, that may be overstating its goals; perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the plug-in lets you work some language study into your regular web browsing.
Once installed, you start from a page in English (for example) and at the click of a button, the plug-in translates some words and phrases into the language of your choice (including either simplified or traditional Chinese). The number of words/phrases translated into the target language is determined by a setting matched to the student’s proficiency level in that language. You can choose any of five levels from “novice” to “fluent.” At the novice level, only a light scattering of words and phrases appears in the target language; at the fluent level, whole sentences and paragraphs are translated. Translated words are highlighted in blue; clicking on them toggles back to the original language. Hovering over them lets you hear them pronounced.
This is a great idea in principal. You could read whatever websites you would normally, and integrate that with your study of Chinese. It would help with learning vocabulary about topics of personal interest, allowing busy learners to combine language study with the reading of sites or blogs that they would read anyway. From a pedagogical point of view, language learning could be connected with the study of other disciplines (cf. “Connections” according to the ACTFL standards).
The big problem, however, is that the substitutions rely on machine translation (specifically Google Translate), which is still quite imperfect. For example, when I tested this plug-in on a Profhacker post, it chose to translate only the word “fine” from the phrase “I’m fine with …” (i.e “I do not object to”) and the translation was 罚款, which means “fine” as in a penalty (like a fine for returning a library book late).
Another issue with the plug-in is how it decides which words to substitute. The lower levels substitute fewer words, but the basis for the choices is unclear. From a learning standpoint, I think it would be most useful to substitute all the words that a student of the chosen level should be able to recognize (for reinforcement), plus some from the next level up for the student to learn, so that (s)he can make progress toward that next level. But that is not what the software seems to be doing.
In another test (an article from the Harvard Gazette), some simple words like 能 néng appeared at the lowest level, but very many basic words were left in English. In the image below (from the same article), one might expect to see “language”, “said,” and “student” translated already at the novice level. Yet the plug-in chooses to translate the much more difficult phrase “built into the system” at even the most elementary level, before things like “that type,” “needs/have to,” and “whole,” which might be considered between novice and intermediate.
The tool probably works best at the highest levels. Not only are more advanced learners less likely to be misled by the errors of machine translation, but by translating whole sentences, the plug-in avoids some of the problems that arise from differences in syntax and sentence structure. In the images above, notice the position of 一部分 at the fluent level vs. the intermediate level. At the intermediate level, you do not get an accurate idea of how part/whole relationships are expressed; you just get a vocabulary item. The advantage of being immersed within the larger context of a webpage is somewhat negated by not treating things like 一部分 as part of a larger structure.
The differences in the sentence structure of English and Chinese are more pronounced than between some other languages, so Language Immersion for Chrome may be more useful for speakers/learners of other languages. But at the moment I cannot recommend this for beginning or intermediate learners of Chinese.