Online search as learning tool

Advances in technology bring new tools that can assist students in their language learning, inside of the classroom and beyond. Students need to know what tools are available for them to use, how to use them, understand their strengths and acknowledge their limitations. Giving students these skills and knowledge is part of our role as teachers, in order for each tool to become an effective component in their language learning armoury.

Online search engines can take us to a range of websites and applications that can help with language learning. But, in this post, I propose two ways that the search engine itself can assist students in their language learning in simple but powerful ways.

The exact-match search
Using quotation marks to search for a particular phrase will give students some idea if the phrase is accurate, or in common use. As an example I’ve input a simple sentence in Japanese (below), with a common particle error. The search returned without results, a big warning that there is probably an error in the sentence. Of course, this technique is not fool-proof, not all online data is correct, and it does require there to be an exact replication of the sentence. However, it does give students a little more confidence with phrases or structures if they can be found in similar contexts online.


Image searches
‘Hambaagu’ is a popular dish in Japan which my students often translate into English as ‘hamburg’. I’d noticed a number of students repeating this mistake, despite my corrections. I guess they thought that it was ‘close enough’. So, I invited students to watch me conduct two image searches. First, as you can see in the first screenshot, I input the Japanese word, and the result was a class of rumbling tummies. Next, I input their ‘translation’ of hamburg, and the result, glaring at them from the big screen, was dozens of images of the gorgeous city of Hamburg, Germany. I scrolled down for some time but not a single image was found of ‘hamburger’, ‘meat pattie’, ‘rissole’, or whatever other name it goes by in English (but not hamburg!).

humbug  hamburg

They say that a picture paints a thousand words, and this painted a clear picture to the students. Image search results are not always perfect, but they do go some way in showing the meaning and context of some words, and are particularly useful for concrete nouns.

It is important that students have opportunities to, and are encouraged to, conduct internet searches in the target language. It is also important to note that although Google has the market share in much of the world, several other engines are more prominent in some languages, and so target language searches will be more effective using those search engines. This includes Baidu in China, Yandex in Russia and Naver in South Korea. While Yahoo is the most popular search engine in Japan, it uses Google’s algorithms and so searches should return the same results.



*Have you used internet searches in your classroom?
*What other uses do you have for internet searches?
*How can we, as teachers, make students aware of the limitations of digital tools?

Add to the discussion in the comments below,
or in our Facebook comments.


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at



2 thoughts on “Online search as learning tool

  1. Very interesting. Competent language users can become competent technology users in a wider-range cultural search. We can definitely implement this kind of language exercises into Language classroom easily for an effective language learning. Thank you!!.


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