Reason #5 on Why I Love iOS: Languages

I've been getting some heat from people who think I've been too hard on Microsoft despite having been a staunch supporter of their products for over 15 years. Many of the complaints often involve apologist arguments like you'd find across various Android boards when deficiencies are found in the system, too:

  • if you install Blah-Blah-Blah …
  • it's not great now, but the next version …
  • not many people need Blah-Blah-Blah functions …
  • not everyone is a power-user like you …

The list goes on.  However, when it comes to iOS, there is typically a lot more to like about this slimmed down, overly-simplistic operating system. Reason number five why I love iOS is it's ability to handle languages without the need to install extra software, apply patches, or enable types of language.  Here's an example from this weekend:

There's Arabic In My RSS!

The Guardian often has posts in various languages and with everything that's been happening in Egypt recently, it only makes sense that there are posts written in Arabic. What's great about this is that the articles are not only provided in their proper script, but they're also written from right to left; the opposite of almost every other written language in use today.

This would be impossible on my Windows Mobile devices, as well as the updated Windows Phone devices.

Every operating system should be like this. It doesn't matter if my Arabic is terrible (I can't say much outside of the usual tourist questions), nor does it matter that I didn't configure the system to support non-English and Japanese languages. It just works, and this is how every system should work. We should never see another square box in place of a foreign character ever again.

Hopefully in the next few years, this idea will go from a pipe dream to reality.

It's Like Beating A Dead Horse ...

Electronic dictionaries are a wonderful tool. They can help us quickly find new words to accurately describe a situation, help us get a better understanding of an idea, and even provide a pass time with simplistic games that can build our word power. Millions of these devices are sold every year in Japan for anywhere from 6,000円 all the way up to 80,000円* depending on the features and brand a person might want. Yet, despite the wild success of these tiny computers, I'm often left wondering one simple question: why are these things for sale at all?

Canon WordTank ZThe average electronic dictionary is sold for just over 10,000円*. For this price, people get a device of basic design containing approximately a quarter-million words and definitions. The screens typically look like something from the mid-1980s, and the interface leaves much to be desired. The better machines that come with large dictionaries, regular updates, and color screens sell for over 25,000円. The interface on these machines are just as hideous and cumbersome to use as the cheaper models but, unlike the base units, the mid-range electronic dictionaries come with flashy paint jobs.

Just like with almost every other electronic device sold today, new models come out annually in time for the start of the school year, and are snapped up eagerly by students who have no idea just how long their parents have to work to afford these luxury items that will only be forgotten at the bottom of an over-stuffed gym bag in a month's time. The companies that make these devices, such as Canon, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Sanyo, LG, and Sony, rake in tons of cash thanks to this endless cycle of consumption. And this is where my question comes into play.

If Canon is making a boatload of cash selling these electronic dictionaries in Japan, why won't they stop selling these dumbed-down devices and claim to be more eco-friendly than all the competition?

Before ignoring the rest of this article, hear me out.

The dictionaries that are being sold within these devices are pretty darn good. They come with example sentences, use of words in context, some even speak the word so you can practice pronunciation. This software is certainly worth the developer's weight in gold. The hardware, however, is not. Hardware is a tricky business. You need to buy resources, manufacturing capacity, set plans, pay engineers, create custom components, buy hazardous materials … why get into such a messy field?

Almost everyone learning a language has a cell phone in their hand. Japan's mobile phone companies have finally started opening up their platform to more third-party developers. Apple's iOS devices are seen all over the country. Android phones are making serious inroads on the nation's largest carrier. Why not take advantage of this?

If Canon were to sell their comprehensive dictionaries on these third party devices, they would stand to rake in a great deal more profit. Manufacturing costs would go down. Customers would be quite happy to have the extra functionality built into something they already use. Environmentalists would hail the move as a wonderful gift to Mother Earth as there would be less e-waste making its way to the landfills around the nation. Everybody would win.

On top of this, by eliminating the locally-sold hardware, it would be possible to expand into other markets with minimal capital outlay. Distribution channels? Local corporate sales offices? Warehousing costs? Not so difficult when the business is almost 100% digital. Europe and Asia have historically been two continents where multilingualism is a necessity just to compete. Why confine expertise in just one market when there's a whole world out there to exploit?

It's just a thought, of course.

When I see devices such as these, which are only sold in Japan, a facepalm isn't far behind. This country makes a lot of really good products and has some really innovative and inventive ways to solve problems, but never take it to the next level to sell these concepts overseas. Maybe I just don't understand how Japanese business works (I'm 99.9999% sure about this) but with almost every newspaper talking about stagnant business figures, it seems only natural to take something that's excellent and make it more easily available to all.

There's nothing wrong with putting your software on another company's platform, nor are there problems with providing learning tools to anyone and everyone in the world. If nothing else, it would make the first Japanese company to do so look like an educational pioneer.

Am I completely off base here?

* Depending on where you shop. There are cheaper ones out there, though people are usually aware that they get what they pay for.

Is Google a Little Too Helpful at Times?

Here's an odd one: it seems that Chrome wants to be helpful by translating one of Google's pages from Japanese to English.  What I find interesting isn't so much the fact that Chrome is asking if I want to have the site translated, as it's easy to see that Google.jp is Japanese and my system is configured for English, but Chrome isn't asking if I want to use an English Google site instead.

Google's Japanese Page in Chrome

Regardless … Google is usually useful in any language.

Why I Will Not Call Myself a Teacher

Flying LettersWhen is a carpenter a carpenter, or a roofer a roofer?  Is it after we pass a test and receive a certification, or some other time?  It's a good question, and one that I was recently asked by a reader who was curious about my stance on being referred to as a Language Facilitator at work rather than an English teacher.

Here is an excerpt of the email I received:

Why is language one of the few professions (in your opinion) where "li[f]e experience" doesn't seem to add up to a hill of beans? It should be enough for a native speaker to take a "teahing [sic] course" with standards equal to the CELTA. I think a person with over 20 years experience using a language that earns a certification should be considered qualified without having an MFA.

CELTA is the Certification in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages; otherwise known as TESOL.  Under most circumstances, I would say that a person who has earned such a certification can certainly call themselves an English Teacher if they so choose however, being the kind of guy I am, I would be remiss to say anyone with CELTA can be considered a teacher.

According to the second greatest dictionary in the world, Wikipedia, a teacher is defined as follows:

In education, a teacher is a person who educates others. A teacher who educates an individual student may also be described as a personal tutor. The role of teacher is often formal and ongoing, carried out by way of occupation or profession at a school or other place of formal education.

By this definition, anyone that works in any role where they provide people with new information, thus enhancing the benefactor's skills, can be considered a teacher.  But can this definition really be true for everyone?

Apples and Oranges

When I think back to elementary and high school, teachers were people who encouraged us to use our brains to discover things for ourselves.  They gave us confidence to use what knowledge we gained, while simultaneously pushing us just a little bit farther than we could go.  When we couldn't understand something, they could break the problem down into bite-sized pieces and explain it clearly.  The really great teachers had the added gift of being able to infect students with enthusiasm for the subject, turning something seemingly as mundane as a terminal moraine or drumlin into something worth remembering. To this day I still find geology incredibly interesting thanks to Mr. Neil's classes and remember nearly everything from his classes seventeen years ago.

But can I do the same?

Bill Nye the Science GuyFor the better part of my adult life, I've been enraptured with computers.  Many people who spend as much time talking to a computer as I do often have rather poor communication skills.  However, thanks to an insatiable need to read, I've been able to maintain a large repertoire of language that most people will likely never need under all but the most obscure of circumstances.  On top of this, my spelling and grammar usage is usually spot on 99.985% of the time … which is what everyone should expect from a language instructor.  While in the classroom I emulate some of my personal educational heroes, such as Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson … but is this enough?

Perhaps it is for some, but I have one flaw that has yet to be fixed: explaining why we use English the way we do.

Sure, I can sit down with someone and do grammar exercises, give countless examples, show how the English language follows a very particular formula in almost every common situation, but ask me to explain when we should use third conditionals, vanishing adverbs, and the nuances between antonym prefixes … and I'm lost.  I've been speaking English for over a quarter century, and have been correcting people's use of the language for at least three-quarters that.  But, despite my best intentions, I've failed to completely grasp 100% of the Whys and Whens regarding How we use certain grammar.

I've met a lot of people in Japan who call themselves English teachers that have told me up front that when a student asks a very specific question that they can't answer they either say "that's the way it is" or, worse, make something up on the spot.  What offends me the most is that it's more often the latter than the former.

The temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data is the bane of our profession.
-- Sherlock Holmes

What I don't understand, though, is how this is supposed to help the student learn a particular grammar point.  Regardless of how trivial we might think it is, if a student has a question, they deserve an honest answer.  Just listen to some of the people around the world who have studied English for years with native speakers and you'll agree … some of us do a pretty poor job of helping improve people's language skills.

This is why I will not call myself an English teacher.

Splitting Hairs

Many people will argue that nobody can know everything about a language and that even the most educated teachers need to reach for a book every once in a while to learn something new themselves, but this is really beside the point.  Despite emulating my educational heroes while in the classroom, sharing information as accurately as I possibly can whenever someone asks a question, and having a relatively high customer satisfaction record at the office, I cannot call myself a teacher so long as I am not a master of my subject.

People who go through the training to earn CELTA, TESOL, and other ESL certifications can certainly call themselves teachers.  I have no qualms with people who use the title.  My wife is an English teacher, and it's her third language.

For me, though, I will be a "language facilitator" until I have mastered my craft.  Doing otherwise would be disrespectful to all the teachers I ever looked up to.

$&*#, !*%%#$, and *&#$$%&#&#$

Please, Don't SwearBelieve it or not, I had a terrible habit back in Canada.  It wasn't one with drugs, alcohol, women, or even excessive weight gain.  Instead it was something much more insidious. Something that, once you've been bitten, it's very hard to break: swearing.

I loved to swear.  Not so much for its therapeutic results, but for the sheer complexity behind crafting the perfect insult.  Anyone could call us an insensitive a******, a f******* idiot, or the like, but it took brains to craft an insult that at first seems harmless but later an affront to everything good and rational in the world.  And this is where I excelled.

Considering how I have memorized almost every word to every CD released by Eminem, Dr. Dre, and their crews, this shouldn't come as a surprise.  Yet, whenever I mention this fact to people, they seem genuinely surprised.  How can a man who refuses to step on the train without his tie being perfectly aligned to his belt buckle enjoy listening to such hate-fueled lyrics?

I'd like to know the answer to this, myself.  That said, since moving to Japan, the practice of lacing verbal communication with explicit subtext has waned to such an extent that doing something as innocuous as dropping an "F"-bomb seems like a strange and foreign concept to me.

But what has caused this sudden change in heart?

Do All Immigrants Swear?

An interesting thing that I had noticed while growing up in Canada is that most newly arrived immigrants always seemed to have an incredible knowledge of swearing.  While the phrases they uttered would often have some convoluted grammar forms or misplaced verbs, the context was always understood.  At first I had thought that they received a crash course in "Everyday English" at the airport before making their way to the workforce, but now I see the real reason immigrants in Canada are so willing to curse a blue streak: it's part of the culture.

Swearing in Japan is, to be completely honest, just not done.  Sure, we'll hear the occasional person curse under their breath when they see a foreign man with a Japanese woman, or when the trains are late/full/on-time, or when they're driving, or when any of the day's aggravating events transpire … but it's really not that often.  I can count on one hand the number of times I've heard a Japanese person swear while I was in earshot this year … and we're 20 days into it.

Thinking back to the few Japanese people I knew back in Vancouver, I can't think of a single one that didn't curse about one thing or another on a daily basis.  Earshot or no, they were well aware of the various explicit words and how they should be used in the various noun, verb, adjective, and adverb forms.

Is this the reason I'm not swearing anymore?  Because it's not part of the culture, the Japanese music I listen to, the TV I watch, the books I read … it's not part of my daily lexicon, either?  That seems quite odd … even to me.

So let me ask those of you who have migrated to another country, even if it was a temporary thing: did you notice a change in how you used language?  Am I the only one who thinks that swearing in English sounds completely foreign here in Japan?