The way we see things

What should be taught in a language class?

April 16, 2013 by Bobb Drake

Read this post in Japanese

My career as a Japanese teacher began when I entered the United States. I was a graduate student, and was given an opportunity to teach Japanese classes at the university level. The class I taught first was Introductory Japanese, in which students started learning the pronunciation of each letter of the “Hiragana” alphabet, followed by intermediate classes.  I also tutored a very advanced-level class where students read and discussed Japanese newspaper articles. Through interacting with students of/at different levels, I realized that students whose Japanese sounded natural not only had plenty of Japanese language knowledge but also applied specific Japanese conversational styles, such as asking for the listener’s agreement to their speech using “ne” (similar to “right?” in English), speaking in relation to the previous speaker and frequently nodding to show they were listening to the speaker. When I was having conversations with those students, I felt as if I was speaking to people who grew up with Japanese. On the other hand, students who lacked those Japanese conversational techniques always reminded me that they were learners of Japanese, as the conversation with them was unnatural most of the time.  

Many studies have shown that those specific Japanese conversational manners were created because of social and cultural factors in Japan, such as being group-oriented and cooperatively minded. That is, experiencing these Japanese socio-cultural norms must be the foundation to understanding and acquiring preferred conversational patterns in Japanese.

I believe any language has its own communicational style.  If you have taught your native language in other countries, you may have noticed that conversational competence does not merely consist of language knowledge.  Teaching grammar and vocabulary is, of course, indispensable for learners to be able to use the language; however, we should not forget that introducing our socio-cultural norms is also an important and necessary element in language classes.   

The question is how do we teach it in class?

Have you studied a foreign language? Could you share your experiences of how you learned the socio-cultural standards of the language? Are you a foreign language teacher? How have you been teaching this to students?

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Learning, Multiculturalism

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The Giving Tree

April 05, 2013 by Bobb Drake

Every experience provides a lesson… or two, or three. “The Giving Tree” is a book full of experiences and full of lessons. It is one of Shel Silverstein’s most well-known children’s stories and has been translated into over 30 languages. Needless to say, something about this story resonates with people the World over…

I own this book, and I have to admit that whenever my boys ask me to read it to them, I hesitate. The premise sounds harmless: it is a story about a boy and a tree. The tree is both a playground and a source of happiness for the boy, and he returns to it throughout his life. Here is where the experiences of the tree and the boy are open to interpretation.

Each time the boy returns to the tree, the tree is overjoyed to see him. On each occasion, he tells the tree that he needs something more to make him happy. Each time, the tree gives of herself, and the boy takes the offering and leaves for a longer and longer time.  As a young child, the boy’s needs are simple, and he is happy to swing from her branches and sleep in the shade she provides. As he grows older, his needs become more demanding and more complex: he needs money, and the tree gives him all her apples to sell; later he returns wishing to build a house in the hopes of one day having a wife and children… and the tree tells him to cut down all of her branches to build one; then he decides to sail away, and the tree offers her trunk to make a boat. The boy returns as an old man, when the tree has nothing to offer except a stump on which to sit – and so he does.

Is the emphasis on taking or on giving? Does the boy give back in any way? Does he take from the tree in selfishness, or does he merely accept her gifts?

A reader’s interpretation of the story in many ways plays upon the design of a tree: one’s own foundation is like the trunk, and the ideas and emotions triggered are like the branches that reach in different directions. Based on our own experiences, the reader subconsciously identifies more strongly with either the tree or the boy. If the tree, is it a connection to her feeling of happiness at seeing the boy, watching him grow, or in feeling useful? Is it a feeling of being taken advantage of? If the boy, does the reader relate to the idea of a secure place to come “home” to, or affection? Is it a desire to seize opportunity?  Is it a feeling of regret at having taken advantage?

The emotions and ideas in the story are universal: they trigger memories of childhood, of growing up, of security, of taking and giving, of fighting dependence, of learning to be independent, of forming an identity, of dealing with hardship and age… and if we are parents, of taking care of our children.

This leads me to answer my own question: Why am I so hesitant to read this book? If we are parents, the kind of parents we are determines how we relate to the tree – and I see myself in the tree. It is hard for me to accept that the tree gives without reciprocation or thanks from the boy. Perhaps that is my own selfishness coming out. I don’t know if the boy is expressing thanks by returning to the tree… or if he returns only to take again. My hope is that my own children will learn to give back, even if not to me. I wonder how they interpret this story.

The cycle of life in "The Giving Tree" resonates across cultures because the message seems to bend and change with the reader. What separates our perspectives are how we think things should be and how our experiences teach us they are. Does the tree exist for the purpose of providing resources for the boy or does the tree choose to give? Are resources limitless or do they need to be replaced? Can the tree continue to live as only a stump? Did the boy accidentally plant another tree when he ate one of the tree’s apples and threw the core? Do the money, the house and the boat allow the tree to live vicariously through the boy’s life experiences?

Since its first publication in 1964, the story and message behind Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” have been widely debated… and will continue to be. Silverstein figures among a prominent 3 in Pamela Paul’s 2011 New York Times article “The Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules”: ‘“The Giving Tree” fell into a nebulous and unpromising noncategory between children’s book and adult literature… Yet “The Giving Tree” went on to sell 8.5 million copies. It was embraced by Christians as a parable of selflessness and has been denounced by feminists as a patriarchal fantasy in morality-tale clothing.” (I recently read of one fed-up mother who took a Sharpie® to the book to add words of thanks!) As for me, I prefer to keep philosophizing. Maybe the book will grow on me. As they get older, I’ll be curious to hear my boys’ opinions of the story…

What’s your take?

El Árbol Generoso

الشجرة المعطاءة 

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Learning, Multiculturalism

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A lost potion, a fleeting flavor

March 08, 2013 by Bobb Drake

My mother never believed much in Western medicine. Through the years, she would accumulate cabinet upon cabinet of herbal medicines and mystery tinctures, moving them with us to new homes, until I would ask about them while cleaning.

I remember them as marvelous, dusty secrets...amber dropper bottles filled with clear liquids, plastic jugs with long, dried objects, mystery white pills, bags of rust-colored shards, teas, my mother's magic, remnants of ancient times.

I never understood her inability to throw things away, but now I understand it to be a habit of the faithful. We throw things away if we are sure we will never regret those losses. We discard people if we are sure we will never regret losing them. She may forget where she puts her wallet, but she never forgets a friend. I, on the other hand, have been learning how to discard things left and right. I am being reckless and selfish, relearning how to love people without self-destruction. I am not my mother. I tell myself that I am not ready for a million things.

Come here, she says, probably in the kitchen, holding a dropper bottle. Tells my 7-year-old self to open my mouth, explains that this would help keep me well. This one is a type of snake venom, she says... There is only a tiny bit of poison in here...a small amount of poison is a medicine. Makes you stronger. Notice how it tastes nhẩn nhẩn.

Nhẩn nhẩn. Not to be confused with the single occurrence of "nhẫn", which has a different accent above the "â" character. Nhẫn is a ring, for your finger, or it is the root word for "patience".

There is no English word that describes the flavor of nhẩn nhẩn, always spoken as two words, with an emphasis on the second. This Vietnamese term does not appear in dictionaries. There are words we only know exist because they materialize very briefly in our mouths, we eject them into reality, and they dissolve into the air when spent. We only know that these words exist because we create them among witnesses. If a word is uttered in the forest...

This flavor is not salty, sweet, nor sour. It is also not quite bitter... Bitter is what describes bitter melon (khổ qua), India Pale Ale, and coffee, experiences bold enough to be spectacularly memorable or desirable. With nhẩn nhẩn, there is a slight alcohol taste and what seems like a sparkle of electricity. To call it a "medicinal" taste is closer but still not quite it.

I used to wonder if our memories were tied to our abilities to talk about them, whether the lack of vocabulary to talk about phenomena would render us unable to recall them. I am realizing that our capacity for memory is actually tied to our capacity for emotional attachment.

Nhẩn nhẩn, after all, is so subtle and wordless and I shouldn't be able to remember it at all. And I forget what the experience is truly like until I experience it again, and my taste buds ("taste bugs", according to the young daughter of our new analyst) would say, "Hmmm. This. I remember this."

But that is all that my "taste bugs" can manage to say. I do remember this. I remember what my mother used to say. I remember her dark cabinets with secret potions, and the fact that a little bit of poison would keep me well. I remember these as discrete moments, and then never again, until the next one arrives.

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House Blessings

January 03, 2013 by Bobb Drake

One of our favorite things to talk about at the lunch table is our fear of the undead, whether this means zombie invasions or haunted houses. Undead things give us the creeps but we talk about them anyway, the way people can't avoid looking at an accident scene when they drive past. 

As some of us Glyphers have recently moved to new homes, especially new houses, we've also talked about the ways we're supposed to bless a house to prevent unwanted spirit occupation or encourage all-around good energy.

Do you bless homes in your culture? Are there house-related superstitions in your culture?

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Delicious gatherings

November 21, 2012 by Bobb Drake

cranberriesTomorrow would be epic. There will be 8 hours of uninterrupted scheming, cooking and family time for Thanksgiving, for which most families have traditions and quirks to make the holiday their own.

My best friend Venus phoned last night while making cranberry sauce. It's easy to make, she said, "It's just cranberries, water, sugar, orange juice." I hear this thunking, scraping and shuffling sound, like a puppy scrambling on a hardwood floor, and then nothing. She tells me she's juicing two pomegranates to put into the sauce.

"How does it thicken?" I ask. Cranberry sauce is alien to me. Someone else takes care of it every year, and I'm usually put in charge of a roast, or of a dessert.

"It just does," Venus says. The cranberries cook down and become goopy. Careful though, she explains, the berries splatter a bit as they cook down.

Venus and I catch up for the first time in a long time. We talk about our families, what we're reading and learning these days, and boys we have a crush on. I guess we haven't changed much since second grade. We were the unlikeliest of best friends – she was a tall competitive swimmer with brown curly hair, and I was the short, skinny, orca-whale kid with the bob. When she disappeared from home, she came to mine. And when one of us forgot her math book in class, the other would read equations over the phone. She was the one who got into more trouble. She was also the one who stood up for herself and spoke up more.

We haven't changed much – we just have bigger shoes and less math homework. We're still giggling about silly things and plotting our next adventures. It still saddens me to think that we are less fiery than we were. All we can think about is home, warmth, and communion.

I begin orchestrating my own Thanksgiving menu in my head. "I think I'll try making cranberry sauce too," I tell her. Never made it before, but her way sounds simple and delicious.

There's no better day to orchestrate a beautiful meal than when everyone's around to enjoy it. In the same way that a tree falls in the forest, if a kitchen-dweller cooks a delicious meal and nobody is there to savor it, is it still delicious? I miss cooking with my mama.

Our Latinguist, one of my partners in crime on the linguistic side of the Glyph production team, has a warm family gathering every year and a tradition of making tamales – a Latino food made with a corn dough, filled with savory or sweet, wrapped in corn husks and steamed 'til firm (check out some recipes here). Making tamales is an assembly line affair, Latinguist describes to me, a tableful of women having a joyful time, with "shrieks of laughter and gooey fingers."

"If it's my mom and her sisters, it's all Spanish gossip."

Good Eats had a segment in which Alton Brown does a breakdown on tamales.

Does your family do anything special for Thanksgiving? What are you most thankful for?

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November 20, 2012 by Bobb Drake

When downtown goes vacant at certain times on the weekend, Spokanites have the leeway of the occasional jaywalk. Two thick slices:

Sharing of space. The relationship between American jaywalker and motorist has changed dramatically through the years. Streets began as public spaces in which motorists were not the norm – the automotive industry, initially, had to fight for its inclusion into American city culture (Read more here). Now, attitudes about jaywalking vary across the country and across the world (Abu Dhabi tried fining people, but it didn't seem to help). L10n Tamer (VP for localization), who lived in Germany for a while, mentioned that jaywalking in the presence of a child is very frowned upon over there.

Walk; don't run. A man named Charlie Denison, a senior app developer and Boston transportation advocate, suggests that decreasing the amount of jaywalking can be a matter of engineering. He wants to do away with the push-button request for a walk signal (because a pedestrian might arrive at the intersection at a time that is not necessarily congruent or convenient to the timing of traffic patterns: As a pedestrian button-pusher arriving at the intersection, you may have missed your window!). He also suggests adding countdown timers (many intersections in Downtown Spokane have new walk signals with countdown timers), whether that means a countdown to a Don't Walk, or a countdown to a Walk, both of which would help a pedestrian make an informed decision (about whether to hurry up and get to the intersection).

How is jaywalking viewed in your country, your culture, or your neighborhood? Do you have strong opinions on it? Do you have any crazy jaywalking stories to share?

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It’s like eating a tiny rhinoceros

November 14, 2012 by Bobb Drake

My car companion Moonraker and I were creeping up the freeway during San Francisco rush hour. For the zillionth time, I realized how much time Californians – possibly Americans in general – spend sitting in their cars.

The whole weekend was a time jumble. I had just eaten the most earth-shattering croque-monsieur in the history of man, at a cafe that used local artisan bread. Such sandwich perfection takes a recovery period before time stops slowing down, and before even non-sandwiches can be marvelous again.

We'd been in Chinatown the day before – dragon pearl tea, bowls, tiles for the mah-jongg that I'd promised my Glyph friend Pinyin Minion we'd learn to play, men unloading heavy artifacts from trucks, fish stall people shouting and hosing down the sidewalk while passersby take a detour in the road. It's an exercise in disorder and bright color, and in learning to navigate and love both.

"Wait–" Moonraker says. "I need to stop here." We duck into a tiny corner grocery/convenience store. I expect him to pick up something mundane, like chewing gum or a Coke. Instead, he makes a beeline for the back table and grabs a bag of what I know to be xi muoi.

It was something his Dad used to bring home – a childhood memory. Xi muoi (phoneticized as li hing mui in Chinese) are salty-sour-sweet plums, shriveled to about the size of a nickel, preserved rock-hard and sold in small quantities as snacks. If not bagged, they come in little plastic cubes two and a half inches deep, sealed with gold tape.

I imagine eating a tiny rhinoceros would be similar. Xi muoi are often consumed slowly – the hard, leathery, impossibly wrinkled hide of the plum is packed with flavor and sometimes infused with a mystery red dye. You gnaw the hide off the seed, then you roll the seed in your mouth a bit to get the rest of the flavor. It's the flavoring agent for Asian plum sodas, and lately, the powder form is gaining popularity in cocktails or on fresh fruit.

"This might be the most Chinese thing I've seen you do," I tell Moonraker after his purchase. He tells me that's racist. I laugh, because we both have Chinese roots.

It's a good 40 minutes or so before gridlock eases up on Sunday afternoon, as we cross the Bay Bridge and pass Treasure Island to get into Oakland. We're listening to oldies FM. It's a rental car too empty to analyze, aside from the hockey stick across the back seat, which doesn't tell me anything new. I look toward the loading docks, and he tells me a secret about Star Wars. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch him drive. 

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Mama at the Airport

October 10, 2012 by Bobb Drake

The other week at lunch, we talked about international travel and navigating airports... what would it be like as a non-English speaker trying to transfer flights or find baggage claim?

Leo Cullum

This subject came up because one of our Glyph friends has her mama coming to visit soon from overseas... Mama speaks French, but no English.

We wondered if big airports have enough bilingual guides or help agents. Big airports are confusing enough as they are, without the variable of language barrier: They're all laid out differently, with gates numbered in different ways across different wings. Traveling across the world involves changing planes, probably in more than one country, with a lot of people.

Crossing a border also involves rechecking your luggage for it to be searched. Imagine having to go back out of the secure area, retrieve and recheck your bag, and get back through security in a place where nobody speaks your native language.

"I'm worried she will get lost," our friend said a while back. What if her flight is delayed? Will she find her way to the next gate in time? It's one thing to think about an acquaintance making their way around an airport, but it's a much bigger worry when it is one's mama traveling to a foreign country by herself. I, for one, would NOT be ok with my mama traveling to a foreign country by herself.

We were considering the possibility that Mama might befriend a fellow traveler who can navigate with her. This happens, Pinyin Minion said... One time she was on a flight to Taiwan and she saw some other travelers becoming very fast friends. The Queen's Spellchecker joked that she had been "adopted by" a whole crew of extremely friendly ladies during her flight to the States. Good and friendly people are everywhere, someone said. Our friend was also going to mail her mama a prepaid cell phone, to call for help if necessary and hand the phone to an agent.

Have you ever traveled internationally? Did you go alone? What were the most challenging moments in which to have a language barrier?

The New Yorker published this comic by cartoonist and former TWA pilot Leo Cullum (1942-2010) in November 2001. 

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Geopolitics, Multiculturalism

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Mah-jongg Dreams

September 25, 2012 by Bobb Drake

Pinyin Minion and I have decided (kind of on impulse) to learn mah-jongg – a 4-player Chinese tile game. We need one person for each of the four cardinal directions, and we're slowly gathering possible Glyph players for some kind of weekend escapade.

It makes me smile to know that people at a translation and localization company, at which we handle the content of digital games, want to start playing a tile game from the Qing Dynasty (19th century).

This is also a nostalgic attraction...I think I'm having dangerous expectations about mah-jongg bringing women friends together for 40 years at a time, as it historically has, and I'm conjuring scenes from movies such as Joy Luck Club. I keep wondering whether the sharing of time is what created those lifelong bonds, or whether the shared culture of those historic women had a much bigger impact. Glyph people came here from all over the country if not the world – we share underlying philosophies, but we also have many cultural differences.

Will mah-jongg have the same magic for us? Will it stop time and mark time? Will it give us an opportunity to build love and community? I'm drawn to living slowly, practicing Being exactly where we are, and pulling back from our frenetic lives.

Pinyin Minion and I didn't grow up knowing how to play mah-jongg, either...In our families, as in many others, the game itself had connotations of gambling. It also requires more strategy and patience than the average kid can muster. And when the game pieces are a choking hazard, this rules out households with very young children.

I'll track down a set of tiles this fall. Meanwhile, interested parties can get started on their homework of learning the basic rules of play, which look pretty complex (page includes a link to download the international rules e-book).

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Language Factoids, Multiculturalism

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The Fruit Exchange

September 05, 2012 by Bobb Drake

There's a fruit exchange at Glyph this week.

Wait, is this like Secret Santa where each person submits and retrieves a random fruit from the pool?...Or is this less formal, like saying, "Yo, I might like your fruit, you might like my fruit, let's trade fruit" ?

Yes, says the Evil Dictator, one of our project managers on the game team. And he believes a formal fruit exchange might be in order (We do, after all, have an interest in keeping one another alive).

Then, a negotiation process happens. These participants are one item short, and E has to owe somebody. He feels more comfortable owing Pinyin Minion because they are deskmates, or podmates–

"–Podlings," says Pinyin Minion.

E hands Pinyin Minion a giant Green Bluff peach and tells her to eat two-thirds. PM cuts it up and offers a slice to Mr. Crowd Control, who ends up with a pluot (plum-apricot hybrid, shown in photo) in this multiplayer game of musical non-pears.

So it's Mr. Crowd Control, in the kitchen, with the pluot. He peels off the dinosaur sticker and eats the pluot, or what we've been purposely mispronouncing as "plout".

Plout rhymes with umlaut (which is the Germanic version of the two-dot diacritical mark above ü, such as in "Für Elise"). Does it taste like a giant grape? E suggests that "it has grape-like tendencies."

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