Monday, October 29, 2007


Sunday, October 28, 2007

Earthquake drills

For the person who came to my blog in search of the answer to the question: What is an earthquake drill used for? please come back. I have the answer for you. Make yourself comfortable, and prepare to be educated. I am a teacher, you know. Even if you don't understand everything I say, you will become cleverer just being around me.

As you may already know, most earthquakes originate very deep in the earth, where the giant catfish lives. The connection between the catfish and earthquakes was made several hundred years ago in Japan:

The earliest known written record linking catfish to earthquakes is a letter from Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98), the unifier of Japan. Near the end of his life, he decided to build a castle in Kyoto's Fushimi district, and of course he wanted it to withstand any earthquake. In a letter to the Kyoto official in charge of administering and policing, he wrote, "During the construction of Fushimi Castle, be sure to implement all catfish countermeasures." His choice of words indicates that at least as early as 1592, when the letter was written, a connection was being drawn between seismic activity and catfish.

These days, catfish countermeasures are far more sophisticated than they were in the sixteenth century.

Giant catfish are unpredictable creatures, and although they sleep most of the time, now and again they wake up and turn over. This causes the great upheavals we call earthquakes. However, it is now known that the worst earthquakes happen when the giant catfish has a nightmare and starts thrashing around in its sleep.

The small turning-over-catfish earthquakes are relatively harmless to human beings, but the larger catfish-nightmare earthquakes can be catastrophic. This is why scientists have been working for years on ways to prevent giant catfish nightmares. For this, they need to study the giant catfish and its habits. This has proved to be difficult.

Getting close enough to the giant catfish to study it is a major problem. As mentioned before, the giant catfish is a subterranean creature. This is where the especially developed "earthquake drills" come in.

Earthquake drills are very long, of course, and they are also hollow. They have a dual purpose. Firstly, they are equipped with lighting and cameras, so that scientists can study the catfish. Secondly, it is possible to send through the drill various sounds or even small objects or gases, which might calm the catfish and prevent the nightmares. It should be noted that scientists are taking the viewpoint that it would be irresponsible to attempt to kill the catfish, as it is possible that the giant catfish may have a vital role in the earth's ecosystem. The risk is too great.

Studies and experiments are ongoing, and have had varied success. The Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 was the result of one failed experiment. The giant catfish was heard to grumble in its sleep while grinding its teeth, and in an attempt to calm it scientists piped the tune of Für Elise through the drill. Unfortunately it was not known at that time that the giant catfish has an aversion to Beethoven. This mistake has not been made again, but in 2004 experiments with piping nitrous oxide through the drill caused several earthquakes in Niigata when the giant catfish had an uncontrollable attack of giggles.

It is hoped that with further study using the earthquake drill, and recent experiments with computer catfish, scientists will be able to discover the secret to calming the giant catfish, and further disasters will be averted. It is possible, of course, that there is no answer and that occasional violent movement is a necessary component in the life cycle of the giant catfish, but if this turns out to be the case there are tentative plans to move the catfish offshore. Since this would involve digging up most of Japan, it is hoped that this extreme measure can be averted until around the year 2150, when the population of the archipelago is predicted to reach about five, only two of whom will be inconvenienced because the other three will be working abroad.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Must practice more

What fun! Here I am improving my mind, procrastinating like mad, and feeling good about it because with every word I get right ten grains of rice are donated towards ending world hunger.

My score goes up and down between 45 and 49. I'm trying to hit 50, and failing.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Down at the river on Monday one of the ducks was mucking around, as usual, when he accidentally swallowed a lead sinker.

The weight dragged him down into the water.

It was terrible. He struggled heroically, and managed to get to the surface again.

Then he tried to escape it by taking to the air, but could not achieve liftoff. The lead sinker was heavy, and was weighing him down too much.

To make matters worse, it had stuck in his throat. This gave him a floatation problem.

Finally he figured out what to do. He took a deep breath, stuck his head in the water, waggled his tail violently. . .

. . . and he coughed.

This expelled the lead sinker from his throat.

"Ahhh!" he said. "That's MUCH better."

"That was quite a nasty surprise," he said as he explained the whole thing to me later. "But it had a rather interesting side-effect. I swallowed a large amount of air just before I coughed, and since then it's been going straight through me."

"Really?" I said. "How unpleasant."

"Oh, no, not really," said the duck. "It's quite useful, really."

"Useful?" I asked doubtfully. "How?"

"I'll show you," said the duck, and he did.

"See?" he said.

"I've become jet-propelled!"

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Potato puzzle

Everybody knows that when potatoes go green you should not eat them because they are poisonous. Last week I was listening to a podcast and heard that information again, this time from a scientist. I was happy to hear that I have not been chucking out green potatoes for nothing all these years.

But surely not everybody chucks out green potatoes. There must be some people with bad eyesight or bad lighting in their kitchens who accidentally eat green potatoes occasionally. It is statistically unlikely that every single person who encounters a green potato throws it away.

And this leads me to the question that has been bothering me for a very long time: If green potatoes are so poisonous, WHERE ARE ALL THE BODIES?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


I am not quite sure whether I want one of these or not. On the one hand, it could prevent some of my more fraught mornings from being quite so fraught. On the other hand, do I really want to spend every morning chasing my alarm clock around the room? Wouldn't that add to, rather than subtract from, the total sum of fraughtness in my life?

(Does fraught now sound like a made-up word to you, too?)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


My weird Tuesday student seems to be calming down. Apparently I have a calming effect on weirdos. Isn't that nice? Today (the fourth class meeting) he managed to restrain himself for the WHOLE CLASS. He did the work, and although there was a wee hiccough at the beginning when he didn't understand my directions (it seems that pointing to the chair he was supposed to move to was too 'difficult' for him to understand, so he moved in the opposite direction, thus causing a logjam amongst all the students who were moving in the right direction to change partners – soon sorted out), he still managed to NOT say, "Difficult difficult difficult difficult difficult!" until the very end. At that point everybody was leaving and I'd said, Goodbye! and, See you next week, you bunch of ratbags! and was packing up myself. He came up to me to check that he'd really understood what the homework requirements were.

"Sensei, sensei!," he whined. "Very difficult! Difficult difficult difficult!"

"Yes!" I said, with insane and meaningless cheerfulness. "And you're doing VERY WELL!"

He looked baffled. Then he asked me about the homework, and after I listened to him explain it to me (in Japanese, which he firmly believes I cannot understand) I told him (in English) that he had understood the requirements perfectly, and what he had written in his notebook was exactly right.

"You're doing VERY WELL!" I said, again. "You understand PERFECTLY. You are VERY CLEVER."

He stared at me. Then he stared at his notebook, and almost smiled. My clever-bombing was getting to him. (Clever-bombing is like love-bombing, only cleverer.)

"Difficult, difficult, difficult," he mumbled, and hung around for a few more minutes racking his brains for another question to ask me about the difficult homework. But he couldn't come up with anything, and eventually my apparent sincerity (and deranged smile) got the better of him. He left, still mumbling to himself.

I'm calling it progress. Of course I had accidentally on purpose made sure that his last partner swap landed him at the back of the room and not in my face, so perhaps he WAS saying "Difficult difficult difficult difficult," the whole time and I just didn't hear him, but never mind that. I didn't hear it, so I'm calling it progress.

Besides, he did do well. He just doesn't believe it properly, yet.

And it's just as well he wasn't too annoying today, because that class is rapidly turning into my favourite and funniest class of the week. If he spoiled it I might have to kill him.

Faithless from now on

I just deleted a 50,000 word comment. (Can 50,000 words be called a 'comment'?) Blogger had to send it to me in two emails instead of one. It was an amazingly incomprehensible diatribe from a person who did not know how to punctuate or spell, and who evidently has far too much time on his (or her) hands.

My definition of 'normal' is fairly elastic, but it only stretches so far. That 'comment' had already reached my limit about twenty or thirty words in, at which point Anonymous had already mentioned god, homosexuality! reincarnation and circumcision. Skimming further down I noticed the abject situation, damnation, pro football, Noahs flood, hypersexuality, numerous references to the Final Prophet, and - the only bit I stopped briefly for - preditory Italians in clone hosts.

Preditory Italians in clone hosts?

That will teach me to use Faith as a blog entry title!

Monday, October 15, 2007


Camel racing

I don't know whether camels are related to cats, but I think they must be .

Alice Springs stages a camel meeting each winter and mounts can be unpredictable. Sometimes they run backwards, or stop a few feet from the finish line and refuse to move.

That is pretty much what I imagine a cat race would look like, aside from the running backwards thing. (A cat's version of that would be to suddenly decide to wash its private parts.)

I think camel racing sounds like a perfect substitute for horse racing. I would go, hoping to see a camel run backwards. I don't know why exactly, but I'm having real trouble imagining what that actually looks like.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


On Friday morning I set off for work with a feeling of doom. I had told one class, of third year students, that they had to give a presentation. I hate presentations, and for good reason. Students are not good at them, so they are painful to watch. They are usually totally unprepared, no matter how much time you give them to get ready. And they are usually boring. But this class is supposed to include presentations and I didn't do any last semester, so I thought perhaps I should, even though I am ignoring the rest of the insanely optimistic syllabus.

Last week none of them had anything ready, so I was not able to check what they'd done. This was supposed to be the point of giving them two weeks to prepare. Nobody seemed particularly worried by this, so I told them that if they were not ready in time I would grade them on how well they ad-libbed. After that they suddenly started to work very hard, but wrote everything in Japanese. This was worrying, so then I said that I would grade them on how understandable their presentations were. Of course, I added, using software translation was out of the question, because even I couldn't understand that. Anyone who used software translation would get a zero, I said. AS USUAL.

This caused major panic throughout the classroom. (Didn't ANYBODY read the handout I gave them about this, or remember the homework I'd given back with big fat red zeros last semester?) Suddenly they all decided to write in English instead of Japanese, but since nobody had produced more than three sentences by the end of ninety minutes I was still not able to check their work, and was not optimistic about how well they'd do.

But perhaps they learned something from the horrible grades I gave them last semester, because when I got to the classroom on Friday every single student was ready.

It was amazing. (Note to self: remember the ad-lib threat for future occasions.) None of the presentations were a complete disaster, for which I am enormously grateful. Several surprised me by being quite reasonable, by which I mean that the students had prepared something that could have been good if they had any presentation skills, or had practiced.

The presentations were supposed to be about various questions that turned up in the Scruples game I'd had them playing a few weeks ago. (I have adapted a bunch of questions to use in classes.) They had to choose one of the questions and resolve it somehow. They could do a speech, a skit, a story, or any other format they could think of that involved speaking, either singly or in pairs.

I probably should have worried more about which questions they'd choose, but as it turned out some of the more off-colour questions were the most successful, for obvious reasons. I think I can say that my personal favourite was the one that went like this:

You are absent from work because you have hemorrhoids. The next day in a meeting the boss asks you why you were absent. Do you tell the truth?

The student who tackled this question gave a rather boring speech (I can't actually remember how he answered except that he gave adequate reasons and so on), but livened things up considerably by explaining first what hemorrhoids were. He did this by drawing a cartoon-style picture on the board. It was the back view of what looked like a sumo wrestler, squatting. It was brilliantly funny, naughty without actually being all that rude, and illustrated the meaning of the word perfectly.

Then he got really, really nervous, stood right in front of the picture, and prepared to give his boring speech.

But it didn't really matter that he was nervous, his speech was given in a monotone, and that he didn't know how to pronounce hemorrhoids. Every time he stepped aside and pointed at his picture with a trembling finger, we all laughed our heads off.

I'd call that a success.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Today at lunchtime my left eye developed a tic. It was very annoying. It felt like my ... what do you call the bit under your eye? Not the eyelid, but the bit the lower lashes are attached to? (Is there a name for that? Lower lid?) Anyway, it felt like it was jumping all over my face. Violently.

This has happened before, occasionally, and I knew from experience that even when it feels dramatic it quite often is not visible from the outside. I happened to be eating lunch with a couple of colleagues, and could not concentrate on the conversation with this dance happening on my face, so I interrupted to ask,

"Can you see my eye twitching?"

They peered at me.

"Yeah!" they chorused, and one added, "It's really jumping around!"

"Damn," I said. "Do you know how to make it stop?"

They didn't, although they'd both experienced it themselves.

But what makes it start in the first place? I have been getting enough sleep, and eating well, and I was not feeling particularly stressed. When my eye did not stop twitching I did start to feel a little stressed, though, so I took a couple of Panadol to see if that would help. (Also because it was the only medicine I had with me.) The twitching eye was making me feel like I had a guilty secret and had been found out. It made me not want to look anyone in the face, which is not a good thing when you have thirty students watching you.

About an hour later, a little while into my first class after lunch, the twitching stopped. Perhaps the Panadol worked, or perhaps it was going to stop anyway. It was a huge relief, because it meant I was able to look at my class properly. I had been facing the board and ducking down behind the (ridiculously high) podium every five minutes to rub at the eye.

After work I had dinner with a few other colleagues, and told them about it. They were sympathetic. They'd all experienced eye-tics at odd times, for no apparent reason, and we came to the conclusion that perhaps it was a job hazard. We thought about our jobs and sank into gloom. (We had just been discussing a new student testing system being instituted at our university that is making us all a little grumpy, since although we did not write the tests we do have to administer them, almost weekly. They are not good tests.)

I asked my colleagues if they knew how to make the twitches stop, and to my great surprise one of them answered immediately.

"Chocolate," he said, firmly.

"Chocolate?" we said, and there was a considerable lightening of the atmosphere. "Chocolate? REALLY?"

"Yes. Chocolate," he said. "It's the magnesium. The twitches are caused by a lack of magnesium in your diet, and chocolate has magnesium in it."

I decided to Google this 'fact' when I got home, but now that I am home I find myself strangely reluctant. It doesn't seem like such a good idea after all. In fact, I think that it is time for me to develop a little faith, so I have reversed my decision.

I will not Google the eye-tic healing powers of chocolate. I will BELIEVE.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Sensei! Sensei!

On Tuesdays last semester I had a rather weird student who came to all my classes instead of just the one he was enrolled in. On Tuesdays this semester I have a NEW weird student. Is a trend emerging? Will I always have a weird student on Tuesdays from now on?

The new student is weird in a different, and rather more irritating way. He does not worry me quite so much as my last semester student, but he has his own little quirk, and is potentially far more annoying. His quirk manifested itself in the first class.

I was explaining the rules of the course to the students. These rules are also written in the handout I had just given them, and I was writing the very important bits on the board as well, and telling them to read the handout. I have found that quite frequently my students do not read handouts. This does not bother me until towards the end of semester when I am explaining to a student why they are failing, and point to the relevant parts of the handout.

"What's that?" they ask, and I explain that it is the handout that I gave them at the beginning of semester, which is written in both English and Japanese.

"I don't have it!" they say, and I point to where it is stuck in the front of their notebook, where I had told them to put it on the first day. They stare at it blankly.

"But I didn't read it!" they say, and seem to think I should pass them because HOW COULD THEY POSSIBLY KNOW that being absent for a majority of classes and not doing any homework would cause them to fail the course? They hadn't read the handout! It's not their fault!

Convincing them that ignorance is no excuse can be time-consuming, so I try to avoid it. This is why I make a big production of the handout on the first day.

This new weird student, however, whenever I opened my mouth to speak, started speaking as well, raising his hand slightly and looking confused. This is what he said:

"Sensei! Sensei! Wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai. Sensei! Wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai."

Wakaranai means, in case you didn't know, I do not understand.

He did not say it very loudly, but he continued to say it every time I said anything AT ALL, even when I pointed to the Japanese on the handout. He responded to my helpfulness by staring at me pathetically and saying:

"Sensei! Sensei! Wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, Sensei! Sensei! Wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai. Sensei! Wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai."

Somewhat baffled, I smiled at him sweetly and carried on around the class. After a while he stopped Sensei! Wakaranai-ing and stared at the handout instead of at me. Then he was quiet for a while. Perhaps he had noticed it was in Japanese.

The next week he was pretty much the same. I give very simple instructions in low-level classes, and supplement my instructions by writing the gist on the board as well. Even if students cannot understand what I say, they understand what I write on the board, and they understand my gestures. In fact students who do not understand a word of English are surprised to discover that they do, in fact, understand my instructions. I have become very good at giving instructions that require no English at all, but which make my students think WELL FOR GOODNESS SAKE I JUST UNDERSTOOD SOMETHING IN ENGLISH! It makes them feel clever, and that is a good thing.

My weird student, however, the moment I opened my mouth and before I had completed a five-word sentence, raised his hand and started with his little chant.

"Sensei! Sensei! Wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, Sensei! Sensei! Wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai. Sensei! Wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai."

His chant is not a very loud one, but it is irritating. However, instead of ripping off the arm he had raised and beating him around the head with the soggy end, which is what I felt inclined to do, I did what any sensible teacher would do. I smiled at him encouragingly.

"Don't worry," I said, soothingly, and thereafter ignored him. Eventually he stopped, and along with everybody else copied what I had written on the board. This is what I had just instructed them to do, and which he had wakaranai-ed.

Then he stared at what he had written, and his hand went up again.

"Sensei! Sensei! Wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, Sensei! Sensei! Wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai. Sensei! Wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai, wakaranai." he said.

I pretended not to notice. I answered another student's question, set them to work, and eventually he settled down and did the work, too, with no more difficulty than any of the others as far as I could see. He behaved himself, more or less, for the rest of the class, with only a couple more fairly quiet outbursts, which I ignored.

This week was the third time this class has met, and I am happy to find that my policy of ignoring his pleas is working. He is actually starting to use some English. Today, when I issued some new instructions and then wrote them on the board, he raised his hand and said,

"Sensei! Difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult! Sensei! Sensei! Difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult! Sensei! Difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult!"

I smiled understandingly at him. Then I carried on around the class, making sure the other students understood what they were supposed to do. They did, and got on with the work. So did he. I continued to perambulate around the classroom, helping out where needed. Every time I passed him he raised his hand and said,

"Sensei! Difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult! Sensei! Difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult! Sensei! Sensei! Difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult!"

"Yes, and you're doing VERY WELL," I replied, and carried on.

This happened several times.

What a fabulous teacher I am. I now have a student who can be weird and annoying in two languages instead of only one!

The GOOD news is that the rest of his class of science majors, my only very low-level English class at that university this semester (not because they are science majors but because I happened to end up with the low-level English end of that bunch), have decided collectively that they will cooperate with me and speak English all the time – but in silly voices. It started with two or three of the more extroverted students, but has spread to almost the entire class, so that it sounds at times as though I've had them all sucking on helium balloons. This makes me very happy because it means they might actually learn something.

So although the sounds that emerge from my classroom in the third period are utterly, utterly bizarre, I am pretending that it is perfectly normal to speak English in a silly voice and interrupt every five minutes with,

"Sensei! Sensei! Difficult, difficult difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult, difficult!"

Today, amazingly, the whole class used only English for the entire ninety minutes of class, something none of my supposedly higher-level classes ever manage. I was solemnly professional. They were overcome with hilarity most of the time, making wonderful and ridiculous progress in horribly mangled English.

I am hoping that this trend continues, because if it does there is a chance that some of their English will become unmangled. When I can hear what problems they are having, I can do something about preparing lessons that address those problems.

In that class, at least, it looks like it will be an interesting semester.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Happy card

Today in one of my classes the students, who were supposed to be writing answers to a list of questions, were discussing my weight.

"I wonder if we can ask her how much she weighs?" said one.

"I don't think so," said another. "She might get angry."

"But she's funny when she gets angry," said the first student. "She only pretends."

I pretended not to understand. It requires less energy than pretending to be angry, and anyway, in that class I am maintaining the fiction that I cannot understand anything they say in Japanese. Besides having perfectly good pedagogical reasons for doing so, it's more fun that way. Also, today I was feeling particularly cheerful.

I like listening to the students. I guess they'd heard about the recent survey about height and weight in Japan, and were wondering where I fit in. (The height figure made me realize why I feel tall here, and what a freak The Man is.)

But I didn't worry about my students' lack of application to their study of English. I've stopped worrying about it, especially at that place. That particular class is in the 'Human Nutrition' department (and no, there is no 'Alien Nutrition' department, I am sorry to say), in which many of the students want to become school nurses. They will probably never use English in their lives after they finish my class. I help the ones who want to learn, and with the others maintain the polite fiction that we are seriously working on the acquisition of English, while having as much fun as possible.

The ones who want to become nail artists instead of school nurses will likely never use English again, either, which leads me to a little digression. What is Japan going to do with all the university educated nail artists it will suddenly have a few years from now? If my students are anything to go by, there is going to be an awful lot of them. What is a nail artist, anyway? Perhaps, eventually, Japan could send a rocket containing nail artists off into space, to look for another habitable planet where there is a dearth of nail artists. (I am channelling Douglas Adams, in case you hadn't noticed. Badly.)

But the main reason I didn't worry about my students' complete lack of interest in what I was supposedly teaching (and their corresponding interest in my weight) was the interview I had listened to on my way to work. I have been catching up with the August podcasts from the Saturday Morning with Kim Hill show, on Radio New Zealand, and I'd just listened to an interview with Alexander Waugh. (Sadly, this has now dropped off the bottom of the list on the site. It was a good interview.) Near the end Alexander said, explaining his father's habit of communicating in jokes:

"Seriousness is a form of deep stupidity."

He then added:

"I think the whole modern world is in grave danger of taking itself too seriously and taking everything in the world too seriously, and thereby not understanding it at all."

I was cheerful today because I had just found out what my life is all about. I realized that at an early age I dedicated myself to being a very, very intelligent person who understands the world, and I have never swerved from this path.

It is a wonderful thought. I had always thought I was rather pathetically unambitious, but it turns out that I have been a goal-oriented person ALL MY LIFE.

When I went back to the teachers' room after class I discovered that the students at the front had not just been plundering my pencilcase in order to borrow things, as they usually do. One of them had also left a note:

I have chosen the perfect career to help me to achieve my life's goal. My job is helping me to understand the world better and better every day.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A tiny wee man with a feather

Pharyngula directed me to an article called The Top 5 Nasty Creatures Getting Stronger Due To Climate Change, and has scared me horribly. Yesterday and today I had a horrible itch inside my nose, which made me want to stick my finger up there and SCRATCH. This is not something I can do while I'm working. Teaching with your finger up your nose is generally frowned upon. Even between classes it is awkward. In the teachers' room, if I dig around inside my nostrils to get at that tiny wee man who is tickling the inside of my left nostril with a tiny wee feather, nobody will believe my story about the tiny wee man. They'll just think I'm being gross and unladylike.

But if you read the first item on that list, you'll know why I have been worried.

However, there is good news. I have just noticed that according to one of the commenters on Pharyngula, the amoeba lives in warm FRESH water. I was swimming in warm SALT water in Malaysia, so it's more likely that I'd get the LAST one on the list, not the first. And as far as I can see that one doesn't do the nostril thing.

Which means, I suppose, that the tiny wee man hypothesis is more likely correct.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The hazards of using translation software

While I was collecting homework today, which had been done over the vacation for myself and for the Japanese professor who has my students every other week, I came across this sentence:

It was not clear and lived in every day whether I want to become thing and what which I wanted to do without can have what dream.

I think I must have been here too long. I actually understood what this meant. I know how computer translation software works – not because I use it, but because so many of my students do, thinking I will not notice.

I do notice. Most of my students, however low their level, write better than computer translation software can. At the very least they garble shorter, simpler sentences.

I wonder now whether the Japanese professor realizes that all (yes, ALL – I checked) the homework she has been given has been translated by computer? I looked through what the students handed in before passing it on, and it was perfectly obvious to me that the students had simply copied and pasted from translation software. As I passed it on I also assumed that their professor knows that and has decided to ignore it.

But just now, as I was typing that horrible sentence, it occurred to me that the professor might NOT know. One of these homework assignments was written on the back of an old homework assignment, similarly written by computer and similarly garbled, and the professor (who has a PhD in linguistics) had given it quite a high grade and had written the comment,

Very good effort!

When I saw it I thought, Ha! An ironic comment! How funny!

But just now I thought of the professor, who has never shown any inclination or talent for irony, and started to have serious doubts.

COULD SHE REALLY HAVE NOT NOTICED? I thought. And yes, I thought it in capital letters.

And now I am thinking (in smaller, chastened letters),

In fact it is entirely possible, even probable, that she has not noticed.

This puts me in a very difficult situation, as this professor is my boss and has a PhD, whereas I only have a lowly M. App. Ling. These things matter in Japan.

Should I tell her?