Article/Journalism,Interview/Profil,JQ-Magazin,language study comments fromin JQ Magazine: JQ&A with Jim Breen of Monash University on WWWJDIC
“I have just spent several weeks in Finland and Sweden, where English is very good. No JET programs there. You can't even claim that they are related languages - Finnish is just as foreign as Japanese and probably has fewer of themgairaigo(borrowed words). How do you do that? By teaching properly, first, with trained and qualified teachers.” (Courtesy of Jim Breen)
VonTim Martin(Fukui-ken, 2006-08) forJQsave on computer. Tim is a neuroscientist and swing dancer based in New York City. He runs a blog calledThe Floating Lantern, where he writes about humanism and other important things. Lately he's been trying to learn more about effective altruism and the science of applied rationality.
Jim Breenis the man behind a resource that probably every English speaker looking to learn Japanese has tapped into: the MassiveWWWJDIConline dictionary. In the 1980s, Breen developed an interest in Japanese, which led him to program a Japanese dictionary for DOS as a hobby. While a professor of digital and data communications knowsMonash UniversityIn Melbourne, Australia, Breen continued to work on the dictionary until it eventually evolved into an interface that linked and cross-referenced hundreds of thousands of word, name and kanji entries.
Now a recognized authority on lexicography and the Japanese language, Breen continues to pursue his "hobby" and is working toward a PhD. in computational linguistics. In this exclusive interviewJQspoke to Breen to find out how it all started, what he thinks about language teaching and the JET program, and how he thinks the technology will impact our foreign language experiences in the future.
How did you develop your interest in “things Japanese”, as you say on your website? Is there a specific part of Japanese culture or media that intrigued you?
I suspect that my interest in Japan as compared to other countries began around 1977 when my eldest daughter, then six years old, started learning the violin with the help of JapanSuzuki Method. My wife, a musician and music teacher, had heard about the Suzuki Method through a lecture and demonstration and was very impressed and expressed an interest in our children learning the method. From that point Suzuki began to play an ever larger role in our lives as our second and third children began to learn this method. My wife also began teaching the Suzuki flute method.
Neither of these interests was particularly focused on Japan itself. In 1980, I took most of the year off to complete my MBA (I was a junior executive at Telecom Australia at the time). A classmate in our class had learned Japanese and impressed me by translating some of the titles of plays in the Suzuki books. Guest speakers included a former trade commissioner of Japan, who spoke eloquently about the importance of Japan and the need for Japanese-educated people. I remember going home that evening and saying to my wife, "I think I want to learn Japanese in time." She didn't think much of the idea and I focused on other things like completing my MBA and the Graduated from Diploma in Music Performance.
One day in mid-1981, my wife said that she really should go to Japan to take Suzuki flute lessonsToshio Takahashiat Suzuki HQ in Matsumoto as there was no one in Australia to teach Suzuki flute. I liked the idea and we agreed to go there the following December and January when schools in Australia are closed for the summer. Our children, then ten, seven and three years old, could easily miss a few weeks of school in December. I arranged a 2 month leave of absence from Telecom (LSL is not hired in Australia until you have worked for an employer for 10+ years) and after struggling for a short timeTeach yourself Japanese(atKunrei-shiki Romaji), I also arranged weekly Japanese classes with Brian Drover, who was training to become a Japanese linguist in the Australian Army during World War II.
So at the end of November 1981 five Breens arrived in Narita, went to Tokyo, were put on a Chuo-sen train to Matsumoto by people from the Suzuki organization and later in the day we were greeted by a Nagano Girl Scouts welcome party(!). (My oldest daughter was a brownie, so we had started with the international tom-toms.)
We spent two months in Matsumoto, living in two small six-mat apartments rented to us by the mother of some local Girl Scouts. My wife had piano and flute lessons, my children had violin and piano lessons (the former withShinichi Suzukimyself) and I did housework, grocery shopping, babysat, tried to learn Japanese, etc.
I guess I don't focus on specific parts of Japanese "culture" - my tastes are pretty catholic in that regard.
How did you learn Japanese yourself? What helped you and do you wish there was a dictionary like yours back then?
Back in Australia, I decided to continue studying Japanese. In fact, I didn't want to return to Japan until I could speak and read Japanese more. I've tried a few approaches - short courses, self-study books. The latter was still quite primitive 30 years ago. I thought I would do formal study, but it was difficult to find the time. I happened to be on the verge of a career transition and it wasn't until 1986, when I had become an academic, that I had the flexibility to study properly by taking three years of Japanese at the Swinburne Institute (now the University) of Technology in Melbourne. Swinburne's course was innovative in that it focused on modern, practical Japanese and was taught entirely without the use of Romaji. It started from scratch and went very quickly - week one was hiragana, week two was katakana, and from week three we got into kanji. I had a lot of fun, even if it was a lot of time.
In 2002 I returned to Swinburne and repeated the third year of the course as a 'refresher'. The structure and content of the course had changed a lot, but I found it very useful.
The role and accessibility of dictionaries has changed massively. In the 80's we had a kanji dictionary (Nelson) and few word dictionaries. It was all on paper and finding a kanji based word was a difficult task. The world has changed so much in that regard.
How has it affected you that you have a better command of a foreign language and culture?
It had a big impact on my life. My wife and I have been to Japan about 12 or 13 times and traveled everywhere. I estimate my total time is around 15 months including a 7 month stay as visiting professor. (Our other language/culture is France, which is also where we travel often.)
I like Japanese history, architecture (I especially like Meiji-era buildings), theater (Noh, Kabuki, Bunraku). I'm not a fan of manga or anime although I like all Miyazaki movies. i really like
Good Japanese cinema: Ozu, Kurosawa, Imamura, Kore-eda, etc., and writers like Tanizaki, Mishima, Murakami, etc. I particularly enjoy going out in nature in Japan (as far as possible) and have walked a lot in the Alps, Shikoku, etc .
It's not just a great love of Japan - there are many aspects of Japan that I find pretty awful. I will avoid getting too involved with the political system or the approach to environmental issues. Regarding relations with neighboring countries and mentioning the nation's recent history...
Why did you decide to create an online Japanese dictionary? How has WWWJDIC evolved over time?
Having spent much of my life with computers, I longed to engage with Japanese texts on computers. In Japan I had been told that it was too difficult for western computers to "master" Japanese due to the need for fonts etc., so it was a refreshing surprise to read a message about this in late 1989sci.lang.japanUsenet newsgroup, one of the first groups I subscribed to, that Mark Edwards from the University of Wisconsin wrote a free Japanese word processor that runs on regular PCs. Shortly thereafter, a Kanji terminal emulator (KD) program for PCs was announced. I downloaded Mark's program (MOKE 1.0) and found that it is indeed possible to see and type kana and kanji on a regular 8086. From then on I was hooked.
MOKE came with a rudimentary Japanese-English dictionary file, which was slightly expanded in commercial version 2.0 (1,900 entries). I had long been interested in the idea of a computer dictionary - in fact I had helped people at Swinburne publish a student dictionary - so I used hints from the KD Code and Ken Lunde's groundbreaking japan.inf information document on Japanese encoding (later expanded for his first O'Reilly book) I wrote a C program that scanned the MOKE dictionary file and displayed selected entries. Of course the file was too small, so I added several thousand new entries and in early 1991 released the software (JDIC for DOS) and the extended file as freeware.
The rest, as they say, is history. The EDICT dictionary file has grown in size, evolving into a much more complicated and larger lexicographical database in 1999 (JMdict), now supported by an online maintenance system. It is used by countless servers, apps, etc.
A particularly early concept and goal I had was the integration of kanji and word dictionaries, which until then had always been separate. I was able to track down enough data to create a kanji dictionary file and added this to JDIC around 1992. This meant someone could look up kanji using radical/line count or reading and then jump straight to words containing that kanji. You can also jump from a word to the individual kanji entries. That was pretty groundbreaking - as far as I know, JDIC had this capability before any product or package in Japan, and it was very liberating for students as it significantly reduced wear and tear.
The original JDIC program was followed by a rather crude text glosser (JREADER), which in turn evolved into the "xjdic" program for Unix X11 Windows, which gave rise to MacJDic, GJit, and so on. I finally got around to massaging the xjdic in 1998. The code is said to be the start of the web-based dictionary "WWWJDIC". WWWJDIC is now my only supported/maintained public use software and I'm constantly tinkering with it. It's pretty dated - definitely WWW 1.0 - and could definitely use a major rewrite. It now runs on six mirror sites around the world and updates the dictionary files daily. Despite its awkwardness, it is widely used. In addition to the [combination] of the main dictionaries JMdict/EDICT and KANJIDIC, it also uses a 740,000-entry noun dictionary and a number of subject-specific word lists that I have compiled over the years.
What word or phrase in WWWJDIC did you find the most difficult to translate into English?
There are so many horrors that none really stand out. Japanese has a rich vocabulary and many subtleties. Some of the entries in the major dictionaries have an impact on dozens of senses. Right now, JMdict editors are arguing about some of the more arcane uses of words like さんー and も. I have a particular interest in finding and translating new words or finding new meanings of old words. One I was working on today was 裞切り, which means to cut off the cuffs of trousers, shorts, etc., but now it has also taken on a new meaning in bureaucratic parlance, which is to free a small operator from rules, etc.
What is your favorite word or phrase in Japanese? How about your favorite kanji mix?
Can't really say I have favorites there. I think I've known Japanese for too long. I prefer sentences that I see in context.
What do you think of the new learning tools available such as online dictionaries andAnkiHas the software made Japanese more accessible to foreigners?
When used correctly, they can increase productivity by removing some of the wear. They also have great and largely untapped potential. I've used a bit of online vocabulary and kanji tests, but I'm still on the right track with traditional kanji flashcards. Having said that, I have to say that I don't think there has been any significant use of IT in language teaching, including Japanese. Most systems I've seen just automate traditional processes and don't take advantage of what's actually possible. I think it takes language teachers (and I'm NOT) and technologists to pull themselves together and think outside the box. The problem is that language teachers are not tech savvy and IT professionals are typically clueless about language teaching.
Dictionaries are slowly moving away from mere electronic copies of paper dictionaries, but it is a slow process. We need real innovation in looking up words, associating dictionary glosses with text, etc. In fact, the whole concept of a "dictionary" needs to change. I think word/sentence translation will eventually become a standard part of viewing software, but there is still a long way to go.
In a way, there is a certain danger in having dictionary information readily available, as it can relieve the pressure of memorizing vocabulary and kanji, which is really an essential part of learning fluency. I fall into this trap all the time as most of the Japanese text I see is on screen and it's so easy to associate it with its meaning. It's only when I'm forced to read signs, newspapers, etc. in Japan that I have to actually make an effort to get things out of my memory.
Have you noticed other changes in the way Japanese is learned or taught over time?
Not as much as I would like. My own experience is quite limited, but apart from a few things like dictionaries, not much has changed between the mid 80's and early 2000's. From what I've heard, it's not much different now.
For over a quarter of a century, the JET program has recruited native English speakers from around the world to strengthen English teaching in Japanese elementary and secondary schools.November last yearThe Tokyo Metropolitan Government decided to send its native Japanese-English teachers abroad to improve their teaching skills. What do you think of these initiatives? How important is it to learn a foreign language from a native or near-native teacher?
First, to answer your last question, I think it's very important. AsEdwin Reischaueronce wrote that the problem with teaching English in Japan is that there are 70,000 English teachers, few of whom can actually speak English. I don't mean to offend the JET people, but I've often felt that the JET program smacks of alibi, and while it brought some positive benefits, it didn't address some very fundamental flaws in English teaching in Japan remedy. Likewise, sending native Japanese English teachers abroad will have little effect unless there is also a thorough overhaul of the objectives, curriculum, etc. of the entire program. There really needs to be a move away from being based on college entrance exams and towards acquiring genuine working language skills. I just can't imagine that happening any time soon - the current rather hopeless system is so entrenched and a large proportion of the current teachers can't work with anything else.
Have you followed the JET program frequently over the years and are there any experiences with it that have been meaningful to you?
I didn't pay much attention to it. A colleague at Monash did it and talked about it a bit - I can understand not liking it too much. Some people I met in Japan got there as JETs first. Most of the anecdotes I heard were rather cool.
Aside from the problems with an English curriculum that focuses on university entrance exams, how do you rate the effectiveness of teaching foreign English teachers?
The concept sounds good, but:
(a) From what I have heard and read, the ALTs are actually given very little opportunity to teach and in many cases are not well equipped to do so;
(b) I have the feeling that the whole program is mainly about window dressing. I think there is an awareness that the teaching of English (well, all foreign languages) in Japan is not up to scratch and there is a need to do something about it. It's too difficult to tackle seriously, whereas bringing in a few thousand gaijin a year and giving them away is relatively cheap and good publicity.
I have just spent several weeks in Finland and Sweden, where English skills are extremely good. No JET programs there. You can't even claim that they are related languages - Finnish is just as foreign as Japanese and probably has fewer of themgairaigo(borrowed words). How do you do that? By first teaching it properly with trained and qualified teachers.
Two recent articles inJapan Timesi noticed. The first is from one of their regulars,Teru Clavel, which has an impact on the teaching of English in Japan and confirms many of my comments. It makes for a depressing read. The other was a collection ofFollow-up letter, which basically agreed, and one pointed to Teru's article: "Here we go again... such articles have also become an annual tradition."
For me, one of the saddest things about Teru's article was the feedback that for many parents, knowledge of English is irrelevant. This is so true of Japan - for many people it is their true commitmentGaikokuis of little interest. And a lot of that depends on their education system.
How do you think the JET program could be streamlined or improved?
If Japan wants to find external teachers to participate in English classes:
- Properly trained EFL teachers should be hired
- They should give them real apprenticeships
Given the curriculum and the limitations associated with employment, I don't expect it to be anytime soon.
Do you think that the second goal of the program - the internationalization of the base - will bring benefits?
I'm sure there are, but I find them to be quite marginal and not well focused. I suspect that it is more about the political justification of the program than the actual desire for real internationalization.
At least those are my thoughts on all of this.
If you had developed an interest in another culture, such as Thai, would it be possible that there is now a Jim Breen Thai/English online dictionary?
Quite possible if it had happened around the same time. Had my involvement in Japan been a decade or two later or earlier, it would probably be different. The dictionary came about because there was potential for it and nothing else was close by. Now I can buy a really good electronic dictionary for the Ichiman or something, and I doubt I'd be motivated to do so. Also, I had a little more energy at 38 than I did when I was 66.
We've seen Google do an impressive job with themmaskinoversættelse(MT) of foreign languages, but translations between English and Japanese are still often incorrect. How do you see the future of using machines to produce good English/Japanese translations?
I've been watching machine translation closely for years, preferably from a safe distance. People outside of the field of computational linguistics are probably not aware that the development of much of the field and much of modern linguistic theory was driven by the early work on MT in the 1950s and 1960s, because that work made clear how little people really knew about the mechanics of the language. I've lectured to translators about MT (possibly a life-shortening exercise) and it's interesting to experience both the disgust and the fear. MT is here to stay and it's getting better, albeit a lot slower than hoped for in the early days. Originally there were the transfer systems (Google used the advertising).SYSTRANpackage for years), then statistical systems became the trend (Google switched to its internal SMT system for Japanese about six years ago), and now hybrids seem to reign supreme.
I think at some point MT will reach a stage where it will be of acceptable quality for most purposes. It may take decades, but I think it will come to this. It is already used extensively in the real world and brings a lot for many purposes. The EU mostly uses a combination ofcontrolled languageand MT in creating documents for all different languages. Recently a friend of mine installed a Japanese package on a colleague's iPad. All the documentation was in Japanese and he was able to complete the installation by pasting the instructions into Google Translate. The results have been good enough and many people are happy with it whether we like it or not.
Do you have interesting plans for the future regarding WWWJDIC or other projects?
These days I'm not a big tool maker. WWWJDIC is the last part of a long series - there are code snippets I wrote in 1991. It desperately needs a complete rewrite, but I don't have the time or energy.
My focus is really on:
(a) The dictionaries themselves, in particular JMdict/EDICT. I would like to see it as a stable, ongoing project covering Japanese with many languages other than English. I hope it continues to grow even though I'm no longer a part.
(b) My own research work. I'm just halfway through my PhD in Computational Linguistics and my topic focuses on the detection and extraction of neologisms in Japanese texts.
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