2010-04-30

Studying in foreign languages

Since Japanese is not so widely understood outside Japan, those who have never lived there may not be aware that you can finish your university study, at least at the undergraduate level, in almost any field without reading but in Japanese. On the other hand, those who were born and educated in Japan may not be aware how rare this linguistic situation is in many parts of the world. Receiving your higher education in your native language is an exception rather than a rule, especially in the developing countries. But even in Japan there are a small number of fields in which no or few learning materials are available in Japanese, thus you have to study them in English or a few other European languages of science.

It was a great shock for me when I realized upon entering the university that I had to study the language I had decided to specialize in from textbooks and dictionaries intended for English speakers, as I had never read any single whole book in English before. I had two options for coping with this totally unexpected shock: 1) to try to ignore it and postpone struggling with it as long as I can; 2) to face it and start struggling with it immediately. Of course, I chose the latter.

In retrospect, I am grateful for this "present" that has turned out to be a highly efficient "shock therapy". It has broken down my psychological barrier to study in foreign languages. It did not take me too long even while I was an undergraduate student to realize that English was not even enough, and it was necessary to study German, French and Russian as well for reading materials available only in them and not in English, to say nothing of Japanese. Then I had no shock; I simply learned these three languages as well as Italian, Spanish and Polish, in addition to Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish and Esperanto as subjects of study.

Having met and observed many university students here in Israel, I have noticed that many of them have some psychological barrier to study more foreign languages in addition to English for the purpose of their studies, even at the graduate level. This is quite similar to or even worse than what native speakers of English might react. It often seems to me that many Hebrew-speaking students have more trust in English as the omnipotent language of science than their English-speaking counterparts do. It is true that English has become an uncontested language of science, but there still remain sufficient materials, especially in the humanities, that are not available in it. I have an opposite shock here: it is that there seem to be so many PhD students in the humanities who cannot read but in Hebrew and English.

2010-04-23

Day of feast for egoists (followed by days of mourning for me)

Israel's Independence Day, which fell this Tuesday this year, is set to follow the Remembrance Day so that we may switch from sorrow to joy. For me there is a further switch - a switch from joy to mourning.

One of the strange customs that have come to prevail in this country on the Independence Day is to go out with family members and/or friends to parks to have a barbecue all day long. Having witnessed for the past six years what happens after this annual pastime, e.g., in Sacher Park, which is the most popular site for this purpose in Jerusalem (and incidentally, which is where I run every weekday morning), I have to say that the Independence Day has also become a day of feast for egoists with no public morality. It is difficult to find a dirtier place all over Jerusalem than Sacher Park on the morning after this day of feast (or to be more precise, day of shame). Its otherwise beautiful lawn is covered everywhere with litters egoists have left behind after their feast.

Of course, they have every right to celebrate the Independence Day in whatever way they feel like as long as they do not behave like beasts in public. I also wonder whether they ever ponder upon the significance of this special day for themselves as Israelis and for the nation as a whole. I am afraid that they are just using this day as an excuse to satisfy their stomach. How can anyone who cares for Israel not be ashamed to make its land dirty?! And why do we law-abiding citizens who love the Land of Israel have to pay tax for cleaning up their dirt?! I am still angry with them; actually, I mourn for these people who were born as human beings but behave like animals.

I am sure that such people exist in other countries, too. Then Zionism has been very successful in making Israel like all other nations. It has produced (or brought?) so many people who have no public morality whatsoever. What makes me really sad and helpless is the fact that they have not lost public morality gradually or suddenly, but they have never had it in their entire life; they behave in an egoistic manner simply because this is how their parents behaved and they have been taught no other way to behave in public, and they in turn produce a new generation of their likes. I become even helpless when I think of the fact that there seems to be no way to put an end to this vicious circle. If I were the mayor of Jerusalem, I would charge everyone who enters Sacher Park with foods on the Independence Day, and pay back the money to those who come out with their garbage and recharge those who come out empty-handed.

2010-04-16

What to do with poor lectures

Average audiences in Israel, especially those who have never lectured themselves, are quite merciless toward poor lectures both in the university and in conferences. They do not hesitate to disclose their dissatisfaction in various offensive ways, e.g., by leaving the lecture room, by sleeping, by reading books and articles not related to the lectures, by chatting with others, or even by complaining with others about the lectures. The lecturers themselves are of course to blame for their poor lectures, but the audience can be more sensitive to their feelings as they can see everything better from the podium.

Although I have been working on the improvement of my teaching in the university, it still sometimes happens that some of my students find my lectures poor and start offending my feeling with their insensitive behaviors in class. Again, I as a lecturer am to blame for their behaviors, but every time I encounter such behaviors, I wish they could be more sensitive. I may be able to improve my teaching skills, but there is one thing I cannot change - incompatibility between what I want to share with my students and their lack of interest. I am rather poor at "marketing" my "merchandise" in which my "customers" were not interested initially. Luckily, this happens mainly with obligatory courses in which some students do not understand why they are forced to learn the subjects.

Having witnessed such insensitive behaviors toward poor lectures by myself or by other lecturers a number of times in Israel, I have decided not to behave like these merciless people. Nevertheless, it is not always easy to listen attentively to poor lectures. There are several types of poor lectures. When the problem is with the way the lecturers speak, such as stammering or speaking with a heavy foreign accept, I do try my best to listen to them. On the other hand, when the problem is with the content, that is, the lectures convey nothing new, thus are unbearably boring, I often work on my own laptop computer, which I shlep everywhere. Of course, this is not a laudable behavior but is probably the least offensive of all the imaginable reactions to poor lectures, as the lecturers can also think that we are taking notes of their lectures. But the best way to cope with poor lectures as a listener is not to come to them in the first place if you can guess in advance that they may be going to bore you.

2010-04-09

Humility (or lack thereof)

I have noticed that quite a few people in Israel, unlike in Japan, show off even in public, whether consciously or unconsciously, as an effort to impress (and attract) others, by daring to say or write how smart and nice-looking they are. Humility has been considered a virtue in traditional Jewish culture, but I am afraid that this may not be the case any more with many people who identify themselves more with modern Israeli culture.

You may really have some exceptional intelligence and appearance, but saying to others that you do seems to taint all the virtues you have. Actually, when I see someone say or write this way about him- or herself, I lose no time in starting to stay away from him or her, as I feel that something fundamental is wrong with him or her. I am even ashamed to find that such people do not seem to be ashamed at all to brag and aware that they can look ugly and miserable to certain people.

There is a subtle but significant difference between bragging and showing self-condifence. Most braggarts may also have to be self-confident, whether with good reason or not. But I believe that the virtues you have must be emitted like auras around you, and those who have good senses cannot fail to miss them. Explaining verbally to others that you have certain virtues probably means that you are not confident at least in one thing - your ability to emit such auras. Your verbal explanations are substitutes for your nonexistent or weak auras.

As is often the case in life, if you chase after someone or something, they will escape you; letting them chase after you seems to be a wiser way to attain whom or what you want.

2010-04-02

Keeping and rereading one's own blog

I started this blog on 29 September 2000 (the very term "blog" was either nonexistent or unknown to the public back then) as "a kind of weekly kheshbon nefesh ('soul-searching')" to "share online my reflections-shmeflections about what happened inside and outside me during the week", that is, as a personal online diary. I thought (and still think) that keeping such a diary is first and foremost a dialog with myself, which helps me understand myself; writing down our own thoughts and feelings is probably one of the best ways to accomplish one of the most difficult tasks in our life - to know ourselves.

I am afraid that I belong to a minority in this respect. Far more blogs seem to be purely or mostly informative. Those that report on restaurants their authors visited and foods they ate there are one example of informative blogs (incidentally, this is a very popular genre in the Japanese blogosphere, but personally I fail to understand what prompt so many people to write in public every day on foods they ate). Even personal diaries, at least those I have encountered, just describe in most cases what their authors did and seldom elaborate on the innermost thought and feeling they had in each experience about which they write.

Most informative blogs seem to have only an ephemeral value, so not only their authors themselves nor others reread them. But what about personal online diaries (and also offline diaries in this respect)? What do their authors do with each entry afterwards? How many of them reread their own diaries after a while or even after a long period of time? What we think and feel today cannot remain the same eternally, as we change constantly from day to day.

When I was a child, I used to keep a diary (offline, of course). But I have never dared to reread it afterwards, at least not systematically from the beginning until the end. Looking at some past entries at random, I felt quite embarrassed as I could not believe what I had thought and felt back then. I have never reread any entry of this blog except for the purpose of checking errors on the same day of writing it. But now I have a very difficult task of rereading, or at least scanning, the whole past entries of this blog of mine. I moved it from my own domain to this free blogging server of Google yesterday. In order to move the whole archive here I need to give each entry a title summarizing its content. I even thought of hiring someone for this emotionally difficult and embarrassing task, but in the end I have decided not to relocate them as this is too time-consuming.