2011-07-29

96th World Congress of Esperanto in Copenhagen, Denmark

I spent five days this week (from Sunday to Thursday) in Copenhagen to participate in the 96th World Congress of Esperanto and give three talks there on the "revival" of Hebrew without myths, the genealogical affiliation of the "revived" Hebrew, and the Academy of the Hebrew Language in comparison with other language academies. This was my second time to take part in this unique annual gathering of people from many countries. Like many other experiences in life, it was far less enlightening, enriching and enjoyable than my first experience in Bialystok, Poland two years ago. I am especially sorry that I had absolutely no chance to speak with any local Esperantist.

Before this trip I became quite enthusiastic again with Esperanto as a living language. Unfortunately, however, I returned home with less enthusiasm with the community of its speakers scattered all over the world, if not with the language itself, as I have realized some fundamental extralinguistic problem with the interpersonal communication in Esperanto. It is true that Esperanto is an easy-to-learn and neutral language which is more appropriate than any ethnic language as a means of intercultural communication. But having a common language is only a necessary but not a sufficient condition for meaningful interpersonal communication, if we are to go beyond shallow talks. Sharing a common culture or cultural assumptions is far more important for this purpose, even in purely academic communication.

By its very nature, however, the worldwide community of speakers of Esperanto is not supposed to share a common culture beyond a very superficial level. Actually, many people can have a dangerous illusion that they are speaking the same "language", while in reality they may mean different things by the same words and expressions. Conversational strategies are also significantly different from culture to culture. But few speakers of Esperanto seem to be aware exactly what pragmatic strategies their interlocutors are using.

The way I gave my talks must have been a kind of culture shock for quite a few participants from certain countries which use pragmatic strategies totally different from mine, which must be largely Jewish and barely Japanese; I ask rhetorical questions, make cynical remarks and tell spontaneous jokes all the time both in lectures and in personal conversations. Of course, I am not claiming that these Jewish conversational strategies are better than the others. But the fact remains that for someone like myself who is used to them it is often difficult, unenjoyable and even frustrating to speak with someone else whose strategies are significantly different, for example, a typical native speaker of Japanese; of course, this communicative "dissonance" must be reciprocal.

After this experience I have also started asking a very fundamental (and dangerous) question, i.e., why I have to remain a member of this international speech community, while I am interested mainly in traditional Jewish culture and Jewish Jews. Of course, there are always exceptional people in every culture, with whom I feel I share the same "language", including some patient regular readers of this blog. But generally speaking, I do not feel any pressing need to communicate with members of other cultures, whether in Esperanto or in any other language. In spite of all this, I will definitely continue to participate in the World Congress of Esperanto, if not every year, mainly in order to try to expose as many participants, including Jewish Esperantists, as possible to those aspects of traditional Jewish culture I love through this language, as I have seen that even Esperantists are not free from preconceptions and misunderstandings about the Jewish people, and no other Jewish Esperantist I know seems to be knowledgeable enough about traditional Jewish culture.

2011-07-22

Refascinated with Esperanto

A wave of fascination with Esperanto laps against my mind every once in a while like a flowing tide. I experience the first wave of this kind in 1986 when I was still an MA student in linguistics in Kyoto, Japan. Having spent the past few weeks intensively preparing the three talks I am going to give at the forthcoming 96-a Universala Kongreso de Esperanto in Copenhagen and renovating the website of Esperanto-Ligo en Israelo as its new webmaster, I am experiencing this wave again.

I have also reread Zamenhof's monumental essay entitled Esenco kaj estonteco de la ideo de lingvo internacia [Essence and Future of the Idea of an International Language]. He sounds like a modern prophet. Every word of his is so convincing, but unfortunately, his prophesy has not been fully realized. His conclusions, which still remain actual, are as follows (translations are mine):

  1. La enkonduko de lingvo internacia alportus al la homaro grandegan utilon. [Introduction of an international language would bring to the humankind a huge benefit.]
  2. La enkonduko de lingvo internacia estas tute ebla. [Introduction of an international language is entirely possible.]
  3. La enkonduko de lingvo internacia pli aŭ malpli frue nepre kaj sendube efektiviĝos, kiom ajn la rutinistoj batalus kontraŭ tio ĉi. [Introduction of an internatioal language will be realized more or less soon and without doubt, no matter how much the followers of the routine would fight against this.]
  4. Kiel internacia neniam estos elektita ia alia lingvo krom arta. [As an international language any language other than an artificial one will never be chosen.]
  5. Kiel internacia neniam estos elektita ia alia lingvo krom Esperanto; ĝi aŭ estos lasita por ĉiam en ĝia nuna formo, aŭ en ĝi estos poste faritaj iaj ŝanĝoj. [As an international language any language other than Esperanto will never be chosen; it will either be left for ever in its present form, or certain changes will be made later in it.]

Unfortunately, we have not made any substantial progress since the days of Zamenhof. Actually, the situation has even worsened since then with the ever intensifying hegemony of English, especially its US variety. Not being a native speaker of (American) English, I find the present situation totally unfair, as its native speakers are enjoying a kind of linguistic "free ride". I am also fully aware how absurd it is that I am writing this very blog entry in English. I really hope that sometime in the future, if not in my lifetime, the humankind will learn to be wise enough to make Zamenhof's prophesy come true.

PS: If this blog entry happens to have kindled your interest in Esperanto, I would recommend you visit the following two websites as "appetizers":

  • Esperanto.net [basic information about Esperanto in tens of ethnic languages, hopefully including your mother tongue]
  • Lernu! [online course in Esperanto in a number of ethnic languages]

2011-07-15

Checklist of the culturally colonized

A country does not always have to be colonized politically so that many of its citizens may develop the mentality of the colonized; they can be culturally colonized. Here is a random checklist of these culturally colonized on the basis of many "specimens" I have encountered in a certain country I know rather well:

  • They are neither proud nor confident of the national language of their country, which also happens to be their mother tongue.
  • They cannot imagine that someone who was born abroad can take an interest in and even have a better command of the national language of their country.
  • Their default spoken language is "English", though it is not their mother tongue.
  • Their English is broken and has a heavy local accent.
  • Their knowledge of the national language of their country is also rather poor.
  • They have never read any serious book in authentic English.
  • They believe that the whole world speaks and is willing to hear (broken) English.
  • They believe that their broken English will bring them more money.
  • They have two separate standards of behaviors toward those who they think are locals and non-locals respectively.
  • They treat rudely those who they think are locals.
  • They try to cheat those who they think are non-locals.
  • They are not ashamed of being culturally colonized.
  • They are not even aware of being culturally colonized.

Of all the countries I have visited so far I have met very few or no culturally colonized people in the following (in alphabetical order): France, Italy, Japan, Poland, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States. I can probably add Spain to this list, though I have never been there (but would love to!). Although I experienced some linguistic inconvenience in some of these countries because of my insufficient proficiency in their respective national languages (e.g., Italian and Polish), I would definitely prefer it to coping with so many culturally colonized people as in the country on which the above checklist is based. Such a country may be convenient for tourists as well as immigrants who are not ready to learn the local national language in spite of their long years of residence there (what a chutzpah!), but for someone who is not culturally colonized it must be frustrating, to say the least, to live in such a self-demeaning country.

2011-07-08

First experience with a genuine tablet computer

My first experience with an ereader running on Android kindled my interest in this operating system by Google for mobile devices so much that I decided to buy a genuine Android-based tablet computer this week. The choice, based on the screen size (8") and the price (less than $200), was fairly easy. I purchased Arnova 8 for as little as about $150 at a nearby computer store in Jerusalem. In spite of its price, I was very impressed with this tablet computer - even more than with the ereader I had received several days before.

I spent a few days fiddling with Android and trying a number of applications for it. I think Android is a quite charming operating system, even (or especially) for someone like myself who has never used it before. I am quite convinced that it will increase its popularity and importance more and more as the number of users of tablet computers increases. This tablet computer and Android have already become integral parts of my computing in addition to my laptop computer and Windows. But unlike the easiness of purchasing and/or downloading applications for Windows, I found it extremely frustrating to do the same with Android. Android Market by Google itself, which is the biggest and most popular online store-cum-repository for Android applications, is especially frustrating, mainly because it is tightly connected with Google accounts. In the end I have found far more user-friendly repositories/stores: APKTOP and SlideME.

I have tried tens of applications so far, but as of now I am using only two. One is a free system tool called ZDBox (mainly for locking applications with a password), and the other is a commercial PDF & EPUB reader called Mantano Reader. All the free PDF readers, including Adobe Reader, were quite disappointing; most of them were very slow in rendering PDF documents and very limited in functionality. I also tried two other commercial PDF readers, but they are far less polished. Mantano Reader alone is a sufficient reason for me to continue to use a tablet computer; it is even better than Adobe Reader for Windows! Its UI is very esthetic, its functionality is sophisticated, and most importantly, it is slick unlike the other PDF readers for Android. Its excellent customer support and readiness to listen to customers are also commendable. I highly recommend it to everyone who is using Android and looking for an excellent PDF & EPUB reader. Although it is a commercial application, its price seems to me ridiculously low (about €4 as of this writing), at least in comparison to that of any commercial PDF reader for Windows.

From the next academic year I will read handouts of my courses with this Mantano-powered tablet computer instead of printing them for myself as I used to. I hope that this way I will be able to instigate as many students of mine as possible to finally come to the 21st century. ;-)

2011-07-01

First experience with an ereader

Yesterday I finally received the ereader I had ordered four weeks before (PocketBook IQ 701). I spent half a day fiddling with it. I chose this specific model mainly because of its multilingual support. To my great joy and satisfaction, it could also read ebooks in Hebrew and Japanese in PDF and EPUB formats. In overall terms I am very satisfied with this purchase, though there are a few things that have rather disappointed me, including a not so eye-friendly TFT display (I am ready to pay extra for a better display) and a not so sophisticated accompanying sleeve (I have already ordered a sleeve from my favorite Built NY). I am planning to use it not only while commuting but also in class; I will read handouts of my courses with this gadget instead of printing them.

This short first experience with this new ereader has already taught me that ebooks in EPUB are far easier to read than in PDF. There are a number of online and offline tools for converting PDF to EPUB, but as far as I have checked, the results are not so satisfactory, so even those in original PDF are easier to read than in converted EPUB. But those PDF documents that were scanned and saved as images must be processed for a comfortable reading with an ereader, including splitting one physical page with two logical pages into two physical pages and cropping margins, especially on the right and left sides (I use Page Cut and PDF Tools for these two tasks respectively).

It was just by chance that the model I purchased uses Android as its OS (this ereader is more like a tablet computer than a simple ereader). Here I have experienced a rather pleasant surprise, though it took me a little while to get used to executing various commands with a touch of a finger. Page scrolling seemed counter-intuitive in the beginning, until I realized that the required movements of a finger mimic the movements of turning over pages with a finger.

This experience of ordering this ereader has also made me realize that it costs more money and takes more time to pursue various intellectual and other activities in Israel than, for example, in the United States and Japan. I had to pay for this ereader twice as much as they pay in the United States, and I had to wait as long as four weeks for its delivery. This is just one example. We earn much less in Israel than, again for example, in the United States and Japan, but we have to pay much more for the same products. This also explains why new technologies penetrate Israel much slowly than those two technological giants. I know few who already use an ereader among my friends, colleagues and students. I do not remember when I was thrilled so much with hardware last time as now. I hope that my use of this ereader in class will instigate my students to think of benefiting from this technological advancement, too, though ereaders pose one intrinsic technical problem for observant Jews, who cannot use them on Sabbaths and Jewish holidays.