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HDE Advent Calendar 2015

HDE Advent Calendar Day 18: Tips & Tricks for Better English

tl;dr: If you are an English speaker or you can speak more than three languages, probably this post is not that useful for you. Feel free to skip this post and get back to work :-). Else, please continue reading; tl;dr does not apply to you.

If someone would ask me to describe what is going on in HDE in the past year since I joined, my answer would be "English." Our firm started to "globalize" and set the target to make English the official language by the end of our 2016 fiscal year. Since then,

  1. The number of global members (with zero Japanese language skill) hired directly from overseas increases.
  2. Formal internal emails are in bilingual. Messages in Slack and Yammer are mostly written in English.
  3. There are meetings conducted in English too! Crazy!
  4. Some members even took the "globalization" a bit too far by starting to learn Chinese and Indonesian/Malay...

And here I am, writing a post about how to write (and maybe speak) better English.

Problems of English

Learning a new language is not easy (Trust me, I've been there). Especially for a Japanese because, no offense, the Japanese educational system is not really "multi-lingual friendly." English itself is also a problem. For example:

Because English has roots from other languages, two different words with the same meaning are quite common: e.g. one from Latin, one from Germanic origin:

Latin origin Germanic origin
agriculture farming
demonstration proof
limit bound
circular round
employment work
insane mad

As Latin and Greek words were absorbed into English in different centuries, therefore the pronunciation, spelling may vary:

Verb Noun
to advise advice
to criticize critique
to collide collision

The plural of foreign words (Latin, Greek, etc) are often used in their original plural forms:

Singular Plural Origin
phenomenon phenomena Greek
scheme/schema schemas, schemata Greek
momentum momenta Latin
modulus moduli Latin

Mistakes that should be avoided

During my time in university, I had the opportunity to work as teaching assistant for Technical English course. As the staffs of the course, we found that every year, majority of the students are making the same mistakes. Some are very simple mistakes that are not due to the complexity of the English language itself but due to carelessness. One way to have better writing in English is to avoid these silly mistakes. They can be avoided by simply paying a little bit more attentions.

Taking care of the spaces

Spaces between words and punctuations are for improving the readability of the texts from the typography standpoint. There are rules for spaces. This means that we are not allowed to treat them as decorations. They cannot be simply added/removed as we are doing UI design. The very basics are:

  1. For comma [,], colon [:], semicolon [;], period [.], question mark [?], etc., we DO NOT put space before, but we NEED space after:

  2. For quotation marks ["", ''], parentheses [()], we need a space before the opening, but no space after it, and a space after the closing one, but no space before it:

    • Modern browsers(Chrome, Firefox, etc.)are supported. --- NOPE...
    • Modern browsers ( Chrome, Firefox, etc. ) are supported. --- NOPE...
    • Modern browsers (Chrome, Firefox, etc.) are supported. --- YES!

Taking care of the spellings

Jsut bcaeuse you can slitl raed tihs, deons't maen taht spleilng is not ipmotrant. [Ref: here] Any modern text editors and word processors today are equipped with a spell-checker. As a modern person, especially us who deal with modern technologies, we should not ignore this simple but useful feature. How to use it is very simple. Word which is misspelled are often mark with red line. When we see the red line, click it and correct the spelling from the suggested list. It is very easy and we should as least do spell-check before asking our native speaker friends to proofread our texts.

Tools that help

Unless it is a test, we are allowed and should use tools to help us write and speak better English. The following are the tools that we recommended in the Technical English course to help the students to write the thesis in English. This usually involves translating technical terms between Japanese and English.

アルク and Weblio

アルク's dictionary covers large range of fields of studies. For example if we search for the word "static" we get:

f:id:shihanng:20151218103000p:plain

If you are doing physics (物理) static can be "静的な、静止の." If you are translating a computer science (コ) related document, you might want to use "スタティック型の," depending on the contexts.

What is great about Weblio is it's large collections of English-Japanese texts. If we try to search for the phrase "if you are reading this":

f:id:shihanng:20151218103246p:plain

We can see how the texts are translated into Japanese from reliable sources, in this case the documentations of Gentoo Linux and Python!

Wikipedia trick

Entries in Wikipedia usually have versions in multiple languages. This is really helpful in translating a specific term from one language to another. For example: how to translate "赤穂浪士" into English?

  1. Search "赤穂浪士" in Wikipedia Japan.
  2. Scroll down the page and click English (or Chinese if you are feeling adventurous) on the left side-bar.
    f:id:shihanng:20151218103557p:plain
  3. Tada!

Google search

The number of hits on Google Search can also be a hint to the correctness of the phrase that you are using. For example try searching "hard disk" (with quotes!) and "hard disc" in Google. As "hard disk" has more hits than "hard disc", obviously this means that "hard disk" is more commonly use (and actually the correct one if we are indicating the data storage device).

f:id:shihanng:20151218105327p:plain

The same technique can also be applied on Google Books Ngram Viewer that searches books instead of the Internet (which tends to have more rubbish).

Avoid machine translation

If you think you can get away by just using Google Translate (or any other translation softwares), you are wrong. We are not there yet, and you know it! Machine translations might be accurate some (not all) short and simple sentences. However, they have the tendency to produce nonsense when dealing with long and complicated paragraph. So, it is best to avoid it for now. When the technology is mature enough to be trusted, you will know. Because it will be a huge news and language teachers will be starting to look for a career change. If you really need to use one now, do not trust everything it tells you.

Learning attitude

Learning a language at our age is a long and sometime painful process. Moreover, there are no shortcuts. It took me two years, at least 8 hours per day to master Japanese up to a level so that I can survive the lectures in Japanese college. Attitude is all that matters in learning a new language. In my opinion, we should have at least the following.

  1. Patient: Unless you are spending 8 hours per day to study English, your progress will be very hard to be "measured" within a short time frame. Please trust me and yourself that you are improving everyday when you use English. How much depends on how much effort you put in.

  2. Start using proper English: Try your best to forget about "Engrish". It is "ice cream", not "ice". Also as a beginner, use formal English instead of informal contractions. Using words such as "gonna", "wanna", "gimme", etc. instead of "got to", "want to", "give me" does not give any impression that your English is good.

  3. Do not be afraid to make mistakes. Do not feel bad or get demotivated when others correct your mistake. We do that because we want to help. Learn from the mistakes and move on.

  4. The only way to improve your speaking skill is to speak. That is the only way to train your muscles to pronounce sounds that cannot be found in the phonetic system of your native language. Speak to your foreign friends in English even the one who can speak Japanese (*cough*). Speak LOUDLY and clearly with simple and short sentence (one sentence, one thought).

Alright, I guess these are all for the time being (or maybe already too much). Hope you find these tips useful and wish you all the best with your English studies.