Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What Is the State of Language Education in the (U.S.) Union?

In last night"s "State of the Union" address, U.S. President Barack Obama emphasized the need to improve education in the U.S. This blog is not the appropriate venue to discuss education policy per se, but while President Obama listed the teaching of science and math as lagging behind other countries, foreign language classes were not mentioned.

That seems curious, given that high school graduates in most industrialized countries have learned significantly more foreign languages at a higher level than even most U.S. college graduates. When I graduated high school in Austria ("Abitur") in the 1970s, I had studied English for 8 years and French for 4 years, for 3-5 classroom hours per week, per language. The only reason I didn't have to take a third language (Latin most likely) was that I attended a math and science high school. Nowadays, English instruction starts in elementary school.

This type of curriculum is rather typical of most of Europe, as well as other industrialized nations. Almost everywhere the first foreign language -- frequently English -- is started by 5th grade at the very latest, with at least one more foreign language required for high school graduation, except for specialized technical schools. In most public schools in the U.S., by contrast, instruction in a foreign language doesn't start until high school and then only encompasses one language for 3 years,taught 3-4 times per week.

Business books and articles here in the U.S. keep emphasizing that knowledge of other languages and cultures is key to breaking into foreign markets. Studies on language acquisition have proven time and again a foreign language is acquired much more easily at a young age. So if improvements in education are supposed to make the U.S. more competitive in the world market in the long term, as President Obama said yesterday, why is there no major investment in foreign language instruction?

And what can we, as language professionals, contribute to making foreign language instruction more of a centerpiece of U.S. education? Speaking another language, after all, not only makes communication easier, but it also opens the door to better understanding other people's cultures and views – and that seems to me is a worthwhile goal in and of itself.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Are Icons Really a Global Language?

In "The Global Language: Using Symbols and Icons When Delivering Technical Content", Alan J. Porter writes in the December 2010 issue of Intercom, the journal of the Society for Technical Communication, that "many icons such as the ones on your computer screen are common enough that none of them require explanation". Well ...

This is certainly true for me, and probably for most of you, as well. But go back just one generation. How many such icons are familiar to your parents? Mine may recognize the MS Windows logo as something computer-related, but a diskette as a "Save" icon -- indeed, the very concept of saving data electronically instead of as a hard copy -- may well not be understood without an explanation. The same is likely true for many people in the developing world, or even members of marginalized groups in industrialized countries.

Simplified graphics can convey information across cultural and linguistic barriers more easily than words can. Hitchhiking across Europe in my youth, I found that gestures and improvised stick-figure images let me get by in countries where I didn't speak the local -- or the dominant foreign -- language. Computer and furniture manufacturers are also turning more and more to graphics for their setup and assembly instructions. Some have even dispensed with text altogether in these instructions.

While that design reduces or eliminates translation costs, it is not as fool-proof as one might think. Even well-designed pictoral instructions rely on certain cultural conventions -- reading sequences from left to right, one horizontal row at a time, for example. How would a user accustomed to a right-to-left language, such as Arabic or Hebrew, read these instructions?

Similarly, Western icons indicating danger, such as a red background color, may not mean the same thing somewhere else. How would someone in rural China -- where red is associated with luck, not danger -- interpret such a warning box? Might they think that the action depicted in the red box is to be preferred, rather than avoided?

I'd say, a picture can supplement, but not replace, a thousand words. And these words will still need to be translated...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

So I'm Buying CRM Software, After All

I promised in my last post that I'd explain why I am now getting customer relationship management software, when in December I had still thought I'd get by with Outlook Business Contact Manager and work-arounds.

For one thing, as I am adding more and more information to Outlook (and getting and keeping more e-mails), it has become rather sluggish. The only way I could find to group people in one company together in Outlook is to create a new account for each company, then add individual contact records. That was becoming quite tedious. The search function is also not as flexible as I need it to be and the work-around for creating letters, etc. just got to be too much of a problem. And Outlook interfaces for most programs seem to only look at the regular contact list, not the Business Contact Manager contacts (which are apparently in a separate database).

So I looked around the web some more and decided to give ACT! a try. I installed a trial version of their newest product, wound up importing my Outlook business contacts via a generic .csv file, and started to work with it. Most of my problems with Outlook seem to be addressed here, including options for more extensive customization than Microsoft products -- including Outlook -- generally provide. There is also a version for Windows mobile (the operating system on my Smartphone), which I may buy later.

Once I decided to spend the money on "real" CRM software, I found a deal where I could get more than half the purchase price back as a refund check. So I ordered the full version of the software.

Now, of course, another snowstorm hit in the Northeast, so who knows when it will actually be delivered ...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My New Year's Resolutions -- But Will They Last?

T'is the season for good intentions. So here are my attempts at New Year's resolutions:

  1. Rev up my marketing by:

    • writing one outside article/guest blog post per month
    • sending five marketing e-mails per month to new prospects or people contacting me for the first time
    • keeping to a stricter blog schedule: every Wednesday night/Thursday morning
    • attending one networking event a month
    • adding one new page to my website (in both languages) each quarter

  2. Better track clients by:

    • purchasing and learning customer-relationship management software (contrary to my earlier post -- more on that later)
    • entering potential clients in the software within one day of a new contact (e-mail, phone)
    • mailing brochure to such potential clients within 2 days of a new contact

  3. Enhance my knowledge by:

    • learning Trados (now that I have the software)
    • improving my Spanish by reading Spanish texts twice a week
    • attending one training event/lecture a month on average

  4. Increase my marketability by:

    • getting ATA certified in German-English
    • finding other translators to collaborate with
    • getting Trados certified
    • learning PowerPoint in detail

  5. Increase my productivity by:

    • training Dragon Naturally Speaking and actually using it
    • learning to use software I own more efficiently (Trados, customer relationship, Dragon, ...)

I have started on a few of these already, but it will take quite a bit of time and energy to actually stick to them. Let's see how much of this I have accomplished by, say, June ...

Now I just have to find time to actually translate, too!