Monday, September 24, 2012

Australians and language

By the time I left Japan, my Japanese was pretty good. I could make myself understood for most topics of general conversation. I was constantly praised for how good my Japanese was. In fact, I didn't even need to be that good - frequently, just uttering a basic phrase, something really simple like konnichiwa (hello), or arigatoo (thank-you), would be enough to trigger an outpouring of effusive praise. Actually, my Japanese was pretty rubbish. I studied it for 3 years in primary school, 5 years in high school, spent a year living in Japan, and could just barely manage most topics of general conversation, yet every day I got praised for my ability.

When Hunter and I went to the Czech Republic in 2007, we could converse pretty normally with my cousins, one of whom is about the same age as us, the other two a little older. We had to pick our words a little carefully, and sometimes explain ourselves, but my cousins could all converse about a far greater range of topics than I could converse about in Japanese. One of my cousins was near the bottom of her class in English, yet we could still converse just fine.

What do my experiences in these countries show? Firstly, the Japanese (on the whole), are incredibly pleased to see that someone has made an effort, any effort, to learn their language. I imagine the Czechs would be pretty happy if someone bothered to learn their language too - it's even less likely than someone learning Japanese. I can't really remember, because it wasn't something I personally experienced.

Secondly, in both these countries, everyone learns another language, usually English. The Czechs manage to teach English to an incredibly high standard, such that by then end of high school, a not-academically inclined student can still speak English better than I could speak Japanese after a year in the country. The Japanese level of English is not so high, but is probably still of a higher level than LOTE (Languages Other Than English) is taught here, and here only the students who are interested learn a foreign language.

Most Australians don't bother to learn another language, and a distressing number of closed-minded parents object to their children being taught another language ("Children these days can't do basic maths and English, why waste time on a useless foreign language?"). Because of this, we are limited in our experiences, and this makes us, as a group, prejudiced. Whereas in Japan, people were thrilled to see that I had tried hard, and learned some Japanese, here in Australia, we tend to set the minimum standard as perfect English with just a hint of an accent. Near-perfect English, but with a moderate accent? It's just too hard to understand, why should we have to make the effort to understand them when they've come to our country? Having never struggled with learning a language themselves, many Australians completely lack understanding and empathy towards people who can't quite make themselves understood. People exhibit resentment for having to listen to someone with accented English, and as privileged monoglots, see imperfections in a person's English as a sign of laziness, something they could fix if only they put in a little more effort, instead of recognizing how much work that person has put in, just to be where he or she is.

Learning a language is hard, learning a language as an adult is harder, and losing an accent is harder still. If you can only speak English, then chances are that you have no idea just how hard it is. Same goes for growing up bilingual. Being able to effectively communicate in a language that's not your native tongue takes a huge investment of time, effort, and not a small amount of natural ability.

If someone has made the effort to learn English, that person has done almost all of the work. The least we can do is put in the effort to try and understand. As with all things, it gets easier with practice. Spend a bit of time listening to a variety of Englishes and actually making an effort to understand, and you'll find that it really isn't that hard. And if you are having trouble understanding? Don't be afraid to ask for clarification, the vast majority of people won't mind, after all, they want to be understood.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Some sights of Melbourne

Yesterday, I handed in my last assignment for several weeks, and celebrated by taking some time to wander around the city and play with my camera again for the first time in many weeks. I wasn't feeling too inspired, too brain drained I think, but here are a few of my better photos, though they're all photos of someone else's art.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Supporting reproductive choice in the developing world

About 12 months ago, I was browsing through the Oxfam Unwrapped catalogue, the one that lets you give a gifts to people in need on behalf of people who don't need or even really want anything, thus preventing the need to buy useless gimmicky presents. I noticed that there were several pregnancy and motherhood related gifts, but that pregnancy and motherhood themselves were assumed. How many of these women even want a baby, or want it at this stage in their lives? There wasn't a gift of choice - letting a woman choose when or if she wanted to become a mother, nor to set a limit on her number of pregnancies. I checked World Vision's Smiles catalogue, and the UNICEF catalogue, and found the same thing. The charities were all keen to help a new mother, but nobody stopped to ask her if she wanted to become a mother in the first place.

I looked further, and found that charities that openly support this strangely controversial form of aid are few and far between. It seems that except for an organization explicitly dedicated to reproductive rights, supporting the right of women to control their reproduction is too risky - it might alienate Catholic, Evangelical, and other conservative donors.

Education and opportunity are the route out of poverty, but I think that supporting reproductive choice in the developing world can make a much bigger difference than directly supporting education, especially in countries where a reasonable level of education is already available. If couples in the developing world can limit the size of their families, education and opportunity should follow, even without our help.

With a baby arriving every 12-24 months, many parents are unable to earn enough to support their children. The older kids may have to work to support their younger siblings, taking time away from education, or preventing it altogether. Schooling is unaffordable with that many mouths to feed, or only affordable for the boys. The mother's near-constant pregnancy and time spent caring for an infant and young children will impact her ability to provide for her family, assuming that she survives at all. Worldwide, 800 women a day die from pregnancy-related complications.1 Of women in the developing world who reach survive to the age of 15, 1 in 150 will die of maternal causes,1 and twenty times that number will suffer serious, sometimes life-long complications.2 Of course, those numbers were for the developing world as a whole, where 50% of women still have access to contraceptives. In sub-Saharan Africa, 1 in 31 women will die from pregnancy and childbirth complications, and in Afghanistan, the figure is a shocking 1 out of 7.3 Motherless children are 10 times more likely to die within two years of their mother's death than children whose mothers are still alive.4 Overall, the picture is grim.

It doesn't have to be this way. Consider a hypothetical family in the developing world. They are poor, but have access to family planning services. They don't start having children as soon as they marry, but hold off for a few years, and are able to scrape together some meagre savings. They have two or three children, comfortably and safely spaced, and then stop. Mum and Dad's work between them provide enough income to feed, clothe and educate their children. The children don't need to work, or don't need to work as much, so they can focus on education and thus have a chance of breaking out of the poverty cycle. Not only are fewer children being born into poverty, but those who are born are much less likely to live in poverty.

Unfortunately, as I alluded to earlier, charities operating in this field are few and far between. I personally give to Marie Stopes International Australia (MSIA), who provide sexual and reproductive healthcare services around the world. This includes providing contraception, sexual health education (including on STD prevention), mother and baby care, and yes, safe abortions in countries where abortions are legal. MSIA was the only reproduction targeted charity I could find based (and therefore tax deductible) in Australia. However, in this case, a choice of one isn't a problem for me, because they appear well run, and I support their goals. For non-Australians, Marie Stopes International has divisions in a number of different countries, or you could consider DKT International or the International Planned Parenthood Federation. If you know of other organizations, please share in the comments. Also feel free to comment on how you see the relative importance of this compared to other aid needs in the developing world.


Friday, September 14, 2012

The gravity-defying slinky

Here's a weird bit of informative entertainment for your Friday. If you drop a slinky, the bottom of the slinky appears to defy gravity as it hangs in the air while waiting for the rest of the slinky to meet it before it decides to join the fall.

Take a look at the below video and re-calibrate your intuitions about gravity.

The video doesn't properly explain what is happening, so I've done a little research (emphasis on the little) to determine what is going on. The centre of mass of the slinky behaves exactly as a falling object should. The bottom of the slinky appears to defy gravity for a while because the forces of the spring pulling the bottom up neatly balance the force of gravity pulling the spring down - that's why the slinky initially stretched to the length it did instead of reached all the way to the ground. If you stretched the slinky from the bottom as well as holding it at the top, and then released both ends simultaneously, the bottom would actually travel up while the centre of mass travelled down - we've all seen that sort of behaviour in a slinky/spring, but that just doesn't seem as weird as the bottom of the slinky simply hanging in the air.

Via What Would JT Do

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Emergency homeopathic treatment

I've just submitted an assignment that included evaluating a website on homeopathy. Unfortunately, despite my initial enthusiasm, the word limit of 500 words to cover three sources (only one of which was about homeopathy) meant that I didn't have anywhere near enough words to properly take it apart.

To make myself feel better, I watched this:

Saturday, September 8, 2012

How consitent are your ethics?

One of my lecturers directed us to this site on ethical philosophy experiments. The set-up for most of the experiments is to as some basic questions about what you believe, then ask some questions where you apply (or don't) those beliefs, then an analysis of how your principles and applications of principles match up. Hint - doing what feels right does not lead to consistent answers - our evolved brains aren't too good at this sort of thing.

You can pick random experiments from the home page, or start where we were directed to, with the Drowning Child experiment, which will then lead you on to a number of other experiments if you're so inclined.

Let me know what you think.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Recommended reads: The cost of luxury

It's hard to avoid regularly hearing complaints about the cost of living going up, and isn't life terrible. Not only is the argument tedious, it's also wrong: Australians’ incomes have significantly outstripped prices since 1984, with disposable incomes rising on average 20% ahead of inflation over that period.

With this in mind, I'd like to direct you to a beautifully rambling diatribe on The Cost of Living, more accurately known as The Cost of Luxury over at my brother's blog, The Perpetual Rambler.

Here are a few quotes:
Now we, as citizens of the 21st century like to criticise our efficiency, apparently our grandfathers could <insert grandfather anecdote here>, but you know what? Our grandfathers didn't have smart phones. Not that I am suggesting that smart phones are the peak of human technical achievements. We also have a multitude of other devices that allow us to kill zombies, or launch birds into pigs.

What is called the cost of living is in fact the cost of luxury. The cost of the ability to eat like pigs, drink like donkeys and surf the internet like some sort of distant mammalian cousin that doesn't exist but if it did it would make the perfect simile. We don't need to live this way: we could live much more simply, but we choose to live in a way that exploits other people and the environment, and we choose to do so at the detriment of everyone, including ourselves.

Go and read the whole post, and while you're there, take a look at some of his other posts, they're well worth the read.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Moo-free chocolate review

In the past few weeks, I've been experimenting with reducing the amount of dairy I consume. I'm not against the consumption of animal products such as milk and eggs as such, but I recognise that my ability to assess the conditions under which the animals are kept is limited, and there are good environmental reasons to cut back too. Also, soy milk doesn't taste anywhere near as terrible as I remember it. It's actually quite pleasant!

Recently, Hunter and I were in the Dandenong Ranges, a bit of a hippy area, and I saw some ridiculously overpriced "moo free" milk chocolate. So it's not actually milk chocolate, but it's supposed to taste like it is, unlike most dairy free chocolate, which is dark. When the shop assistant assured me that it was actually pretty good, I made eyes at Hunter, who bought it for me, since I'd forgotten my money.

Despite my excitement and anticipation, the first bite was a let down. A second bite confirmed my first impressions. I couldn't honestly recommend it. A quick Google search shows entirely positive reviews, but I suspect that people who can't or won't eat dairy are excited to find a chocolate approximation they can eat, and are being over-generous. Although the texture isn't bad, the rice-milk flavour overpowers the coco, and it's a bit too sweet. It does not satisfy my chocolate needs. Sad Lucy.

So, for the very small number of my readers (if there are any at all), who are chocolate lovers and want a non-dairy alternative, sorry, this probably isn't it.