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Language Neutrality

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When more traditionally defined, the term language neutrality could in layman's terms be described as pertaining to strategic issues in software development - for example when writing code for software that is platform neutral, vendor neutral, and programming language neutral.

At yamasa.org the definition of language neutrality has been broadened to include human languages, as a fundamental component of the usability design. This is why you are able to read this page (and most of the website) in Chinese, English, German, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Spanish, and why the ACJS directory has pages in Thai and Czech amongst an increasing number of other languages.

There are of course few things more frustrating, or more likely to picque your curiosity, than encountering something you can not read. Come to think of it, curiosity might be the only reason why you might have have clicked onto this page in the first place. You may have been wondering why I have been putting....

....on the top right of many of the files on the website. As very few people can read Irish Gaeilge, I put a small animated gif file next to it which (I hope) would give a small hint. "Ní thuigim thú" means "I don't understand", something that everybody experiences when learning a new language, especially if it is Japanese. The reason the link is there is so that if a native speaker of say, Korean or German, surfs in from a search engine onto a page anywhere on yamasa.org, then they should have the opportunity to choose to read the page in Korean or German if that is their preference. However, as someone who has always used a Japanese language Operating System (OS), one of my (many) pet peeves are websites that assume the preferred language of the visitor is the same as that of their browser. If a native speaker of Spanish on holiday in Hong Kong is sitting in an internet cafe when they decide to study Japanese or plan a trip to Japan, then they shouldn't be referred automatically to the Chinese version or requested to talk in Cantonese or English with Yamasa's Hong Kong office in Wan Chai. From a web design and service provision viewpoint, its a question of providing a choice of information in Spanish (or whatever other language). Though to be honest, yamasa.org is unlikely to be published in Irish Gaeilge for quite some time. 'Tis a pity.

Most schools and universities in Japan publish their websites in Japanese & (some) English only, usually with the bare minimum of information, and sometimes even less. By contrast I prefer a situation where every student, their family and friends can read ALL about whatever they need to know, and do so in their preferred language. As far as possible, I want to remove the stress and uncertainty that many students and their families feel regarding studying in Japan. Deciding to study a language in a full immersion environment is one of the best decisions you can make, but it should not feel like a step into the unknown. One of the objectives of the yamasa.org site is to provide a richness and completeness of information, to the point where (I hope!) you should feel as though you are stepping into a familiar environment when you arrive in Japan or Okazaki, or enter your apartment. I wish to make the process of enrolling and studying one that is smooth and reassuring. A process that removes stress and uncertainty and lets you concentrate on your studies and enjoy the experience of learning Japanese.

One of the reasons why I think along these lines is partially to do with my own experiences, but mostly its due to frustration. Thanks to my own studies at Yamasa, I have no problems reading and communicating in Japanese, but I still of course can remember what my experiences were like when I first arrived in Japan more than a decade ago. Those experiences were still fresh in my mind when a few summers ago I took a group of Chinese, Korean and Spanish speaking students on a tour to Horyuji, Yakushiji, and Byoudoin - each of which have been listed by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. The students were short term students in the SILAC and Discovery programs, and were mostly beginners as far as studying the Japanese language was concerned. I could translate and interpret into English or explain the text and explanations in simpler Japanese than the signs were written in, but for the Chinese, Korean and Spanish speakers this was still at best hit and miss. Even though these were all World Heritage sites, there was virtually no foreign language information available. Unfortunately, there are relatively few places in Japan that have an awareness of the importance of language neutrality. Even when foreign language information is provided, it is usually in English only, partly due to a mistaken assumption that all foreigners can read English. Alongside a richness of information in Japanese that the students couldn't read yet, there was a little bit of information in English (usually poorly translated) and zero information in other languages, although Horyuji has recently improved (a bit). The frustration that showed on the student's faces that day became a challenge for me, and was one of several reasons why I decided to develop online projects such as Destinations, and the OCJS and its supporting dictionary. These days if a student who is at beginner level in their Japanese studies visits any of the destinations we have been covering (some 600 in total), then we are able to provide detailed information in 7 languages.

Yamasa is unusual in Japan in that it is a specialist Institute teaching only one field. We are endeavouring to provide a full immersion experience. Our faculty use direct method teaching (ie teaching the classes in Japanese only), however they do this with full language neutral support. In terms of resources, this includes translations of the textbooks, the availability of online dictionaries (at the time of publication, Yamasa has the only online Japanese/Czech and Japanese/Portuguese dictionaries), and support services wherever possible. Outside the classroom (whether it is a "bricks and mortar" classroom in Okazaki or a "virtual" classroom in the OCJS), we will endeavour to communicate with you in Japanese. However for essential services and emergencies, it is often reassuring to have language support. For example if you experience a sudden illness or have an accident, there are few things more disconcerting than visiting a hospital and not being able to understand what the medical staff are saying, or what medicines they are prescribing. For this reason, we have invested very heavily in infrastructure and staff to guarantee support services for you in areas such as Health Care including dental, Housing, Banking & Money, Fee Payments, Visas & Legal advice for before, during and after your studies, Information Technology and telecoms support, Translations of essential documentation, Airport Transfer, facilitation of Transfer Credit, provision of Certificates and Alumni support including job placement services.

Our strategies for maintaining language neutrality are focused, and all of the services we provide are designed from the outset to be language neutral. There is of course a considerable investment involved, and this is one of the reasons why the tuition fees of the Institute are not sufficient to recover the full costs of the programs each year. However as the value and benefits of having an inclusive design are overwhelming, I hope to be able to add additional languages to yamasa.org and to our services in Okazaki in the near future. And lastly, since you are still reading, I wish you the best of luck with your studies.


Admissions Coordinator,
The Yamasa Institute

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