Want to actually *use* Japanese without any native speakers nearby? Just ask your PC!

By | March 25, 2020

One of the biggest challenges when learning a foreign language, especially if you are going the self-taught route, is that it’s hard to find situations where proper use of the language actually matters. If you can interact with native speakers on a frequent basis, or even better, live in a country filled with such native speakers, it’s easy to find these situations––in fact, it would probably be difficult to avoid such situations. But for people who have neither of those opportunities, it can be hard to find situations where you have to use your knowledge of the language to achieve some important goal, and where making mistakes matters.

One really good way to do this is to configure your desktop PC’s main language to be the language you are studying. This works equally well for Windows or Mac OS-based machines. You can start out doing this for single apps, but you’ll reap more benefits if you do this to your entire operating system, so that everything from menu items to error messages renders in that language. The key point here is that if you are unable to understand the text on your PC monitor, you’re going to have a hard time getting anything done.

The gains realized using this technique depend on what kind of tasks you do on PC. If you only do basic web browsing then most of the OS messages won’t matter, and it will all depend on what sites you visit. Furthermore, you can visit foreign language sites on nearly any computer without changing the OS’s language setting.

On the other hand, if you are doing more advanced tasks like software development (which I happen to do on occasion), you’ll soon find you have a bunch of words to learn quickly or be dead in the water doing nothing. For example, if you are using software source control tools you’ll need to recognize and understand words like ブランチ (branch), 表示 (display), 編集 (edit), 削除 (delete), and 解決 (kaiketsu).

While surely there are terms that are mainly used in the IT world (プル, meaning a Git “pull” would be one), many of the words you will come across, including most of the above examples, are usable in the real world and even in daily conversation. If you are planning to ever work using Japanese in an IT company these terms will be extremely valuable, so it’s good to learn not just their meanings but also their readings (pronunciation). I often remind myself of kanji readings when I click on a menu item just to keep my memory fresh.

One thing to keep in mind is that even if you are doing relatively complex tasks on your PC, if they are tasks that you have done many times before you will probably have already memorized what the various buttons, error message, and menu items say, so it will be pretty easy to guess what the words mean (ex: “Oh yeah, the rightmost button means ‘accept’”). If you find you are guessing your way through without actually understanding things, try experimenting with an app you have never used before and see if you can accomplish a new task.

If you set your entire OS’s language, you’ll also learn a great deal about internationalization and translation––like how some applications may not support a major language (like Japanese), or if they do you may see a mix of translated and not translated terms. The details of this can get pretty complex because the source of things like menu items might come from multiple places, but it can be instructive to see how things end up displayed.

In modern day Japanese loanwords (especially those from English) are extremely common, and in the IT world perhaps even more so. That’s why you should expect to see a lot of words written in katakana (like ブランチ and コミット). In my experience generally these words would actually be used if you were working in Japan, but there is no guarantee the translation is natural. That’s why I recommend taking translations of things like menu items with a grain of salt, and don’t be afraid to look up certain terms online to see how frequently they are actually used. In cases where there is both a loanword and Japanese word to express some concept–– like 親 and  パーレント which I have seen used by the same app––I would recommend learning both. As a general rule, I assume that apps which are by larger companies (as opposed to independent developers or small companies) are more likely to have accurate translations, though that’s surely not always the case.

If you are only reading menu items and brief messages you might think that vocabulary is the only thing you can improve using this technique. However, even in short phrases you can find grammatical elements, such as particles. For example, I’ve seen an option to decline upgrading an app written as “今はしない”, which is a good demonstration of the は (wa) particle, the nuance being that you won’t upgrade now but you might later.

Another thing you will learn from this process is how your language setting is revealed to others who interact with you through your PC. For example, if my computer is set to Japanese and I accept an outlook meeting invitation, I have noticed it will send back the meeting invite notification in Japanese, even if the person on the other end has their computer set to English. I sort of understand the reason why, but I haven’t seen this behavior act consistently across apps. (By the way, if this causes you problems for you, at least on Mac OS there is a way to set a custom default language for each app.)

The main drawback of using OS language or app settings to practice real use of a language is that it mostly exercises reading skills, but you can use things like search fields to practice inputting text. If you get creative, you can actually test listening skills with technologies like text-to-speech, and speaking skills with voice-activated assistants like Siri and Cortana. By the way, you can change your phone or tablet’s OS to another language and get some reading practice, but I’ve noticed that there is less interactivity and advanced tasks, plus that on average fewer apps are translated, so there’s more benefit to trying it with a desktop machine.

If you want to get the most benefit, set the main PC that you work on (assuming you are doing a job that requires frequent PC usage) to a foreign language you are studying. But be prepared for frustration and a decrease in efficiency for the short term. It can be quite upsetting when you get an error message in the middle of an important task (resist the urge to temporarily change your language back to English!) But if you force yourself to work in such an environment long enough, you’re bound to learn a great deal of useful words. If you change your PC to Japanese, you’re likely to learn a lot of kanji characters as well, or at least get good practice reading those you already know.

(Note: featured image of a Mac desktop is from Pexels.com)

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