Learning, Excuses, Time

12 Jun

A roommate of mine wanted help translating the abstract of his thesis into English, and I was hesitant to help. One part of it was of course the selfishness of not wanting to spend time doing something with no direct benefit for me, but even more than that was my wholehearted belief that he could do most of the work on his own. His English isn’t fantastic, but by finding unknown words in a dictionary, using the forums at word reference, and making liberal use of google translator, he could easily create a rough draft which I would be willing to edit for him. At least, that is what I thought. He knew about these different languages resources, but he kept repeating that he wasn’t able to do it. It strongly reminded me of John Pasden’s story about trying to teach someone to juggle:

Learner: Wow, you can juggle?

Me: Yeah. It’s not very hard. You can learn in 30 minutes if you try.

Learner: Really? Let me try.

[I demonstrate the basics and hand over the balls. The learner takes a few tries, quickly dropping the balls.]

Learner: This is harder than it looks!

Me: Yeah, but if you keep at it for 30 minutes, you’ll be able to juggle.

[5 minutes pass.]

Learner: This is too hard! See ya.

I explained exactly what my roommate needed to do, and he was able to do it. Nonetheless, he wasn’t willing to devote the time and effort to actually do it. He used the difficulty of the text as an excuse. (a common claim among language learners, as well as a common reason why people don’t do things in general: it’s too hard) In reality, the text wasn’t that difficult or advanced. The hard words consisted of analyzes, physical expression, sample, and predisposition, and if someone is sitting at a computer with internet access, I consider not knowing a word to be a poor excuse, because dictionaries are at their fingertips. I think of it like a person who knows how to use a car sitting in the drivers seat with the key in the ignition saying “I can’t turn on the car!”

Of course, figuring out how to phrase things and how to structure sentences is much more difficult and much more important than merely translating words, otherwise machine translation would do everything (it actually works fairly well for non-professional uses between languages that are similar to each other, such as western European languages). But I clearly offered to my roommate that I would edit and correct his first draft. He gave me a new excuse now, which I find comical. He told me “I don’t have time!” I literally had to suppress a laugh. Allow me to explain: this is a boy who watches TV for at least an hour everyday and who I’ve recently observed playing video games quite a lot. I usually don’t like sounding judgemental, but if someone uses a large enough amount of his or her time for recreational activities, then I think that they lose the right to legitimately complain that they don’t have enough time to do work activities. The similarities with Clay Shirky’s Where do People Find the Time are not lost on me.

Of course, I shouldn’t be too harsh. He is a few years younger than I am, and he hasn’t had the same opportunities and influences that I’ve been so fortunate to have. But I’m still left wondering: is my roommate a really lazy, unresourceful person, or am I hyper-resourceful? Seeing his performance and observing him in life, I certainly wouldn’t hire him if I was a boss because he has demonstrated to me that he is unable to do things on his own.

In the end I helped him translate it in exchange for him editing an Eng-Span translation that I had done, and for which I was far underqualified. A few more friends will look over it for me. I hope to post it up here when it is all finished.

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