Thursday, 7 August 2014

On grammar videos

It often happens - typically when I'm doing homework, but not always - that there's some bit of information I want to look up. It's usually a nuance of language in a particular situation, such as a complicated sentence with subclauses. Or it might be to do with phrasing things appropriately for a particular audience, such as polite or informal language. Today, it's about a specific verb form for making or allowing someone to do things: the causative.

For reference, this is a verb inflection where you basically add "aseru" as the new ending of most verbs, which can then be inflected again to add new meanings. As far as I can tell, Japanese grammar is about 75% inflecting verbs, 15% using particles (little words that tell you things like subject, object and direction) and 10% anything else.

Anyway, the homework, as they are wont to do, includes a section about using the causative with another auxiliary verb in a way that we have not yet in fact covered in class. I'm making a brave attempt at it, but wanted to look up the actual rules for doing so. The easiest way to do this is generally to just google, as someone somewhere has usually talked about most aspects of grammar, particularly in a language as popular as Japanese.

It's not the first time I've noticed them, but today is the first time that most of the results I can find are in the form of videos. I'm writing this because it struck me what a bizarre decision this is.

Video definitely has its uses, but as a medium for getting across explanations about the use of language, video is about the worst possible option (barring cave painting). Okay, there are a few cases where audio is useful, like explaining pronunciation. There are a handful of cases where visuals are useful, if you need to convey appropriate gestures, body language, or discuss some bit of language that is very heavily tied up in a particular situation that's hard to put across in words alone. But for 99.9% of cases it's really inefficient.

The main problems here are that video is, with current mainstream technology, a kind of anonymous lump. There's no way to search the content of a video to find out whether it actually contains what you're looking for. There's no way to skip around to the part you care about, because you don't know where it might be. The useful information a video about language contains is usually just some words describing how to do a particular thing, but those words are wrapped up so you can't actually access them directly; you have to sit through the video to see what's in it. While you can skip around to some extent, you don't know what might be mentioned in the parts you skipped. You have, generally, zero control over the speed of the video, and speech is a slow medium. Audio has similar problems, but it's typically easier to speed up audio playback, and you can do other things while you listen to it.

A page of text describing a grammatical rule is easily searchable, and of course it's accessible to screen readers and other technology for folks with disabilities. You can skim-read extremely fast to pick out the bits you need. When you search Google or wherever, the results display the words you want in context, which can often tell you immediately whether it's a relevant page. You can generally tell within a few seconds whether a page is relevant to your interests. You can copy and paste the relevant text into a file of notes. You can copy words into a dictionary to look up, if it's not clear enough. None of these are viable with a video.

It just seems like language videos explaining grammar are about the least helpful way you could possibly present the information, so why do people do it? In some cases it seems like they are presenting a whole series of videos on the language, presumably expecting that audience is learners interested in watching the whole series, rather than people looking for specific information - I suspect the latter pool is probably larger, though. It may also be they find making videos easier than putting things down clearly in writing. Maybe they just want to make videos.

I never did find that information.


  1. Something Google could do is automatically transcribe the video into text, and let you search that.
    Excepot Google won't, because they own YouTube, and prefer pretend other video sites don't exist. (Before they bought YouTube, there was a great Google Video Search, now gone).

    1. Huh. It still exists. Could only find it by searching for "google video search". Searching for a search engine feels weird, though.

    2. They could try, although language videos must be some of the least amenable to that technology!

      Weird, I get it just by googling and then picking "video" off the list of search types.