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cm vs. in (what's our problem with A4 anyway?)

cm vs. in (what's our problem with A4 anyway?)

You never know where a one-on-one lesson will wind up. Last week, an attempt to help my youngest student (who’s in high school) get started on a paper wound up with an excursion into the world of open source and alternative software. N-chan’s laptop runs a Japanese operating system and a Japanese word processor, and it’s a bit of a disaster trying to set up papers the way her teacher requires them to be set up. As is to be expected, the teacher is quite rigid about things like spacing (1.5 lines), margins (1 inch), font sizes, etc.

However, N-chan’s word processor is set up for A4 paper and Japanese spacing conventions. We’ve tried to fix things before, and it kind of worked, but not very well. To my surprise, even line spacing is a kind of cultural idiom. In Japan, apparently, it’s done by entering the total number of lines one can fit on a page at that spacing. This makes sense, but our attempts to convert from A4 to 8.5 by 11 and then to 1.5-spacing didn’t work out. Maybe if I could read Japanese better, I could have found a way to switch it to American-style line spacing, but no luck. As a last resort, I suggested downloading the English version of OpenOffice.Org so that she could simply work in English. (I prefer NeoOffice, but she doesn’t have a Mac.) She got permission from her dad to download it and install it, and it seems to be working out OK so far. When she clicked to download it, it detected her Japanese OS, so I first had to force it to download the English version (which it proceeded to automatically download from the “nearest” server at KAIST in Korea! Oops!). Then we had to change its settings to use inches instead of centimeters, again because the installed program detected a Japanese OS. I felt compelled to tell her “Inches are not better than centimeters–actually, centimeters are probably better than inches, but your teacher is going to give you instructions in inches. So we need to use inches.” (When I’m telling a student that she needs to stop using something that she’s used to and start using something else, I feel that it’s critical to point out when it’s NOT because the previous way was wrong.)

After that I showed her where to set up the margins (OOO defaults to .79 inches for some weird reason) and line spacing. Next week I’ll make sure it’s still running smoothly for her, because now that I know there are interesting differences like how line spacing is calculated, I’ve realized it’s not just a matter of looking in the right place to find the setting you need to change. I knew there were vocabulary differences–for example, another N-chan’s father told me that Japanese word processors use a verb that means “paint” rather than “highlight”–but now I’m curious about all the deeper differences.

Anyway, helping students download and set up a free word processor such as OOO or NeoOffice may be a good idea if their native-language version is causing problems with their assignments. Have you ever tried this?