Sunday, October 16, 2011

Why Expats Need Smartphones

Until recently, the smartphone craze had largely passed us by. We were too poor for an Android in the UK and too foreign for an iPhone in Korea. (Sadly, I'm not joking on either count.) Before that, the last time we were in the US was in 2007, right around when the first iPhone came out, and we were struggling to pay our exorbitant DC rent.

To make a long story short when we got to Japan a smartphone just seemed like an unnecessary expense. Plus, we all know I can't be trusted with losable, breakable, valuable things. So without really thinking about it, we grabbed the cheapest phones we could find and got on with our lives.

Now, I don't often get to admit to being wrong, so when the rare chance comes along, I really like to savor it. So here goes: I was absolutely, categorically wrong about my ability to live without an iPhone. I can say this without any exaggeration whatsoever: having an iPhone has significantly increased our quality of life in Japan.

Here's why.

1) Maps.

Getting lost isn't a big deal when you know the language: all you need to do is ask for directions. When you don't know the language, getting lost is pretty scary - so scary that it's easy to fall into a very narrow routine just for fear of getting lost.

With a smartphone, though, you don't have to worry - as long as you have a signal, you can find your way home.

2)  Flashcards.

The hardest thing about learning a language is building vocabulary, and the hardest thing about building vocabulary is finding time to practice. Now, with all my flashcards stored on my phone (there are flashcard apps out there for just about every major language), I can use any spare minute for practicing new words.

4) Dictionaries.

For a while, when I first got to Japan, I carried a little dictionary around with me everywhere I went. I barely used it: Japanese, with its multiple scripts, conjugated everythings, and difficult-to-spot stems, is not a great fit for paper dictionaries. With a smartphone, though, I can keep multiple Japanese dictionaries with me at all times - at least one of which has a fairly idiot-proof approach to searching, which is exactly what I need.

5) Google Translate.

This is the biggest game changer: with a smartphone, whenever in the course of a transaction my meager Japanese runs out (usually within the first thirty or forty seconds), I can turn to Google to do the talking for me. On the one hand, this removes a strong incentive to learn how to say stuff before leaving the house. On the other hand, now I can go placed and do things without hours of prior study.

So for all these reasons, I stand humbly corrected: the iPhone is a great machine, and a near-necessity for anyone trying to make it in a foreign tongue.

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