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May 27, 2017

CAT tools for weapons license study

More than a decade ago I found a very useful book on practical corpus linguistics, which has had perhaps the greatest impact of any single thing on the way I approach terminology. Among other things, it discusses how to create special text collections for particular subjects and then mine these for frequently used expressions in those domains. It has become a standard recommendation in my talks at professional conferences and universities as well as in private consultations for terminology.

Slide from my recent talk at the Buenos Aires University Facultad de Derecho
In the last two weeks I had an opportunity to test my recommendations in a little different way than the one in which I usually apply them. Typically I use subject-specific corpora in English (my native language) to study the "authentic" voice of the expert in a domain that may be related to my own technical specialties but which differs in its use of language in significant ways. This time I used it and other techniques to study subject matter I master reasonably well (the features, use and safety aspects of firearms for hunting) with the aim of acquiring vocabulary and an idea of what to expect for a weapons qualification test in Portugal, where I have lived for several years but have not yet achieved satisfactory competence in the language for my daily routine.

It all started two weeks ago when I attended an all-day course on Portugal's firearm and other weapon laws in Portalegre. Seven and a half solid hours of lecture left me utterly fatigued at the end of the day, but it was an interesting one in which I had a lot of aha! moments as I saw a lot of concepts presented in Portuguese which I knew well in German and English. Most of the time I looked up words I saw in the slides or in the course textbook prepared by the PSP and made pencil notes on vocabulary in my book.

Twelve days afterward I was scheduled to take a written text, and in the unlikely event that I passed it, I was supposed to be subject to a practical examination on the safe use of hunting firearms are related matters.

Years ago when I studied for a hunting license in Germany I had hundreds of hours of theoretical and practical instruction in a nine-month course concurrent with a one-year understudy with an experienced hunter. Participants in a German hunting course typically read dozens of supplemental books and study thousands of sample questions for the exam.

The pickings are a little slimmer in Portugal.

There are no study guides in Portuguese or any other language which help to prepare for the weapons tests that I am aware of except the slim book prepared by the police.

There are, however, a number of online forums where people talk about their experiences in the required courses and on the tests. Sometimes there are sample questions reproduced with varying degrees of accuracy, and there is a lot of talk about things which people found particularly challenging.

So I copied and pasted these discussions into text files and loaded them into a memoQ project for Portuguese to English translation. The corpus was not particularly large (about 4000 words altogether), so the number of candidates found in a statistical survey was limited, but still useful to someone with my limited vocabulary. I then proceeded to translate about half of the corpus into English, manually selecting less frequent but quite important terms and making notes on perplexing bits of grammar or tricks hidden in the question examples.

A glossary in progress as I study for my Portuguese weapons license
The glossary also contained some common vocabulary that one might legitimately argue does not belong in a specialist glossary, but since these were common words likely to occur in the exam and I did not know them, it was entirely appropriate to include them.

Other resources on the subject are scarce; I did find a World War II vintage military dictionary for Portuguese and English which can easily be made into a searchable PDF using ABBYY Finereader or other tools but not much else.

Any CAT tool would have worked equally well for my learning objectives - the free tools AntConc and OmegaT are in no way inferior to what memoQ offered me.

On the day of the test, I was allowed to bring a Portuguese-to-English dictionary and a printout of my personal glossary. However, the translation work that I did in the course of building the glossary had imprinted the relevant vocabulary rather well on my mind, so I hardly consulted either. I was tired (having hardly slept the night before) and nervous (so that I mixed up the renewal intervals for driver's licenses and hunting licenses), and I just didn't have the stamina to pick apart some particularly long, obtuse sentences), but in the end I passed with a score of 90% correct. That wouldn't win me any kudos with a translation customer, but it allowed me to go on to the next phase.

Practical shooting test at the police firing range
In the day of lectures, I dared to ask only one question, and I garbled it so badly that the instructor really didn't understand, so I was not looking forward to the oral part of the exam. But much to my surprise, I understood all the instructions on exam day, and I was even able to joke with the policeman conducting the shooting test. In the oral examination in which I had to identify various weapons and ammunition types and explain their use and legal status, and in the final part where I went on a "hunt" with a police commissioner to demonstrate that I could handle a shotgun correctly under field conditions and respond appropriately to a police check, I had no difficulties at all except remembering the Portuguese word for "trigger lock". All the terms I had drilled for passive identification in the written exam had unexpectedly become active vocabulary, and I was able to hold my own in all the spoken interactions - not a usual experience in my daily routine.

The use of the same professional tools and techniques that I rely on for my daily work proved far better than expected as learning aids for my examination and in a much greater scope than I expected. I am confident that a similar application could be helpful in other areas where I am not very competent in my understanding and active use of Portuguese.

If it works for me, it is reasonable to assume that others who must cope with challenges of a test or interactions of some kind in a foreign language might also benefit from learning with a translator's working tools.

1 comment:

  1. Kevin, I never thought to use MemoQ as a tool for learning how to navigate red tape in a foreign language. Making a glossary must really help too. I'm sure your glossary, forum translations, and blog post would be helpful to expat hunters in Portugal. Greetings from Cracow :)

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