Thesis: Preface

If I tried, I might be able to find events or dawnings in my own childhood that would suggest I would one day want to create a video dictionary. There was, for instance, a drawing contest I won when I was around eight years old. I drew a scene featuring different modes of transportation, which I associated with different countries. It was a meaningful victory, since otherwise I was never considered to be a child with an aptitude for art. Looking beyond childhood, I think the network of ideas that would lead to the current Vidtionary project began to form in 1999, the year I moved to Tokyo to teach English. Besides having to learn to teach English, it was my first time living in a non-English speaking country. A few months previous I had bought my first video camera, which at the time was still very much a luxury item. I had no idea what I would film or why, but nevertheless enjoyed using the camera as an extension of my eye, zooming into the middle of traffic, to the top of tall buildings, or out into the waves of the sea. When not teaching English, I spent my time filming random scenes of Tokyo, or else poring through Japanese study books, which deceptively promised to teach me Japanese in three weeks or less. I became fascinated by Chinese characters. Some of the easiest, pictographic characters, such as the ones for ‘river’, ‘mountain’, ‘mouth’, ‘moon’, and ‘person’ actually resembled the thing they were meant to represent. In other cases, characters could be combined together (not freely combined, mind you) to create new meaning, such as the welding of the ‘water’ and ‘teeth’ characters to make the word ‘spit’, or ‘person’ and ‘tree’ characters to make the word ‘rest’. I would spend the next seven years living in Japan and also Korea. Wherever I would go, flash-cards would generally be in my pocket, an electronic translation dictionary would be in my bag, and a video camera bag over my shoulder. Living in Korea, I began to study the ancient Chinese 1000 Character Classic, a primer that used to be used to teach characters to children. I set about creating a video version of this classic, which would visually represent the meaning of the characters within. This task proved to be overly time-consuming, and I did not proceed past a few early verses; however, what I did create was visually burnt into my memory. Around this time, I also created my first animation, a meditation on what it would be like if birds could swim and fish could fly, which I had originally written for an English lesson. One day, for some reason, I filmed a thick book closing, the pages flashing by, and upon editing this, the word ‘resolution’ jumped off one of these pages. I created a short video loop called ‘resolution.’ This ‘resolution’ video may have completed the final circuit, which brought me to the idea of a video dictionary. It seemed Vidtionary would be the perfect project to merge my video and language wanderings.
Before teaching English in Tokyo, I had no formal teaching experience and my undergraduate degree (Political Science) was unrelated. I soon found that word-based games were a regular part of my teaching repertoire, used as warm-ups early in the lesson or time-fillers at the end. In one game, I would say a sentence, but leave out the verb, and students would have to say the verb, and then make their own missing-verb sentence. One student would have to describe something while the others would have to guess what it was. For instance, “It’s green or red, it’s round, and it’s a fruit. What is it?” The school I worked at would also keep magazines around which the teachers would cut up in their free time. A shelf of plastic bins had a bin for different categories such as places, people, and objects. Teaching a lesson on modal verbs, I recall taking a picture of the Alps, and telling the class of adults, “This is a picture of Japan.” The students then had to explain why the photo could not possibly be Japan, but must surely be the Alps. In later years, when I increasingly taught children, I regularly played games like Pictionary or Charades. In the game Pictionary, one player draws something, while the others have to guess at what is being drawn. In the game Charades, one player performs an action, while the others have to guess what the action is. When the video dictionary idea came to me, I could easily envision an activity, where I would show a sequence of images and students would have to guess what word would link the images together. It seems natural that the idea of a video dictionary would emerge, when my life at that time was so much concerned with simple words and their representation in pictures.