Cracking the culture or just enjoying the flight? – Week 5

The highlight of my fifth week of Mandarin viewing was watching the movie Hero again in its entirety while on a flight back to Brazil from Curaçao via Panama. This time enjoyed it very much. I reflected on the possibility that I am beginning to penetrate Chinese culture, if ever so slightly, and that is what allowed me to enjoy Hero much more the second time around. Instead of being irritated by the silliness of the magical kung fu scenes like the first time, this time I truly appreciated the artistry, the choreography, the cinematography.

If so, then in parallel fashion, perhaps my brain is beginning to penetrate the enigma of the Chinese language, which is so tightly knit with the ancient culture.

Or maybe I simply enjoyed the movie because I was sipping some Johnnie Walker’s while 40,000 feet above the ground, heading home . . .

I just created two new pages on this blog that you may want to check out. I have made a page of viewing sources that I hope will be a useful resource for anyone wanting to learn Mandarin—not necessarily using my crazy method, but a more well-rounded approach that includes watching videos alongside other strategies such as conversation classes and study of Chinese characters.

Second, I created a page where I will regularly update the graphs I introduced in last week’s post, and from time to time add new types of graphs that measure or illustrate my progress.

Week 4 – The Kid versus Her Dad

“Dada, your experiment is not scientific.” That was my daughter’s initial reaction when I told her about my Mandarin language acquisition project. When I insisted on an explanation, she said something about mixing different colored liquids in tubes. Since I wasn’t doing that, my experiment was not scientific.

Camila Daya watched just over an hour of Chinese with me the first week, and none at all on the second and third weeks. This fourth week, however, she got into it. For six days, between February 8 and 13, she averaged over 30 minutes viewing per day. She watched Boonie Bears almost exclusively. She actually enjoys it! I doubt she’s understanding much of any Chinese—I certainly don’t—but it’s entertaining nonetheless. And best of all, she now says that she agrees with me, that the experiment IS scientific.

So here’s a comparison of how much each of us has watched in our first four weeks.


Though it seems improbable, it would be awesome if Daya were to keep up with me from now on. Her participation would make the experiment doubly interesting. Would she learn more quickly and effectively than me, due to greater neuroplasticity? That outcome would be the natural hypothesis. It is possible that I will fail to obtain comprehension, and she would succeed, which would be particularly elucidating.

It is nearly impossible to measure my progress at this early stage objectively or accurately. Perhaps after a year it will be more feasible. As a fun exercise, however, I’ve decided to estimate the percentage of communication that I can understand, on average, in the various sources I watch. I’ll update the estimate about once a month. After this first month, I feel confident that I’m understanding at least 1% of what I watch. If nothing else, I’m certain that at least 1 out of 100 words is either “how” or “ni,” both of which I’m confident I understand well. The following fun graph compares my estimated percentage of understanding to the time that I have spent viewing/listening to Mandarin as a percentage of the 1,200 hours stipulated in my hypothesis.


In the future, I will incorporate both graphs into the sidebar for easy reference. I have also added a follow button above and a posting calendar at the side.

Week 3

“It ain’t gonna happen.”

I had just explained my Mandarin experiment to a gentleman who lived four years in China and had studied the language. A World Bank employee, obviously well educated, and a polyglot himself, his answer to me was, “Can I say something? It ain’t gonna happen.”

His wife, also a polyglot, had studied the language more intensively, and after four years, had learned quite a lot. She could communicate simple ideas in a variety of settings and had learned enough characters to send text messages and emails. However, by her own testimony, she would not have passed the test I set for myself in the hypothesis section. I asked her if she could watch most any type of movie or TV show and understand the basics of what was happening and what was being said. She said no. Her testimony is much more potentially discouraging to me than her husband’s. She said she spent about 25 hours per week on the language, between formal study, talking with her children’s nanny, running errands, and so forth. I will be spending only 3 ½ hours weekly, just on video.

. . .

It’s Sunday at my farm in central Brazil, and I’m 23 days into my Mandarin language learning experiment. While I type, my 6-year-old daughter, Camila Daya, is watching Boonie Bears, a great cartoon made by the Chinese government. I mentioned Boonie Bears in my last post. It has become a mainstay for my experiment, and I think it is the best source I’ve found yet. Not that I’ve apparently learned any Chinese from it yet—I haven’t really been able to pick out words—but it’s fun to watch. Sometimes I’ve even caught myself laughing out loud at the antics of the two bears and the bald lumberjack.

Boonie Bears is also the best chance thus far for Camila to accompany me in my experiment. She loves watching videos on YouTube in Spanish, English, and Portuguese (I mostly prohibit the latter), and think she just might get into watching Boonie Bears regularly. I am keeping track of her Mandarin viewing alongside my own.

Camila Daya watching Boonie Bears

Camila Daya watching Boonie Bears

Thus far, I have watched just over 11.5 hours, and she has watched just 2 total hours in these first 3 weeks.

I finished watching The Jesus Film, which was really great as mentioned in my last post. I also watched a bit more momo and the bears. My other viewing source, this week, was the movie Hero, a 2002 Chinese movie that garnered rave reviews. I made a methodological decision, in consultation with my sister Sofia, who has a Master’s in applied linguistics and with whom I’ve spoken a lot about my experiment. My wife, Ana Claudia, wanted to watch a movie with me on Friday night. Naturally, I wanted to watch a Chinese movie, but for her, it would obviously have to have subtitles.

I read over my proposed methodology, spoke to Sofia, and decided that occasionally watching a movie with subtitles would not contradict the spirit of my experiment. When watching the movie again on my own, I will use no subtitles. Also, anytime I do watch a movie with subtitles, I will not pause it or watch scenes repeatedly to try to learn specific words. But the subtitles did allow me to understand the plot, which I think is favorable to my experiment. It’s similar to my intention of watching my favorite Hollywood movies dubbed in Chinese.

Anyway, I enjoyed Hero, though I can’t get into the magical Kung Fu fighting—it’s well done and elegant and all, but it just seems silly to me. However, the historical and philosophical backdrop, and the psychological duel between the Nameless Hero and the King are cool. I purchased the movie from Amazon and downloaded it to my Kindle Fire. I now use colored masking tape to cover up the subtitles, and I will probably watch it a few times over the months and years.

Three weeks into the experiment, I continue to enjoy it and think it is going well. I do acknowledge the definite possibility that my hypotheses might be proved false, especially the third one, due the tremendous difficulty of learning Mandarin, as compared to Latin or Germanic languages, or even more distantly related Indo-European languages.

I have learned a few more words this week, such as “yes” and “no,” but probably at a slower rate than when watching mostly momo the first couple of weeks. Perhaps more importantly, the language is sounding more and more familiar. My brain is becoming more accustomed to the phonemes and cadence. That gradual neurological adaptation to the language is what I’m really counting on in the long term.

Weeks 1 and 2

I am 16 days into my Chinese Mandarin learning project / experiment. This is my first blog entry. I will write once a week now, in the style of a personal journal, reflecting on what I’ve done, my progress, and the language acquisition experiment as a whole.

I kindly suggest any readers, before continuing with this blog entry, read my project description, which outlines the reasons behind my experiment, my hypotheses, and my methodology.

I started watching Chinese videos on January 17 and, except for one day, watched daily through yesterday, February 1. I have logged nearly 8 total hours of listening, or an average of 30 minutes daily as planned.

Thus far, I’m enjoying my experiment and feel that it’s going well. I have mostly watched shows made for small children, especially one called momo. Most of the episodes of momo I’ve watched have an attractive young Chinese woman as host and one or more small children interacting with her. It seems to be aimed at infants or children not more than 4 years old, so it is very easy to get the gist of what is happening and occasionally pick out a word or expression. Though I wouldn’t say it is necessarily the “best” type of video I’ve seen for learning, it is definitely the one in which I “feel” like I am immediately able to learn and understand the most. However, it may be the case that in other types of video, in which apparently I am learning and understanding nothing, my brain is actually doing a tremendous amount of processing and very gradual acquisition, unbeknownst to me. More on that later.

In terms of consciously aware, perceptible learning, however, here is what I consider by far the best video clip of any I’ve seen (the first 4:15 of it):

Among other things, you could definitely learn to count to 12 with this clip—though I haven’t yet done so, and perhaps will not try to deliberately do so. Even better, though, is that when I went back to this clip after watching many other things, I felt (for the first and so far only time), that my brain was actually linking multiple words to meaning (that doesn’t mean I would be able to single these words out and explain or translate them individually, however).

The very first video I watched was a cartoon for little kids about wolves and sheep. Here is an example:

To me, it’s quite strange, and I could not even understand the basic plot. It’s probably a good learning source, and I will probably go back to it at some point. There is a catchy tune at the beginning. I don’t know that I picked up any vocabulary, however.

Thanks to Beth Knarr for these two sources.

I spent a long time watching the movie Farewell My Concubine. I had never seen it before and did not know anything about the plot. I didn’t like the movie (I think I probably wouldn’t like it much even if I were watching it with subtitles) and, at the conscious level, learned almost nothing, which was somewhat frustrating. It was interesting, though, that after this long exercise, when I went back to the momo show, I seemed to understand it a bit better. Did my brain sort out sounds, phonemes, cadence, etc. while spending a couple of hours over a few days watching this movie? I don’t know, but if so, it would play well into my hypotheses.

I just recently discovered a cartoon called Boonie Bears, which I think will be a very good source in these first months, though I’ve only watched one episode thus far. It is Chinese original, fairly well made, and the plots are easy to follow. Here is what I watched:

Currently, I am in the middle of watching The Jesus Film in Mandarin Chinese:

I think this is going well, and I always like to watch spiritual movies. Though I’ve never seen this film before, of course I know the general plot of the Gospels, and that helps greatly in terms of being able to enjoy the film and, on that conscious, superficial level I’ve talked about, in understanding a word or expression here and there. For instance, it was very clear by context when Peter says to Jesus something like, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”, and I was able to pick out words or fragments that I had heard in other scenes of the film. So I will watch the rest of this film and probably come back to it later, in addition to searching for more Christian material, which I think will be somewhat easy to find on YouTube.

I want to watch Hollywood movies that I have already seen and enjoy a lot—Casablanca, Back to the Future, Princess Bride, Terminator 2, etc.—dubbed in Mandarin. Thus far, however, despite spending hours in the early a.m. trying to find these online, I have been unsuccessful. Sooner or later, of course, I will be able to buy DVDs, but I don’t want to wait for that. It’s frustrating. Right now, I’m trying to get a VPN installed on my computer to circumvent geographical restrictions. The reason I want to watch Hollywood movies is mostly just because I think I will enjoy them a lot more than the material I’ve been watching (if nothing else, for variety), but also because I think that in the mix of different types of videos, it will be useful in these earlier stages, since being familiar with the plot should help me pick up words (i.e., it will be easier and more effective at that conscious, superficial cognitive level).

I believe I have “learned” at least 15 new words in Mandarin, bringing my total vocabulary up to something like 17 words. I have not tabulated these words or written them down in any way. I feel that might be a waste of time and go a bit against the spirit of my experiment, especially if I were to go back to that list and study it. Of course, if I had spent nearly 8 hours using vocabulary lists or other traditional methods, perhaps I could have learned 50 or even 100 words by now. However, would I have the same contextual grasp of the terms? Probably not. Further, I doubt my brain would have become as accustomed to the phonemes, the tonality, and the cadence of the language as it did watching 8 hours of video. The final point—and this is the crux of my experiment—is that I believe my brain is working hard “in the background”; that while I have learned very little vocabulary, no grammar, no expressions, and so on, my brain is processing the language in ways I cannot be consciously aware of.

So, in sum, these first two weeks have been positive and have not shaken my belief in this approach. I have reflected a bit, however, by myself and with others, about some interrelated potential theoretical threats to the success of my methodology. Actually, in my mind, these theoretical threats are the only reasons that my hypotheses might be proved wrong, after all. Part of the rationale behind my methodology is that it imitates, to some degree, children’s natural learning process for obtaining oral comprehension, and I believe adults have the same inherent capacity for acquiring languages that children do, even if at a different pace.

However, there are some significant differences. The first I spelled out in my project description. Children mix listening with speaking, and then with reading and writing, as well. I believe that is the most effective method, whereas my methodology is exclusively listening. The second is that children are constantly corrected when they speak, and adjust their understanding accordingly. I will not be speaking and will never be corrected so it will be much more difficult for me to overcome a misunderstanding or adjust my comprehension. Finally, a broader point, which in a way encompasses the previous one. Children receive oral input that is modified so that they can understand it. The mother gesticulates, observes the child’s understanding or lack thereof, then alters the pitch of her voice, speaks more slowly and uses synonyms, further gesticulates or points to objects so that the child can understand. Foreign language teachers do much the same thing, as do, to some extent, everybody the child interacts with. I will have the benefit of none of this.

Aline Fidelis, who has a degree in Letters and is doing translation and editing work for NLI, told me there is actually a German linguist who calls this “modified input” and who says that language acquisition is impossible without it. If he is right, then my hypotheses will be proved wrong. I don’t have time to research language acquisition theory or applied linguistics in general (unfortunately, because I would probably really enjoy doing so), but I hope that linguists and linguistics students will access my blog and comment on different theoretical schools and why they would support or refute my hypotheses and approach.

I will also very much appreciate anybody who can give me suggestions of Mandarin Chinese video content that I can access online, especially, at this point, dubbed Hollywood movies (but no lessons or teaching material, since as part of my experiment I cannot take any lessons whatsoever—online or otherwise).

Oh, and for those of you who know Chinese (even if just a little), please do not include in your comments any words or anything that might constitute a type of lesson for me. Just opinions, theories, reflections, words of encouragement (or discouragement, since the naysayers often motivate me the most). Most of all, as I mentioned, I would appreciate academic/theoretical discussions on language acquisition or linguistics in general, as well as information on where to find videos online.