Five ways to say “father” in Mandarin and three meanings of “Ma” – Week 23

(Disclaimer: Since I am learning Mandarin by myself and exclusively by watching authentic videos, do not try to learn from me. I am trying to decipher the language by listening to conversations in these videos. Whether or not this is an effective way to learn, it is certainly rife with uncertainty.)

I was amazed the other day when I realized I’ve deciphered five different terms for “father” of “dad” in Mandarin, just by watching the videos. This is either a sign of significant progress or a reflection of the importance of father figures in Chinese culture. Then again, it could be mere coincidence. Regardless, with so many gaping holes in my fledgling vocabulary, it is funny that I have picked up so many ways to say the same thing.

The more formal term for father seems to be fuchin (1). But momo and Qiao Hu taught me that dad is most often rendered by children as ba or baba (2). However, the fish Nemo calls his father lo ba (3). Yet the Disney character Mulan on occasion calls her father dee-é dee-é (4). Finally, if I’m not mistaken, in the movie Shower, a couple of times the sons call their father fa (5).


Conversely, I initially learned in momo that the term “ma” means mom in Mandarin. However, I subsequently learned that ma can also mean horse. Finally, in House of Flying Daggers, ma apparently is used to mean blind. There are probably variations in tonality, but my ear is not fine tuned enough to pick up these differences yet.

In other news, since I am on vacation and got a nasty little cold these days, I’ve been watching more Mandarin than ever. For better or worse, I’ve been spending hours on movies, both original Chinese movies and dubbed Disney movies, repeats and newbies.

Finally, here is a picture of my daughter and me watching mandarin today:


New Chinese and Disney films – Week 22

I’ve just updated my Films page and spreadsheet. I’ve watched several new movies in the past month and a half, namely Slam, Warlords, Young Detective Dee, Mulan, and Nemo.


Slam is about Chinese teenagers who play basketball. It’s a typical family sports story, about a shy kid who is teased by bullies and has problems with his dad, but who loves basketball and uses it to help him overcome many of his issues. If you love these themes, you will probably enjoy the movie, and it provided my best insight to date on teenage Chinese culture (heavily influenced by the West). Otherwise, it’s a mediocre film that is not quite worth the time.


Warlords is much better and I definitely enjoyed it, although it’s not as good as some of the other epic war films I’ve seen.


Young Detective Dee is also enjoyable, but not great. There’s fighting, mystery, investigation, humor, and mythology, but falls just a bit short on quality.

mulan  finding_nemo

Mulan and Nemo are a big (albeit planned) new phase of viewing for me, since they are Disney movies dubbed in Mandarin, rather than original Chinese movies, which is all I had watched before. I highly enjoyed both of them and intend to watch them many times.

I think that after watching them about 3 times, I will take the subtitles off and continue watching them with just audio to train my ear intensively. I’m hopeful that this will be a faster and more effective acquisition approach than any other, except perhaps watching Qiao Hu. The reasons I expect to be able to do this successfully with these high quality Disney movies are threefold.

First, they are immensely entertaining and easy to watch. Unfortunately, my enjoyment of movies generally drops precipitously when I watch them repeatedly, so I’m not sure I’ll even be able to do it easily with a movie I love like Nemo. However, it’s the best chance I have.

Second, since these are kids’ movies, the dialogue is relatively easy to follow. Even for a true beginner like me, I think I will be able to understand up to 50% of the dialogue after becoming intensely familiar with the movies by watching them repeatedly.

Third, these are movies I can watch with my daughter, which is a huge advantage for a parent.

Speaking of which, as expected (and mentioned in my previous post), at least for the first week, these Disney movies have been the solution to get her watching Mandarin again. Check out the updated Hours of Viewing graph.

I also updated my Estimated Comprehension vs. Time graph. I tested my comprehension using a soap opera, as before. I still understand no sentences, but only isolated words. It’s very hard to estimate how much I am understanding, since I often think I recognize a word but don’t know if it actually means what I think (or if it just sounds similar but means something completely different). However, I think I am understanding at least 1 out of every 40 words, or 2.5%.


Disney movies in Chinese – Week 21

Yesterday I inaugurated a new resource for Mandarin listening and viewing. I have planned to use it from the outset: Western children’s movies dubbed in Mandarin—especially, but not limited to, Disney movies. Variety is the spice of learning a language by watching videos.

Besides variety, I anticipate one benefit in particular from this new resource: renewed engagement and viewing hours from my six-year-old daughter, Camila Daya. Note from the following graph that from weeks 4 to 12 she not only kept pace but caught up to my viewing hours. This was largely thanks to Boonie Bears, a fun but too difficult source. She even wrote a blog post! However, her viewing abruptly tapered off, and at present I’m on track to double her total hours viewed.


Time will tell, but I think there is a chance her viewing will skyrocket now with these new DVDs, since, like most kids, she has the capacity to watch movies she that she likes over and over again. Interestingly—and this may not be that typical for a six year old—the language does not seem to matter that much.

I remember how she got started with Spanish. One day, I believe when she was still four, she said to me, “Dadda, I know how to say ‘Princess Ariel’ in Spanish.” She proceeded to perfectly trill the ‘r,’ precisely produce the closed ‘e’ vowel sound, and hang her tongue at roof of her mouth at the ending ‘l’ sound. I was impressed! “How did you know that?” I asked her. She laughed long and hard before telling me that she had discovered that she could set the DVD to Spanish. Since then, in addition to one-hour Spanish classes once or twice a week, she continues to progress, albeit slowly, by occasionally watching videos in Spanish and access Spanish-learning websites for kids (Mi Mundo en Palabras and Plaza Sésamo). If she continues this project and eventually learns Mandarin, she will become quadrilingual, not to mention knowing a hundred or more ASL signs.

Here is the full list of Western children’s movies that we now have dubbed in Mandarin:

  • Mulan
  • Cinderella (1950)
  • Sound of Music
  • Finding Nemo
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • The Little Mermaid

I got these DVDs from the US Amazon site and had them shipped to my brother, who lives in Boston and just arrived in Brazil for the World Cup. There are other titles available, and if this goes well, I’m sure I will get many more.

In addition to variety and appeal to Daya, other advantages to this resource may be: familiarity with the plots, simplicity of plots and dialogue, catchy songs that stay in one’s head, high quality and entertainment value (even for adults), and ease of switching audio and subtitles (not the case with the downloaded movies I watch on my tablets). The major disadvantages I can think of are inherent to the fact that these are Western movies. The dialogues are translated, which makes them less authentic and perhaps less rich and valuable, and I will not be getting culture insights, which are closely linked to effective language acquisition.

What are your thoughts, dear reader? Is this a good addition or not to my Mandarin viewing sources?

Qiao Hu Study Guides – Week 20

Somebody gave me a great idea: to post commented links to Qiao Hu episodes on the for the benefit of other beginners. He suggested includes a plot synopsis and mentioning what I was able to understand. (The person is a friendly administrator of the website

Thus, Qiao Hu Study Guides are born. I will develop at least one per month. Doing so will serve two main purposes. First, it will be a strong motivation for me to watch what I’ve identified as my best source, but which I naturally find boring. Second, it will provide useful content to current and future followers of my blog.

Regarding this second reason: One of the underlying reasons for writing this blog, and even conducting this whole experiment, is to generate traffic and a community of people interested in language acquisition. Hopefully, that will eventually be useful to the language institute I founded. So how does one generate traffic? In my layman’s opinion, the whole secret to generating solid long-term traffic to any website resides in two simple words: useful content. Since I’m convinced Qiao Hu is extremely useful to beginning and low intermediate students of Mandarin, and having someone identify particularly useful episodes and sections of episodes, as well as vocabulary that can be picked up or reinforced, is a real benefit, I believe this will further my blog’s purposes.

You can visit the study guide page by clicking on the menu button above, exploding the Sources menu, and then choosing Qiao Hu Study Guides.

For those who may not want to go there just yet, I’ll paste the introduction I wrote to the Study Guides below:



At least once a month, I will write a study guide for a Qiao Hu episode. If you are new to this page and are a beginning student of Chinese who would like to use these study guides, I suggest starting from the first guide and then using them sequentially. I will write these guides for exactly my level of Chinese, which I still consider total beginner but, by the time my experiment is up, I hope will be at an intermediate level (at least low intermediate) in terms of listening comprehension. Each guide will indicate the level I was at when I wrote it by the number of hours of viewing I had done at that point in time. (It is therefore plausible that I will make two or more guides on the same episode for different levels).

I will provide the links to Word documents for all study guides at the top, and then full text versions of the study guides below, with the most recent one on top. The Word documents will generally be more useful, since the in-page text will have some loss of formatting.

In the spirit of my experiment, these guides do not actually teach any Mandarin in a traditional way. There are no translations, no grammatical explanations, and actually no Mandarin at all. Instead, they serve the following purposes:

(1) Identify excellent Qiao Hu episodes (or parts of episodes), especially in terms of a beginner wanting to pick up new vocabulary and provide a YouTube link.

(2) Identify the topics that are covered in that episode.

(3) Identify the specific vocabulary that I was able to pick up or reinforce in that episode (the terms are provided only in English, so it’s just a guide of what to look for, rather than a vocabulary list).

(4) Provide a synposis of that episode.

(5) Break down the episode by sections, explain what happens in each section and provide a vocabulary guide for that section.

(Ir)regular viewing – Week 19

Due to personal issues, in the past two weeks I haven’t watched Chinese on most days. From May 22 to June 1, I watched Mandarin videos on only 4 out of 11 days. However, I watched 3 movies (2 on one night), so my average time did not go down too much. I’m still at an average of close to 35 minutes per day at the 136th days of my experiment.

Still, I’m slightly frustrated because I think the best strategy (within the parameters of my experiment) would be to watch some Mandarin every single day, and Qiao Hu on most days. I’ve actually done the opposite recently—watched subtitled movies sporadically—and I don’t feel like I’ve progressed much.

Here’s a picture of me watching Qiao Hu with Camila Daya using me as a sofa so that she could watch, too.


She likes to watch videos in the oddest positions, and she really got a kick out of using me as a piece of furniture. I’ll often catch her upside down, with her head on the sofa seat and her legs up in the air, while watching TV. It’s hilarious.

As I’ve commented before, a huge upside to watching movies is that I feel like I’m becoming more and more familiar with Chinese culture. Of course I’m just barely scratching the surface, but I thought about writing about my insights thus far in this post. My general idea was to single out certain characteristics of Chinese culture that are either similar or different from Western culture. However, even if I were explicit about these “findings” being preliminary, I think this would be hugely premature. I just don’t have much to say as yet.

I’m very hesitant about coming to sweeping conclusions even about the culture of countries I’ve lived in for a decade or more (Brazil and the United States), so commenting on even preliminary findings about the culture of a country I’ve never even visited or studied, but only caught glimpses of by watching a handful of subtitled movies, would probably be downright silly.

Instead, I’d like to ask my readers to begin the discussion. For those of you who have lived in China or otherwise had contact with the culture, what are your impressions? Are the Chinese essentially different from or the same as Europeans, Americans, Latin Americans, other nationalities, etc.? In what ways? I will give you my own impressions, however superficial and limited they might be, when I get farther along in my experiment.