Endless Vocabulary Expansion – Week 32

I recently decided to keep a daily word list for my Mandarin project. When watching videos, I attempt to decipher vocabulary, and pay special attention to those that are either new or not well consolidated. I add an average of one term per day to my list. My hope is that this approach will guarantee a bare minimum pace of vocabulary acquisition. My word-list goals and method are explained in detail in my Week 30 post.

This simple and unoriginal project-within-a-project got me thinking. Why do we essentially stop expanding our vocabulary in our native language, or at least slow down dramatically? Would it be feasible to use a similar method to continually acquire new words and over time become armed with an outsized lexicon? Could I employ a similar approach to the four languages I already speak as a way to ensure that my skills continue to improve?

These are not entirely new questions for me or for many of my readers. For the sake of brevity, I will not endeavor to answer all of them in this post, though I find the topic fascinatingly complex.

In my case, I know a total of four languages, two of them as a native speaker, and am now endeavoring to learn a fifth. Research suggests that the average university-educated adult has a receptive vocabulary in his or her native language of about 17,000 to 20,000 word families*. Let’s assume I’m at the higher end and have a 20,000-word vocabulary in English. In Portuguese—though I consider myself a native speaker—my vocabulary is somewhat smaller because I have studied and read much less than in English, so a reasonable estimate would be 15,000 words. In Spanish, which I use professionally in written and spoken form, I would guess 10,000. And my French, which is very rusty and quite poor in terms of productive vocabulary, nonetheless probably has something like 4,000 receptive words. In Mandarin, I’m guessing about 150 (listening only) at this point.

So what would happen over time if I were able to add one word per day to my receptive vocabulary in each language?

Estimate of Word Families in My Receptive Vocabulary

Current 40 years old 50 years old 60 years old 71 years old
English 20,000 21,825 25,475 29,125 33,000
Portuguese 15,000 16,825 20,475 24,125 28,000
Spanish 10,000 11,825 15,475 19,125 23,000
French 4,000 5,825 9,475 13,125 17,000
Mandarin 150 1,975 5,625 9,275 13,000

I am currently 35 years old. By the time I’m 71, I would have a remarkably large lexicon in my native languages; a vocabulary comparable to an average educated native speaker of French and above average in Spanish; and a vocabulary akin in size to a native speaker of Mandarin without a college education. That would be amazing. Of course, there are many other components to language mastery, but I believe vocabulary is the single most important factor.

Receptive vocabulary is very different and far less impressive than productive vocabulary, but undoubtedly many words, by some estimates up to half, make their way into our productive vocabulary.

There are a variety of problems with this theoretical undertaking. Without elaborating, I would contend that the two main ones are time constraints and long-term retention.

Nevertheless, for a linguaphile, the prospects are tantalizing. Who knows? This could mark the beginning of a brand new experiment.


1. http://iteslj.org/Articles/Cervatiuc-VocabularyAcquisition.html

2. E.B. Zechmeister, A.M. Chronis, W.L. Cull, C.A. D’Anna and N.A. Healy, Growth of a functionally important lexicon, Journal of Reading Behavior, 1995, 27(2), 201-212

Best films for learning Mandarin – Week 31

fearless curse_golden_flower touch_of_sin

I’ve watched 27 films in Mandarin since I began my experiment 7 months ago. Twenty-one of these are Chinese movies, while six are dubbed Hollywood productions for kids. I would recommend 17 of these Chinese films, and strongly recommend 10: Hero, Journey to the West, Shower, House of Flying Daggers, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Shanghai Triad, The Emperor and the Assassin, A Touch of Sin, The Road Home, and Fearless.

I would recommend these movies to anyone who likes good cinema, but think it would be a real shame if any student of Mandarin did not watch these 10 movies. My truly short list—movies I would rate among my favorites regardless of language—are Hero and Journey to the West, but a strong runner up is House of Flying Daggers, namely for the visuals, while Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Shower are both just very good original cinema.

I would greatly appreciate it if anyone can point to other high quality Chinese movies in Mandarin!

There are also 5 Disney movies that I got dubbed in Mandarin that are totally worthwhile, and not-to-be-missed for children studying the language. They are Nemo, Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and The Little Mermaid. Mulan is not only a very enjoyable movie, it is the only movie I have ever thought is perhaps better to watch dubbed than in the original language. The reasons are (1) it is set in China, so it seems quite natural and appropriate for the characters to be speaking Mandarin; (2) since it is animation, even the original audio has voice-overs, so you hardly notice you are watching a dubbed version; and (3) the Mandarin version seems extremely well done.

Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and The Little Mermaid are all musicals, so to speak, and the Mandarin versions are almost as catchy and beautiful as the original English songs. Although I have tremendous difficulty understanding them or committing them to memory, I believe that as one reaches an intermediate level, learning these songs would be of invaluable help in assimilating new vocabulary, expressions, and becoming more comfortable with the language.

All of these movies are just incredibly well done, and Nemo stands even a bit above the rest.

Although I am very much interested in discovering new Chinese films and will also purchase more Mandarin-version Disney films and perhaps some other dubbed Hollywood flics, I also think I will begin repeating movies more and more. I have already done that some: I watched Hero and Journey to the West 4 times each, Shower and House of Flying Daggers 3 times, and Mulan a whopping 6 times!

However, now that I have probably gone through some of the best Chinese movies out there, and found some personal favorites, I think I may actually find repeating them time and again more stimulating than trying out new films that may not be that good. In addition, I hope that each time I repeat a given movie I will put more language pieces together of my Mandarin-acquisition puzzle, and eventually get to the point where I can watch that movie and understand the dialogue fairly well without subtitles, then keep watching it until the pure dialogue is not only comprehensible but natural and familiar to me.

I updated my Films table today and added a new column to sort the films from best to worst for a student of Mandarin like me. Therefore, when you review my table, you will always see my most highly recommended films at the top. I believe that will make the list significantly more useful. On the Chinese films page, I briefly explain how the ranking is calculated.

In my last post, I mentioned my three most recent movies, and promised more details. The banners of the three movies are at the top of this page. The only new one is Curse of the Golden Flower. However, I really enjoyed seeing Fearless and A Touch of Sin a second time.

I will focus just on the latter to conclude the post. It reminded me a bit of the movie Crash. A Touch of Sin tells four different stories, all of which are tenuously connected to at least one of the other stories by a single person or event. Each of these stories reveals the injustice and violence that is latent in contemporary Chinese society—but really common to most any modern society.

The first story is about a common but rather maladjusted citizen who, unlike everyone else, is outraged by the corruption of the local political and economic elite. He finally finds a solution that is reminiscent of the protagonist in Falling Down.

The second narrative is about young man whose solution to the boredom and lack of opportunity inherent to his station in life is cold-blooded criminality.

Third, a frustrated mistress responds to male sexual aggression with violence that shocks her as much as anybody else. Finally, a young laborer, frustrated with low-paying and unpromising employment opportunities and the unfair selfish expectations of his mother finds a different, but equally violent solution to his plight.

A Touch of Sin is ripe with social commentary. If you don’t mind some blood, it’s also fast-paced, entertaining, and well made. Don’t miss it if you are interested in contemporary Chinese society or just want to train your ear on current street Mandarin.

A Word a Day Keeps the Textbooks Away – Week 30

I have introduced a new tool to help me focus on acquiring vocabulary while watching videos. If nothing else, it will give me a sense of psychological security that I am progressing, but I believe it will also help me make better use of my viewing time and better commit terms to memory.

The innovation is a word-of-the-day vocabulary list to use alongside video viewing. Each term from the list is spontaneously gleaned from one of the videos I watch, either based solely on clear contextual clues, such as Qiao Hu always provides, or context plus subtitles, in the case of movies. I must be very confident about the meaning of the term to include it in the list. This confidence derives from the video itself leaving no doubt or because I have previously come across that term in other videos and the latest occurrence simply confirms my interpretation.

The list provides just two bits of information. First, I make an approximate phonetic transcription of the term. Second, I note what the video source is, including the exact time or times that it appeared.

It is important to be clear about what the list does not include. There is no English translation and no other explanation of the term. There is no accompanying Mandarin character.

I will not study the vocabulary list in isolation, since my experiment precludes traditional study methods, separate from video viewing. Rather, I will use it when watching that video segment again, to reinforce the terms that I have learned. I am however repeating the day’s term mentally during the day, while doing other activities, with the purpose of ingraining it in my memory bank.

In sum, the list has three immediate goals:

  • Helping me to focus on deciphering new terms as I watch a video.
  • Serving as a guide to watching that same video other times in the future.
  • Repeating a term mentally even when I am not watching videos to reinforce it.

There is also a potential long-term use for this list. Perhaps, many years from now, when I have learned to not only understand Mandarin, but also speak and write it (post experiment), I may partner with native Mandarin speakers to develop an innovative Mandarin-teaching method, based largely on watching videos, of course.

In that case, this list, which by then should include at least 2,000 terms, may be of great value. My idea is that I would add Mandarin characters and then use the video snippets, perhaps associated with images, cartoons, etc. to teach many terms that are appropriate for beginners and that appear, as an example, in a specific classic Chinese film. After students spend an hour or more watching those snippets, repeating the pronunciation, and ideally getting corrections from a native speaker, they would then watch the film in its entirety, with a ready-made guide telling them when each term appears in the film. By this method, and by repeating the film a few times, beginning students may be able to learn a great deal of vocabulary with less effort, greater context (and thus great long term retention), and greater enjoyment than using traditional methods. They will also be acquiring insights into the culture and history of China through film.

This method would work well for any language. Perhaps, through the language institute I founded, I will develop it even earlier as an approach for acquiring languages such as English, Portuguese, French, and Spanish.

Due to the possibility of eventually pursuing such a project, which would include the development of proprietary language acquisition guides, I will not publish my entire list on this blog.

However, at this early stage I will be happy to share the beginnings of my list, still in a disorganized and unformatted Excel file, to give my readers a sense of what I am doing. Eventually, I hope to make a simple Access database that will allow me to easily produce a guide for myself for a specific movie, among other functionalities.

Mandarin Word a Day

In other news, during the past two weeks, I watched Curse of the Golden Flower for the first time and Fearless and A Touch of Sin for the second time. I decided to focus today’s post on my word-a-day list novelty, so I will leave my updated film table and reviews for next week’s post.

Briefly, however, I will say that these three movies are worth watching. Curse of the Golden Flower is worthwhile for the visuals and some good acting, although it’s a true tragedy (not my favorite genre) and I found the second half of the movie somewhat disappointing. I liked Fearless about the same as the first time I watched it and consider it a good, but not great, Chinese film. The true story that the movie depicts is worthwhile on a lot of levels. Finally, I liked A Touch of Sin even better on second viewing. Being a contemporary movie full of (indirect) social commentary and quite unlike the standard Wuxia / historical epic fare, I think it should not be missed by fans of Chinese cinema or Mandarin students in general.


Qiao Hu Study Guide 3 – Week 29

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve posted my third ever Qiao Hu study guide. This episode also has a vocabulary review at the end, so start at minute 21:00, then watch the whole thing. Read through the study guide ahead of time, and keep it open for reference, so that you know what to keep an eye out for. You can also use the study guide to as a prod to mentally review the vocabulary you’ve learned.

In next week’s post, I’ll tell you about a new project within my experiment, which I hope will help me better consolidate the vocabulary I glean from videos, and may also, one day, be the beginnings of a Mandarin learning method I can prepare for regular students of the language, based on videos, of course!

I downloaded and began to watch Curse of the Golden Flower, with one of my favorite Chinese actors, the beautiful Gong Li. So please come back for a review of that movie next week, and an updated films file.



Experiment assessment at the 10% mark: I will learn Mandarin! – Week 28

I have completed 120 hours of viewing, or 10% of the total time planned for this experiment. I have averaged 36.5 minutes a day, above the minimum 30 minutes daily that I had planned. My daughter, Camila Daya, has averaged 22.5 minutes daily, for a total of 74.7 hours thus far.


I have followed my proposed methodology fairly rigorously, learning exclusively through video sources, but in some cases making flexible interpretations of my self-imposed rules, as explained in the posts from Weeks 13 and 25. The most important interpretation is that I have deemed it acceptable to use English-language subtitles with Chinese movies, though I have begun and will continue gradually to reduce their use when repeating a movie.

Have these 120 hours of viewing over six-and-a-half months given me any insight into my hypothesis?

To answer that question, I would recall that my experiment actually has three related hypotheses. The first and main hypothesis is that I can learn to understand Mandarin just by watching authentic videos. The second—and perhaps most difficult to prove—is that this method is actually efficient and effective as compared to more traditional methods. The third hypothesis is that after watching 1,200 hours of authentic Mandarin videos, I will have attained sufficient comprehension that I can tackle a new video, and on first viewing, understand the general plot or the topics that are being discussed.

To the first and primary hypothesis, I feel more strongly than before that the answer will be a clear “YES!” There are times that I feel I am getting nowhere and that Chinese is undecipherable! Yet I have deciphered and begun to learn at least a couple hundred words, and my ability to pick out new words is accelerating, if ever so slowly. Though I am very, very far from my goal of understanding Mandarin, it seems very clear to me that, sooner or later, I will get there. It will take a long time. It will be arduous at times. However, if I stick with it, month after month and year after year, I will eventually understand Mandarin quite well. I will eventually be able to download a brand-new Mandarin movie, or watch a newscast, and understand it immediately, without subtitles. At that point, I will be able to go to Beijing and understand what people are saying in the street.

I feel that I have not gained much insight into the second hypothesis yet. If anything, however, I feel slightly less confident about it than at the beginning of the experiment. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that while strictly speaking, I still believe this second hypothesis may be proved correct, since the methodology may be shown to be effective “as compared to the traditional methods,” I believe that doing something very similar to my experiment, but with guidance, would be even better.

Although I am generally an advocate of combining the four language skills, I think there are definitely advantages to focusing on listening for the first few hundred hours in the case of a radically foreign language, such as Mandarin in the case of an English speaker. I believe that, experiments aside, watching the amazing original Chinese movies I have seen would be a fantastic way for any new learner to begin tackling Mandarin, but ideally with an added component of guidance—something along the following lines.

Before watching the entire movie, the students would practice, with a native-speaking teacher or even a self-study guide, 50 or 100 new terms in Mandarin. Translation should be avoided as much as possible (but a little might be necessary in the very beginning). Images and, best of all, snippets of the actual movie or of other videos could be used in a didactic way to introduce and reinforce these terms. After an hour or two of practicing the new terms—and ideally actually reproducing them and getting feedback from a native speaker—the students would then watch the entire movie. They would hear the terms they practiced many times, in context.

After a first viewing, they would go back to their guidance, reviewing terms, pronunciation, and snippets. Then they would watch the movie again, and depending on their preferences, watch it several more times in subsequent weeks and months, occasionally referring back to the guidance.

Finally, as to the third hypothesis, which is that 1,200 hours will be enough to attain an intermediate level of comprehension: it is too early to tell, but I am insecure about it. If I take what I understand now and try simply to multiply by 10, or better project my current pace into the future, it seems I will not get there. I have learned many of the most common words, which show up most commonly in any conversation, so the new words I learn now do not make such a large dent in my estimated percentage of total comprehension. Since April, it seems my comprehension has been increasing by about 1% every 4 months. If that rate continues, in five more years I would still understand less than 20% of natural Mandarin dialogue.


However, there are other factors to consider. One is the more subtle neurological adaptation that I mentioned in my early posts. I am, bit by bit, becoming more familiar with the phonemes and the cadence of Mandarin. I hope this increasing familiarity will bear greater fruits later on. Second, my acquisition of terminology is not likely to be linear. I believe that as I understand more, I will be able to pick up new words at an accelerating rate.

If you have ever put together a 10,000-piece puzzle, I believe it may provide an apt analogy. In my puzzle-building strategy, you first find the corners and start separating the edge pieces. These initial successes provide a sense of accomplishment. It would be akin to learning wo, ni, hao, shi, de, and shie shie in the first weeks of Mandarin. Though you don’t really understand any dialogue yet, you can certainly pick out a lot of wo’s, and that feels like progress!

Then, the slow and grueling part of the puzzle making begins. All the tiny pieces look so similar. You have no idea where any of them go, and you can hardly begin to put any together. Bit by bit, though—often by trial and error or some lucky break—you make matches and the puzzle begins to take form. That is where I currently am in my Mandarin experiment, and where I expect to be for a few months, if not years.

When you complete all the edges and parts of puzzle’s interior scenery begin to take shape, your pace picks up quite a bit. You can easily tell where certain pieces fit. You are moving fast and progress is visible on a daily basis. It is a 10,000-piece puzzle, so it’s still a challenge and requires a good deal of patience. But there is no longer any doubt that you will finish, and you can already project about how long it will take. That is where I hope to get before my experiment is finished.

The final phase is when you have completed most of the puzzle and are just filling in holes. That period is truly fast-paced and fun. I certainly don’t expect to get to that phase within my 1,200 hours, but it is something to look forward to eventually.

Importantly, I am enjoying my experiment and continue to feel motivated. I have found good sources, especially Qiao Hu, quality original Chinese movies, and Disney movies in Mandarin. I have set aside sources I don’t like as much, such as Pleasant Goat, low-quality TV dramas and older, low-quality movies, in addition to a source I Iiked quite a bit, but that was too difficult—Boonie Bears.

The project has become a bonding experience with my daughter. By the way, I asked her if she thought she would learn Mandarin if she persisted with the method we have adopted, and if it was a good way to learn. To both questions, she answered, unequivocally, “Yes.”

I have been very regular about this blog, have had a few appreciative readers, and hits in general have been ticking up very slightly. The most interesting aspect has been that people have accessed from all parts of the globe, which I will write about in the near future.

I hope the remaining 90% of my experiment will be as enjoyable, and even more productive, than the 10% that is already past.