Portuguese pages, Qiao Hu Study Guide #5, and a Mandarin Movie Marathon – Week 40

There’s a lot going on this week at Mandarin Language Acquisition Experiment Central!

I have created my first non-English pages. Este blog agora conta com páginas em português! Stay tuned in coming weeks for Spanish and French pages. Regular posts will continue to be in English, but there will always be some multilingual content on the blog. If anybody would like to kindly volunteer translations or commentary in other languages, I’d greatly appreciate it!

The fifth ever Qiao Hu Stud

y Guide is hot off the press! Learn some important adjectives (pairs of antonyms), review your numbers once again, and watch very easy-to-follow stories to pick up extra vocabulary. Share these clips with your kids or with your nieces and nephews and they will always remember to wash their hands before they eat and to cooperate during competitions.

In addition to carefully preparing new content for the blog, I am currently in the middle of a Mandarin Movie Marathon! I had a very sleep-deprived 20-hour trip back from Encarnacion, Paraguay, and managed to watch Hero for the sixth time, A Touch of Sin for the third time, and part of Shower. I am still too tired from my trip to tackle more serious responsibilities, so I plan to continue my intensive viewing. I have a few new DVDs brought to me from the States—Yi Yi by Edward Yang, and Casablanca, Pinocchio, and The Lion King dubbed in Mandarin. I hope my daughter will watch one of the latter two with me and clock a few hours of Mandarin viewing for the first time in months.

A funny thing happened to me while in the airports in Argentina and Brazil. I have noticed this neuro-linguistic phenomenon in the past, but never in Mandarin. Certainly the movie marathon was the main factor that caused it, but my sleep deprivation probably also contributed. When I would hear people speaking in the background, but wasn’t paying any attention to what they were saying, my brain would start hearing words in Mandarin! Even the intonation and phonetics sounded Chinese. Of course, when I focused in on the conversation, it was always Spanish or Portuguese, after all.

Warning to second language learners – Week 39

If you are setting about learning your first foreign language—and especially if you need to attain fluency fast—do not simply imitate my exclusive video-watching method. I am testing a hypothesis, and although my preliminary results are encouraging, I am not yet sure that I will learn well this way. I believe that I would learn more quickly and effectively by having some private classes in which I could speak to a native and be corrected, and perhaps tackling Mandarin characters from the outset. Further, there is no doubt that thirty minutes a day is far too little for someone who needs to learn quickly. You should put in several hours each day if possible.

Some of my fellow language enthusiasts in the forums at www.how-to-learn-any-language.com have told me and another video-only language student in no uncertain terms that (1) we probably will not learn at all and will give up after wasting hundreds or thousands of hours and (2) by conducting my experiment and blogging about it, I risk misleading less experienced students of languages into thinking this is a good stand-alone method and thus wasting years of their time as well.

So be forewarned! If you are not a seasoned language learner, do not try this at home without expert supervision!

However, I should add some additional warnings that my traditionalist friends at the forum did not mention.

  • Millions of language students worldwide obtain mediocre results after employing traditional language learning methods for years—namely formal study using textbooks, grammar rules, memorization, and translations.
  • You will never have time when speaking—or even when writing—to construct sentences based entirely on grammatical rules. If you rely heavily on formal grammar study, you run a serious risk of never speaking with reasonable fluency or even being capable of employing grammatically sound structures in practice.
  • If you learn vocabulary or study texts using translations into your native language, you may never grasp the semantic richness of the terms you are learning, and you may acquire a pernicious mental translation habit that you will hobble your fluency and practical grammar ability. (Students who acquire a mental translation habit first mentally construct phrases in their native language and then try to translate them into the second language, futilely trying to reorganize the translation using grammar rules.)
  • There are at least four serious problems with an approach that emphasizes memorizing vocabulary. Please note that I am very good at memorization and have aced tests throughout my academic career by simply memorizing a few dozen or hundred terms or concepts the day before the exam. However, memorization has not been effective for me in language acquisition.
    1. Long-term retention of vocabulary memorized using word lists, flashcards, or textbooks tends to be poor. I suspect this has to do with the way our brains work through neural webs. Rich neural connections are made when terms are acquired in real-life contexts that are emotionally charged or personally meaningful. This does not happen using flashcards or word lists.
    2. You need to learn many thousands of words (and their variants) to begin to communicate successfully or even understand a language well. Due to the difficulty of committing these terms to long-term memory, you need to review your full list dozens or hundreds of times over a period of many months or years, which presents obvious practical challenges, including intense boredom.
    3. What will you memorize alongside the term? A translation into your first language? If so, you will be painstakingly committing to memory an extremely limited and potentially misleading equivalence, not to mention risking developing a mental translation habit. To begin to appreciate the spectrum of meaning and connotations of the term, you would need to memorize the full dictionary entry for the word or multiple sentences in which the word is used.
    4. Memorizing a term and its translation or definition is still a far cry from being able to spontaneously use the term in conversation. It does not even transfer easily into writing or listening comprehension. Your goal in language acquisition should be real communication—whether written or oral, receptive or productive. Real communication is inherently fast, complex, and highly dynamic. You may be shocked how difficult bridging the gap is between memorized terms and actual communication.
  • The importance of good pronunciation to successful oral communication should never be underestimated. If you rely too much on the written language; if you take an overly academic (i.e. abstract) approach to language acquisition; and if you do not make a conscious effort to internalize the phonemes and cadence of the language you are learning, you may obtain a vast vocabulary and theoretical mastery of grammar and still have serious, permanent difficulties in making yourself understood.

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible for an adult learner to attain native or near-native level mastery of a second language, but it can never be achieved by traditional, textbook methods. Near-native fluency can only be achieved by a tremendous amount of immersion in the language and a conscious, intense motivation to absorb and imitate the mode of expression of the language and at least some of the associated culture. The example of children exposed to a second language, my personal example, and that evidence of countless other people around the world and through the centuries reveal that no formal study is required to attain true second language mastery. Whether formal study is helpful and can speed things up is open to debate; but there is no doubt that formal study is both insufficient and dispensable.

Over three decades of observing hundreds of people tackling language acquisition using various approaches, I have noted a strong and consistent correlation between the use of natural, immersive, communicative approaches and successful outcomes, and, by contrast, consistently limited outcomes with approaches that place a high emphasis on formal study, including grammatical rules, translations, textbooks, memorization, and prepackaged computer-based methods. Though other people may have very different experiences, the clear trend in applied linguistics is toward a natural, communicative approach to language acquisition.

So, with so many perils and warnings, what is a first-time foreign language learner to do? Do not despair! I’ll give you general guidelines and more specific recommendations, for what they’re worth.

In general terms, the good news is that you can successfully learn a foreign language using a wide variety of methods, as long as a few ingredients are present:

  • Strong personal motivation
  • Regular contact with native speakers and/or authentic listening and reading resources. (You will need feedback and corrections from native speakers to achieve a high level of spoken or written fluency.)
  • Thousands of hours of dedication.

Specifically, I recommend you do the following for best results:

  • Immerse yourself in the language by spending a significant amount of time among native speakers and throwing shyness to the wind. If you cannot spend a long time abroad or make native-speaking friends, hire a native speaker for in-person or online conversation classes.
  • Watch a lot of movies and other authentic video sources. In other words, use my method, just not in isolation. Audiobooks and radio are also excellent listening sources.
  • As soon as possible, start reading. You can begin with picture books or non-authentic texts (readers made for learners), but transition to authentic texts as quickly as possible.
  • Create a need and opportunities to do some writing on a regular basis.
  • Do a little formal study if it suits you and gives you some psychological comfort, especially in the beginning. But do not dedicate more than 50% of your time to formal study at a basic level or more than 10% once you reach an intermediate level. It is often much easier and comfortable to engage in formal study, especially if you are introverted, but it will hamper you over time if you give it too much emphasis.

Papiamento and Language Acquisition Resources – Week 38

I just spent two days in Aruba, and earlier this year I was briefly in Curaçao. Four languages are widely spoken on these islands, but among themselves the locals speak Papiamento. Listening to the language for just a few minutes reveals that it seems to be a curious mixture of Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch. According to what some islanders told me, slaves developed Papiamento as a way to speak to each other without their masters understanding. Many of these slaves came from Cape Verde, so at its root Papiamento seems to be a Portuguese Creole, but with vast amounts of Spanish and Dutch vocabulary thrown in. The truth about the origin of Papiamento seems to be far more complex and controversial, but this local explanation is colorful and sheds some light.

If you already speak the three source languages, Papiamento is very easy to pick up. I don’t speak Dutch, but English goes a long way toward filling the gap, along with my Portuguese and Spanish. At a meeting in the Aruban Parliament, the President of the Parliament, knowing I had just arrived on the island, was amazed when I requested “Koffie preto” to drink. Unlike less familiar languages, in which I generally need to hear a term repeated dozens of times in order to assimilate it, I had heard Koffie preto just once and began using it immediately. Koffie is pronounced just like “coffee,” and preto is the exact word for “black” in Portuguese. To give just a few more examples, the greetings Bon diaBon tarde, and Bon nochi are ridiculously easy to pick up, as is the polite Danki.

This enjoyable contact with Papiamento led me to reflect again on the relative difficulty of foreign language acquisition. If my language learning goal was to add any fifth language to my repertoire as quickly and easily as possible, I might choose Papiamento, and I’m guessing I could speak it fluently in just a few months of intensive study.

Since I don’t anticipate a need to spend significant time in Aruba or Curaçao in the future (unfortunately), learning Papiamento just for the kicks of speaking a fifth language would be silly.

Nay, I am a serious student of languages! At least I’d like to think of myself as such, and therefore I am tackling a globally important language that I consider the ultimate challenge in language acquisition![1]

In addition, I have been seeking out high quality resources for linguists, students of Mandarin, and language enthusiasts in general. I will eventually compile them into a permanent page on this blog. For now, I would like to share three with you that I have come across recently.

The first resource is a paper entitled Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in government language teaching, written by two staff members from the US Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute: Frederick H. Jackson and Marsha A. Kaplan[2]. The lessons it details are mostly congruent with my language acquisition theories, gleaned from my life experience as a language learner and teacher. Even some small details coincide, such as their opinion that class size should never exceed 6 students—the same rule I stipulated at my language institute.

However, there are a few concepts that diverge, and these differences are most interesting to me, since it is hard to argue with “FSI’s half century of practical experience preparing thousands of adult learners to carry out complex, professional tasks in foreign languages.” I hope to explore these conceptual similarities and discrepancies in a future post.

The second resource is an amazing website called “How to Learn any Language.” About two weeks ago I began participating in the forums on this site, especially in the topic Learning Techniques, Methods & Strategies. I posted about my experiment, and most of the responses I got were very much against the prospects for my experiment to be successful. However, they were very smart and thoughtful responses, so I actually appreciate the challenge. Generally speaking, this forum is an invaluable resource for exchanging ideas about language acquisition and seems to be populated by highly intelligent and experienced language enthusiasts.

Another resource I have been using for some time is Chinese-forums.com. It’s specifically for people studying Mandarin and Cantonese, but it also seems to congregate a lot of bright and seasoned language learners. As with the other site, I have mostly gotten challenging and skeptical responses when I mention my experimental methodology. But I’ve also benefited from great film recommendations, the suggestion to produce my Qiao Hu Study guides, and a lot of enriching discussions. The forum is not to be missed by anyone interested in China or Chinese language.



[1] It is interesting to note that a fair amount of Mandarin is spoken in Aruba, since nearly all the supermarkets are owned by Chinese immigrants.

[2] If there is any copyright issue with posting this paper here, please let me know and I will be happy to take it down and provide a link instead.


Rottentofu.com and Zhang Yimou – Week 37

A side benefit of my experiment is that by the time I’m done I may be hired by The New York Times as their official Chinese film critic. If not, I can at least be a top critic at rottentofu.com (Hmmm, I wonder if that domain has already been registered. Let me check . . . No! It was available, so I just registered it myself – haha! If you don’t believe me, go ahead and search for the registration information at http://www.register.com/whois.rcmx). Best $5 I ever spent!

So let me know if you have any ideas for my new website, www.rottentofu.com. I’m not sure when I’ll actually set it up, but the basic idea, that I have been carefully crafting over the past few seconds, is to create a website specializing in reviews of Asian films.

Of course, I’m joking about becoming a film critic (not about the website), but I am gradually becoming a Chinese cinephile. I’ve begun paying more attention to Chinese actors and directors than I ever did with Hollywood. In the past, I’ve rarely chosen to watch movies primarily because of the cast, much less the director. However, as it becomes increasingly difficult for me, as a Westerner living in Brazil, to find high-quality films in Mandarin, I think I will begin doing just that: searching for all the films made by the directors I admire, and to a lesser extent starring the actors that I most enjoy watching.

Fortunately, I have my Chinese films table, which I have reworked to start analyzing—and to share with you—the cast and directors from the movies I’ve watched thus far. You can see the results at the end of this post.

I didn’t even realize until I began tabulating this data that I already have a clear favorite as a director: Zhang Yimou. Out of the 20 Chinese movies that I have watched so far and consider good cinema, an astounding seven of them were directed by Zhang. Here’s a short biography, mostly based on information available from Wikipedia.

Zhang was born in Shaanxi Province. His father had fought for Chiang Kai-Shek’s army during the Chinese Civil War, and his uncle and older brother fled to Taiwan, leading to problems for Zhang early in life. He worked as a farm laborer and in a textile mill for many years before studying photography and cinema and subsequently becoming a successful director.

Seven of his films have been the Chinese submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film and one was the Hong Kong submission; three of these were nominated, although none took first prize.

An interesting fact is that Zhang’s career grew in tandem with that of actress Gong Li. His first seven films, between 1987 and 1995, starred Gong Li as lead actress. By the time they were making Shanghai Triad together, in 1995, they were also romantically involved, but their personal and professional relationship ended with that film. Gong Li would appear in a Zhang Yimou film again only in 2006.

In the interim, Zhang made three great movies from my list with another gorgeous and talented actress, Zhang Ziyi: The Road Home, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers. Meanwhile, Gong Li continued her stellar acting career with other directors, including the film The Emperor and the Assassin, which I enjoyed and also recommend. Interestingly, she also worked alongside Zhang Ziyi in Memoirs of a Geisha—which generated intense controversy, since the geishas were played by star Chinese, and not Japanese, actresses in this Steven Spielberg film!

Curse of the Golden Flower reinstated Gong Li and Zhang Yimou’s professional relationship. Zhang’s latest movie, Coming Home (which I have not watched as it is apparently not yet available for download) also stars Gong Li. I can’t wait to see it!

Here is the list of my recommended Chinese movies in Mandarin. I’ve grouped the list by director. You will note that another director is quite prominent on my list, Ang Lee (a Taiwanese American). It’s surprising that more than half of my 20 recommended Chinese Mandarin-language films were directed by just two people. For those not yet familiar with my complete list, the aggregate score is based on a variety of factors—the most heavily weighted being my personal ratings, Rotten Tomatoes critics ratings, and IMDb users ratings.

Name of Movie Aggregate Score Order watched Year Director Star 1 Star 2
Hero 9.8 3 2002 Zhang Yimou Jet Li Ziyi Zhang
House of Flying Daggers 8.8 13 2004 Zhang Yimou Ziyi Zhang Takeshi Kaneshiro
Shanghai Triad 8.6 25 1995 Zhang Yimou Li Gong
The Road Home 8.4 10 1999 Zhang Yimou Ziyi Zhang
The Story of Qiu Ju 7.9 32 1992 Zhang Yimou Li Gong
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles 7.2 11 2005 Zhang Yimou
Curse of the Golden Flower 7.0 27 2006 Zhang Yimou Li Gong Yun-Fat Chow
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 8.5 6 2000 Ang Lee Ziyi Zhang Yun-Fat Chow
The Wedding Banquet 8.4 30 1993 Ang Lee
Eat Drink Man Woman 8.2 31 1994 Ang Lee
Lust, Caution 7.8 28 2007 Ang Lee Tony Chiu Wai Leung
Journey to the West 9.1 8 2013 Stephen Chow
Shower 8.9 22 2000 Yang Zhang
The Emperor and the Assassin 8.3 14 1998 Kaige Chen Li Gong
Farewell my Concubine 7.6 1 1993 Kaige Chen Li Gong
A Touch of Sin 8.3 12 2013 Zhangke Jia
Fearless 7.9 9 2006 Ronny Yu Jet Li
Warlords 7.1 18 2007 Peter Chan Jet Li Andy Lau
Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon 7.0 19 2013 Hark Tsui
Red Cliff 2 6.9 16 2009 John Woo
Red Cliff 1 6.9 15 2008 John Woo Tony Chiu Wai Leung Takeshi Kanemoro