How to decipher words watching authentic video – Week 45

(It’s Friday night and in a few hours I’m beginning a 9-day hike in Peru, from Cachora to Choquequirao to Machu Picchu. However, I will have this post appear on Sunday evening. The following week, my post may be a couple of days late.)

A fellow language enthusiast and a complete skeptic about the utility of my approach and of my whole Mandarin project was recently arguing on a forum that one cannot decipher words in such a radically foreign language such as Mandarin using straight video. He posted a link to a Chinese movie and said the following:

“For example, it would be interesting to see how one would could figure out how to say  butterfly in Mandarin just by watching this film.”

For this week’s post, I’d like to share with you my reply.

I am so glad you asked! I have not watched that film (I will give it a look), but I will tell you exactly how I learned the word butterfly without subtitles. Watch from 0:45-3:40 of this Qiao Hu episode. (I simply ignore the Mandarin subtitles, by the way, as I understand none of them.)

I also learned how to say “to fly” from that same song. (sounds like “fay” in English)

Then, when watching the movie Casablanca without any subtitles, I learned how to say “airplane”, because it’s the same as “to fly,” but with an extra syllable at the end. It sounds like “fay gee” in English.

The term repeats countless times in the last part of the movie, so if you already know “fay,” it’s easy to pick up. Here is a clip with two instances.

Do you see now how you can learn words without subtitles?

Here are some other words I understood for sure from that same Qiao Hu episode, which I watched at about the 100-hour mark of my experiment. Not to mention many others I think I understood or sort of understood.

I love, You love, daddy, to be, Look!, Great!, my belly, head, shoulders, belly/tummy, butt, sheep, hands

And here are some full phrases I understood. This was at 100 hours of listening, by the way.

“Butterfly, fly, fly, fly.”

“Daddy, it’s a butterfly.”

“Tap your hands / Tap your head / Tap your belly.”

“Tap Qiao Hu’s head.”

By the way, I’m a bit embarrassed to say it, but I actually like that baby song about butterflies. And I enjoyed watching the whole Qiao Hu episode well enough.

Now, I agree with you on several of your explicit or implicit points:

  1. Subtitles make deciphering words a lot easier.
  1. Understanding what you’re watching makes it a lot more enjoyable.
  1. Pure video, or video with subtitles, is not an efficient way to acquire new vocabulary at a very low level in an utterly foreign language.
  1. Compared to my experiment, a method that included at least a little formal study and some speaking and character study would probably be more effective.

That said, the additional points I’m trying to make, which you may not agree with entirely (and that is fair enough), are:

  1. Watching movies and other video is probably useful at any level.
  1. Using subtitles has the disadvantage of not allowing you to focus very well on the audio.
  1. Getting used to the phonemes, cadence, and mode of oral expression in a language is a very important task that takes a long time. Focusing your full attention on natives speaking from early on is very useful.
  1. Subtitles can also be very misleading in trying to learn new words.
  1. There are serious pitfalls to using translations in learning a foreign language. I

have seen this time and again with students. These pitfalls become more apparent at higher levels, as depending a lot on translations often creates a ceiling, and many people cannot seem to overcome that barrier and learn to speak naturally, fluidly, and with good grammar.

In sum, there are tradeoffs between using more formal, abstract study and more immersive methods. Some of these tradeoffs involve short-term learning vs. long-term results.