Of Lions, Bears, and Chinese Songs – Week 66

This week my daughter Camila Daya and I watched two movies in Mandarin together, and also practiced children’s music a bit on our way to her gym classes.

We watched The Lion King dubbed in Mandarin for the fourth or fifth time and enjoyed it thoroughly, as always. The momentary inspiration for this selection was the fact that we are going to do a safari in South Africa next week, so seeing the animated lions and other animals helped us get excited.

Previously, when looking up Boonie Bears episodes, I chanced upon a feature-length Boonie Bears movie that I had not even previously heard of, so of course I downloaded it. It was the second movie we watched last week. There are no English subtitles, so we understood very little of the dialogue, but had a good time watching it. The plot is relatively easy to follow, of course. In addition, I was pleased on several occasions to pick out words I would not have understood a few months ago, and which helped me understand the storyline. Even my daughter, who has done only a third of my Mandarin viewing thus far, understood several words.

It took me a while to discover the title of the movie. Finally, Google told me it is a 2015 film called Boonie Bears: Mystical Winter. I didn’t find it as entertaining–and certainly not as funny–as last year’s Boonie Bears: To the Rescue. Nevertheless, there were touching moments, and I found the mystical aspects of it quirky but interesting.

On my way to the farm this weekend, I was very pleased to be able, for the first time, to sing along with Nan Zi Han from Mulan the whole way through. I have finally completed its memorization, after many months! So, my dear (and dwindling) readers, you can look forward to a new music video soon, hopefully in May, when we get back from Africa.

Learning Mandarin with Kids’ Music – Week 59

Tomorrow I begin my evening Law classes again at the University of Brasilia, after a two-year hiatus. On top of my demanding full-time job, work trips, language institute, farm and tree plantation, and lovely family, my schedule is a bit tight.

But I’m enjoying my Mandarin experiment immensely and there is no way I’m going to stop. I don’t even want to slow down. I intend to keep up my average 45 minutes per day.

Trying to fit so much into one’s day may reflect some underlying existential dilemma (actually, I’m pretty sure it does in my case), but it also takes planning, discipline, and creativity. No time can be wasted. That includes time behind the wheel. Fortunately, I don’t have a long commute, but driving to work and back twice a day and taking my daughter to the gym and school takes up a total of nearly one hour a day. On weekends, I spend at the very least three hours driving to get to my farm and then back to Brasilia.

When traffic permits (safety first, folks), I have been using that time to make hands-free calls (probably not the best idea), listen to spiritual music and talks, mentally plan projects for my language institute, and more recently listen to French radio broadcasts.

This imperative of efficiency has led me to make a significant change in my Mandarin experiment. I have increasingly incorporated listening to music into my “studies.” I have listened to music since early in my experiment, but initially only as it appeared in the videos I was watching anyway: mostly dubbed Disney movies, but also Boonie Bears and Qiao Hu.

I transitioned to using music as a deliberate learning tool when in June of last year I began repeating the video segment of Nan Zi Han (Make a Man Out of You) in the Chinese dub of Mulan, attempting to decipher and memorize the syllables. I made some progress, but it was extremely slow and I put that mini subproject on the backburner.

This year, I took up the Boonie Bears intro song, which is much shorter, and set out to learn it. That is when I started listening in the car for the sake of efficiency. I found that repeating single lines over and over again—sometimes actually turning the music off to better focus on memorizing lines—was at least as effective as watching the video endlessly. I found I was making good use of my time and advancing my learning process. I learned the entire song and made the infamous video of my daughter and me singing and dancing.

I then returned to Nan Zi Han, and I am slowly learning it, mostly while driving. Stay tuned for a much sillier home video, coming soon.

In the meantime, I chanced upon an awesome little album of Chinese children’s songs with a electronica accompaniment. It’s Little Dragon Tales by the Shanghai Restoration Project. I downloaded the album, which came with a pdf file that included the lyrics—in Chinese characters, pinyin, and English translation. The temptation was too great. Not only that—I’m fully convinced that using music for language acquisition is much more effective when one actually learns the lyrics. So I began peaking.

I now listen to Little Dragon Tales, the Boonie Bears song, and Nan Zi Han while driving. Obviously, this is exclusively oral (and mental). However, occasionally I will spend two or five minutes studying the lyrics to these songs (at zero miles per hour—no worries) to be sure I am getting the syllables more or less right, and that I have a general sense of the meaning of what I am singing.

So far, just 20 out of my 300 hours have been used for listening to music, but that proportion will increase over time. All told, approximately three of those hours have been spent while accessing the lyrics.

I have updated my Hypothesis and Methodology pages to include listening to music, which I had not thought of when I started my experiment. I am tracking the time I spend with music as carefully as my video-viewing time. When assessing my results at the end of this experiment, I will certainly take into account the use of music as well as the videos.

In sum, practical considerations, especially the imperative of efficiency, have trumped methodological purism and rigid attachment to rules. However, I believe listening to Chinese music is fully in the spirit of my experiment, even if critics will undoubtedly pounce on my use of lyrics (even though it accounts for 1% of my experiment time) to question its credibility.

Disney movies for learning Mandarin and other languages – Week 53


sleeping_beauty mulanlittle_mermaid

snow_white cinderella lion_king

Disney movies dubbed in a foreign language are an excellent resource for improving one’s L2 listening comprehension. My reasons for making this claim can be summed up in two words: high quality.

The better Disney movies are endlessly entertaining because they are brilliantly scripted and executed. It’s easy to understand why classics such as Cinderella and Snow White and modern masterpieces like The Little Mermaid, Lion King, and Nemo all have at least 90% approval on Rotten Tomatoes.

Fortunately, it appears the studio takes equal care in producing first-rate international versions of these films. My impression is that the translations and dubbing are among the best in the industry; the results are satisfying for children and their parents worldwide. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Disney’s language localization is the production of country- and language-specific versions of the songs in the many musical movies such as Mulan or Beauty and the Beast. “I marvel at how they get the same overall meaning into lyrics which still fit the melody and rhyme scheme perfectly”[1] is an opinion I second without hesitation.

Most studios do not choose to translate the songs in their movies at all, and the fact that Disney does, and with such quality, is an added reason that their productions are such a fine language-acquisition resource. In my view, films are, generally speaking, the best available resource for self-study in second-language listening comprehension. They effectively mimic the way the language is naturally spoken; the visual cues greatly enhance comprehension; they are highly entertaining and easily available. This insight underpins my entire experiment.

Music, however, is a close second, with distinct advantages: as the advertising industry grasped long ago, catchy music fosters vocal and mental repetition and gets language deep into your subconscious. This phenomenon is useful not only for marketing professionals, but also for language acquisition enthusiasts.

High quality songs in movies combine many of the advantages of both learning resources. Watching numerous Disney movies again and again in the target language and carefully studying, memorizing, and singing along with the lyrics to the songs would take any child (or adult) a long way toward attaining solid listening comprehension skills.

In my own experiment, I do not carefully study lyrics, though I would always recommend that regular language students do so. I have, nonetheless, decided that using my time efficiently trumps literal adherence to my original game plan of exclusively viewing videos. Thus, I have decided to take Mandarin songs from movies and other videos I like to watch and repeat them over and over in the car as I drive until I am able to sing along. I think this change is fairly uncontroversial since it is still a listening-only approach based on authentic audio material and does not involve formal study, classes, or a teacher. I am recording the time spent on these songs in the car and counting it toward my 1,200 experimental hours.

I am currently learning the Boonie Bears (season 1) theme song, after which I plan to continue learning Nan Zi Han and then probably A Girl Worth Fighting For—both from Mulan—and probably other Disney movie songs. I intend eventually to make a CD compilation with Boonie Bears and Disney movie music and also add some infantile but catchy Qiao Hu tunes, which, unlike the others, I can actually understand.

My goal, beyond squeezing more Mandarin hours into an inordinately busy schedule, internalizing the sounds of the language, and reinforcing some vocabulary, is to be able to sing along to these songs whenever I sit down to watch Boonie Bears or the Disney movies. Thus I will not only provide some good laughs for anybody in the vicinity, I will also make the movie-watching experience more fun, and, most importantly, enhance it as a powerful language-acquisition exercise.

curse_golden_flowerThere is a significant comparative downside to using Disney movies to learn Mandarin or any language besides American English: you are failing to get the associated cultural understanding. The best part of my Mandarin experiment thus far has been discovering Chinese cinema. Watching wu xia epics such as Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Red Cliff, and The Warlords, and realistic fiction such as Not One Less, Aftershock, and The Story of Qiu Ju has not only been greatly entertaining, it has enriched me with insights about Chinese history, geography, and culture.

I don’t consider cultural insight a side benefit to acquiring a second language, but rather an integral and necessary part of the process. You can learn the mechanics of a language and a good deal of vocabulary without delving into the associated culture, but I doubt you can ever attain true mastery or elegant and nuanced expression without it. There is no doubt that language and culture are deeply interwoven. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who spoke six languages fluently, supposedly said:

“I speak Italian to ambassadors, French to women, German to soldiers, English to my horse and Spanish to God.”


“A man is as many times a man, as many languages he knows.”[2]

Disney does such a good job of translating movies and even their songs that, invariably, a bit of the L2 culture is incorporated. Yet, fundamentally, it is Western—and especially American—culture that motivates the storylines and all the elements surrounding them. The superimposed foreign language translation will always be an imperfect fit when compared to original Chinese movies such as Shower or Curse of the Golden Flower.

However, the obvious factor that I have not yet mentioned and that clinches the argument in favor of dubbed Disney movies as a potentially valuable part of one’s listening repertoire is their appeal for kids. I’m sure there are also Chinese original shows and movies that could potentially hold Western children’s attention—and in fact I have found such a source in the Boonie Bears. But nothing gets my daughter to clock in long hours of Mandarin viewing like watching The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Nemo with me. We have watched all nine movies pictured at the top of this post together. Fortunately, I enjoy them almost as much as she does. I should note that they are all available on DVD on the U.S. Amazon website.

For you to use these dubbed Disney movies with your children, they will have to either have a much higher level of Mandarin (or other target language), so they actually understand most of the dialogue, or, like my daughter, be content to read the English-language subtitles. In the latter case, one needs to remind them also to pay attention to what is spoken—yet I am unsure how effective a strategy that is. I do not know whether my daughter really gets much Mandarin practice or is too caught up in reading the subtitles. I am not particularly worried about this, however, because watching subtitled movies has greatly benefited her reading comprehension in English!

In short, Disney movies are a great choice for kids learning a foreign language or—as in my case—for adults who want to share their learning experience with their kids and provide them with some level of exposure.



[1] http://www.lionking.org/~timwi/cgi-bin/viewsongs.cgi

[2] http://www.lexiophiles.com/english/language-culture-and-thoughts-do-languages-shape-the-way-we-think

The Boonie Bears are Back – Week 43

Faithful longtime followers of my blog (hi Mom) will remember fondly that during the first three months of my Mandarin experiment, many delightful hours were spent watching Boonie Bears with my daughter, Camila Daya. The humor and basic storyline are quite comprehensible even if you don’t understand one word of Mandarin. Here’s a typical example:

I stopped watching Boonie Bears in April because I finally deemed it too difficult for total beginners. New decipherable words seemed to be very few and far between. I decided I should watch Qiao Hu in its place. Instead, I ended up watching mostly Chinese movies with English subtitles.

Last week I explained that I intend to gradually reduce the use of English subtitles in my Mandarin viewing. I will probably do so much faster than I specified in that post. Just in the past two weeks, I have gone from a previous average of 70% to a current 54% of viewing using subtitles. Watching movies without subtitles, however, is still not very enjoyable because I understand so little of the dialogue. So I decided to give Boonie Bears another try.

I had missed those hilarious fellas! Boonie Bear episodes are a perfect 10 minutes of mindless entertainment at the end of a long day. Even my wife watches with us, without the slightest intention of learning any Chinese!

My assessment of the Mandarin-learning benefit of Boonie Bears has changed significantly. Happily, I understand quite a bit more than before. As I’ve insisted recently with my skeptics, I’m definitely making progress. I am no longer listening to unintelligible garble. I understand a few words in each scene, enough to get the gist of the dialogue.

I also think I may have been somewhat off in my initial assessment. As I watch, I realize I did learn quite a few words from Boonie Bears in the early months—everything from how to answer a phone and ask who it is to specific vocabulary like hat and honey.

An unfortunate consequence of my initial abandonment of the ursine duo was that my daughter pretty much stopped watching Mandarin. Two nights ago, we watched Boonie Bears together just like in the old days—a total of 4 episodes or 40 minutes of viewing.

Shuda and Swar, we’re back and cheering you on as you protect the environment and endlessly torment that poor little lumberjack!

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 www.chinese-forums.com).

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.

How to Teach Your Children Mandarin Chinese – Week 17

Are you an expecting parent or a parent with a child under 4 years of age? Do you want to guarantee your child an IQ boost, a competitive edge, and easy access to a millennial culture? Do you want your child to be fully prepared for the 21st century? Would you like your child to be fluent in Mandarin Chinese?

Well, I can tell you how to do it—and it’s probably much easier than you think. And I’ll tell you free of charge! That’s right, no expensive e-books, no exclusive seminars, no pricy memberships. All you have to do is read my blog, which is free and entertaining!

First, let me tell you about my six-year-old daughter. She doesn’t speak Chinese, but she speaks native English, despite never having lived in an English-speaking country or done any schooling in English. She reads and writes at or beyond her grade level in English, and uses the language as fully and creatively as a child who has lived in the United States all her life.

If you knew us personally, you might raise two immediate objections to the implied comparison. First of all, her father is a native English speaker and has used the language with her since birth, while you speak little to no Chinese. That’s true, even though the time she spends speaking with me in English makes up 10% of her day, while the rest is all in Portuguese.

Second, you may say that English is much easier than Mandarin. If you’re a bit more sophisticated about language acquisition, you would say that English is easier for a Portuguese speaker.

That objection is easier to counter, so I’ll start with it. Difficulty in language acquisition is undoubtedly a function of proximity to your native language, but that applies to second language acquisition, and in particular to adults. The whole issue of inherent language complexity or difficulty can be seen as essentially a moot point if you consider that children worldwide acquire their native language at about the same age. Children attain various levels of communicative ability at the same pace, regardless of whether their maternal tongue is English, German, Italian, Russian, Arabic, Zulu, or Mandarin.

In addition, it is extremely common in various parts of the world for children to acquire two or more languages simultaneously, and in many cases those languages are unrelated. For example, a Basque child may learn Basque (a non-Indo-European language*) and Castilian Spanish, while a Burundian child from an educated family might learn Kirundi, Swahili, and French simultaneously. More to the point, undoubtedly countless Chinese American children right now are switching effortlessly between Mandarin and English in their homes.

Therefore, there is nothing special about Mandarin or any other language that would make learning it alongside your native language vastly different from my daughter learning English and Portuguese simultaneously.

Now to the first objection. Let me answer it by telling you about my Brazilian friend and colleague, Mr. Lima. Until recently, Lima and his family had never traveled to an English-speaking country. Although he speaks English, his wife does not, and the language is not used in his home. His daughter has attended exclusively Portuguese-language schools. Nonetheless, when they took their daughter to the United States for the first time when she was 5 years old, her English was so good she had no trouble communicating. Prior to that, they had enrolled her briefly in English language courses for children (including at the Natural Language Institute), but when she entered, she already placed at an advanced level.

So what was Lima’s secret for his daughter? It turns out it was the same secret I have also used to full effect with my own daughter: children’s videos in English. In my daughter’s case, I would say watching English-language videos accounts for at least 30% of her native fluency in English. And in Lima’s case, his daughter’s advanced level of English, prior to enrolling in English courses or traveling abroad, was probably 90% due to watching videos in English.

There is no reason you cannot do the same with your children in Chinese. If you can get your children to watch an hour or two of videos in Mandarin from an early age, I guarantee you that in a couple of years, they will obtain excellent oral comprehension, which you can then build on by enrolling them in classes (preferably with a private teacher or in a very small group) and/or by taking trips to Mandarin-speaking countries.

The reason I recommend this be done with children under 4 years of age is that they will offer little or no resistance. In particular, if you can get your acquiescing 1-year-old infant accustomed to Chinese videos, by the time they are old enough to start complaining and insisting on their own preferences, they will understand enough to stick with it (with a little enforcement on your part—Lima only allowed his daughter to watch cartoons if they were in English).

So, now that you know this great secret, I know what you’re thinking, or at least what’s in the back of your mind. WHAT are you going to get your kid to watch in Chinese? How are you going to get access to videos in Mandarin? How do you know if they are watching quality content that will contribute to their education and morals and not some strange show that will unhinge their Western socialization process and give them recurring wuxia nightmares?

You don’t have the time or energy to do in-depth research on Chinese children’s programming and then mail order DVDs from Beijing, do you? WHAT CAN BE DONE?

Well, I HAVE THE ANSWER FOR YOU. This is where my Mandarin language acquisition experiment comes in!

What if I tell you that by typing two words into YouTube you can access endless videos in Mandarin that are ideal for your small children? That’s right, at zero cost, and with the slightest of efforts on your part, your children have at their disposal years’ worth of quality programming for toddlers. This show is specially designed to get Chinese children to learn Mandarin—including the recognition of many Chinese characters. And—newsflash—your small child’s highly plastic American/European/Brazilian/etc. brain is not essentially any different from the brains of toddlers growing up in Beijing or Shanghai, so they will learn just the same.

So, what are these two magic words? I know what you’re thinking. This is where I require you to click on a series of links, watch some cheesy promotional videos, and finally pay for my exclusive e-book. NO! I already told you! This advice is absolutely free, no gimmicks! So, without further ado, here are the two words:



This show will teach your kids to brush their teeth and they will never forget to wash their hands. They will learn to be friendly, polite, eat fruits and vegetables, and respect their elders. And, most importantly, I give you my personal guarantee that if you get your little kids addicted to this show, such that they watch one or two hours per day of it, in a couple of years they will understand Mandarin quite decently for their age level.

Of course, your job as a parent won’t be completely finished. You’ll still have to teach your kids to ride a bicycle. And you should eventually enroll them in Chinese lessons, get in touch with your local Chinese immigrant community to find opportunities for them to make friends and play in Chinese, and take them on a couple of trips to mainland China, Taiwan, or Singapore. But have no doubts: Qiao Hu will lay the groundwork.

Stay tuned for a future post about using dubbed Disney movies to hone your children’s Mandarin language comprehension skills!


* The origins of the Basque language are unknown, but scholars believe it descended from pre-Indo-European languages present in the Iberian Peninsula.


Proxies for interaction and mediation – Week 13


(Before reading my post, please note that I’ve updated my graphs page).

Interaction and mediation are undoubtedly important factors in language acquisition. Children do not learn their mother tongues simply by listening and repeating. They continuously receive corrections and other types of feedback from adults. Parents instinctually modify the pitch of their voices and their speech patterns to facilitate infant comprehension. They also generally teach vocabulary in a deliberate manner by pointing to objects and carefully enunciating words, eliciting imitation from their toddlers. They model structures and engage in question and answer sessions. Daily, children have the opportunity and the need to test and hone their skills, first at home, and later at school and other environments.

This type of human interaction and mediation is not only beneficial, but probably indispensable for one to learn to speak any language, and for a child to learn to read and write in their first language. I would say it is evidently beneficial for acquiring any language skill. However, is it indispensable for acquiring listening comprehension of a new language? Is it possible, without any interaction or mediation, gradually to decipher meaning, isolating words and then figuring out how they are combined and altered to construct sentences? Or is that possible only when one already speaks a related language?

In a sense, that is the question my experiment seeks to answer. I will not interact with any Chinese speakers. And nobody will be mediating for me: no teacher, no parent, nobody will modify speech patterns, gesticulate, check if I understood—and if I did not, slow down, repeat, rephrase, clarify.

However, my listening is not devoid of context. I assume that if I were simply to listen to audio recordings or Chinese radio for years and years I would never learn. At best, I might become a Mandarin parrot, imitating sounds and even words and sentences, but without grasping their meaning.

That is why I am watching videos. Hypothetically, the images provide the context I need to decipher meaning. Interaction between the actors can be considered a proxy—if a poor one—for my own interaction in Mandarin, to the extent that I can project my consciousness on characters and situations and experience them vicariously.

There are at least three proxies for mediation in viewing videos. One is simply being previously familiar with the story that is being told—in other words, having added contextual clues. I haven’t yet watched familiar Hollywood movies in Mandarin, as I intend to, but occasionally, familiar themes are presented in Chinese videos, such as in the movie Lost on Journey, which borrows heavily from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

A second, similar proxy for mediation that I consider far from ideal is the use of English subtitles. I have explained in previous posts that when I download movies that have English subtitles, I am allowing myself to view them. However, I don’t think this is an effective strategy in the long run, since it does not allow me to concentrate fully on dialogue, and thus is distracting. Additionally, if it leads me to develop a mental translation habit, it could be perniciously limiting. In the short run, though, it does allow me to pick up some vocabulary.

The third, and probably most beneficial, proxy for mediation and, at some level, for interaction, is watching shows that are made for toddlers. These shows are designed to help Chinese (or Taiwanese) children learn to speak (and read). Therefore, the adult presenters do a lot of the same things that parents do with their toddlers. They speak more slowly, more simply, with repetition and little mnemonic songs. They are not mediating for me, specifically, but they are mediating for small children in general. And, when learning a foreign language, one is analogous to a small child.

These shows are also sometimes designed to elicit reactions and repetition by children. These responses do not constitute authentic interaction, but they can be seen as a proxy for them.

For these reasons, in a way shows made for babies and small children are the ideal video sources for me or any beginner to learn Mandarin, or any new, radically foreign language. There is only one problem. They are so boring for an adult. This lack of appeal is not only a problem in terms of motivation, but also for engagement and concentration.

Nevertheless, I intend to increase my weekly doses of these shows. The two I have found so far are momo, which I have mentioned before, and a show that seems to be by the same producers and somehow related to it. I don’t have a proper name for it, but it might be qihu, or 巧虎 in Chinese characters. I call it Tiger, because the main character is a dorky “tiger” (a person in a life-size tiger suit). Many of the shows center around getting kids to wash their hands. [Correction: I just did a little googling. The show is called Qiao Hu, and it is a Japanese import.]

This show is both very boring to an adult and extremely good for acquiring new vocabulary and comprehension in Chinese (even better than momo). Although I’m not trying to learn script at all, I venture to say it would also be a fantastic tool for someone who was. I watched some this past week and will try to incorporate as much Tiger in my Mandarin viewing diet as I can stomach.

Here is an example of a particularly useful episode. The second half is even better than the first. Among other things, you can learn the names of several types of fruit. Happy viewing, and Happy Easter!

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.