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.

Continued Progress – Week 61

Comprehension Vs. Time through March 19, 2015

I tested my comprehension while watching 15 minutes of a random Chinese soap opera in Mandarin using the methodology described in my Week 51 post. Although this year I have picked up the pace with my Mandarin viewing (and listening), I often wonder if I am making real progress. It was encouraging that the results—which are as objective as I can make them—suggest that my gains in comprehension are on track with my hours of listening.

I estimated that during the 15 minutes of the soap opera, approximately 1,453 words were spoken, of which I definitely understood 166, including repeats (such as “wo,” which means “I”). I believe this estimate is conservative, considering my self-test methodology. I feel confident in stating that I now understand about 11% of words spoken in Mandarin in the Singaporean soap opera Tale of Two Cities, and I expect this is representative of what I would understand in day-to-day standard Mandarin conversation.

This level of understanding, while far from true comprehension, is sufficient to allow me to understand more of what is happening in most situations than I would have a 14 months ago, before beginning to learn Mandarin.

I am at 26% of my experiment time, or 313 hours. As the following graph illustrates, I have been squeezing more and more Mandarin viewing time into my days, especially since mid-December (due to how much I enjoy my experiment). This trend may be slightly reversed, as I have started my Law classes again. On the other hand, incorporating music while driving into my experiment allows me to put in more time.

Total Hours, March 19, 2015

The graph seems to show my daughter teetering off and giving up on the experiment. Fortunately, that is not true. In fact, I believe she may have settled into a long-term participation in the experiment, in which she puts in about 1/4 of the hours that I do. She calls it “our experiment” (I melt inside) and we have tons of fun. Basically, she listens to music with me in the car, watches Boonie Bears with me some evenings, and every once in a while we watch part of a movie in Mandarin, usually a dubbed Disney film.

Her pace of acquisition is obviously far slower than mine (which is slow enough). There is absolutely no pressure on her, so she has fun and I think she is gaining a few things:

  • Insight into the language-acquisition process
  • Understanding of what an experiment and a long-term project are
  • Glimpses into Chinese culture
  • Rudiments of Mandarin language
  • An example of stubborn persistence (hopefully not stupid obstinacy)!

Getting back to my test, I’m very glad I did it because it has given me renewed confidence to stay the course. My results during the first few minutes were over 15%, but then gradually dropped down to 11.27%, which I rounded down to 11%. I think this drop may be due in part to simply getting lazier about jotting down words as the 15 minutes dragged on. This difficulty in jotting down words is one of the reasons I believe 11% is actually a conservative estimate.

I am hopeful that after another 47 hours of listening, having reached 360 hours or the 30%-mark of my experiment, I will score above 12%, keeping pace with the first 240 hours, which took me to 8% comprehension.

 

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.

My Chinese Grandfather – Week 57

I’ll best most of you didn’t know I had a Chinese grandfather. Here’s the story, with many thanks to my mother for writing it down:

Victor’s “Chinese” grandfather

by Greta Browne, Victor Hart’s mother

 

Victor’s grandfather, George Chalmers Browne, would have loved to see Victor and Camila singing in Mandarin.

Chalmers, my father, was born in China in 1915, of Presbyterian missionaries who had met there as single missionaries a few years earlier. They raised three children, Chalmers, Beatrice and Francis, who all grew up speaking Chinese. Eventually my father, his sister and his brother left China to go to college in the United States, and my grandparents also left for good, in the mid-thirties, when the Japanese invasion threatened to engulf them in violence. . . . Read more

 

I didn’t even think about this connection when I started my Mandarin experiment. It wasn’t part of my growing-up experience in any way. I suppose it’s just an interesting coincidence; a subtle karmic link gradually ripening into fruition; or an intergenerational, subconsciously transmitted attraction to China.

At any rate, I love the idea that my grandfather would have enjoyed following my experiment.

This past week was Carnival in Brazil. Instead of spending it in drunken debauchery as you non-Brazilians might expect, I had a great time with my family at the farm. Naturally, I watched three movies in Mandarin—Shaolin (again), Raise the Red Lantern, and To Live, all of which I would recommend unhesitatingly.

I watched the latter two without subtitles. It was the first time since early on in my experiment that I watch a Chinese feature film without any subtitles on first viewing.

I still understand little and it’s far less enjoyable than watching with subtitles. However, the experience was very different from when I saw Farewell My Concubine in the first month of my experiment. The number of words and short sentences I understand, though still small, now actually contributes significantly to my understanding of dialogue and of the plot in general, and thus to my enjoyment. This evidence of progress was encouraging, and I believe this past week will mark a gradual transition away from the use of subtitles when watching Chinese movies.

Another encouraging realization came this week when, speaking to my daughter one evening, I mentioned the Mandarin words for dog and cat. I then reflected that I have picked up quite a few animal names in Chinese! This knowledge comes partially from Qiao Hu and is not representative of my general (lack of) vocabulary in the language. Nonetheless, since I never intended to learn animal vocabulary, I was impressed and pleased that I have happened to pick up so much. Of course, I could be wrong on some of these, but I believe I know:

Animal Mandarin phonetic approximation Where I picked it up
cat mao Qiao Hu and others
dog go Not sure
bear shyong Boonie Bears
fish yu Nemo
tiger hu Qiao Hu, others
bird nyao Boonie Bears
horse ma-ah Various
pig joo Qiao Hu, Lion King
sheep yang Qiao Hu
duck yatzi Qiao Hu
ox nyo Fearless (movie)
rabbit tu Qiao Hu, other
elephant ta shang Lion King

Language acquisition debates – Week 56

 

One of the reasons for undertaking my Mandarin experiment is as a motivation and context to engage with language enthusiasts and with language-acquisition theory. I have done that in the past year through forums such as HTLAL and Chinese-forums, commenters on my blog, other blogs, online research, and personal observation and analysis.

For this week’s post, I decided to write down some of the major questions that are debated in the second-language-learning community and that speak to my Mandarin experiment, whether directly or tangentially. I tried to formulate them in a way that allows for yes/no type answers, and is thus conducive to an opinion survey. I converted the first few questions into the above polls and would greatly appreciate if you take just one minute to give your opinion—regardless of whether it’s strongly held or just a hunch.

Please note that, as far as I am aware, there is no consensus among polyglots, language instruction professionals, or academic research on any of these questions. There are very smart and experienced people on both sides of each debate.

Here is the complete list of questions. At the end I comment this week’s study activities.

  • Is it optimal to acquire languages essentially by natural/communicative methods, i.e., just listening, speaking, reading, and writing, or to include a good amount of formal/abstract study of the languages (as one would study an academic subject such as math or biology)?
  • Are purely immersive methods optimal, avoiding using a first language (L1) during periods that one is studying the second language (L2), or do translations and explanations in L2, when properly used, speed up and improve acquisition?
  • Generally speaking, is deliberate, focused memorization of vocabulary (for example, using flashcards) an effective strategy for language acquisition? Does an optimal language acquisition strategy include a significant amount of memorization?
  • In second-language acquisition (SLA), is it most effective to tackle the input/receptive and output/productive skills simultaneously from the outset, or to focus first on input and then on output? In other words, should one delay speaking until definite progress has been made in listening (and, similarly, delay writing until one has made progress on reading)?
  • In SLA, is it optimal to focus first on oral skills (listening and speaking) and later focus on reading and writing, or to tackle both the spoken and written languages simultaneously?
  • Is listening to audio content of which you understand very little beneficial or a waste of time? In other words, does content have to be mostly “comprehensible” to be useful or, given some visual cues and focused attention, is listening to content that is far beyond your level an effective acquisition strategy?
  • Assuming an equal level of enjoyment and concentration, is it generally more effective to listen to same audio content many times or to listen to as much content as possible just one time? It may be beneficial to mix the two approaches, but for best results should one spend most of one’s time repeating (intensive listening) or listening to new content (extensive listening)?
  • In SLA, is using authentic content (done by natives for natives) generally better than using content made for language learners? Or is using high-quality language instruction material generally more effective, at least until one has reached a high level of proficiency?
  • Do adults ideally learn languages essentially in the same way as children, or are the mechanisms essentially different?
  • Does study of grammatical rules contribute significantly to effective language acquisition? Is it efficient to dedicate a significant portion of one’s time to explicit grammar study?
  • Is efficiency in any given acquisition approach a function of intensity of concentration, or can subconscious acquisition, without attention, be somewhat effective? For example, can listening to radio in L2 in the background while one is completely engaged in other tasks significantly boost acquisition, or is it mostly useless?
  • Is effective second-language acquisition inherently similar or inherently different from first language acquisition?
  • Consider two second language (L2) learners. One seeks to achieve basic proficiency in the shortest possible period of time. The other does not care about short-term results, but wants to attain native or near-native level mastery of L2 with efficiency. Should they follow the same or different methods for their first few hundred hours of study? In other words, is achieving basic proficiency as quickly as possible conducive to the best long-term results, or is there a tradeoff?
  • Do people have widely different learning styles that should be respected for optimal language acquisition? Or is language acquisition an essentially universal neurological process, such that certain approaches are optimal for the vast majority of people?
  • Is there a critical period or neurological window for optimal language acquisition? If so, what, on average, is the age range that defines that period?
  • Given the right approach and sufficient time, could almost any adult attain near-native mastery of a second language, or do only certain people have the ability to attain near-native mastery? In other words, do adults rarely master a second language at a native-like level because most people have an inherent neurological limitation in this respect, or because people rarely put in enough time and effort with the correct approaches?

This week I watched the movie Shaolin. It’s entertaining, has themes I like, and is generally well-acted and produced. However, it is a second-tier wuxia movie, if compared to greats like Hero, House of Flying Daggers, or Dragon.

I watched Not One Less again with my wife, mom and stepfather—a fantastic movie that makes you feel good to boot. I also spent some time on Mulan and the song Nan Zi Han, and a bit of Qiao Hu to round out my Mandarin diet.

My Mandarin Music Video – Week 55

Despite the poor quality of my editing, I hope you enjoyed that silly video! I made it to celebrate the fact that I have finally learned an entire song in Mandarin! Thanks Guy Gray for shooting the clips.

The song is the introduction to Boonie Bears, Season 1. I spent around seven hours learning it, mostly while driving back and forth from Brasilia to my farm. After listening to the song once or twice the whole way through, I would take one line at a time and repeat it over and over, unaccompanied, until I had it memorized. Then I would turn the music back on and try to sing two lines straight through, then three, and so forth. It was arduous!

It’s funny that I don’t really know what I’m singing! I am able to understand a few words here and there, and I once read a basic (awkward) translation online, so I have a sense of the overall meaning. But the purpose of the exercise, like my video watching in general, is to get the sounds of the language in my head, on conscious and subconscious levels, knowing that my brain will gradually sort it all out.

Alongside the movies and the occasional Qiao Hu, in coming weeks I plan to watch all the Boonie Bears episodes from the first season straight through. I think there are about 100 episodes in all. I will sing along to the intro song every time, with great enthusiasm, thus enriching my viewing experience.

Disney movies for learning Mandarin and other languages – Week 53

 pinocchiobeauty_beastfinding_nemo

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.”

and

“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

Chinese-language Cinema – Week 52

Not One Less

My favorite Chinese movies to date have been Hero, Journey to the West, and Wu Xia (Dragon), but Shower, House of Flying Daggers, and Not One Less (pictured above), among others, are also of the highest cinematic quality. Films are a fantastic way to improve your listening comprehension if you are a student of Mandarin and constitute an integral part of the experiment I began exactly one year ago today. My updated Chinese films table is a great resource.

But even if you’ve never studied Mandarin and do not intend to, you should definitely expand your cultural horizons and watch these masterpieces. The cinema of China alone (without counting Taiwan and Hong Kong) is the third largest film industry in the world.

In this light, I wrote my first ever film review about my current favorite, Wu Xia (Dragon), which I think you will enjoy. I’ve watched it no less than five times since I first downloaded the movie in October.

I intend to write other Chinese film reviews in coming months.

In January, as I enjoyed my remaining vacation days, I watched six new movies. The best by far was Not One Less, another Zhang Yimou masterwork, but Aftershock is a worthwhile tear jerker. Havoc in Heaven (also known as Uproar in Heaven or The Monkey King) is an 1965 animation that is apparently as important to the Chinese as Wizard of Oz is to Americans.

aftershock       havoc_heaven

Rounding out the list are Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, 14 Blades, and Getting Home, all of which are undoubtedly worthwhile for students of Mandarin or Chinese cinephiles.

mulan_rise_warriorr  14_blades  getting_home

Experiment assessment at the 20% mark: Accelerating comprehension? – Week 51

I have now watched 240 hours of Mandarin-language movies and TV shows, or 20% of the total time for my experiment. Nearly a year has gone by since I began this adventure on January 17, 2014.

The sounds of a language that was once utterly foreign to me have now become familiar, though not quite intelligible. As I reported at the 10% mark, I continue to make steady progress in my deciphering and comprehension. I now occasionally understand complete phrases, and in most sentences I can pick up at least one word.

My incipient comprehension is starting to become useful. When watching a regular movie or show without subtitles, the words and phrases I understand enhance my understanding of the plot, even if marginally.

At this 240-hour mark, I tested my listening comprehension using a new episode of the same Chinese soap opera I have used for this purpose in the past—A Tale of 2 Cities[1]. I think it is a good test because I never watch this particular show or even this genre—so the results are not influenced by previous familiarity with the content or specific voices and manners of speaking. At the same time, the dialogue seems to be in standard Mandarin[2] and is not technical, but rather about daily life. Thus, the results should be representative.

This time, I devised a simple system to measure more accurately and objectively the percentage of word occurrences I was understanding. As I watched, for the first time, 15 minutes of the episode, I jotted down the words I believed I understood. I then watched the entire 15 minutes again, one section at a time, verifying as best as I could which words I got right (discarding the ones I was unsure of) and estimating the total number of words in each section. Thus, within a couple of percentage points, I can confidently affirm that I now understand 8% of words in a routine standard Mandarin conversation, including repeats, inasmuch as this soap opera is a representative sample.

The following graph shows how my estimated comprehension has evolved over time (blue line), alongside the time I have put in (red line).

timeXcomprehension_20%

If the rate of learning as measured for the first 240 hours were to continue indefinitely, I would understand 40% of the words (including repeats) by the end of my experiment, and would take 3,000 hours to reach 100% listening comprehension. Of course, that extrapolation is tenuous at best. The main reason the rate of learning would decline is because of diminishing returns—more specifically, due to the diminishing word frequency of new words.[3]

On the other hand, the rate of learning might also accelerate because of the nature of the language acquisition process. I am listening to a large amount of audio content that I do not understand, but it nonetheless is entering my brain, which is evolutionarily designed to recognize patterns and create neural synapses to process the sounds efficiently. I am convinced that this cognitive development occurs far beyond what I can consciously and self-referentially perceive at any given time in terms of comprehension of actual words. As my brain silently labors, its Mandarin repository and processing ability gradually increase before finally manifesting as actual conscious comprehension of words and phrases.

Furthermore, like pieces in a 10,000-piece puzzle, the more words I learn (especially the “corner pieces” of key pronouns, verbs, conjunctions, and so forth), the more the general panorama comes into view. As this happens, deciphering new words in context becomes easier.

Although my self-assessments are rough estimates—especially the previous, less meticulous ones—my progress would seem to indicate that thus far, the latter beneficial phenomena have outweighed the diminishing word frequency factor. After the first 120 hours, I estimated I was understanding 2.75% of word occurrences, while after another 120 hours, I now estimate I understand 8% of them.

For the sake of conjecture, and despite the tenuous nature of any extrapolation, let us assume that I did continue my rate of an 8% increase in word occurrence comprehension for every 240 hours of listening. What would that spell for my hypotheses?

The first and main hypothesis is that I can learn to understand Mandarin just by watching authentic videos. Obviously, that hypothesis would be proven correct, since eventually I would get to 100% comprehension. Though any conclusive affirmations would be premature at this point, that conjecture is logical and consistent with my experience thus far. If I was able to get past the initial hurdle of deciphering and consolidating comprehension of a few dozen words in Mandarin[4], it seems self-evident that I will continue to make progress and eventually understand the language.

Skipping ahead, the third hypothesis is that after watching 1,200 hours of authentic Mandarin videos, I will have attained sufficient comprehension to tackle a new video, and on first viewing, understand the general plot or the topics that are being discussed. According to my extrapolation, after 1,200 hours I would understand 40% of word occurrences. I am unsure whether that would be enough to attain the aforementioned intermediate level of comprehension, but I do not believe it would be. I think to really understand the general plot and topics of any new video, one would need to understand closer to 60% of word occurrences.

This projection coincides with my subjective expectation based on how the experiment is going thus far. I think it is quite possible that my rate of acquisition will accelerate and, as a result, the percent of word occurrences will increase more quickly and reach 60%. On the other hand, I would not be surprised if that does not happen, and five or six years from now, at the end of my experiment, I am in fact at 40% comprehension, thus refuting the third hypothesis.

The second hypothesis is that this method is actually efficient and effective as compared to traditional, old school methods that are heavy on formal study, grammar rules, translations, and memorization. This hypothesis will be the most complex and controversial to assess.

A presumably very efficient method requires at least 4,600 hours to achieve a “professional working proficiency” in Mandarin, comprising listening, speaking, reading, and writing. I would guess that an inefficient traditional method might take twice that amount of time.

Further, I estimate that one needs to understand about 90% of word occurrences in speech between natives, as in a soap opera, to attain that level of proficiency[5]. At my current rate, extrapolated, that would take me 2,700 hours of viewing. It might then take me another 1,350 to achieve an equivalent level of speaking proficiency[6], bringing the total to 4,050 hours. That does not include learning Chinese characters and being able to read and write. If these estimates and my extrapolation prove accurate, it seems my method would be similarly inefficient as traditional (old school) academic methods, and my second hypothesis would be refuted as well.

. . .

More importantly, though, I am having a lot of fun. As I’ve discovered during my current vacation period, watching Chinese movies and Boonie Bears cartoons is a great way to avoid dealing with more urgent, practical matters. I watched 48 hours of Mandarin between December 11 and January 6, but did not even touch the piles of unfiled papers in my closet!

Many of the Chinese movies I have watched enriched my life culturally, aesthetically, and philosophically.

The Boonie Bears have been a great bonding experience with my daughter and even with my wife on a few late nights when no one was sleepy! While watching the sadistic bears and their logger nemesis in action is not any more culturally or morally edifying than Bugs Bunny or Tom and Jerry, the great thing is that you can enjoy the plot and the antics without subtitles.

That is important, because in the past 40 hours, I have deliberately reduced my use of subtitles from a previous 70% of viewing to a current 60%. I will continue to reduce their use until most, and then all, of my viewing is without this crutch.

Of course, the most useful show I have found is Qiao Hu. It has no subtitles, I understand half of the dialogue, and I can easily pick up several new words in each episode. And it is really enjoyable—for a two year old! Needless to say, I watch much less Qiao Hu than I “should” to avoid giving up on my experiment due to boredom.

I really look forward to being able to understand and enjoy movies without subtitles. While I probably will not get to that point anytime soon for first viewings, I expect that sometime this year or next it will become feasible to enjoy my favorite movies without subtitles, when watching them for the fourth or fifth time.

Since last July, my daughter has not watched enough Mandarin to make notable progress. Alas, I do not think she will learn in this way. Nevertheless, I believe the exposure she has had to this difficult and important language, and to Chinese culture through film, is enriching. If she decides to learn Mandarin when she is a little older, she will be a leg up because of this early exposure.

For me, the Mandarin wilderness trek continues with enthusiasm unabated.

 

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Tale_of_2_Cities

[2] OK, I just looked this up and apparently it is in standard Singaporean Mandarin (oh man oh man), but that seems to be close enough to Standard Chinese in China. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_Singaporean_Mandarin)

[3] If I understood every single occurrence of just 5 or 10 Mandarin words, my percentage would be much higher than my current result. However, that is not trivial, because the trick is being able to decipher those words in the context of sentences spoken quickly by native speakers.

To illustrate the importance of word frequency, a word corpus taken from English language movie and television transcripts reveals that just 10 words account for 21.8% of word occurrences (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktionary:Frequency_lists/TV/2006/1-1000).

During my 15-minute test, I understood 29 unique words, for a total of 76 word occurrences out of an approximate 943 total words spoken.

[4] My total words deciphered, but not consolidated to the point where I am can systematically pick them out in conversation, is in the hundreds.

[5] When natives to speak to you as a foreigner, they slow down their speech and restrict their vocabulary a bit, allowing you to understand close to 100% at professional working proficiency.

[6] Assuming that having a very high level of listening comprehension will make learning to speak well much easier.

Language acquisition through music – Week 50

Since this is my first post of the new year, I would like to comment on my goals for 2015 before delving into the topic “music as part of a language acquisition strategy.”

These goals derive rather naturally from my proposed methodology. I was inspired to formulate them by a thread at chinese-forums.com.

  1. Watch about 40 minutes of Mandarin movies and TV shows per day, or a total of about 245 hours.
  2. Have at least 50% of that viewing time be without subtitles.
  3. When watching an entirely new episode of a soap opera (a genre I never ordinarily watch) without subtitles, be able to pick out and understand perhaps 15% of the words that are uttered (including repeats – each “wo”, “ni”, and “hao” counts hahaha) on first viewing. That may sound really easy and unambitious to more advanced students, but it would feel like a great accomplishment to me.
  4. Be able to sing at least one entire song from the movies or shows that I watch. This has proven surprisingly difficult! I have worked a bit on the Boonie Bears’ intro song and a lot on Nan Zi Han from Mulan, but with little to show for it.
  5. Be able to understand at least 50% of the dialogue in a new Boonie Bears or Qiao Hu episode and be able to watch at least one or two of my favorite Chinese movies such as Dragon and Hero and understand most of the dialogue without subtitles (after many, many repetitions).
  6. Continue blogging about my experiment on a weekly basis and engage more with other students of Mandarin and language enthusiasts in general through my blog and on this and other forums.

My 15% comprehension goal (#3) is fairly ambitious, considering that my last self-assessment was 6%, and there is a tendency toward diminishing returns due to lower word frequency for new terms, once you get past pronouns, interjections, and basic verbs. However, I’m hoping that this phenomenon will be counterbalanced by increasingly reaping the fruits of natural neural adaptation to oral Mandarin, which I expect has occurred over the past year and 220 hours and will continue as my experiment progresses.

My fourth goal relates to using music as a language acquisition strategy. Authentic music and video are two common sources of listening practice for students that adhere, at least partially, to a natural acquisition strategy. I elected video rather than music for my experiment because I think it is generally superior and because the visual clues make deciphering words possible even at a basic level, whereas I might listen to music in Mandarin endlessly without learning anything if I used it exclusively.

However, the major advantage to song is that the accompanying music is conducive to repetition, memorization, and deep or subconscious assimilation. If a tune is catchy, you can listen to it again and again, sing along, and before long find yourself repeating it mentally or aloud on your own. Evidently, in this way, you are getting “extra” practice with the language (such as when you sing while in the shower). Further, you are assimilating the language on a different neurological level than when simply listening to dialogue.

I recommend students take the following measures to use music effectively for language acquisition:

– Choose songs that have meaningful, well-written lyrics. Get help from a native.

– Choose music that you really like and can listen to over and over with pleasure.

– Study the lyrics carefully.

– Memorize the lyrics, either deliberately or by listening to the song so many times that you learn them naturally.

– Once you learn it, sing the song from time to time! This should occur spontaneously, but if it doesn’t, make a point of it.

In my own Mandarin acquisition experiment, I cannot fully follow my own recommendations because I cannot study the lyrics or get help from natives. Obviously, however, I can use music, since it is often included in movies and TV shows. There is no reason that I cannot, as I watch, pay careful attention, repeat the tracks, and then try to sing along. As I mentioned, I have done that with the song Nan Zi Han from Mulan several times.

To date, I have probably spent a total of at least three hours on it. Surprisingly, I am still unable to sing along with even half the song!

More recently, I have been repeating the introductory song to the Boonie Bears episode. (Watch first 1:20)

 

I recently decided—in another flexible interpretation of my rules—that I will also listen to these songs in isolation, sans the video. I believe this makes little difference to my experiment, since this listening is unlikely to ever account for more than 5% or 10% of my total time. Further, this type of listening is even more, rather than less, radical than watching videos, since it is purely oral.

The reason for my decision is simple: I want to make better use of my time when driving. I drive three hours to my farm and back almost every weekend. I have recently started listening to downloaded French radio broadcasts during these drives and loved the experience. I realized I could use a bit of that time in the car to listen to Mandarin as well. Since I want to eventually memorize at least these two songs, I might as well make some progress while driving. I will carefully include this time in my daily Mandarin log.