The Russian Experiment??

russian_alphabet

After eleven years of countless international trips, negotiations, and grand strategies, I’m expecting to leave the international relations department in January, which I currently head at the Brazilian Court of Accounts. And I plan to make a most peculiar choice: to work in the Court’s IT department as a novice programmer, something I’ve never studied or worked with seriously before. It’s even more unusual because it means turning down another post, which would pay much better, provide more flexibility, be less demanding, and carry greater prestige. Read on, and you will understand why this change, and my decision, are quite relevant to this post, to my future studies of foreign languages, and—if I may be so bold—why they might impact the future of language acquisition itself.

My last international business trip—at least for the foreseeable future—is coming up in about ten days. I will be going to an INTOSAI Governing Board meeting in a fascinating destination: Moscow!

Naturally, my mind turned to the exciting prospect of contact with a foreign language. Most of my work trips have been to Latin American countries, and I’ve taken full advantage of the opportunities to hone my mastery of the Spanish language, which, in turn, paid ample dividends in my ability to effectively pursue the Court’s interests. I brushed up on French during a recent trip to Cameroon, and the remaining missions have almost all been to countries where most people communicate well in English.

Russia, however, is like Brazil: a gigantic country whose sheer size makes it inward looking. As a result, as I understand it, the average Russian speaks little to no English. What a thrilling challenge it would be, then, to try to communicate a bit with the locals. And just two hours ago, I didn’t know a single word in Russian!

Of course, I have a slim chance of learning enough of such a difficult language (because it’s so unrelated to any that I speak) in the next 11 busy days before I arrive in Moscow—or in the 4 days or so that I spend there at work meetings in English and Portuguese—to engage in any real communication in Russian. And although I’ve slacked lately on my Mandarin, I plan to put in at least 30 minutes a day during this same period.

So, what’s my crazy plan with Russian?

I’m going to undertake a two-week “Russian Experiment”, completely antithetical to my Mandarin Experiment. No, I won’t be watching Russian cartoons or classic Russian movies—with or without subtitles—nor will I be listening to children’s music, and then making silly videos of myself dancing to them. No, no, I’ll leave all that to my Mandarin Experiment.

Instead, I will use technology to memorize the 100 most frequently used words in Russian and 20 common expressions. I will do so with one hour of studying per day and I would wager a bet that I’ll be able make real use of it while in Moscow. At the least, I will be able to break the ice with my Russian hosts! If I can put more time in, I will learn even more words and expressions. Further, if I find the whole experience sufficiently motivating, I will continue with Russian when I return to Brazil.

The technology I’m using is simple: virtual flashcards that use a spaced repetition system to recognize the spelling (using the Cyrillic alphabet), pronunciation, and meaning of words. What’s significant and wonderful is that these virtual flashcards were made for me to order by The Natural Language Institute by one of our programmers.

I founded “Natural” over 15 years ago, but in March of this year, I got more deeply involved again, this time with a focus on technology, and, in particular, the development of custom-made applications to power our highly effective approach to language acquisition. We’ve already developed and implemented the “Lessons App,” which saves time for teachers and structures custom data related to students’ learning. We are now finalizing the “Homework App,” which will allow our own teachers—and potentially teachers worldwide—to share and then search custom-made homework assignments based on authentic materials that meet students’ exact interests and needs.

We will develop many other apps and IT solutions to make language acquisition more efficient and enjoyable. Sometime next year, we will begin offering online classes in a unique package that combines personalized one-on-one language coaching with a data-driven, customized student learning center.

While our method will continue to focus on reading and listening to authentic materials, writing essays, and speaking with native teachers, when you’re just getting started with a brand-new language, you need a different approach. One way we currently tackle this beginners’ challenge with English and French is to teach students the 500 most commonly used words in the language, which allows them to then quickly get started on reading and listening to authentic materials. (This is probably what’s most lacking in my Mandarin Experiment, but, alas, one must bear great sacrifices for [quasi-]science.)

Technology can give this first step a real boost, such as with the use of virtual flashcards in a spaced repetition system (SRS) approach—precisely what I started doing this evening with Russian.

And technology will also make the second step—being able to understand the words strung together in sentences—a lot more effective and enjoyable. As in the Mandarin Experiment, we will use authentic video that is of real interest to the learners (such as the great Chinese movies I have watched, again and again). However, we will parse the videos and use virtual flashcards and SRS to help students transition smoothly from comprehension of isolated words to full sentences and rapid dialogue in authentic videos without subtitles.

So now, perhaps, you better understand why I want to deeply explore IT and programming, alongside my forays into seemingly inscrutable foreign languages. I intend to change language acquisition for myself and hopefully for thousands of other students, making it as fun, stimulating, and efficient as possible.

Video

Happy Birthday to Me 祝我生日快乐!

I have a language institute which I founded over 15 years ago in Brasilia. This year, I decided to reinvent it by applying technology—and especially the development of apps in Python programming language—to our various processes, including teaching and language acquisition. In March, I hired our first intern, now a full-time employee. By September, we had added three more interns and we’re currently finalizing our second app.

It’s a fantastic group that has a lot of fun together. They know about my Mandarin Experiment and sent me the coolest happy birthday video last Friday. Thanks, guys!

(Though I’ve never studied Chinese characters, I’ve watched enough subtitled movies to pick a few up. So by changing the character for “you” to the character for “me”, I changed the typical “Happy Birthday to You” 祝你生日快乐!to the title you see above.)

Making Friends and Mandarin Music

I’m listening to Chinese music again as part of my experiment, in particular, the awesome Dragon Tales children’s music album. I made this video with my daughter today at our farm:

The song is about making and greeting good friends.

Here’s a throwback from more than three-and-a-half years ago, when we were watching the Boonie Bears regularly:

The Power of Hao 好

Over appetizers of hummus and baba ghanoush in Riyadh, I asked two Chinese colleagues, “What’s the most frequently used word in Mandarin?” They were uncertain but ventured a couple of guesses. “No,” I disagreed, “but I know what it is.”

I’ve never looked at a Mandarin word corpus, nor have I ever researched the question at all. I’ve never even done a Google search. Nonetheless, I brashly affirm: The most frequently used word in Mandarin is:

HAO 好

If you mention the Mandarin language to an average Joe in the United States or Brazil, they’re likely to spew out, good-naturedly, the sum of their Mandarin mastery: “Ni hao!”

That’s as much as I knew when I began the Mandarin Experiment. But early on, as I watched movies and children’s shows, I quickly picked up that “ni” means “you” and “hao” means “good”. Therefore, I concluded, the greeting “Ni hao” developed similarly to the French, “Ça va?” or the Portuguese, “Tudo bem?”, rhetorical questions that are often used as greetings.

In movies, TV shows, and cartoons, I picked out one sound more than any other, and began to understand its real meaning. Its sounds like the word “how” in English, but, unintentionally, I eventually discovered the common spelling using the Roman alphabet: HAO.

Hao is more versatile than perhaps any word in the languages I know—English, Portuguese, Spanish, and French.

Hao means “good”, “great”, “fine,” “nice,” and “okay”, but can also be used with great flexibility to indicate agreement, appreciation, and admiration.

Hao can be used alongside many other words to express a variety of positive concepts. Below are a few uses that I have spontaneously deciphered from movies and TV shows.

I will write out the terms phonetically, not in pinyin, which I don’t study. I will also venture the pronunciation of each term, but I will do so from memory, and since I don’t take classes or have any feedback from actual Mandarin speakers, it’s probably all wrong. So have fun listening to my Mandarin, and if you are a Chinese speaker or student, you can tell me whether my crazy Mandarin Experiment is producing half-decent results. However, if you really want to learn proper pronunciation, pinyin, or Mandarin vocabulary, you’ll have to research it on your own.

Hao good, great, fine, nice, beautiful, wonderful; agreement, consent, appreciation, admiration
Ni hao basic greeting; hello
Ni hao ma How are you?
Hun hao Great
Tai hao Really great
Hao pung(a) Super duper
Hao ba hao okay? (in the middle of an explanation)
Hao cher delicious (good to eat)
Hao kan pretty (good to see)
Hao ting nice-sounding (good to hear)
Hao pung yo good friend

 

Additionally, hao can be used as an answer to a wide variety of commands and questions. It’s so versatile that I think you could practically get by in China as a laconic and agreeable person, just by answering hao to anything that anybody says. Here are a few examples.

  • Somebody gives you a command (“Do this!”). You answer:
  • Hao

 

  • Somebody gives you an explanation and you indicate that you have understood or agree by saying:
  • Hao

 

  • Somebody asks you to do something. You agree:
  • Hao

 

  • Someone asks you permission. You consent:
  • Hao

 

  • Somebody shows you something beautiful or admirable. You express your appreciation:
  • Hao

 

  • There is a tense situation and you need to calm someone down.
  • Hao, hao, hao, hao, hao

 

The possibilities with HAO are endless!

And that is the Power of HAO.

 

The Liquidator and the Boast

My flight back to Brazil today on Ethiopian Airlines was even more prolific in Mandarin viewing than the flight out, with a record four Chinese movies watched, plus one in the Addis Ababa airport!

I will comment on the movie I downloaded and watched in the airport—Red Sorghum, a Chinese classic—in a future post.

Previously, while still in my hotel room in Riyadh, I had thought to do something for the first time—google what movies are showing on the airline’s international flights and check them out in advance. The listing proved up-to-date and accurate, and, surprisingly, completely different from the selection that had been showing just nine days prior.

The only movie that received generally positive reviews was Till the End of the World, a drama about survival and love between a man and a woman whose plane crashes in Antarctica. It was watchable—if for no other reason than the scenery and my predilection for survival stories, especially involving extreme cold. I would not recommend it for most people, but I’d say it’s worth it if you like the genre and are, like me, specifically seeking Mandarin-language content.

I also watched Namiya, which was entertaining enough, though overall a mediocre film, and The Wayang Kids, which was truly an amateurish production.

The film that positively surprised me with its entertainment value, however, was The Liquidator. It has a low 5.4 average rating on IMDb, and if it were a Hollywood movie and I had gone all the way to a movie theater to view it, I’d probably be quite disappointed. However, on a 12-hour flight and with a strong desire to listen to Mandarin, I found that The Liquidator hit the spot. It’s a crime drama about a vigilante justice serial killer and a criminal psychologist police detective determined to stop him. Everything about the movie was decent: the acting, the storyline, and even the human and societal dilemmas. Throw in some suspense and violence, and the two hours flew by.

That strong desire to learn Mandarin was reinforced yesterday and the day before with several interactions with two Chinese colleagues who attended the same meeting in Riyadh. Over meals of hummus, baba ganoush, and other Middle Eastern delicacies, I couldn’t help mentioning my Mandarin viewing and venturing occasional words that fit the situations. I was happy that they complimented my pronunciation and understood everything I said, though I often didn’t understand what they said back.

I boasted to that, should I continue in the international relations department, I will receive their delegation at the INTOSAI Congress in 2022 in conversational Mandarin. I mentioned this goal in my previous post, but having said it to the head of international relations at the Chinese National Audit Office, and in the presence of other international colleagues, undoubtedly ups the ante.

Though I didn’t watch any Mandarin during the intense week of work and meetings, I hope that my two Mandarin-filled flights, the fun I had with my Chinese colleagues, and the boast about 2022 will provide me with the motivation and momentum to truly reengage in my Mandarin experiment.

13 months later on Ethiopian Airlines

 

A year and a month have gone by since my last post. The interpreter I mentioned did in fact get an internship in my office, which he’s already completed.

So, contrary to my intentions at the time, it was another fitful restart of my Mandarin Experiment. My viewing has been better than nothing in the past year, but it’s nothing to brag about. In 13 months, I’ve watched a total of 46 hours, or an average of seven minutes per day—a far cry from the 40 daily minutes I watched for some time back in 2014 and 2015.

I finished the soap opera My Ruby, My Blood and watched about 25 episodes of another soap opera, Mr. Right. I haven’t really liked either of them, and the only reason I do watch them is because my girlfriend keeps me company, which makes it worthwhile. I started noticing, however, that her main motivation seems to be as sleeping aid. She says, “Let’s watch Chinese!” I set it up and we watch about 5 minutes, after which she announces that she can’t deal with how sleepy she is, and the viewing is over… So I may have to switch back to movies and Qiao Hu.

Yesterday, however, was one of my best Chinese viewing days ever. I had a 12-hour flight from Sao Paulo to Addis Ababa on my way to Kuwait. Ethiopian Airlines had a good movie selection, including about 10 Chinese movies. I watched Youth, Have a Nice Day, and Old Beast. About a week before that, at home, I had watched Nightingale and Coming Home.

I had high expectations for Coming Home, since it is from my favorite director Zhang Yimou and stars the beautiful Gong Li, now middle aged. It didn’t disappoint, but it wasn’t one of their better films, either. Have a Nice Day, a 2017 animated dark comedy, was quite entertaining and different from anything I’d seen previously.

The movie I most enjoyed and would recommend, however—also from 2017—is Youth. It’s a coming-of-age story about a group of teenagers in a military art troupe in the 1970s. It gives rich insights into recent Chinese history and Chinese culture, and weaves moments of heroism and beauty into the ordinariness of human pettiness and egotism. While most of the film takes place in a short period in the 1970s, the latter segments follow the characters into adulthood and middle age, and I found the way it tied up the human dramas at the end quite satisfying.

I just looked up the director, Feng Xiaogang, and discovered he’s commercially a very successful director in China, mostly of comedies. I looked up his filmography and I have previously seen one of his other movies—Aftershock—which, like Youth, is a foray outside of his usual comedic genre, and instead a historically-based drama. I remember liking Aftershock quite a lot.

I won’t make any predictions now about the continuity of my recent viewing, but I will mention a bold statement I have made to a few people in recent months. At Brazil’s Federal Court of Accounts (TCU), where I currently head the international relations department, we will host a large international congress (INCOSAI) in the second semester of 2022. I have stated that if I happen to still be in that position, I will welcome and converse with the Chinese delegation in passable Mandarin! I think I may be able to do this if I not only complete my 1,000 hours of this Mandarin experiment by then, but also do another 1,000 hours of Part 2 of the Mandarin project, whose approach I won’t reveal quite yet. To do so, however, I will have to increase my 7 minutes per day to a full 60 minutes, a steep task considering I am also trying to learn computer programming, in addition to my demanding day job, my business, my farm, my Law degree, my travels, raising my daughter …

Holding my Ground

A month ago, I received a delegation from Yunnan province at my workplace. The Embassy provided an interpreter, but naturally I paid attention to their spoken Mandarin. Nearly two years had gone by since I had, for all intents and purposes, stopped my experiment and had no contact with the language.

How pleased I was, then, to understand many words. Yet what most struck me was how familiar the language sounded. After the meeting, I mentioned to the head of the delegation, through the interpreter, that their Mandarin sounded very standard. He confirmed that it was so. I couldn’t resist venturing a few isolated words in Chinese during the visit, and later, the interpreter told a colleague of mine that my pronunciation in Mandarin was good. I don’t know if he was just being polite or was interested in an internship I had mentioned to him, but it was motivational to get the positive feedback, nonetheless.

The two hours or so with the Yunnan delegation was the fuel I needed to start really watching Mandarin again. I won’t announce dramatically that I’m back (wo hwei lai la), since I’ve done that before and then disappeared again for nearly a year. I hope and expect that this is not just another fitful start. The test will come in a couple of weeks when vacation is over and I’m back to work and back the Law classes.

I have watched Mandarin now about every other day for the past 21 days, for an average of 36 minutes per day.

The 1,000-hour Mandarin experiment is a long, sometimes arduous journey, and I would probably give up entirely if, after nearly two years of very little viewing, I felt that I had forgotten the little that I had learned.

Fortunately, the contrary seems to be true: I have absolutely no contact with Mandarin for several months at a time, yet when I start watching Qiao Hu or one of my go-to Chinese films again, my impression is that my comprehension is about the same as before. Granted, I still understand very little, but the sounds are as familiar and I seem to pick up a similar amount of words and expressions. In other words, though I have gained little ground in the mighty battle to learn Chinese, I seem to have held that ground despite long periods of inactivity.

So, what have I watched so far in this new beginning? Previously, after the 400-hour mark, I had been watching movies with English subtitles far above my planned average. Therefore, when I started the experiment again in July, I decided to watch videos without any subtitles. Of the 12 hours of viewing in July, I watched a couple of hours of Qiao Hu, and the rest was completely different content.

I went into youku.com, the Chinese YouTube, and randomly clicked on an image (since I don’t understand any of the writing). It took me to a Chinese soap opera about the rich CEO of a jewelry design company, a comparatively poor, young female worker at said company, their network of colleagues and friends, and their budding romance. To my taste, it’s mediocre, like any soap opera, but less bad than most. It’s a bit silly at times, rather than offensive, the acting is passable, there are nice visuals, and my friends at chinese-forums.com have confirmed that the dialogue is in standard Mandarin. I’ve watched eleven episodes already, and I find the viewing somewhere between tolerable and amusing, depending on my mood. My girlfriend occasionally watches a bit with me and gets a kick out of it.

I plan to post at least once a month now, instead of once a week as I did in 2014 and 2015. I do hope you’ll check in for updates and leave comments as well.