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.

 

Synergies and Convenience in Language Acquisition

The Natural Language Institute method for language-learning, in a word, is combining immersive practice of reading, writing, listening, and speaking, using authentic materials and native speakers as teachers or guides.

Training all four language skills together in an acquisition program not only leads to more balanced and useful fluency, it also produces a synergistic effect. In other words, the combined result is greater than the sum of the parts. For example, while listening is obviously necessary to learn to speak, conversely, practicing speaking—while getting corrections or some type of feedback from native speakers (did they understand what you said?)—is essential for fully grasping the correct pronunciation of words and thus is very helpful in learning to accurately pick them out while listening to conversation.

Just to provide a couple more examples, writing is very helpful in improving speaking, since it is slow-motion practice in constructing sentences and expressing ideas in a foreign language. Reading not only provides a necessary basis for writing, it is also a very useful check on pronunciation and provides the broad vocabulary and accurate grammatical structures necessary for all three other skills.

Thus, my Mandarin Experiment and my French Fluency Recovery Project (FFRP) suffer from a serious flaw: they are one-sided listening programs and fail to benefit from the abovementioned synergies. In particular, as I watch Chinese shows and try to learn new words and expressions and consolidate those I already know, I miss very much having the opportunity to actually pronounce them to native Chinese speakers and get their corrections. If I had the opportunity to do so, I believe my listening comprehension would progress much more rapidly.  

So why am I proceeding in a way that I myself consider far from ideal?  

With regards to the Mandarin Experiment, the main reason is precisely the experimental nature of the project and its attempt to isolate a variable (can I learn to understand oral Mandarin just by watching and listening to authentic video?). There is, however, a second reason, which was one of the many inspirations for the Mandarin Experiment design and also happens to be the sole reason for my almost exclusive listening approach in the FFRP: listening is by far the easiest and most convenient of the four skills to practice.

I spend no money in my Mandarin experiment and have no hassle in arranging classes. There is no transportation involved. I can do it regardless of my energy level or motivation. I can profitably put in just five minutes or two straight hours—whatever fits in my day. For someone like me, who has an intense schedule with multiple time-consuming professional, academic, and personal commitments, this convenience can be a decisive factor in whether to even undertake and sustain a long-term language-acquisition project.

Likewise, the eight odd minutes I put into the FFRP are almost exclusively listening to French radio when I am about to go to sleep. I enjoy it tremendously and it is so easy to do. It also serves multiple purposes: not only am I practicing my French, I am getting world news from a fine media source and it is very effective in getting me to unwind and relax mentally as I prepare to sleep. In fact, there have been times that listening to French radio was the only way I could get myself to fall asleep!

In sum—experimental purposes aside—my projects reveal a big tradeoff between the ease and convenience of a listening-based acquisition approach and the effectiveness and synergy of a balanced program that combines the four language skills.

Surprise! Wo Hwei Lai La!

Seismic changes in my personal life and a promotion at work contributed to my suspending the Mandarin experiment for several months. The last time I watched Chinese regularly was in early October of last year, meaning that, for all intents and purposes, I took a ten-month hiatus. I viewed fewer than two hours in December and five hours in January, then not a single minute of Chinese until the end of July.

My hectic schedule has been exacerbated by the eleven international trips I’ve already taken this year. However, as I began my July trip to New York, I watched an inflight movie—The Martian with Matt Damon—in order to relax a bit. At one point, some Chinese officials spoke in Mandarin, and I understood several words—enough to enhance my comprehension of the scene. “I have got to start my viewing again,” I thought for the umpteenth time, but with much more conviction than before.

On my next trip, at the very end of July, I decided to watch a Chinese movie (Mermaid) and began another one (Love in Late Autumn) onboard my flights to California. (It’s a very interesting development that on a United flight from Brazil to the US there are now many international movies, including Chinese ones.)

Though for the next ten days I watched nothing, on August 9 I began again for good, with bread-and-butter daily viewing.

I’ve decided to watch as much Qiao Hu as I can take. The downside is that the show’s main demographic seems to be Taiwanese toddlers, so it somewhat lacks inherent thematic appeal for me (please note the sardonic understatement). I mean, I’m already pretty good at washing my hands and using the toilet. The upside is that, like a Taiwanese 10-month-old, I’m sometimes able to understand about half of what is said, without subtitles of course. It’s authentic material—just as I like, and as my experiment demands—that is designed for low-level speakers of Mandarin (i.e., toddlers).

The little tiger Qiao Hu, accompanied by one of his parents or his grandparents, likes to announce when he returns home for his infantile adventures, “Wo men hwei lai la,” which I’m fairly certain means, “We’re back.”

So, adjusting for the first person singular, I would similarly like to announce to my undoubtedly surprised readers:

Wo hwei lai la!