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.

6 thoughts on “Weeks 1 and 2

  1. Greta says:

    I enjoyed this first blog entry and plan to follow your blog regularly. I even watched the Momo show and realized that I was the age of those children when I was in China. I went to nursery school or kindergarten in a Chinese school. I wonder if my simple level of Chinese would come back over time if I watched Momo regularly. As it is, I recognized nothing. Anyway, I think your project is fascinating and wish you much luck and enjoyment as you pursue it.

  2. Luca says:

    Man, your experiment is super interesting, though I believe it will take a long way. I am studying Chinese and English, and I am teacher as well (I teach Italian).
    For the next future and if you like drama a good source is doramax264.com, you can download small size Chinese or Taiwan raw drama.
    Good luck!

    Luca

  3. Thanks, Luca! You’re right: it will take a very long time. The main reason for this is because I am only devoting 30 minutes a day to Chinese, which is far too little for effective language acquisition, but it’s what I’m able to do. Additionally, I believe I would learn faster if I mixed some conversation with a native speaker (preferably a teacher who would correct me, answer questions, model structures and pronunciation, etc.) with my listening. I’m not doing this, of course, precisely because I want to maintain the unique experimental nature of the project.

    So, in addition to the 6.5 years I hypothesize it will take to be able to understand Mandarin reasonably well, I’m sure at that point I will want to take up speaking and probably the script, so add a few more years. Perhaps by the time I have some fluency in Chinese, it will be about 10 years.

    I’m enjoying my experiment enough so far that I think it’s plausible I will find time in the future to be able to pick up the pace. For instance, if I can increase from 30 minutes to 60 minutes, I would cut down my total time for acquiring comprehension by more than half.

    Do you live in Italy? Do you do translations? In the near future the language institute I founded will probably be getting more intensely into distance learning and translations.

  4. Luca says:

    I haven’t read your blog entirely yet, I got the main purpose and again, wish you the best.
    I studied linguistic stuff and I know (more and less) how human acquire language, especially kids, they are fantastic.
    As far as I understand, your daughter joins the project too.
    She probably would achieve results faster, at least in remembering words or have a better pronunciation.

    Are you watching tv shows or movies only, what about contextualized listening, like “at the station”, “at the restaurant” or just “greetings and presentations”.
    So you can (better) guess and have clues.

    Yes I do live in Italy. About translating is a skill I still train, like I wrote instead a “near future”, “next future” .. doesn’t make sense in English, does it? 🙂

    Luca

    • Camila Daya Hart says:

      Hi Luca! I like the way that you had been reading our blog. Hey Luca why did you stopted reading me
      and my dads blog? Come visit
      Daya

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s