Week 3

“It ain’t gonna happen.”

I had just explained my Mandarin experiment to a gentleman who lived four years in China and had studied the language. A World Bank employee, obviously well educated, and a polyglot himself, his answer to me was, “Can I say something? It ain’t gonna happen.”

His wife, also a polyglot, had studied the language more intensively, and after four years, had learned quite a lot. She could communicate simple ideas in a variety of settings and had learned enough characters to send text messages and emails. However, by her own testimony, she would not have passed the test I set for myself in the hypothesis section. I asked her if she could watch most any type of movie or TV show and understand the basics of what was happening and what was being said. She said no. Her testimony is much more potentially discouraging to me than her husband’s. She said she spent about 25 hours per week on the language, between formal study, talking with her children’s nanny, running errands, and so forth. I will be spending only 3 ½ hours weekly, just on video.

. . .

It’s Sunday at my farm in central Brazil, and I’m 23 days into my Mandarin language learning experiment. While I type, my 6-year-old daughter, Camila Daya, is watching Boonie Bears, a great cartoon made by the Chinese government. I mentioned Boonie Bears in my last post. It has become a mainstay for my experiment, and I think it is the best source I’ve found yet. Not that I’ve apparently learned any Chinese from it yet—I haven’t really been able to pick out words—but it’s fun to watch. Sometimes I’ve even caught myself laughing out loud at the antics of the two bears and the bald lumberjack.

Boonie Bears is also the best chance thus far for Camila to accompany me in my experiment. She loves watching videos on YouTube in Spanish, English, and Portuguese (I mostly prohibit the latter), and think she just might get into watching Boonie Bears regularly. I am keeping track of her Mandarin viewing alongside my own.

Camila Daya watching Boonie Bears

Camila Daya watching Boonie Bears

Thus far, I have watched just over 11.5 hours, and she has watched just 2 total hours in these first 3 weeks.

I finished watching The Jesus Film, which was really great as mentioned in my last post. I also watched a bit more momo and the bears. My other viewing source, this week, was the movie Hero, a 2002 Chinese movie that garnered rave reviews. I made a methodological decision, in consultation with my sister Sofia, who has a Master’s in applied linguistics and with whom I’ve spoken a lot about my experiment. My wife, Ana Claudia, wanted to watch a movie with me on Friday night. Naturally, I wanted to watch a Chinese movie, but for her, it would obviously have to have subtitles.

I read over my proposed methodology, spoke to Sofia, and decided that occasionally watching a movie with subtitles would not contradict the spirit of my experiment. When watching the movie again on my own, I will use no subtitles. Also, anytime I do watch a movie with subtitles, I will not pause it or watch scenes repeatedly to try to learn specific words. But the subtitles did allow me to understand the plot, which I think is favorable to my experiment. It’s similar to my intention of watching my favorite Hollywood movies dubbed in Chinese.

Anyway, I enjoyed Hero, though I can’t get into the magical Kung Fu fighting—it’s well done and elegant and all, but it just seems silly to me. However, the historical and philosophical backdrop, and the psychological duel between the Nameless Hero and the King are cool. I purchased the movie from Amazon and downloaded it to my Kindle Fire. I now use colored masking tape to cover up the subtitles, and I will probably watch it a few times over the months and years.

Three weeks into the experiment, I continue to enjoy it and think it is going well. I do acknowledge the definite possibility that my hypotheses might be proved false, especially the third one, due the tremendous difficulty of learning Mandarin, as compared to Latin or Germanic languages, or even more distantly related Indo-European languages.

I have learned a few more words this week, such as “yes” and “no,” but probably at a slower rate than when watching mostly momo the first couple of weeks. Perhaps more importantly, the language is sounding more and more familiar. My brain is becoming more accustomed to the phonemes and cadence. That gradual neurological adaptation to the language is what I’m really counting on in the long term.

4 thoughts on “Week 3

  1. Bete Browne says:

    Two thoughts, Steven Pinker in “The Language Instinct” puts forward convincing evidence that children’s brains are set up to receive the inprint of a language early on – through 5 years at the most. After that our brains, he posits, pick up languages in a different way.

    From my experience in language teaching the way adults pick up languages has a lot to do with association. So watching a film like Casablanca with it’s memorable lines is something you as an adult can do and learn from.

    Secondly, an article I read recently talked about taking pictures of people’s brains as they were speaking western languages as compared to speaking Madarin. When people speak Mandarin they use both sides of their brains – the left side which is involved in processing language and the right side which is important in dealing with the timbre, loudness and intonation aspects of dealing with music.

    As Mandarin is tonal I understand that you hypothesize that your as your brain becomes accustomed to and works through this input it will move into this needed two-sides-of-the brain involvement.

    • Thank you, Bete! I will always be extremely interested in getting your comments, considering your vast experience and tremendous expertise!

      An integral part of my hypothesis is that the difference in neuroplasticity between young children and adults in language acquisition is often overstated. I think what changes the most is the approach that adults take to learning a language as compared to children, and that if we can imitate young children’s instinctive methods, we can obtain similar results.

      I have not done enough research, including reading Steven Pinker’s book, to confidently defend my stance. Perhaps my experiment will contribute to my own and others’ understanding, one way or another, although I’m not really adopting a child’s approach, due to lack of time.

      Regarding the use of both brain hemispheres in speaking Mandarin, it is this type of radical difference between Mandarin and Western languages that partially motivated my choice. I believe that language acquisition is inherently hugely challenging and beneficial to the brain. Choosing Mandarin, in my view, greatly intensifies both the challenges and the neurological benefits, as compared to learning German or Italian.

      After completing my experiment, I hope to tackle Chinese script, which I think will bring a new and very different set of benefits.

  2. Sofia Hart says:

    Last week I watched an episode of Momo, and now I just watched an episode of Boonie Bears. I enjoyed Momo more and agree with you that it’s better for feeling like you can follow what’s going on. The Chinese sounds so different in the two shows, and it could just be the difference in style and voices. But I’m wondering how you know whether you’re watching Mandarin or Cantonese, or another language. Have you been able to be sure you’re only watching Mandarin shows?

    • Sofia, thanks for commenting! Interesting, I find Boonie Bears vastly more entertaining, but I agree that momo is great for learning, and I should definitely get back to it soon and often. As for your question, I do have to be very careful to be sure I’m watching the right language! Momo I’m confident about because somebody who speaks Mandarin suggested it to me, and Boonie Bears I searched on Wikipedia and it’s produced by the central government.

      With movies, I just go on imdb to be sure the language is Mandarin. What I’m more worried about is that, apparently, Mandarin is actually a language family rather than one language. Yikes! But I think (or hope) that mass produced stuff will generally be in the Beijing dialect, or Standard Mandarin, or whatever. Hopefully, I can get someone very knowledgeable about Mandarin commenting on this blog before long and helping me be sure I’m watching the right things.

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