Intensive Mandarin Viewing – Week 49

Besides fertilizing my eucalyptus plantation and spending time with family, my major pursuit for the past couple of weeks has been language study, namely my Mandarin project. It’s great to be on vacation!

This week, I enjoyed sharing three of my favorite movies with my sister Sofia while at the farm. First, we watched my all-time favorite, Dragon or Wu xia, with its impressive acting, gorgeous visuals, cool martial arts sequences, enthralling storyline, psychological duels, and carefully crafted philosophical undertones. Next, we viewed the visually matchless House of Flying Daggers. The colors in the autumnal birch and bamboo forests, the luxurious bordello, and the historical costumes of soldiers and rebels delight the eye, as does the actress Zhang Ziyi. For those that prefer gazing at men, Takeshi Kaneshiro is a good-looking fellow and an excellent actor, who happens to also star in Dragon. Finally, we watched Hero, probably the overall highest quality Chinese film I’ve seen. Like House of Flying Daggers, it is visually stunning and is directed by Zhang Yimou and features Zhang Ziyi (although here she is in a secondary role). Like Dragon, it involves a subtle psychological battle—in this case between the king and Nameless, the hero played by Jet Li.

As a way to focus my viewing, I sometimes reference my word-a-day list as I watch movies. It is easy to do, since when I record terms I include the exact source in a simple database, allowing me to produce queried lists. Here is an example from the movie Dragon—probably my longest movie list, ready to use for beginning students of Mandarin. Please note I am watching the abridged version of Dragon for Western audiences, downloaded from Amazon, and the notation is not pin yin, but rather my own invention, based loosely on English phonetics.

TERM BEGIN TIME END TIME DAY
yinze 05:12 05:56 18-Oct-14
shu(r) 10:05 04-Oct-14
tjien 10:12 16-Nov-14
shee 10:22 05-Oct-14
chahng 10:28 06-Oct-14
ying shiung 12:30 07-Oct-14
fatzu 30:00 30:15 08-Oct-14
fa 30:48 30:55 17-Oct-14
yuan 31:34 28-Nov-14
bye 35:25 29-Nov-14
kan 35:52 02-Dec-14
cheezuh 48:50 19-Oct-14
guh 52:00 52:08 03-Dec-14
ju 53:00 20-Oct-14
hi 58:57 04-Aug-14
yao 1:11:27 31-Aug-14
jia 1:18:10 21-Oct-14

I have also been enjoying the sadistic machinations of the Boonie Bears recently, logging many hours of viewing without subtitles. Less enjoyable, but highly profitable, is the time spent on Qiao Hu. The following graph shows my erratic weekly viewing from October through December, followed by my traditional hours-of-viewing graph, which now spans over 11 months. hours_oct-nov-14       hours_25-dez-14

To conclude this week’s post, I’d like to mention my excitement about the Christmas present my wife gave me—a shortwave radio. This technology may have made a lot more sense 20 or 30 years, before the advent of the Internet and online radio. Nonetheless, here in Brazil and especially when out at the farm, camping, or backpacking, reliable Internet is not ubiquitous.

Thus, if I am able to tune in to foreign-language radio, it will be great for my language studies. For now, I am interested in finding and listening to French-language radio for my French fluency recovery project. In the future, however, when I understand a lot more Mandarin, Chinese radio may be a great listening source. In my preliminary dabbling with the radio, I was surprised not to hear any French, but to pick up several Mandarin stations! It’s a new world.

Super Qiao Hu Study Guide and French Fluency Recovery Project – Week 48

My Mandarin viewing is back in full throttle. In fact, upon returning from my Peru trip, I believe I set an all-time record for total viewing hours in a seven-day period. I watched nearly 12 hours—an average of 1:40 per day! By contrast, my average daily viewing time for the entire 11 months of the experiment has been just 36 minutes.

I’m happy to report that my daughter Camila Daya also got back into watching Chinese videos with me, especially Boonie Bears, and tallied nearly six hours in the same period. I don’t necessarily expect her renewed enthusiasm to be sustained, but we always have fun and I think the exposure to Mandarin is positive for her on various levels (even if the exposure to the Boonie Bears’ sadistically violent tormenting of Vick the Logger is not morally enlightening).

Here’s a little table summarizing our recent viewing time.

Victor Minutes Daya Minutes
11-Dec-14 108
12-Dec-14 140 80
13-Dec-14 75 75
14-Dec-14 93 52
15-Dec-14 122 42
16-Dec-14 41 101
17-Dec-14 134
Total Hours 11.9 5.8
Avg Minutes 102 50
Experiment Average 36.3 16.3

This week I also spent a significant amount of time preparing a Super Qiao Hu Study Guide. These guides were originally suggested to me (by an administrator at chinese-forums.com) as a way to show my progress and level of understanding to others. They are of course also intended as a helpful tool for other beginning students of Mandarin, and I highly recommend using the episodes I review for learning purposes. Reading through my guides beforehand, and occasionally referencing them, will help students know what to listen for and may also serve as a useful yardstick to measure their own understanding. However, the rules of my experiment and my time constraints impose some limitations on how useful I can make these study guides. For instance, I cannot research terms or include Chinese characters or pin yin.

The original diagnostic purpose of the Qiao Hu reviews still holds. In this respect, I was pleased that in this episode I was able to understand far more phrases and complete sentences than ever before. My improved comprehension is reflected in the length of this Study Guide Seven—four whole pages, instead of the two or three for past guides. I believe looking at each of my seven guides in sequence would provide a fairly clear indication of my progress over time.

I should note, however, that my comprehension of the Qiao Hu episodes, as reflected in the guides, is not the result of a single viewing. I spent at least a couple of hours preparing this latest guide, including watching each scene an average of about four times. In other words, I was able to understand all I did because of very careful listening and repetition of dialogue.

In other news, today I began a brand-new language acquisition project that I will also report on in this blog. I will henceforth spend an average of at least 10 minutes per day studying French—probably most of it on listening, but also including reading, writing, and speaking. Unlike my Mandarin project, my main purpose is not experimental: I simply want to recover my fluency in the language. However, since I am always interested in contributing to the understanding of the language acquisition process, I will carefully record my activities and report on my progress.

I will continue to focus my weekly posts here on my Mandarin experiment, though I may occasionally comment on my new French project en passant. However, I will create specific pages to report on my French project—albeit with much less detail and frequency.

What I did to kick-start my French project today was to devise and take a self-administered test to measure my reading, writing, and speaking ability before getting started. I have detailed the test procedure and posted my actual performance (without any corrections yet) on my new French project pages. I hope you will take a look!

Languages and a Technology-Intensive Video Approach to Acquisition – Week 47

I’m back from the Andes and back to Mandarin, after a full 20 days off! I’ve created an Off Topic section to my blog. I hope you will enjoy my write-up on a Choquequirao – Machu Picchu backpacking expedition.

2014-12-01 10.16.33 (2)

Although I spent zero hours on Mandarin for three weeks in Peru (see the leveling off near the end of the blue graph),

hours_13-dez-14

I did have fun learning a few words in Quechua and got an extended immersion in Spanish. Working professionally with the language and having the opportunity to travel a great deal in the past few years has taken my fluency to a new level. Before I reveal my actual origins, I am almost always mistaken for a native Spanish speaker, although nobody can quite pinpoint my accent (because, after all, it’s a complete mix, from nowhere and everywhere at once). In Latin America, I am often taken for a Spaniard, and alternately for a Central American, Mexican, Chilean, Colombian, or Venezuelan.

My French, on the other hand, is in dire need of training. It’s so rusty that I’m hesitant to use it at all. On the rare occasions I have the opportunity to speak in French, things often go well for a few sentences. However, as conversation transitions to untested ground, terrifying gaps in my vocabulary emerge like yawning abysses and I recoil back to a more familiar language. I believe I will soon commence a small French project, perhaps devoting 10 minutes a day, mostly to French radio. I expect it will take a year or two to recover full fluency. Stay tuned as I will keep tabs on this blog.

. . .

My Mandarin experiment is a one-sided approach to language acquisition—specifically, to obtaining listening comprehension. My goal in using such an exclusive approach is to prove the utility of an almost universally applicable method—concentrated listening to movies and other authentic video sources—at any level. Ideally, this method should be combined with reading, writing, and most importantly speaking to natives—preferably including some natives who are willing to correct your mistakes.

A natural, communicative approach to language acquisition is far superior to traditional methods that are heavy on translation, rote memorization, and grammar rules.

However, technological advances and cutting-edge experimentation have introduced new possibilities in language acquisition that are tantalizing. I would like to briefly introduce one approach that, like mine, focuses on listening comprehension through the use of authentic video sources. Unlike my experiment, it requires a great deal of technological expertise and preparation, as well as repetition and (dynamic) memorization. Despite its more difficult application, I believe this method has the potential to be extremely efficient and actually speed up acquisition as compared to a purely natural approach, when used in combination with communicative strategies.

Fortunately for me and for anyone who is interested in this state-of-the-art method, a fellow language enthusiast, emk, who has been following my experiment, is currently using and meticulously documenting this method as part of his own experiment. In fact, it seems that one of the inspirations for his project was my experiment, and his project is a bit of a counterpoint to mine. He believes straight video viewing at a very low level of comprehension (my watching Mandarin is an extreme example of incomprehensibility) is inefficient. I am very impressed by his approach and also grateful for his extremely helpful and detailed explanations.

You can learn all about emk’s project and the technical details of his method by visiting this language-learning forum thread.

I will provide a highly summarized introduction to the method he is using and then encourage you to visit his thread to understand it in greater detail. Hopefully, he will also comment on this post and correct anything I have gotten wrong.

First, a few concepts. Spaced repetition is a memorization technique that presents the data you are trying to learn at increasing time intervals. Each time you get an answer right, it will take longer for you to see the same problem again. On the other hand, if you get an answer wrong, you will encounter the problem again very soon, since you obviously still need to review and properly memorize the solution.

Spaced repetition software (SRS) applies artificial intelligence to this concept. It is often used in language acquisition, such as in the Pimsleur system. It is akin to the use of vocabulary flashcards. As you get answers right, you see a given digital flashcard less and less frequently, but if you get them wrong, it will come back more frequently. The great thing about these digital flashcards is that they can incorporate not only text and written translations, but also audio and video. A commonly used SRS is called Anki, and Anki cards have become synonymous with SRS in the self-teaching language acquisition community.

Bilingual subtitles on movies or TV series can be used to generate Anki cards. An entire movie or episode can be parceled into hundreds of digital cards that contain short video clips with audio in the language you are studying, the corresponding L2 (foreign language) subtitles, and the L1 (your native language) translation of those subtitles.

By some accounts, with a relatively small investment of time (once you’ve created the cards), you can memorize these dialogue snippets in a completely unfamiliar language and then watch that movie or TV series and understand it quite well, as if you had already reached an advanced level of comprehension in that language.

The technology involved is dubbed subs2srs, which I assume is short for “subtitles to spaced repetition system”.

My preliminary assessment is that this approach may constitute an excellent tool for some second-semester students to bridge the gap between study of high frequency vocabulary and grammar fundamentals (learned through games and structured communication activities) and the use of authentic videos, reading, and participation in guided conversation classes.

In this regard, I hope to experiment next year with the use of Anki cards and subs2srs in my language institute. We have previously identified a weakness in our teaching approach for some second semester students, and I believe subs2srs, in particular, may be very useful in transitioning students to authentic listening sources and conversation, thus helping to improve outcomes.

With regards to our respective projects, it is very hard to compare results for several reasons. Although emk has apparently made greater progress in approximately 20 hours than I have in almost 200, that comparison is misleading. First, being a native English and fluent French speaker tackling Spanish, I would estimate his progress in general is expected to be at least five or six times faster than someone like me, learning Mandarin without knowledge of any related languages. In the beginning, this speed discrepancy is likely to be much more pronounced, given the huge number of cognates—probably upwards of 70% of words, as compared to practically zero cognates in my case.

Second, his self-described “cheating” and “narrow-listening” approach is specifically designed to give an initial boost to comprehension, whereas my listening approach is aimed at gradually adapting my ear and brain to a new language and is based on broader and more massive input. An open question is whether this broader input approach holds any long-term advantage as compared to narrow listening.

Third—and I will be glad to receive emk’s clarifications—I don’t think his 20 hours can necessarily be fairly compared to my 200. I am carefully clocking my time and any contact I have with the language is being computed in the tally. As I understand it, his approximately 20 hours refers mostly to using his Anki cards and is being computed by the software itself. When I dabbled with Anki cards, the software I was using clocked about 12 minutes for the entire hour I spent on them. In other words, it was vastly underestimating time as compared to my stopwatch. Further, I am not sure he is carefully clocking and including other types of contact he has with the Spanish language.

In addition, it should be noted that long hours over several days are spent in running subs2srs and preparing the Anki cards, whereas my time spent in purchasing or finding videos is minimal. If you include the preparation phase, the time difference would be significantly reduced.

Having said all that, I still believe emk’s approach may hold a significant efficiency advantage as compared by my pure listening approach (which is not entirely pure, since I have been using subtitles much of the time), especially when tackling a language as difficult as Mandarin. It seems to me to be a wonderful use of technology applied to language acquisition, and though I won’t use it for my Mandarin experiment—as it would violate my rules—I do hope to use it in acquiring some future language. I would probably limit its use to beginner and low intermediate phases of language acquisition, and even then, to at most 50% of my time spent, in order to avoid excessive dependence on translations, which can be pernicious.

In that vein, as emk himself has suggested to me as a possibility, I think finding a way to use Anki cards and subs2srs without translations would be ideal. Of course, for a beginner, translations hold the key to meaning, but visual cues or other creative strategies can also be used in their stead.

An unfortunate hiatus and an encouraging exchange – Week 46

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I am currently hiking in the Andes. Prior to that, I spent about 10 days traveling and working very intensely, during which I was unable to watch any Mandarin. Since I lost my cell phone, on which I had some video I planned to watch in my tent in the evenings, all told I will have taken a hiatus from my Mandarin experiment of about 20 days!

This type of interruption is definitely not good. I already watch so little Mandarin daily, and going three weeks without any contact with the language means I will certainly lose some momentum and fail to consolidate a lot of what I’ve learned.

However, I expect that in the latter half of December and early January I will be able to watch a lot of Chinese and make up lost ground.

Before starting my trek—during my conference here in Cusco—I was speaking to a colleague from Peru and mentioned my experiment. She told me that she had studied Mandarin for four years and achieved some fluency. She then proceeded to ask me a question in Mandarin. And here’s the amazing thing: I actually understood what she said and was able to answer!

Granted, it was a simple question. She asked me what my name was. I had never heard that question before, but I understood it because of the words “ni”, “shema” and “mingze”. My answer was probably completely wrong in terms of grammar and pronunciation, but she understood and did not correct me (nor should you, my readers, since that is not allowed in my experiment). I said something like, “Wo de mingze Victor.”

I didn’t let her teach me anything and we immediately went back to speaking Spanish. But having been able to communicate at all—even this simplest of exchanges—was very encouraging. Actually, it made my night!