Disney movies for learning Mandarin and other languages – Week 53

 pinocchiobeauty_beastfinding_nemo

sleeping_beauty mulanlittle_mermaid

snow_white cinderella lion_king

Disney movies dubbed in a foreign language are an excellent resource for improving one’s L2 listening comprehension. My reasons for making this claim can be summed up in two words: high quality.

The better Disney movies are endlessly entertaining because they are brilliantly scripted and executed. It’s easy to understand why classics such as Cinderella and Snow White and modern masterpieces like The Little Mermaid, Lion King, and Nemo all have at least 90% approval on Rotten Tomatoes.

Fortunately, it appears the studio takes equal care in producing first-rate international versions of these films. My impression is that the translations and dubbing are among the best in the industry; the results are satisfying for children and their parents worldwide. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Disney’s language localization is the production of country- and language-specific versions of the songs in the many musical movies such as Mulan or Beauty and the Beast. “I marvel at how they get the same overall meaning into lyrics which still fit the melody and rhyme scheme perfectly”[1] is an opinion I second without hesitation.

Most studios do not choose to translate the songs in their movies at all, and the fact that Disney does, and with such quality, is an added reason that their productions are such a fine language-acquisition resource. In my view, films are, generally speaking, the best available resource for self-study in second-language listening comprehension. They effectively mimic the way the language is naturally spoken; the visual cues greatly enhance comprehension; they are highly entertaining and easily available. This insight underpins my entire experiment.

Music, however, is a close second, with distinct advantages: as the advertising industry grasped long ago, catchy music fosters vocal and mental repetition and gets language deep into your subconscious. This phenomenon is useful not only for marketing professionals, but also for language acquisition enthusiasts.

High quality songs in movies combine many of the advantages of both learning resources. Watching numerous Disney movies again and again in the target language and carefully studying, memorizing, and singing along with the lyrics to the songs would take any child (or adult) a long way toward attaining solid listening comprehension skills.

In my own experiment, I do not carefully study lyrics, though I would always recommend that regular language students do so. I have, nonetheless, decided that using my time efficiently trumps literal adherence to my original game plan of exclusively viewing videos. Thus, I have decided to take Mandarin songs from movies and other videos I like to watch and repeat them over and over in the car as I drive until I am able to sing along. I think this change is fairly uncontroversial since it is still a listening-only approach based on authentic audio material and does not involve formal study, classes, or a teacher. I am recording the time spent on these songs in the car and counting it toward my 1,200 experimental hours.

I am currently learning the Boonie Bears (season 1) theme song, after which I plan to continue learning Nan Zi Han and then probably A Girl Worth Fighting For—both from Mulan—and probably other Disney movie songs. I intend eventually to make a CD compilation with Boonie Bears and Disney movie music and also add some infantile but catchy Qiao Hu tunes, which, unlike the others, I can actually understand.

My goal, beyond squeezing more Mandarin hours into an inordinately busy schedule, internalizing the sounds of the language, and reinforcing some vocabulary, is to be able to sing along to these songs whenever I sit down to watch Boonie Bears or the Disney movies. Thus I will not only provide some good laughs for anybody in the vicinity, I will also make the movie-watching experience more fun, and, most importantly, enhance it as a powerful language-acquisition exercise.

curse_golden_flowerThere is a significant comparative downside to using Disney movies to learn Mandarin or any language besides American English: you are failing to get the associated cultural understanding. The best part of my Mandarin experiment thus far has been discovering Chinese cinema. Watching wu xia epics such as Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Red Cliff, and The Warlords, and realistic fiction such as Not One Less, Aftershock, and The Story of Qiu Ju has not only been greatly entertaining, it has enriched me with insights about Chinese history, geography, and culture.

I don’t consider cultural insight a side benefit to acquiring a second language, but rather an integral and necessary part of the process. You can learn the mechanics of a language and a good deal of vocabulary without delving into the associated culture, but I doubt you can ever attain true mastery or elegant and nuanced expression without it. There is no doubt that language and culture are deeply interwoven. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who spoke six languages fluently, supposedly said:

“I speak Italian to ambassadors, French to women, German to soldiers, English to my horse and Spanish to God.”

and

“A man is as many times a man, as many languages he knows.”[2]

Disney does such a good job of translating movies and even their songs that, invariably, a bit of the L2 culture is incorporated. Yet, fundamentally, it is Western—and especially American—culture that motivates the storylines and all the elements surrounding them. The superimposed foreign language translation will always be an imperfect fit when compared to original Chinese movies such as Shower or Curse of the Golden Flower.

However, the obvious factor that I have not yet mentioned and that clinches the argument in favor of dubbed Disney movies as a potentially valuable part of one’s listening repertoire is their appeal for kids. I’m sure there are also Chinese original shows and movies that could potentially hold Western children’s attention—and in fact I have found such a source in the Boonie Bears. But nothing gets my daughter to clock in long hours of Mandarin viewing like watching The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Nemo with me. We have watched all nine movies pictured at the top of this post together. Fortunately, I enjoy them almost as much as she does. I should note that they are all available on DVD on the U.S. Amazon website.

For you to use these dubbed Disney movies with your children, they will have to either have a much higher level of Mandarin (or other target language), so they actually understand most of the dialogue, or, like my daughter, be content to read the English-language subtitles. In the latter case, one needs to remind them also to pay attention to what is spoken—yet I am unsure how effective a strategy that is. I do not know whether my daughter really gets much Mandarin practice or is too caught up in reading the subtitles. I am not particularly worried about this, however, because watching subtitled movies has greatly benefited her reading comprehension in English!

In short, Disney movies are a great choice for kids learning a foreign language or—as in my case—for adults who want to share their learning experience with their kids and provide them with some level of exposure.

 

 

[1] http://www.lionking.org/~timwi/cgi-bin/viewsongs.cgi

[2] http://www.lexiophiles.com/english/language-culture-and-thoughts-do-languages-shape-the-way-we-think

Chinese-language Cinema – Week 52

Not One Less

My favorite Chinese movies to date have been Hero, Journey to the West, and Wu Xia (Dragon), but Shower, House of Flying Daggers, and Not One Less (pictured above), among others, are also of the highest cinematic quality. Films are a fantastic way to improve your listening comprehension if you are a student of Mandarin and constitute an integral part of the experiment I began exactly one year ago today. My updated Chinese films table is a great resource.

But even if you’ve never studied Mandarin and do not intend to, you should definitely expand your cultural horizons and watch these masterpieces. The cinema of China alone (without counting Taiwan and Hong Kong) is the third largest film industry in the world.

In this light, I wrote my first ever film review about my current favorite, Wu Xia (Dragon), which I think you will enjoy. I’ve watched it no less than five times since I first downloaded the movie in October.

I intend to write other Chinese film reviews in coming months.

In January, as I enjoyed my remaining vacation days, I watched six new movies. The best by far was Not One Less, another Zhang Yimou masterwork, but Aftershock is a worthwhile tear jerker. Havoc in Heaven (also known as Uproar in Heaven or The Monkey King) is an 1965 animation that is apparently as important to the Chinese as Wizard of Oz is to Americans.

aftershock       havoc_heaven

Rounding out the list are Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, 14 Blades, and Getting Home, all of which are undoubtedly worthwhile for students of Mandarin or Chinese cinephiles.

mulan_rise_warriorr  14_blades  getting_home

Experiment assessment at the 20% mark: Accelerating comprehension? – Week 51

I have now watched 240 hours of Mandarin-language movies and TV shows, or 20% of the total time for my experiment. Nearly a year has gone by since I began this adventure on January 17, 2014.

The sounds of a language that was once utterly foreign to me have now become familiar, though not quite intelligible. As I reported at the 10% mark, I continue to make steady progress in my deciphering and comprehension. I now occasionally understand complete phrases, and in most sentences I can pick up at least one word.

My incipient comprehension is starting to become useful. When watching a regular movie or show without subtitles, the words and phrases I understand enhance my understanding of the plot, even if marginally.

At this 240-hour mark, I tested my listening comprehension using a new episode of the same Chinese soap opera I have used for this purpose in the past—A Tale of 2 Cities[1]. I think it is a good test because I never watch this particular show or even this genre—so the results are not influenced by previous familiarity with the content or specific voices and manners of speaking. At the same time, the dialogue seems to be in standard Mandarin[2] and is not technical, but rather about daily life. Thus, the results should be representative.

This time, I devised a simple system to measure more accurately and objectively the percentage of word occurrences I was understanding. As I watched, for the first time, 15 minutes of the episode, I jotted down the words I believed I understood. I then watched the entire 15 minutes again, one section at a time, verifying as best as I could which words I got right (discarding the ones I was unsure of) and estimating the total number of words in each section. Thus, within a couple of percentage points, I can confidently affirm that I now understand 8% of words in a routine standard Mandarin conversation, including repeats, inasmuch as this soap opera is a representative sample.

The following graph shows how my estimated comprehension has evolved over time (blue line), alongside the time I have put in (red line).

timeXcomprehension_20%

If the rate of learning as measured for the first 240 hours were to continue indefinitely, I would understand 40% of the words (including repeats) by the end of my experiment, and would take 3,000 hours to reach 100% listening comprehension. Of course, that extrapolation is tenuous at best. The main reason the rate of learning would decline is because of diminishing returns—more specifically, due to the diminishing word frequency of new words.[3]

On the other hand, the rate of learning might also accelerate because of the nature of the language acquisition process. I am listening to a large amount of audio content that I do not understand, but it nonetheless is entering my brain, which is evolutionarily designed to recognize patterns and create neural synapses to process the sounds efficiently. I am convinced that this cognitive development occurs far beyond what I can consciously and self-referentially perceive at any given time in terms of comprehension of actual words. As my brain silently labors, its Mandarin repository and processing ability gradually increase before finally manifesting as actual conscious comprehension of words and phrases.

Furthermore, like pieces in a 10,000-piece puzzle, the more words I learn (especially the “corner pieces” of key pronouns, verbs, conjunctions, and so forth), the more the general panorama comes into view. As this happens, deciphering new words in context becomes easier.

Although my self-assessments are rough estimates—especially the previous, less meticulous ones—my progress would seem to indicate that thus far, the latter beneficial phenomena have outweighed the diminishing word frequency factor. After the first 120 hours, I estimated I was understanding 2.75% of word occurrences, while after another 120 hours, I now estimate I understand 8% of them.

For the sake of conjecture, and despite the tenuous nature of any extrapolation, let us assume that I did continue my rate of an 8% increase in word occurrence comprehension for every 240 hours of listening. What would that spell for my hypotheses?

The first and main hypothesis is that I can learn to understand Mandarin just by watching authentic videos. Obviously, that hypothesis would be proven correct, since eventually I would get to 100% comprehension. Though any conclusive affirmations would be premature at this point, that conjecture is logical and consistent with my experience thus far. If I was able to get past the initial hurdle of deciphering and consolidating comprehension of a few dozen words in Mandarin[4], it seems self-evident that I will continue to make progress and eventually understand the language.

Skipping ahead, the third hypothesis is that after watching 1,200 hours of authentic Mandarin videos, I will have attained sufficient comprehension to tackle a new video, and on first viewing, understand the general plot or the topics that are being discussed. According to my extrapolation, after 1,200 hours I would understand 40% of word occurrences. I am unsure whether that would be enough to attain the aforementioned intermediate level of comprehension, but I do not believe it would be. I think to really understand the general plot and topics of any new video, one would need to understand closer to 60% of word occurrences.

This projection coincides with my subjective expectation based on how the experiment is going thus far. I think it is quite possible that my rate of acquisition will accelerate and, as a result, the percent of word occurrences will increase more quickly and reach 60%. On the other hand, I would not be surprised if that does not happen, and five or six years from now, at the end of my experiment, I am in fact at 40% comprehension, thus refuting the third hypothesis.

The second hypothesis is that this method is actually efficient and effective as compared to traditional, old school methods that are heavy on formal study, grammar rules, translations, and memorization. This hypothesis will be the most complex and controversial to assess.

A presumably very efficient method requires at least 4,600 hours to achieve a “professional working proficiency” in Mandarin, comprising listening, speaking, reading, and writing. I would guess that an inefficient traditional method might take twice that amount of time.

Further, I estimate that one needs to understand about 90% of word occurrences in speech between natives, as in a soap opera, to attain that level of proficiency[5]. At my current rate, extrapolated, that would take me 2,700 hours of viewing. It might then take me another 1,350 to achieve an equivalent level of speaking proficiency[6], bringing the total to 4,050 hours. That does not include learning Chinese characters and being able to read and write. If these estimates and my extrapolation prove accurate, it seems my method would be similarly inefficient as traditional (old school) academic methods, and my second hypothesis would be refuted as well.

. . .

More importantly, though, I am having a lot of fun. As I’ve discovered during my current vacation period, watching Chinese movies and Boonie Bears cartoons is a great way to avoid dealing with more urgent, practical matters. I watched 48 hours of Mandarin between December 11 and January 6, but did not even touch the piles of unfiled papers in my closet!

Many of the Chinese movies I have watched enriched my life culturally, aesthetically, and philosophically.

The Boonie Bears have been a great bonding experience with my daughter and even with my wife on a few late nights when no one was sleepy! While watching the sadistic bears and their logger nemesis in action is not any more culturally or morally edifying than Bugs Bunny or Tom and Jerry, the great thing is that you can enjoy the plot and the antics without subtitles.

That is important, because in the past 40 hours, I have deliberately reduced my use of subtitles from a previous 70% of viewing to a current 60%. I will continue to reduce their use until most, and then all, of my viewing is without this crutch.

Of course, the most useful show I have found is Qiao Hu. It has no subtitles, I understand half of the dialogue, and I can easily pick up several new words in each episode. And it is really enjoyable—for a two year old! Needless to say, I watch much less Qiao Hu than I “should” to avoid giving up on my experiment due to boredom.

I really look forward to being able to understand and enjoy movies without subtitles. While I probably will not get to that point anytime soon for first viewings, I expect that sometime this year or next it will become feasible to enjoy my favorite movies without subtitles, when watching them for the fourth or fifth time.

Since last July, my daughter has not watched enough Mandarin to make notable progress. Alas, I do not think she will learn in this way. Nevertheless, I believe the exposure she has had to this difficult and important language, and to Chinese culture through film, is enriching. If she decides to learn Mandarin when she is a little older, she will be a leg up because of this early exposure.

For me, the Mandarin wilderness trek continues with enthusiasm unabated.

 

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Tale_of_2_Cities

[2] OK, I just looked this up and apparently it is in standard Singaporean Mandarin (oh man oh man), but that seems to be close enough to Standard Chinese in China. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_Singaporean_Mandarin)

[3] If I understood every single occurrence of just 5 or 10 Mandarin words, my percentage would be much higher than my current result. However, that is not trivial, because the trick is being able to decipher those words in the context of sentences spoken quickly by native speakers.

To illustrate the importance of word frequency, a word corpus taken from English language movie and television transcripts reveals that just 10 words account for 21.8% of word occurrences (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktionary:Frequency_lists/TV/2006/1-1000).

During my 15-minute test, I understood 29 unique words, for a total of 76 word occurrences out of an approximate 943 total words spoken.

[4] My total words deciphered, but not consolidated to the point where I am can systematically pick them out in conversation, is in the hundreds.

[5] When natives to speak to you as a foreigner, they slow down their speech and restrict their vocabulary a bit, allowing you to understand close to 100% at professional working proficiency.

[6] Assuming that having a very high level of listening comprehension will make learning to speak well much easier.

Language acquisition through music – Week 50

Since this is my first post of the new year, I would like to comment on my goals for 2015 before delving into the topic “music as part of a language acquisition strategy.”

These goals derive rather naturally from my proposed methodology. I was inspired to formulate them by a thread at chinese-forums.com.

  1. Watch about 40 minutes of Mandarin movies and TV shows per day, or a total of about 245 hours.
  2. Have at least 50% of that viewing time be without subtitles.
  3. When watching an entirely new episode of a soap opera (a genre I never ordinarily watch) without subtitles, be able to pick out and understand perhaps 15% of the words that are uttered (including repeats – each “wo”, “ni”, and “hao” counts hahaha) on first viewing. That may sound really easy and unambitious to more advanced students, but it would feel like a great accomplishment to me.
  4. Be able to sing at least one entire song from the movies or shows that I watch. This has proven surprisingly difficult! I have worked a bit on the Boonie Bears’ intro song and a lot on Nan Zi Han from Mulan, but with little to show for it.
  5. Be able to understand at least 50% of the dialogue in a new Boonie Bears or Qiao Hu episode and be able to watch at least one or two of my favorite Chinese movies such as Dragon and Hero and understand most of the dialogue without subtitles (after many, many repetitions).
  6. Continue blogging about my experiment on a weekly basis and engage more with other students of Mandarin and language enthusiasts in general through my blog and on this and other forums.

My 15% comprehension goal (#3) is fairly ambitious, considering that my last self-assessment was 6%, and there is a tendency toward diminishing returns due to lower word frequency for new terms, once you get past pronouns, interjections, and basic verbs. However, I’m hoping that this phenomenon will be counterbalanced by increasingly reaping the fruits of natural neural adaptation to oral Mandarin, which I expect has occurred over the past year and 220 hours and will continue as my experiment progresses.

My fourth goal relates to using music as a language acquisition strategy. Authentic music and video are two common sources of listening practice for students that adhere, at least partially, to a natural acquisition strategy. I elected video rather than music for my experiment because I think it is generally superior and because the visual clues make deciphering words possible even at a basic level, whereas I might listen to music in Mandarin endlessly without learning anything if I used it exclusively.

However, the major advantage to song is that the accompanying music is conducive to repetition, memorization, and deep or subconscious assimilation. If a tune is catchy, you can listen to it again and again, sing along, and before long find yourself repeating it mentally or aloud on your own. Evidently, in this way, you are getting “extra” practice with the language (such as when you sing while in the shower). Further, you are assimilating the language on a different neurological level than when simply listening to dialogue.

I recommend students take the following measures to use music effectively for language acquisition:

– Choose songs that have meaningful, well-written lyrics. Get help from a native.

– Choose music that you really like and can listen to over and over with pleasure.

– Study the lyrics carefully.

– Memorize the lyrics, either deliberately or by listening to the song so many times that you learn them naturally.

– Once you learn it, sing the song from time to time! This should occur spontaneously, but if it doesn’t, make a point of it.

In my own Mandarin acquisition experiment, I cannot fully follow my own recommendations because I cannot study the lyrics or get help from natives. Obviously, however, I can use music, since it is often included in movies and TV shows. There is no reason that I cannot, as I watch, pay careful attention, repeat the tracks, and then try to sing along. As I mentioned, I have done that with the song Nan Zi Han from Mulan several times.

To date, I have probably spent a total of at least three hours on it. Surprisingly, I am still unable to sing along with even half the song!

More recently, I have been repeating the introductory song to the Boonie Bears episode. (Watch first 1:20)

 

I recently decided—in another flexible interpretation of my rules—that I will also listen to these songs in isolation, sans the video. I believe this makes little difference to my experiment, since this listening is unlikely to ever account for more than 5% or 10% of my total time. Further, this type of listening is even more, rather than less, radical than watching videos, since it is purely oral.

The reason for my decision is simple: I want to make better use of my time when driving. I drive three hours to my farm and back almost every weekend. I have recently started listening to downloaded French radio broadcasts during these drives and loved the experience. I realized I could use a bit of that time in the car to listen to Mandarin as well. Since I want to eventually memorize at least these two songs, I might as well make some progress while driving. I will carefully include this time in my daily Mandarin log.