My Chinese Grandfather – Week 57

I’ll best most of you didn’t know I had a Chinese grandfather. Here’s the story, with many thanks to my mother for writing it down:

Victor’s “Chinese” grandfather

by Greta Browne, Victor Hart’s mother


Victor’s grandfather, George Chalmers Browne, would have loved to see Victor and Camila singing in Mandarin.

Chalmers, my father, was born in China in 1915, of Presbyterian missionaries who had met there as single missionaries a few years earlier. They raised three children, Chalmers, Beatrice and Francis, who all grew up speaking Chinese. Eventually my father, his sister and his brother left China to go to college in the United States, and my grandparents also left for good, in the mid-thirties, when the Japanese invasion threatened to engulf them in violence. . . . Read more


I didn’t even think about this connection when I started my Mandarin experiment. It wasn’t part of my growing-up experience in any way. I suppose it’s just an interesting coincidence; a subtle karmic link gradually ripening into fruition; or an intergenerational, subconsciously transmitted attraction to China.

At any rate, I love the idea that my grandfather would have enjoyed following my experiment.

This past week was Carnival in Brazil. Instead of spending it in drunken debauchery as you non-Brazilians might expect, I had a great time with my family at the farm. Naturally, I watched three movies in Mandarin—Shaolin (again), Raise the Red Lantern, and To Live, all of which I would recommend unhesitatingly.

I watched the latter two without subtitles. It was the first time since early on in my experiment that I watch a Chinese feature film without any subtitles on first viewing.

I still understand little and it’s far less enjoyable than watching with subtitles. However, the experience was very different from when I saw Farewell My Concubine in the first month of my experiment. The number of words and short sentences I understand, though still small, now actually contributes significantly to my understanding of dialogue and of the plot in general, and thus to my enjoyment. This evidence of progress was encouraging, and I believe this past week will mark a gradual transition away from the use of subtitles when watching Chinese movies.

Another encouraging realization came this week when, speaking to my daughter one evening, I mentioned the Mandarin words for dog and cat. I then reflected that I have picked up quite a few animal names in Chinese! This knowledge comes partially from Qiao Hu and is not representative of my general (lack of) vocabulary in the language. Nonetheless, since I never intended to learn animal vocabulary, I was impressed and pleased that I have happened to pick up so much. Of course, I could be wrong on some of these, but I believe I know:

Animal Mandarin phonetic approximation Where I picked it up
cat mao Qiao Hu and others
dog go Not sure
bear shyong Boonie Bears
fish yu Nemo
tiger hu Qiao Hu, others
bird nyao Boonie Bears
horse ma-ah Various
pig joo Qiao Hu, Lion King
sheep yang Qiao Hu
duck yatzi Qiao Hu
ox nyo Fearless (movie)
rabbit tu Qiao Hu, other
elephant ta shang Lion King

Language acquisition debates – Week 56


One of the reasons for undertaking my Mandarin experiment is as a motivation and context to engage with language enthusiasts and with language-acquisition theory. I have done that in the past year through forums such as HTLAL and Chinese-forums, commenters on my blog, other blogs, online research, and personal observation and analysis.

For this week’s post, I decided to write down some of the major questions that are debated in the second-language-learning community and that speak to my Mandarin experiment, whether directly or tangentially. I tried to formulate them in a way that allows for yes/no type answers, and is thus conducive to an opinion survey. I converted the first few questions into the above polls and would greatly appreciate if you take just one minute to give your opinion—regardless of whether it’s strongly held or just a hunch.

Please note that, as far as I am aware, there is no consensus among polyglots, language instruction professionals, or academic research on any of these questions. There are very smart and experienced people on both sides of each debate.

Here is the complete list of questions. At the end I comment this week’s study activities.

  • Is it optimal to acquire languages essentially by natural/communicative methods, i.e., just listening, speaking, reading, and writing, or to include a good amount of formal/abstract study of the languages (as one would study an academic subject such as math or biology)?
  • Are purely immersive methods optimal, avoiding using a first language (L1) during periods that one is studying the second language (L2), or do translations and explanations in L2, when properly used, speed up and improve acquisition?
  • Generally speaking, is deliberate, focused memorization of vocabulary (for example, using flashcards) an effective strategy for language acquisition? Does an optimal language acquisition strategy include a significant amount of memorization?
  • In second-language acquisition (SLA), is it most effective to tackle the input/receptive and output/productive skills simultaneously from the outset, or to focus first on input and then on output? In other words, should one delay speaking until definite progress has been made in listening (and, similarly, delay writing until one has made progress on reading)?
  • In SLA, is it optimal to focus first on oral skills (listening and speaking) and later focus on reading and writing, or to tackle both the spoken and written languages simultaneously?
  • Is listening to audio content of which you understand very little beneficial or a waste of time? In other words, does content have to be mostly “comprehensible” to be useful or, given some visual cues and focused attention, is listening to content that is far beyond your level an effective acquisition strategy?
  • Assuming an equal level of enjoyment and concentration, is it generally more effective to listen to same audio content many times or to listen to as much content as possible just one time? It may be beneficial to mix the two approaches, but for best results should one spend most of one’s time repeating (intensive listening) or listening to new content (extensive listening)?
  • In SLA, is using authentic content (done by natives for natives) generally better than using content made for language learners? Or is using high-quality language instruction material generally more effective, at least until one has reached a high level of proficiency?
  • Do adults ideally learn languages essentially in the same way as children, or are the mechanisms essentially different?
  • Does study of grammatical rules contribute significantly to effective language acquisition? Is it efficient to dedicate a significant portion of one’s time to explicit grammar study?
  • Is efficiency in any given acquisition approach a function of intensity of concentration, or can subconscious acquisition, without attention, be somewhat effective? For example, can listening to radio in L2 in the background while one is completely engaged in other tasks significantly boost acquisition, or is it mostly useless?
  • Is effective second-language acquisition inherently similar or inherently different from first language acquisition?
  • Consider two second language (L2) learners. One seeks to achieve basic proficiency in the shortest possible period of time. The other does not care about short-term results, but wants to attain native or near-native level mastery of L2 with efficiency. Should they follow the same or different methods for their first few hundred hours of study? In other words, is achieving basic proficiency as quickly as possible conducive to the best long-term results, or is there a tradeoff?
  • Do people have widely different learning styles that should be respected for optimal language acquisition? Or is language acquisition an essentially universal neurological process, such that certain approaches are optimal for the vast majority of people?
  • Is there a critical period or neurological window for optimal language acquisition? If so, what, on average, is the age range that defines that period?
  • Given the right approach and sufficient time, could almost any adult attain near-native mastery of a second language, or do only certain people have the ability to attain near-native mastery? In other words, do adults rarely master a second language at a native-like level because most people have an inherent neurological limitation in this respect, or because people rarely put in enough time and effort with the correct approaches?

This week I watched the movie Shaolin. It’s entertaining, has themes I like, and is generally well-acted and produced. However, it is a second-tier wuxia movie, if compared to greats like Hero, House of Flying Daggers, or Dragon.

I watched Not One Less again with my wife, mom and stepfather—a fantastic movie that makes you feel good to boot. I also spent some time on Mulan and the song Nan Zi Han, and a bit of Qiao Hu to round out my Mandarin diet.

My Mandarin Music Video – Week 55

Despite the poor quality of my editing, I hope you enjoyed that silly video! I made it to celebrate the fact that I have finally learned an entire song in Mandarin! Thanks Guy Gray for shooting the clips.

The song is the introduction to Boonie Bears, Season 1. I spent around seven hours learning it, mostly while driving back and forth from Brasilia to my farm. After listening to the song once or twice the whole way through, I would take one line at a time and repeat it over and over, unaccompanied, until I had it memorized. Then I would turn the music back on and try to sing two lines straight through, then three, and so forth. It was arduous!

It’s funny that I don’t really know what I’m singing! I am able to understand a few words here and there, and I once read a basic (awkward) translation online, so I have a sense of the overall meaning. But the purpose of the exercise, like my video watching in general, is to get the sounds of the language in my head, on conscious and subconscious levels, knowing that my brain will gradually sort it all out.

Alongside the movies and the occasional Qiao Hu, in coming weeks I plan to watch all the Boonie Bears episodes from the first season straight through. I think there are about 100 episodes in all. I will sing along to the intro song every time, with great enthusiasm, thus enriching my viewing experience.

Viewing Time Distribution – Week 54

In the past year, I have spent 259 hours watching videos in Mandarin Chinese (including about six hours listening to songs taken from the videos). I have devoted no other time to studying Mandarin in any other way. (I am not including the time spent purchasing and downloading videos, nor the many hours spent writing blog posts.) Here is a breakdown of how I have spent my actual Mandarin viewing time.

Type of Video Hours Percentage
Chinese movies[1] 145 56%
Qiao Hu[2] 37 14%
Disney movies 29 11%
Boonie Bears[3] 25 10%
Music from videos[4] 13 5%
Reviewing clips for vocabulary[5] 6 2%
Other 5 2%

A little over half of my time, or 145 hours, has been spent watching Chinese movies, generally with English subtitles. These films have constituted the most enjoyable part of my experiment. I have loved and highly recommend many of them! Through cinema, my Mandarin experiment has been a great excuse to relax on a weekend or late weekday night, sometimes with my family—my daughter, wife, siblings, or parents. Mandarin-language cinema has also opened a window for me to Chinese culture and history. This cultural contact has not only expanded my worldview, it has been personally gratifying and is a key to successful language acquisition.

The rest of my viewing time has mostly been spent with content geared toward children, for two reasons of equal weight. The first is that my daughter has participated to some extent in my experiment (she has watched just over 100 hours), so I have sought content that is appealing to her. The second reason is that children’s content is inherently valuable for adult learners as well, primarily because it is a bit easier to comprehend and sometimes designed to be instructive. Children’s content can even be seen as a proxy (albeit imperfect) for mediation.

The best example is Qiao Hu, a didactic show for small children to learn numbers, shapes, animals, and good habits like washing your hands before eating. My daughter does not enjoy it, so I watch it alone and exclusively for the learning value—35 hours of viewing thus far (no subtitles). Qiao Hu even teaches Chinese characters, which is not important to my experiment, but would be useful for most beginners. I expect that after my 1,200-hour experiment, I will continue to study Mandarin, and will likely continue watching Qiao Hu to complete my “childhood” vocabulary and begin learning characters as well.

I have spent 29 hours watching Disney movies with my daughter, generally with English subtitles. This source has surpassed my expectations, mainly because of the high quality of the dubbing, especially the songs that are skillfully adapted and translated into Mandarin. I will readily confess that I have greatly enjoyed watching these Disney movies again, even though they’re for kids and dubbed in a foreign language I scarcely understand. I had never realized, for example, just how hilarious and entertaining a movie Cinderella is.

Nearly 25 memorable hours have been spent watching 10-minute Boonie Bears episodes (nearly 12 minutes when the introductory song is included)—almost all of them with my daughter. There are no subtitles and the Mandarin is almost as hard to understand as the Chinese movies. However, the plot and slapstick humor are very easy to follow, so one can enjoy the show nonetheless. I am currently listening to intro song to the first Boonie Bears season over and over again, and trying to memorize it, so that I will be able to sing along in the future.

Between the Boonie Bears song and a song from the Disney movie Mulan—“Make a Man Out of You” or “Nan Zi Han”—I have spent 13 hours listening to music. This represents less than 5% of my experiment thus far, and much of that was when I was already watching the movie and decided to keep repeating the song. However, the proportion of pure music in my Mandarin experiment time is likely to increase, as I have decided to make better use of my time behind the wheel by listening to songs in Mandarin extracted from videos. Since when I am driving I obviously cannot watch video, this pure audio listening is a variation on my methodology, as originally described. I don’t know if time spent listening repeatedly to a song (whose meaning I mostly do not understand) and trying to memorize it, is more or less effective than watching videos. There are advantages and disadvantages. What I do believe is that it will make watching those videos more enjoyable when I am finally able to sing along with the songs.

Finally, I have spent about six hours specifically re-watching video segments in order to review vocabulary that I made note of in my Word-a-Day list. Another five hours were spent on a variety of other sources, such as an animated Chinese movie for teens (which I classified separately) and a Singaporean soap opera I used to test my comprehension.

This mix of video sources is partly a learning strategy and partly a function of what is convenient and enjoyable at any given time. Variety is the spice of language acquisition—and it contributes to balanced outcomes. Qiao Hu is probably my best source, but also the least enjoyable. Although I weirdly get into it at times, I mostly choose to watch Qiao Hu with a no pain, no gain mentality. Everything else, I really enjoy, and the choice of content mostly depends on whether I am watching alone or with my daughter, and what I’m in the mood for at any given time.


[1] About three hours spent on Casablanca are incorrectly included here. I will later create a separate category for adult Hollywood movies dubbed in Mandarin. Casablanca is the only case so far, but I expect to watch others for the sake of variety.

[2] A few hours early on were spent on the show Momo, also for toddlers, and are included in this total.

[3] I actually call this category “cartoons,” and it includes a couple of hours early in my experiment watching that famous cartoon about sheep and wolves, and a few other things. I think Boonie Bears accounts for over 90% of the amount, however.

[4] About half was Nan Zi Han from Mulan, which I listening to while watching the video clip over and over, and the other half was the Boonie Bears intro song, which I am listening to as pure audio while driving—a modality that I expect will increase in the future, as commented in my post.

[5] Sometimes I will reference my Word-a-Day list while watching an entire movie from start-to-finish. These six hours refer to time I devoted exclusively for review purposes—watching clips of various different videos that had the words I wanted to review.