Worst Week Ever – 62

This week, I watched a grand total of 35 minutes of Mandarin, while my daughter watched absolutely nothing.

(Written by Camila Daya: Yeah I watched 0 minutes and my dad watch 35 minutes, we could not watch lion king  because the DVD player would  not make sound.)

To keep pace with my original proposal of 30 minutes per day, I would need to spend 3 hours and 30 minutes a week on Mandarin viewing and listening, or six times more than I did.

Is this the beginning of the end for my Mandarin experiment? Now that I am back to studying Law, after a two-year hiatus, traveling regularly for work, and focusing on other personal priorities, will I simply be unable to find time to continue? After putting in 315 hours of viewing, getting my ear reasonably familiar with the language and its sounds, and learning a few hundred words, will my efforts dwindle off and come to nothing?

Taking a few months off is not an option. I would forget just about everything. Persistence and regularity is the key to success. Yet, how can this crazy Mandarin project compete for my time when I have real responsibilities and much more pressing goals? When one’s schedule is so packed, something needs to give, and the nonessential pet project is a natural candidate.

My blog readership has also dropped off now that I am unable to participate regularly in language-learning forums. Though I greatly appreciate the readers I do get each day, there has never been an explosion of interest and it seems that without some type of promotion, my following may never grow organically to significant numbers.

Will I persist? Please drop by next week to see. 🙂

Continued Progress – Week 61

Comprehension Vs. Time through March 19, 2015

I tested my comprehension while watching 15 minutes of a random Chinese soap opera in Mandarin using the methodology described in my Week 51 post. Although this year I have picked up the pace with my Mandarin viewing (and listening), I often wonder if I am making real progress. It was encouraging that the results—which are as objective as I can make them—suggest that my gains in comprehension are on track with my hours of listening.

I estimated that during the 15 minutes of the soap opera, approximately 1,453 words were spoken, of which I definitely understood 166, including repeats (such as “wo,” which means “I”). I believe this estimate is conservative, considering my self-test methodology. I feel confident in stating that I now understand about 11% of words spoken in Mandarin in the Singaporean soap opera Tale of Two Cities, and I expect this is representative of what I would understand in day-to-day standard Mandarin conversation.

This level of understanding, while far from true comprehension, is sufficient to allow me to understand more of what is happening in most situations than I would have a 14 months ago, before beginning to learn Mandarin.

I am at 26% of my experiment time, or 313 hours. As the following graph illustrates, I have been squeezing more and more Mandarin viewing time into my days, especially since mid-December (due to how much I enjoy my experiment). This trend may be slightly reversed, as I have started my Law classes again. On the other hand, incorporating music while driving into my experiment allows me to put in more time.

Total Hours, March 19, 2015

The graph seems to show my daughter teetering off and giving up on the experiment. Fortunately, that is not true. In fact, I believe she may have settled into a long-term participation in the experiment, in which she puts in about 1/4 of the hours that I do. She calls it “our experiment” (I melt inside) and we have tons of fun. Basically, she listens to music with me in the car, watches Boonie Bears with me some evenings, and every once in a while we watch part of a movie in Mandarin, usually a dubbed Disney film.

Her pace of acquisition is obviously far slower than mine (which is slow enough). There is absolutely no pressure on her, so she has fun and I think she is gaining a few things:

  • Insight into the language-acquisition process
  • Understanding of what an experiment and a long-term project are
  • Glimpses into Chinese culture
  • Rudiments of Mandarin language
  • An example of stubborn persistence (hopefully not stupid obstinacy)!

Getting back to my test, I’m very glad I did it because it has given me renewed confidence to stay the course. My results during the first few minutes were over 15%, but then gradually dropped down to 11.27%, which I rounded down to 11%. I think this drop may be due in part to simply getting lazier about jotting down words as the 15 minutes dragged on. This difficulty in jotting down words is one of the reasons I believe 11% is actually a conservative estimate.

I am hopeful that after another 47 hours of listening, having reached 360 hours or the 30%-mark of my experiment, I will score above 12%, keeping pace with the first 240 hours, which took me to 8% comprehension.

 

Mandarin Weaving – Week 60

I leave home for work at 8:00 am and return from Law school at almost 11:00 pm, with only a couple of hours in the middle of the day for lunch and taking my daughter to school. When I finally walk in the door, she is still up, and immediately asks me, smilingly, “Is it that time?”

“Let me just grab something to eat first,” I answer. A few minutes later, I call out: “It’s that time! Boonie Bears time!” We sit down on the sofa with my wife and sing along with the Boonie Bears theme song. Even my wife has learned a few of the words. We watch one or two episodes, laughing at the antics of Logger Vic and the “smelly” bears before she finally goes off to bed. I’ve managed to review a few words in Mandarin and, if I’m lucky, pick up a new word in the process.

———–

It’s Saturday morning and the three of us are now cruising through the Brazilian countryside to my farm. After listening to music in English and Portuguese for most of the way, we spend 20 minutes memorizing two lines in Mandarin from the Mulan song “Nan Zi Han,” or “Make a Man out of You.” For the first 5 minutes, everyone’s having a blast doing it together. Soon my wife, bored out of her mind, snoozes off, and before long my daughter also gets tired and asks to do something else. I keep at it for another five or ten minutes, while my daughter talks to herself . . .

———–

We are all together at the farm for the weekend. My mom and stepdad, who live in another house on the same property, come by in the late afternoon to watch The Last Train Home in Mandarin, a documentary set during the largest annual human migration—the Chinese New Year. It’s a quasi-cinematic experience, as I have purchased a projector that casts a 100” high-def image on the white wall, and my Big Jambox blasts the Mandarin dialogue throughout the living room.

I try not to focus too much on the subtitles, listening carefully instead to the audio and endeavoring to pick out words and short phrases.

———–

I like philosophy and religion, and try to incorporate them into my daily life to find balance. So I was interested to find animated movies on Buddhism in Mandarin on YouTube. As I watched, I realized they were not the best sources for picking up the language. I also remembered one of the first movies I watched for my experiment, The Jesus Film in Mandarin. It was not only fairly uninteresting from an artistic viewpoint, but also a translation and therefore inherently less appealing to me as a source for learning Chinese.

Nevertheless, I plan to continue watching the Buddhist movies and repeat The Jesus Film soon as well. I shouldn’t say I’m killing two birds with one stone, since that imagery is quite un-Buddha-like. That is the idea, though . . . Perhaps my daughter will join me for some of this spiritual viewing.

 

This past week I listened to very little Mandarin. I’ve started my evening Law classes after a two-year hiatus and it will undoubtedly be a tremendous challenge to juggle so many activities and responsibilities. One way to meet this challenge and not lose momentum in my experiment will be to weave Mandarin into my other activities and priorities.

Learning Mandarin with Kids’ Music – Week 59

Tomorrow I begin my evening Law classes again at the University of Brasilia, after a two-year hiatus. On top of my demanding full-time job, work trips, language institute, farm and tree plantation, and lovely family, my schedule is a bit tight.

But I’m enjoying my Mandarin experiment immensely and there is no way I’m going to stop. I don’t even want to slow down. I intend to keep up my average 45 minutes per day.

Trying to fit so much into one’s day may reflect some underlying existential dilemma (actually, I’m pretty sure it does in my case), but it also takes planning, discipline, and creativity. No time can be wasted. That includes time behind the wheel. Fortunately, I don’t have a long commute, but driving to work and back twice a day and taking my daughter to the gym and school takes up a total of nearly one hour a day. On weekends, I spend at the very least three hours driving to get to my farm and then back to Brasilia.

When traffic permits (safety first, folks), I have been using that time to make hands-free calls (probably not the best idea), listen to spiritual music and talks, mentally plan projects for my language institute, and more recently listen to French radio broadcasts.

This imperative of efficiency has led me to make a significant change in my Mandarin experiment. I have increasingly incorporated listening to music into my “studies.” I have listened to music since early in my experiment, but initially only as it appeared in the videos I was watching anyway: mostly dubbed Disney movies, but also Boonie Bears and Qiao Hu.

I transitioned to using music as a deliberate learning tool when in June of last year I began repeating the video segment of Nan Zi Han (Make a Man Out of You) in the Chinese dub of Mulan, attempting to decipher and memorize the syllables. I made some progress, but it was extremely slow and I put that mini subproject on the backburner.

This year, I took up the Boonie Bears intro song, which is much shorter, and set out to learn it. That is when I started listening in the car for the sake of efficiency. I found that repeating single lines over and over again—sometimes actually turning the music off to better focus on memorizing lines—was at least as effective as watching the video endlessly. I found I was making good use of my time and advancing my learning process. I learned the entire song and made the infamous video of my daughter and me singing and dancing.

I then returned to Nan Zi Han, and I am slowly learning it, mostly while driving. Stay tuned for a much sillier home video, coming soon.

In the meantime, I chanced upon an awesome little album of Chinese children’s songs with a electronica accompaniment. It’s Little Dragon Tales by the Shanghai Restoration Project. I downloaded the album, which came with a pdf file that included the lyrics—in Chinese characters, pinyin, and English translation. The temptation was too great. Not only that—I’m fully convinced that using music for language acquisition is much more effective when one actually learns the lyrics. So I began peaking.

I now listen to Little Dragon Tales, the Boonie Bears song, and Nan Zi Han while driving. Obviously, this is exclusively oral (and mental). However, occasionally I will spend two or five minutes studying the lyrics to these songs (at zero miles per hour—no worries) to be sure I am getting the syllables more or less right, and that I have a general sense of the meaning of what I am singing.

So far, just 20 out of my 300 hours have been used for listening to music, but that proportion will increase over time. All told, approximately three of those hours have been spent while accessing the lyrics.

I have updated my Hypothesis and Methodology pages to include listening to music, which I had not thought of when I started my experiment. I am tracking the time I spend with music as carefully as my video-viewing time. When assessing my results at the end of this experiment, I will certainly take into account the use of music as well as the videos.

In sum, practical considerations, especially the imperative of efficiency, have trumped methodological purism and rigid attachment to rules. However, I believe listening to Chinese music is fully in the spirit of my experiment, even if critics will undoubtedly pounce on my use of lyrics (even though it accounts for 1% of my experiment time) to question its credibility.

Glimpses of Chinese Culture through Film – Week 58

I have watched nearly 300 hours of authentic video in Mandarin[1]. While just over 10% of that has been dubbed Disney movies, the vast majority of my viewing time has been devoted to Chinese movies and cartoons for kids.

I believe those 270 hours have given me a preliminary glimpse into Chinese culture.

Now, let me be clear. My 36 years have been split mostly between the United States and Brazil. I am a citizen of both countries, have deep family roots, and speak English and Portuguese as a native speaker. Yet, I do not claim to truly grasp American or Brazilian culture. A nation’s culture is just too complex and variegated a phenomenon for one person ever to fully comprehend.

Obviously, then, anything I say about the culture of China—a country I have never even visited, where I have no ties, and whose language I do not speak—is far worse than a simplistic generalization; it is brazenly superficial guesswork.

Nevertheless, one inevitably receives impressions and begins to construct conceptions. As long as they are not crystallized into false certainties or stereotypes, that is a natural and positive part of contacting a foreign culture through the language acquisition process. As I often argue, becoming familiar with a culture is an inherent and enjoyable part of a successful language acquisition process.

Here are a few observations that come to mind. I will add to them later, probably creating a specific page.

I will love to get your comments, even if you disagree completely!

Confirmed my previous conceptions

  • The Chinese value education and hard work very highly.
  • Violence, suffering, and pain are taken with more acceptance or stoicism than in the West.
  • Chinese views and traditions are deeply rooted in history, including ancient history.
  • There is great respect for elders.

Changed my previous conceptions

  • The Chinese value individual heroism and exceptionalism as much as they do submission of one’s will to a common purpose.
  • Contemporary Chinese culture is even more highly capitalistic and money-oriented than I previously imagined.
  • Conversely, a communist viewpoint is entirely absent from any of the movies or shows I’ve seen.
  • Ancestor worship continues to be prevalent in China, alongside Buddhism.
  • It’s not just Mulan: women are represented as being fighters, warriors, and protagonists in Chinese history, perhaps more so than in the West[2].
  • Chinese fathers seem as committed as mothers: they love playing and interacting with their kids and are deeply committed to their education and well-being.
  • There is a lot of collaboration with and admiration of Japan (I’m sure this coexists with deep animosity as well, but I’ve been surprised to see the positive side).
  • Similarly, in daily life, collaboration and interaction between societies in mainland China and Taiwan predominate over whatever animosities surely exist.
  • Bath house traditions in general.

Trivial observations

  • Eating is more collective than in the West. It’s common, for instance, for everyone to take vegetables from dishes in the middle of the table directly with their chopsticks, while they eat. It also seems to be rather common to take something from someone else’s plate.
  • Unlike Westerners, the Chinese conceive that when people die violent deaths, blood tends to spurt out their mouths.
  • Whereas Westerners find anything coming out of one’s nose just gross, the Chinese find it either funny or commonplace. I say that because I have seen snot or blood coming out of noses in all sorts of Chinese movies and especially cartoons.
  • Related to the last point: a way of representing sleep in Chinese cartoons is to show the rhythmical breathing by having a snot bubble coming in and out.
  • The Chinese love noodles. (They slurp them down so tastily that I am now constantly hankering for them.)

[1] More recently, that includes a bit of music.

[2] Contemporary Western society has of course changed drastically in this regard, so I’m comparing pre-20th century societies.