Keeping up with the Chinese – Weeks 69 and 70

It is a rather hackneyed observation that the pace of modern life for those who want to “get ahead” is frenetic. You´d better work and study hard, because there is a determined Chinese kid somewhere anxious to take your place. For the past 24 years, Chinese GDP has grown at annual rates between 6% and 14%, and will soon overtake the US as the world’s largest economy.

Recent headline news tells us that the Chinese are currently building islands at lightning speed in the South China Sea, threatening to make competing territorial water claims a rather moot point. Nations interested in pursuing competing interests better not blink.

Everybody needs to keep up with the Chinese.

I’m trying.

Well, more accurately, I’m trying to attain some image of the good life—a collage, perhaps. Raising my daughter, intense work at my public service job, including extensive international travel, evening Law classes, guidance to the company I founded, managing my farm and tree plantations on weekends. And, of course, learning Chinese. It’s been hard to squeeze in the Chinese of late.

My word list has taken on much greater relative importance, for three reasons. A couple of months ago, before my Law classes began and things were much less hectic, I decided I would start adding two words per day, instead of just one. I have fallen way behind. Second, as the words pile up and the database keeps growing, there is that much more to review. Lastly, I’m devoting much less time per day overall, so keeping up with the Chinese word list requires devoting a much higher proportion of my total time than before.

This past week, I watched Dragon once again, since so many words from it popped up for review in my database. In addition, I listened to the Mandarin songs I have memorized about three times while driving—Nan Zi Han, Boonie Bears intro song, and, from Little Dragon Tales, Ni Wa Wa, Zhao Peng You, and Liang zhi liao hu.

I’m enjoying my experiment as much as before, but time constraints mean I’m struggling to keep up with the Chinese.

At this point, you should not be surprised by an announcement I have to make. While for 67 weeks I faithfully wrote one blog post every single week, without fail, I will henceforth make my posts biweekly. I need to save time, at the very least until my Law semester is over (in July). I will return to weekly posts only if one of the following things should occur:

  • Blog readership begins trending upward again—significantly
  • The blog begins to be used much more extensively at The Natural Language Institute
  • My schedule becomes more relaxed, and I have more time.

Like just about every blogger, I would love to have people anxious and drooling expectantly for my next post, and ever-increasing hordes of readers flocking to these pages. On the contrary, to date, I’ve found that if I don’t actively mention my blog on forums and message boards, readership will not increase. There is no momentum.

Nevertheless, I’m very happy to share my experiences with my few regular, faithful readers, and with the many more who chance upon my blog each week. Cheers!

Is language acquisition a priority? – Week 68

I had hoped to make my two-day trip from Cape Town back to Brasilia (via Dubai) an unprecedented Mandarin movie marathon. Then, I got news that I have a Criminal Law exam next week. I did watch a couple of movies, but I split my time with my Law book. And when a flight delay meant we had to spent 24 hours in Dubai, I obviously made seeing the city my top priority.

Should I have made my Mandarin studies a higher priority? How important is language acquisition to me? I have been reflecting on this in light of advances in machine translation.

I picked up an Economist magazine at the Cape Town airport and read the cover article on Artificial Intelligence. It discusses how deep thought and big data are, among other things, bringing us much closer to the point where machine translation will match the quality of human translation. For years, people (especially translators) have told me this will never happen, but I’m quite sure it will. One of the more interesting and well-made points of the article is that white-collar jobs will be increasingly replaced by computers. The translation and interpreting professions have limited lifespans. You might need a few high-level professionals to tweak important documents and of course guide improvements in software, at least in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, I would not recommend my daughter consider translation a primary professional option.

So how useful is my Mandarin-learning quest? Of course, I am doing it for pleasure, for the challenge itself and the benefits to my brain, and as a pedagogical experiment. However, underlying my enjoyment and motivation is the assumption that I am acquiring a very useful skill. If learning more about forestry and government auditing work–two activities that have a significant financial impact for me–would be vastly more useful for my future, why should I invest so much time in acquiring and improving Mandarin and other languages? I won’t be surprised if within five or ten years Skype allows me to communicate seamlessly with people in all major languages (they are working hard on this), but I doubt computers will replace human judgment on audit reports, international cooperation, or managing labor to care for my tree plantation.

For now, I will continue my language acquisition project undaunted. (On the Emirates entertainment system, returning to Brazil, I finished watching Brotherhood of Blades, then watched 20 Once Again, The Golden Era, and The Crossing I. I would only recommend The Crossing. The Golden Era is well done, but too long, depressing, and unentertaining. The other two movies are well worth skipping.)

But I will keep an eye on technological advances in the field of translation and continue reflecting on the utility of language acquisition.

From South Africa – Week 67

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I spent the past week in South Africa with my wife and daughter, much more concerned about cheetah sightings than Mandarin viewing.

The isolated Mandarin-experiment highlight of my week was during the wee hours of my Emirates flight from Dubai to Cape Town. After finishing the first draft of a paper due the next day for my Property Law class, I was too caffeinated to go right to sleep. So I browsed the extensive in-flight film collection, and to my delight, there was a whole section of Mandarin-language films. I decided to watch the first 15 minutes of Brotherhood of Blades. An hour and 15 minutes later, the sun was already rising and I realized how badly I needed to sleep. (The next day, I had to drive four hours on the left side of the road for the first time.) Fortunately, the movie was rather lousy and I was able to pull myself away from it—which is ne’er an easy task for me.

After that, I had a Mandarin-less week, except for one morning that I had a terrible headache, missed the safari drive, and instead watched Dragon for the umpteenth time. We will be in Cape Town now for another week, during which I will be working rather intensively, but hopefully I can squeeze a little Chinese in on the evenings.

Regardless, I’m very excited for the flights back to Brazil next weekend. I have two 10-hour flights on Emirates. I expect I can watch four to five new Chinese movies during these flights and clock in some 8 hours of Mandarin viewing—a true marathon and definitely a new record!