One-Third Done! – Weeks 83, 84, and 85

I have completed 400 hours of viewing, which is 1/3 of the total planned time for my experiment!

Today I updated some tables, statistics, and graphs to provide a summary of my experiment thus far. I will not assess or comment in much detail on my progress or results obtained. I am doing that each time I complete an additional 10% of my experiment, so I will provide the next progress update when I reach 480 hours, or 40%. If you are interested in my progress, you can read about my recent careful self-assessment conducted at the 30% mark.

As the following graph illustrates, I am averaging nearly 41 minutes per day, above the minimum 30 minutes I planned at the outset. I began my experiment on January 17, 2014. Last December, January, and February were the months I did the most Chinese viewing. Since then, I have been averaging about 30 minutes a day again.

hours_3-sep-15

In previous versions of this graph, I also included my daughter’s progress, but in the past few months, she has done practically no viewing.

Though once again I would refer readers to my June post for discussion of the results, I will reproduce the graph in which I contrast the time I have spent on my experiment to my estimated comprehension.

timeXcomprehension_30%

I created a new graph today to track my vocabulary acquisition. The data comes mostly from my word-a-day database, in which I make note, by means of a phonetic approximation, of words I am able to decipher from the movies and other viewing sources. I developed a simple spaced-repetition system within the database. When I watch that same video a second (or third, fourth, fifth, etc.) time, my database provides me with a list of the words I wrote down for that specific source. As I watch and review the words in context, I assess my own mastery of them as hard (not at all mastered), medium, easy, or mastered.

My database now has nearly 560 words, of which 209 I currently consider “hard,” 228 “medium,” and 120 “easy.” Of course, I have picked up many words that have not made it into my database—in particular, words I learned before even starting the word-a-day system. For assessment purposes, I am most interested in words I would classify as “easy” or “mastered,” which assumes I would be able to pick these words out and understand in natural standard-Mandarin conversation on a regular basis. I am roughly guessing there are at least 50 words in this category, outside of my database. Thus, the total of “easy” words (including “mastered”) comes to 170. For the medium and hard categories, I am including only words in the database.

vocabulary

Most of my viewing is of movies that were originally made in Mandarin—approximately 222 hours. In second place is my viewing of “Toddler” content. In this category, by far the most important source is Qiao Hu, which I have written about extensively. In third place comes cartoons, namely the Boonie Bears. Next, are Disney movies dubbed in Mandarin, followed by music videos, gleaned from movies, such as Nan Zi Han in the movie Mulan, and music for kids, namely Little Dragon Tales.

time_by_sources

Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to produce new Qiao Hu Study Guides since I started studying Law again. However, today I did finally update my Films table. I have watched 60 movies in Mandarin since my experiment began, and my favorites I have watched numerous times. I think anyone studying Mandarin will find this table very useful, whether viewing authentic sources is central to their study methodology or just an occasional side exercise.

You can download the complete Chinese Film Table. For those who just want a taste of the information, here are the top ten movies and their aggregate scores (according to a formula I designed).

Name of Movie Aggregate Score Order watched Original Language Year
Hero 10.0 3 Mandarin 2002
Dragon (Wu Xia) 9.1 32 Mandarin 2011
Not One Less 8.9 38 Mandarin 1999
House of Flying Daggers 8.7 13 Mandarin 2004
Nemo 8.5 20 English 2003
Shanghai Triad 8.5 24 Mandarin 1995
Mulan 8.5 19 English 1998
Raise the Red Lantern 8.4 46 Mandarin 1991
The Lion King 8.3 33 English 1994

In sum, after 400 hours of viewing, I am greatly enjoying my Mandarin experiment, and in terms of outcomes I consider it is being moderately successful, in that I am learning, but slowly.

Survival Mandarin – Weeks 80, 81, and 82

Someone came up to me at work the other day and said a sentence in Mandarin. He later explained that his wife is Chinese—apparently, he has also studied the language himself. I didn’t understand, so he repeated it more slowly. I then understood every word in the sentence, which means something to the effect of: “You are able to speak Chinese”, or perhaps, less literally, “Do you speak Chinese?” I had never head this sentence before (which is probably in any phrasebook, but I’ve never even glanced at one), but was nonetheless able to ascertain his meaning.

I actually spent more time this week studying French than listening to Mandarin. Today I was listening to a podcast from Radio France Internationale, as I drove to my farm, about the elderly and nursing homes in China. Several locals were interviewed, and before the translation was read, one could hear the Chinese people speaking one or two sentences. I was happy that I understood several words in Mandarin.

Nonetheless, I doubt I could already survive in China based on my language skills alone. Of course, I never speak, but even my oral comprehension has not reached a level of “survival Mandarin,” after nearly 400 hours of listening. By contrast, I’m guessing that in a day or two of studying Italian, I would reach survival level, and perhaps within 50 hours of studying German. That discrepancy points mostly to the difficulty of learning Mandarin, due to its utter dissimilarity to the Western languages I speak.

It also points to a disadvantage of my experimental method. I presume that with 400 hours of traditional lessons, including the study of phrasebooks and flashcards, I would have attained a survival-level of speaking, though perhaps not of comprehension. Most likely, I would understand people who spoke simple, phrasebook-like sentences in clear, slow, standard Mandarin better than I do now. On the other hand, my comprehension of natural dialogue between natives might not be any better than what it is now—perhaps worse.

In other news, I decided this week that I have been spending too much time making notes of vocabulary words that come up in videos, and then later reviewing them. In the past few months, I have been trying to register an average of two new words per day in my database. Thus, I will now go back to the original goal of just one word a day, which will allow me more time for relaxed, unstructured viewing of new content.

In the next two weeks, I expect to pass the 400-hour mark, or one-third of my experiment. That milestone should inspire me to reflect anew on my progress and the months and years ahead. Stay tuned.

Mandarin and Yale Law – Weeks 78 and 79

———————————————

AUGUST 4 BREAKING NEWS UPDATE

I just published an update to my French Fluency Recovery Project

———————————————

BREAKING NEWS UPDATE

I just went to a Walgreens here in New Haven, Connecticut. There were several young Chinese people in the drug store buying food and beverages, among other things. They were chitchatting among themselves, and—lo and behold—I could pick up a lot of what they said! I understood things like, That’s not delicious, drink, Let’s go, Why?, What’s that? / It’s tea, a girl counting her coins, and so forth. I am so excited I came back to my hotel and immediately starting watching some scenes from Hero.

———————————————

Today I had two informational interviews at Yale Law School, which I scheduled since I knew I would be in the area and I’m trying to decide what I want to do after I finish my degree at the University of Brasilia. Last night, as I thought about the interview and prepared to articulate my motivations for studying Law, I reflected that, in a sense, they are similar to my motivations for acquiring languages.

Both Law and languages are instrumental to understanding and navigating a particular society. If you speak the language in a country, you have far better access to everything it has to offer than a foreigner who does not. One of my basic motivations for studying Law in Brazil is that I noticed how lawyers there were much more effective in handling various practical situations as citizens—not to mention consumers, entrepreneurs, landowners, as so forth—than those not versed in the principles, concepts, specific regulations, and even the jargon of the legal profession.

Beyond the evident practical advantages, both language mastery and deep understanding of a country’s legal system provide incredible insights into the culture, the people, and what makes a society tick. On an intellectual level, I take great satisfaction in having these tools to help me interpret not only my countries, but the world and human nature itself.

Incidentally, as I wandered the Yale campus between interviews, I passed by countless Chinese tourists. One group saw me in formal attire, sitting on the Law school steps, and—possibly mistaking me for a student—asked to take a picture with me. They were from Beijing, which may be why I was able to understand many words they spoke among themselves. I felt attracted to the various groups of Chinese people in a way I never would have before my experiment began, and I felt quite motivated to continue my project! That is quite funny because, in truth, a big reason for my Yale visit was to motivate myself to plough through the remaining 2½ years of Law classes in Brasilia. Thus, I will leave New Haven with at least a somewhat renewed drive for my studies of Law and of Mandarin.

Since I last wrote, I have watched Qiao Hu and clips from Dragon or Hero on most days. I have put in 383.5 total hours, which means that in just 16.5 more I will have completed one-third of my experiment.

I should also mention that I spoke a few hours of French this past week with a friend from Switzerland, who is a near-native speaker. I dutifully logged the time in my spreadsheet, along with a good deal of listening to Radio France Internationale (RFI). Just this month of June, I have logged 10 hours of French for my French Fluency Recovery Project—by far my best monthly tally to date. Prior to this month, my daily average—considering the entire period starting December 20, 2014—had been about 6 minutes, and now it is just over 8 minutes, closer to the minimum of 10 that I established as my goal.

I was quite happy to be more conversational with my friend than I had been in January of this year when I took spoke for an hour with a Français Naturel teacher, and by the third day of the visit I was feeling more comfortable with the language than I have since 2006, when I similarly listened to RFI for a few months and also had some classes and conversations with the native-French-speaking manager of NLI at the time. I still feel far from fluent and natural in my speaking, but I believe I am making good progress. Of course, I do need to diversify my listening, as I noted that I was my news-related vocabulary was sharper than my recollection of simple day-to-day words.

Starting over again – Weeks 73-77

I hope at least one person has missed me on the blogosphere. I kind of like to think that some secret skeptical follower has been checking in occasionally and thinking, “Ha! He’s teetering out and giving up on his inane and futile experiment.” I guess that, when I’m confident of my purpose, I thrive as much on skepticism and challenges as I do on friendly support—even if just in my mental dialogues.

If that imaginary skeptic had access to my Chinese-viewing log between June 20 and July 4, his doubts would have redoubled. I heard absolutely no Mandarin during those 15 days. Actually, that is similar to what happened last November-December, and the reason was the same, with an added element. Once again, I was one of the main persons responsible for organizing a large conference of Supreme Audit Institutions (SAI), this time in the beautiful city of Quito, Ecuador. Additionally, however, the big event occurred the week before my Law exams, one of which I particularly dreaded.

In any case, since July 5, I’ve been averaging 40 minutes of daily viewing, and I expect to increase that time somewhat during the next few vacation weeks. For anybody who actually missed reading my posts, I’m truly sorry that, for the first time ever, I did not post for four straight weeks. I hope it won’t happen again. At least—in case you’re wondering—the SAI event was successful and I got through my first semester back in Law school with good grades, despite a few scares.

In the past few days, I’ve mostly been watching Qiao Hu episodes. This is certainly not the most exciting viewing, but it holds two distinct advantages: I can understand a good deal with no subtitles, and, consequently, it is relatively easy to review and decipher vocabulary.

I also began with a brand-new viewing source: television news, streamed online. I understand next to nothing! It’s almost like starting my experiment all over again, in that I’m hoping the incomprehensible sounds will gradually coalesce into intelligible words and sentences. It’s different, of course, in that the phonemes and rhythm of the languages are already familiar, and I do understand a word here and there. However, if my current comprehension when watching dialogues in a movie or drama is 15%, as I have estimated, when watching the news it’s probably closer to 2%.

I have just begun exploring news sources, but can comment on the two I have found thus far. CCTV is an official government source, and thus has the advantage of being in perfectly standard Mandarin (I presume), and the disadvantage of being boring to an extreme. Phoenix TV, out of Hong Kong (if I’m not mistaken), is of much better quality, but I’ve had occasional problems streaming.

I look forward to watching more and more Mandarin for the rest of this month, and posting a report at least once every two weeks. Thanks for reading!

Experiment assessment at the 30% mark: A sharper ear – Weeks 71 and 72

In the past year and five months, I have watched 360 hours of authentic Chinese videos, including a few dozen hours of listening to songs in Mandarin. Thus, I have concluded 30% of my experiment’s 1,200 hours. Each time I complete an additional 10% of the experiment, I test my comprehension. I conducted the same test today as I did at the 20% mark (which I also repeated at 26% completion). My results continue to be encouraging, though quite modest. I currently assess my standard Mandarin comprehension at 15%.

timeXcomprehension_30%

I used the same Singaporean soap opera, Two Cities. I watch this show and this genre exclusively when taking these tests, so that I don’t get used to the specific dialogue or voices. I go months at a time without watching a single minute of any soap opera.

As before, I watched the first 15 minutes of a brand-new episode[1] of Two Cities and jotted down the words I thought I understood. I then went through the 15 minutes a second time to get a more precise count, excluding words I got wrong and adding words that I understood the first time but did not have time to write. This was the exact procedure adopted in my last two tests. I should stress, as usual, that I included all word occurrences. If wo (I) repeated twice in a single sentence containing about 10 words, I scored 20% for that sentence, even if I understood nothing else.

I did one thing differently this time around. Instead of making a rough guess of the total number of words in each segment by glancing at the number of characters in the subtitles and going by my “feeling,” I actually counted the number of characters with a fair amount of precision and divided that number by 1.5.

A bit of research online had turned up the ratio of approximately 1.7 characters per word. However, I feel 1.5 is a better number to use for two reasons. First, and most importantly, I think the ratio is likely to be lower in this type of dialogue, since so many word occurrences are simple single-character words like wo (I), ni (you), shi (to be), bu (not), mei (not), and so forth. Put another way, I’m assuming that, like English, oral Mandarin has a higher preponderance of monosyllabic words than written Mandarin, which is likely to include more technical and literary terms. The second reason is simply that I believe 1.5 is closer to what I was estimating in previous tests, making my current result more comparable to previous scores. (If I had used 1.7, my estimated comprehension would be 17% rather than 15%).

I am pleased with my result of 15%, since it continues to suggest accelerating comprehension, as the above graph illustrates. I would refer readers to my more detailed discussion of results and possible projections in my 20%-assessment post. Extrapolating my rate of learning in these first 360 hours to the full 1,200 hours of my experiment—a projection of tenuous value at best—would take me to 50% comprehension by completion of my experiment, which would probably not be quite enough to consider myself at an intermediate level of comprehension, but would be enough to constitute a strong foundation to build on with other language acquisition methods.

I would estimate that about 15 words accounted for 90% of the word occurrences that I understood in this soap opera segment. I knew all of these 15 words in January, when I had completed 240 hours (20% of the experiment). Nonetheless, my estimated comprehension jumped from 8% to 15% in this period.

I do believe my improved score reflects real progress, and was not a fluke or the result of poor test design. Based on that assumption, what this improved score reveals is a better-tuned ear and a greater ability to hear and decipher the simple words that I learned a long time ago, rather than a larger vocabulary. Undoubtedly, my vocabulary has increased in the past few months, but the test results do not reflect that nearly as much as simple auricular training and adaptation.

In fact, a quick glance at my test notes reveals only four words that I may not have known at the 20% mark: jia (home), he (drink), zai (to be [location]), and jiao (to be called, referring to names). Most or all other words are “old vocabulary” from the first year of my experiment, and the majority very simple terms deciphered in the first few months.

Perhaps a more important—if less precise and objective—observation is that I believe my comprehension of the overall meaning of what I watch is a bit better than it was a few months ago at 240 hours of listening. Most of my comprehension is still based on visual cues, but the contribution that actually understanding Mandarin words and expressions provides has increased, very slowly but surely.

 

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAA8IqxTO8A

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.