Of Lions, Bears, and Chinese Songs – Week 66

This week my daughter Camila Daya and I watched two movies in Mandarin together, and also practiced children’s music a bit on our way to her gym classes.

We watched The Lion King dubbed in Mandarin for the fourth or fifth time and enjoyed it thoroughly, as always. The momentary inspiration for this selection was the fact that we are going to do a safari in South Africa next week, so seeing the animated lions and other animals helped us get excited.

Previously, when looking up Boonie Bears episodes, I chanced upon a feature-length Boonie Bears movie that I had not even previously heard of, so of course I downloaded it. It was the second movie we watched last week. There are no English subtitles, so we understood very little of the dialogue, but had a good time watching it. The plot is relatively easy to follow, of course. In addition, I was pleased on several occasions to pick out words I would not have understood a few months ago, and which helped me understand the storyline. Even my daughter, who has done only a third of my Mandarin viewing thus far, understood several words.

It took me a while to discover the title of the movie. Finally, Google told me it is a 2015 film called Boonie Bears: Mystical Winter. I didn’t find it as entertaining–and certainly not as funny–as last year’s Boonie Bears: To the Rescue. Nevertheless, there were touching moments, and I found the mystical aspects of it quirky but interesting.

On my way to the farm this weekend, I was very pleased to be able, for the first time, to sing along with Nan Zi Han from Mulan the whole way through. I have finally completed its memorization, after many months! So, my dear (and dwindling) readers, you can look forward to a new music video soon, hopefully in May, when we get back from Africa.

From Chaos to Routine – Week 65

I remember the first few days of my Mandarin Experiment, in January 2014. I did not even know where to start. I had coincidentally met a couple of people in previous days who had lived in China and recommended a couple of kids’ shows, which I plugged into YouTube. I looked up Mandarin films in Google and tried to figure out how to start watching them.

I found Pleasant Goat and Bad Bad Wolf trippy, but uninteresting. Watching Farewell my Concubine without subtitles on some unknown website was a chore. The best viewing experience was Momo, which allowed me to understand my first few words, such as English imports bye-bye and hi, and homonyms like mama and baba. But the infantile and repetitive nature meant I could only take so much.

Gradually, I chanced upon new sources and experimented widely. I began having a lot of fun. The first year, I spent most of my time on movies with subtitles, Boonie Bears, and Qiao Hu. I continue with those three staples, and more recently I’ve begun watching more movies without subtitles and added children’s music.

Going back to Law school and having an extremely tight schedule has contributed to my forming somewhat of a routine in my Mandarin viewing–a far cry from the experimental chaos at the beginning of last year.

Currently, a typical week looks something like this:

– Two evenings out of the week my wife and daughter and I watch two Boonie Bears episodes together before going to bed.

– Two or three times a week, while driving to work, to classes, or to my farm, I listen to kids’ music from Little Dragon Tales or practice lines from Nan Zi Han, from the movie Mulan.

– Once a week, while having lunch at home by myself, I’ll review clips from a couple of movies or Qiao Hu episodes that contain vocabulary from my database.

– One or two evenings a week, I’ll spend 45 minutes to an hour watching something, usually a movie but occasionally another source, with the specific goal of deciphering vocabulary to add to my database.

– On the weekend, out at my farm, I’ll relax at night watching a new movie without subtitles–at least until I fall asleep.

In addition to having settled into regular viewing sources and habits, I’ve also gradually added some structure by way of the database I mentioned and my self-tests. Beginning in August of last year, I added an average of one word a day to the database, a phonetic version of a word that I was able to decipher with a high degree of confidence–either because of context or subtitles. Two months ago, I decided to increase to an average of two words a day, which has sometimes been a challenge and taken up more time (in deciphering) than I had hoped. I currently have 317 words, some of which I’ve internalized, but most of which I am still in the process of learning by continuous review.

Sometimes I feel, like I mentioned in a recent post, that I’m merely plugging away with my project. Even on those occasions, watching or listening to Mandarin is a welcome respite from more pressing responsibilities. In other moments or moods, I continue to have a lot of fun and consider Mandarin viewing one of the most enjoyable parts of my day.

 

 

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.

 

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

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.

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.

Intensive Mandarin Viewing – Week 49

Besides fertilizing my eucalyptus plantation and spending time with family, my major pursuit for the past couple of weeks has been language study, namely my Mandarin project. It’s great to be on vacation!

This week, I enjoyed sharing three of my favorite movies with my sister Sofia while at the farm. First, we watched my all-time favorite, Dragon or Wu xia, with its impressive acting, gorgeous visuals, cool martial arts sequences, enthralling storyline, psychological duels, and carefully crafted philosophical undertones. Next, we viewed the visually matchless House of Flying Daggers. The colors in the autumnal birch and bamboo forests, the luxurious bordello, and the historical costumes of soldiers and rebels delight the eye, as does the actress Zhang Ziyi. For those that prefer gazing at men, Takeshi Kaneshiro is a good-looking fellow and an excellent actor, who happens to also star in Dragon. Finally, we watched Hero, probably the overall highest quality Chinese film I’ve seen. Like House of Flying Daggers, it is visually stunning and is directed by Zhang Yimou and features Zhang Ziyi (although here she is in a secondary role). Like Dragon, it involves a subtle psychological battle—in this case between the king and Nameless, the hero played by Jet Li.

As a way to focus my viewing, I sometimes reference my word-a-day list as I watch movies. It is easy to do, since when I record terms I include the exact source in a simple database, allowing me to produce queried lists. Here is an example from the movie Dragon—probably my longest movie list, ready to use for beginning students of Mandarin. Please note I am watching the abridged version of Dragon for Western audiences, downloaded from Amazon, and the notation is not pin yin, but rather my own invention, based loosely on English phonetics.

TERM BEGIN TIME END TIME DAY
yinze 05:12 05:56 18-Oct-14
shu(r) 10:05 04-Oct-14
tjien 10:12 16-Nov-14
shee 10:22 05-Oct-14
chahng 10:28 06-Oct-14
ying shiung 12:30 07-Oct-14
fatzu 30:00 30:15 08-Oct-14
fa 30:48 30:55 17-Oct-14
yuan 31:34 28-Nov-14
bye 35:25 29-Nov-14
kan 35:52 02-Dec-14
cheezuh 48:50 19-Oct-14
guh 52:00 52:08 03-Dec-14
ju 53:00 20-Oct-14
hi 58:57 04-Aug-14
yao 1:11:27 31-Aug-14
jia 1:18:10 21-Oct-14

I have also been enjoying the sadistic machinations of the Boonie Bears recently, logging many hours of viewing without subtitles. Less enjoyable, but highly profitable, is the time spent on Qiao Hu. The following graph shows my erratic weekly viewing from October through December, followed by my traditional hours-of-viewing graph, which now spans over 11 months. hours_oct-nov-14       hours_25-dez-14

To conclude this week’s post, I’d like to mention my excitement about the Christmas present my wife gave me—a shortwave radio. This technology may have made a lot more sense 20 or 30 years, before the advent of the Internet and online radio. Nonetheless, here in Brazil and especially when out at the farm, camping, or backpacking, reliable Internet is not ubiquitous.

Thus, if I am able to tune in to foreign-language radio, it will be great for my language studies. For now, I am interested in finding and listening to French-language radio for my French fluency recovery project. In the future, however, when I understand a lot more Mandarin, Chinese radio may be a great listening source. In my preliminary dabbling with the radio, I was surprised not to hear any French, but to pick up several Mandarin stations! It’s a new world.

At a Chinese restaurant – Week 41

2014-10-27 20.40.35

Watching Chinese movies in which people slurp down steaming hot noodles with evident pleasure has made me hanker for Asian food more often than usual. More than once the only recourse has been to eat Ramen noodles, which I had given up many years ago. I won’t lie–I have found them scrumptious!

Last week, after watching A Touch of Sin, I needed noodles again, so I took my wife and daughter to a local Chinese restaurant here in Brasilia. The owner is Sichuanese and was once the cook at the Chinese Embassy. As we were finishing our meal, he sat at another table to have dinner with his family, including a small boy, apparently his grandson.

My daughter, Camila Daya, is not a bit shy, and before long she had left our table and sat down at theirs (see picture above). She was welcomed, and my wife and I observed the scene with slight embarrassment, but mostly great mirth. (I did not converse with them in Mandarin out of respect for the rules of my experiment, of course—and not, ahem, because of my total lack of ability.)

At one point, my daughter handed something to the boy, and his mother said, “shie shie,” or thank you. To everyone’s surprise and delight, Camila Daya responded without the slightest pause or hesitation, “Bu ke chi,” or you’re welcome. Any vestige of embarrassment faded and I was one proud baba!

2014-10-27 20.46.40 (2)

That small experience may have helped motivate her, along with the arrival of some Disney DVDs, to put in a few hours of Mandarin listening after an almost three-month hiatus. We watched The Lion King in Mandarin twice, and Pinocchio once.

lion_king pinocchio

 Her memory is remarkable. This week I also started listening to the song Nan Zi Han or Make a Man out of You from the movie Mulan again. (One of these days I will really learn it!) She has probably listened to it fewer than half the times that I have, but she remembered the first few lines much faster than I did.

Here is our updated Hours of Viewing graph.

hours_30-oct-14

In other news, I also watched my first non-Disney movie dubbed in Mandarin, Casablanca. I watched it without any subtitles. My comprehension was even lower than I had expected. I thought having seen the movie in English before would help me understand many words and phrases, but in fact I did not understand significantly more than I do when watching Chinese films. Nonetheless, it is such a great movie and very dialogue-intensive, so I will watch it again.

casablanca