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.