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

At a Chinese restaurant – Week 41

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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

Two New Movies and the Song – Week 26

This past week Camila Daya and I watched Beauty and the Beast dubbed in Mandarin twice (and she watched it couple of additional times in English). It’s a great learning source, just like The Little Mermaid, due to its high quality and “watchability”, the straightforward dialogues (not that I understand much of anything haha), and the catchy songs. On a side note, I noticed that buying some of these Mandarin-language Disney DVDs would be a good way to circumvent the lack of availability of Disney classics for regular purchase or legal download, since they have an English language option. I had tried buying Beauty and the Beast in the past for my daughter (regular edition, in English), but it seems to be a Disney marketing strategy to keep them off the market for long periods.

beauty_beast

I also watched a new Chinese movie, Shanghai Triad. It’s an excellent movie and I would highly recommend it, as long as you’re not looking for something to lift your spirits or restore your faith in humanity. Set in 1930s Shanghai, it’s an authentic Chinese gangster movie with some interesting twists. It’s a different style from any of the other Chinese movies I’ve seen to date and the first of this genre. I recognized the actress Gong Li from The Emperor and the Assassin and I subsequently realized I’ve also seen her in Farewell My Concubine and Memoirs of a Geisha (the Japanese movie). Gong Li is clearly one of China’s top actresses from the past three decades and I’m sure I’ll see a few more movies from her filmography in coming months.

shanghai_triad

Finally, I am persevering with THE SONG. Of course, I’m referring to Make a Man out of You, Mandarin version, from Mulan. I’m happy to report that after three hours of listening to it (over a few weeks) I can now sing along with six whole lines! I would have expected to take about 30 minutes to learn six lines. But no matter … I will stick with it. Who knows how awful my pronunciation may be, but it sounds okay to me! I can sing along to these five lines without missing a syllable. In the video above, I wasn’t very focused, so there are grosser mistakes.

I’ve watched very little Qiao Hu, which is what I should be doing, but I do get a few minutes in from time to time and you can look forward to a new study guide in August.

I will soon have completed 120 hours or 10% of my planned viewing time for the experiment, which will be my first big milestone. If I do that by next week, in my next post I hope to take stock of my progress and reflect on my hypothesis and way forward.

Disney movies in Chinese – Week 21

Yesterday I inaugurated a new resource for Mandarin listening and viewing. I have planned to use it from the outset: Western children’s movies dubbed in Mandarin—especially, but not limited to, Disney movies. Variety is the spice of learning a language by watching videos.

Besides variety, I anticipate one benefit in particular from this new resource: renewed engagement and viewing hours from my six-year-old daughter, Camila Daya. Note from the following graph that from weeks 4 to 12 she not only kept pace but caught up to my viewing hours. This was largely thanks to Boonie Bears, a fun but too difficult source. She even wrote a blog post! However, her viewing abruptly tapered off, and at present I’m on track to double her total hours viewed.

hours_20

Time will tell, but I think there is a chance her viewing will skyrocket now with these new DVDs, since, like most kids, she has the capacity to watch movies she that she likes over and over again. Interestingly—and this may not be that typical for a six year old—the language does not seem to matter that much.

I remember how she got started with Spanish. One day, I believe when she was still four, she said to me, “Dadda, I know how to say ‘Princess Ariel’ in Spanish.” She proceeded to perfectly trill the ‘r,’ precisely produce the closed ‘e’ vowel sound, and hang her tongue at roof of her mouth at the ending ‘l’ sound. I was impressed! “How did you know that?” I asked her. She laughed long and hard before telling me that she had discovered that she could set the DVD to Spanish. Since then, in addition to one-hour Spanish classes once or twice a week, she continues to progress, albeit slowly, by occasionally watching videos in Spanish and access Spanish-learning websites for kids (Mi Mundo en Palabras and Plaza Sésamo). If she continues this project and eventually learns Mandarin, she will become quadrilingual, not to mention knowing a hundred or more ASL signs.

Here is the full list of Western children’s movies that we now have dubbed in Mandarin:

  • Mulan
  • Cinderella (1950)
  • Sound of Music
  • Finding Nemo
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • The Little Mermaid

I got these DVDs from the US Amazon site and had them shipped to my brother, who lives in Boston and just arrived in Brazil for the World Cup. There are other titles available, and if this goes well, I’m sure I will get many more.

In addition to variety and appeal to Daya, other advantages to this resource may be: familiarity with the plots, simplicity of plots and dialogue, catchy songs that stay in one’s head, high quality and entertainment value (even for adults), and ease of switching audio and subtitles (not the case with the downloaded movies I watch on my tablets). The major disadvantages I can think of are inherent to the fact that these are Western movies. The dialogues are translated, which makes them less authentic and perhaps less rich and valuable, and I will not be getting culture insights, which are closely linked to effective language acquisition.

What are your thoughts, dear reader? Is this a good addition or not to my Mandarin viewing sources?

Weeks 1 and 2

I am 16 days into my Chinese Mandarin learning project / experiment. This is my first blog entry. I will write once a week now, in the style of a personal journal, reflecting on what I’ve done, my progress, and the language acquisition experiment as a whole.

I kindly suggest any readers, before continuing with this blog entry, read my project description, which outlines the reasons behind my experiment, my hypotheses, and my methodology.

I started watching Chinese videos on January 17 and, except for one day, watched daily through yesterday, February 1. I have logged nearly 8 total hours of listening, or an average of 30 minutes daily as planned.

Thus far, I’m enjoying my experiment and feel that it’s going well. I have mostly watched shows made for small children, especially one called momo. Most of the episodes of momo I’ve watched have an attractive young Chinese woman as host and one or more small children interacting with her. It seems to be aimed at infants or children not more than 4 years old, so it is very easy to get the gist of what is happening and occasionally pick out a word or expression. Though I wouldn’t say it is necessarily the “best” type of video I’ve seen for learning, it is definitely the one in which I “feel” like I am immediately able to learn and understand the most. However, it may be the case that in other types of video, in which apparently I am learning and understanding nothing, my brain is actually doing a tremendous amount of processing and very gradual acquisition, unbeknownst to me. More on that later.

In terms of consciously aware, perceptible learning, however, here is what I consider by far the best video clip of any I’ve seen (the first 4:15 of it):

Among other things, you could definitely learn to count to 12 with this clip—though I haven’t yet done so, and perhaps will not try to deliberately do so. Even better, though, is that when I went back to this clip after watching many other things, I felt (for the first and so far only time), that my brain was actually linking multiple words to meaning (that doesn’t mean I would be able to single these words out and explain or translate them individually, however).

The very first video I watched was a cartoon for little kids about wolves and sheep. Here is an example:


To me, it’s quite strange, and I could not even understand the basic plot. It’s probably a good learning source, and I will probably go back to it at some point. There is a catchy tune at the beginning. I don’t know that I picked up any vocabulary, however.

Thanks to Beth Knarr for these two sources.

I spent a long time watching the movie Farewell My Concubine. I had never seen it before and did not know anything about the plot. I didn’t like the movie (I think I probably wouldn’t like it much even if I were watching it with subtitles) and, at the conscious level, learned almost nothing, which was somewhat frustrating. It was interesting, though, that after this long exercise, when I went back to the momo show, I seemed to understand it a bit better. Did my brain sort out sounds, phonemes, cadence, etc. while spending a couple of hours over a few days watching this movie? I don’t know, but if so, it would play well into my hypotheses.

I just recently discovered a cartoon called Boonie Bears, which I think will be a very good source in these first months, though I’ve only watched one episode thus far. It is Chinese original, fairly well made, and the plots are easy to follow. Here is what I watched:

Currently, I am in the middle of watching The Jesus Film in Mandarin Chinese:


I think this is going well, and I always like to watch spiritual movies. Though I’ve never seen this film before, of course I know the general plot of the Gospels, and that helps greatly in terms of being able to enjoy the film and, on that conscious, superficial level I’ve talked about, in understanding a word or expression here and there. For instance, it was very clear by context when Peter says to Jesus something like, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”, and I was able to pick out words or fragments that I had heard in other scenes of the film. So I will watch the rest of this film and probably come back to it later, in addition to searching for more Christian material, which I think will be somewhat easy to find on YouTube.

I want to watch Hollywood movies that I have already seen and enjoy a lot—Casablanca, Back to the Future, Princess Bride, Terminator 2, etc.—dubbed in Mandarin. Thus far, however, despite spending hours in the early a.m. trying to find these online, I have been unsuccessful. Sooner or later, of course, I will be able to buy DVDs, but I don’t want to wait for that. It’s frustrating. Right now, I’m trying to get a VPN installed on my computer to circumvent geographical restrictions. The reason I want to watch Hollywood movies is mostly just because I think I will enjoy them a lot more than the material I’ve been watching (if nothing else, for variety), but also because I think that in the mix of different types of videos, it will be useful in these earlier stages, since being familiar with the plot should help me pick up words (i.e., it will be easier and more effective at that conscious, superficial cognitive level).

I believe I have “learned” at least 15 new words in Mandarin, bringing my total vocabulary up to something like 17 words. I have not tabulated these words or written them down in any way. I feel that might be a waste of time and go a bit against the spirit of my experiment, especially if I were to go back to that list and study it. Of course, if I had spent nearly 8 hours using vocabulary lists or other traditional methods, perhaps I could have learned 50 or even 100 words by now. However, would I have the same contextual grasp of the terms? Probably not. Further, I doubt my brain would have become as accustomed to the phonemes, the tonality, and the cadence of the language as it did watching 8 hours of video. The final point—and this is the crux of my experiment—is that I believe my brain is working hard “in the background”; that while I have learned very little vocabulary, no grammar, no expressions, and so on, my brain is processing the language in ways I cannot be consciously aware of.

So, in sum, these first two weeks have been positive and have not shaken my belief in this approach. I have reflected a bit, however, by myself and with others, about some interrelated potential theoretical threats to the success of my methodology. Actually, in my mind, these theoretical threats are the only reasons that my hypotheses might be proved wrong, after all. Part of the rationale behind my methodology is that it imitates, to some degree, children’s natural learning process for obtaining oral comprehension, and I believe adults have the same inherent capacity for acquiring languages that children do, even if at a different pace.

However, there are some significant differences. The first I spelled out in my project description. Children mix listening with speaking, and then with reading and writing, as well. I believe that is the most effective method, whereas my methodology is exclusively listening. The second is that children are constantly corrected when they speak, and adjust their understanding accordingly. I will not be speaking and will never be corrected so it will be much more difficult for me to overcome a misunderstanding or adjust my comprehension. Finally, a broader point, which in a way encompasses the previous one. Children receive oral input that is modified so that they can understand it. The mother gesticulates, observes the child’s understanding or lack thereof, then alters the pitch of her voice, speaks more slowly and uses synonyms, further gesticulates or points to objects so that the child can understand. Foreign language teachers do much the same thing, as do, to some extent, everybody the child interacts with. I will have the benefit of none of this.

Aline Fidelis, who has a degree in Letters and is doing translation and editing work for NLI, told me there is actually a German linguist who calls this “modified input” and who says that language acquisition is impossible without it. If he is right, then my hypotheses will be proved wrong. I don’t have time to research language acquisition theory or applied linguistics in general (unfortunately, because I would probably really enjoy doing so), but I hope that linguists and linguistics students will access my blog and comment on different theoretical schools and why they would support or refute my hypotheses and approach.

I will also very much appreciate anybody who can give me suggestions of Mandarin Chinese video content that I can access online, especially, at this point, dubbed Hollywood movies (but no lessons or teaching material, since as part of my experiment I cannot take any lessons whatsoever—online or otherwise).

Oh, and for those of you who know Chinese (even if just a little), please do not include in your comments any words or anything that might constitute a type of lesson for me. Just opinions, theories, reflections, words of encouragement (or discouragement, since the naysayers often motivate me the most). Most of all, as I mentioned, I would appreciate academic/theoretical discussions on language acquisition or linguistics in general, as well as information on where to find videos online.