Spaced Repetition System (SRS) – Week 64

This week, I finished re-watching Dragon with subtitles clip-by-clip, often repeating lines again and again, in an attempt to decipher new vocabulary. I now have over 50 terms in my Word-a-Day vocabulary list from Dragon–far more than from any other source. I register a phonetic transcription (using my own haphazard system), the source (Dragon), and the exact time that the term comes up in the movie. I do not try to translate the term, although I often have a rough translation in mind based on the subtitles and context.

When I again watch this movie or any source that I have previously worked on in this way, I am able to produce a chronological list of terms and reference them as the scenes come up. By this method, I gradually learn and reinforce vocabulary that I have been able to decipher.

These terms are all in a simple Access database that I created. In addition to using them as I repeat an entire movie or episode of a show, I also sometimes do a “Word List Review”, in which I will watch isolated scenes of various different sources to specifically reinforce vocabulary. In 30 minutes, I might watch clips from two different movies, a Boonie Bears episode, and a Qiao Hu episode, for example.

In order to render this process more efficient, I make use of a concept I became more familiar with when engaging in discussions last year on language learning forums: spaced repetition systems (SRS). The most cited example of SRS are Anki cards, a kind of digital flashcard for memorizing vocabulary or anything else. Anki cards are cool because they allow you to insert images, audio, or even video, and you can use them on your cell phone or any other device. Some people take this the next level and break down an entire movie or episode into tiny clips, with dual-language subtitles, in a process abbreviated as subs2srs. Supposedly, you can use this high-tech method of memorization, in a short period of time, to be able to watch a movie in a completely new language, whether Japanese, Bahasa or Mandarin, without subtitles and with full comprehension.

Now, mind you, I never really used Anki cards or subs2srs. Being me, I had to reinvent the wheel. I didn’t really want to distract myself with creating Anki cards or parsing videos and using dual-language subtitles. Instead, I created simple queries in my Word List database that incorporate the spaced repetition concept. The idea is that, each time you review vocabulary or whatever you’re trying to memorize, you rank its difficulty. Items that you rank as more difficult will come back or repeat sooner, while those you rank as easy will only come back to you after much longer intervals.

I made a couple little formulas in a database query to assess the priority of reviewing each term I register.

For those who are minimally familiar with Access or SQL, they will be very easy to understand. First, I defined a variable called “age”, which is the current date minus the date that I registered that term.

age: Now()-[when]

Next, I attributed a number to each level of difficulty. Each time I review a word in a clip, I assess its difficulty as hard, medium, easy, or mastered.

difficulty: IIf([difficulty_LR]=”hard”,8,IIf([difficulty_LR]=”medium”,4,IIf([difficulty_LR]=”easy”,2,IIf([difficulty_LR]=”mastered”,1,8))))

Finally, I use these variables to help calculate the priority. The higher the number, the higher the priority and the sooner I should review the term. The field “reviewed” refers to how many times the term was reviewed in that specific source, while “total reviews” refers to how many times the term was reviewed in any source.

priority: ([age]/([total reviews]+[reviewed]*2+1))*[difficulty]

I then use a simple query to generate lists of terms with priorities over 50 and over 100, respectively. The lists indicate which words I should focus on reviewing. The way I most often use the lists is to choose what movie or episode to watch when I want to review vocabulary. For example, if I see that a movie I haven’t watched for a while has 15 words show up on the 50+ list, I will then watch the whole movie or, alternately, review the specific scenes where those terms come up.

This system consumes very little time. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not sure whether this type of artifice improves or distracts from my learning. On the whole, I believe it is probably beneficial. However, what I am sure of is that it provides a psychological boost, as I have some quantitative parameter of progress.

Mandarin Weaving – Week 60

I leave home for work at 8:00 am and return from Law school at almost 11:00 pm, with only a couple of hours in the middle of the day for lunch and taking my daughter to school. When I finally walk in the door, she is still up, and immediately asks me, smilingly, “Is it that time?”

“Let me just grab something to eat first,” I answer. A few minutes later, I call out: “It’s that time! Boonie Bears time!” We sit down on the sofa with my wife and sing along with the Boonie Bears theme song. Even my wife has learned a few of the words. We watch one or two episodes, laughing at the antics of Logger Vic and the “smelly” bears before she finally goes off to bed. I’ve managed to review a few words in Mandarin and, if I’m lucky, pick up a new word in the process.

———–

It’s Saturday morning and the three of us are now cruising through the Brazilian countryside to my farm. After listening to music in English and Portuguese for most of the way, we spend 20 minutes memorizing two lines in Mandarin from the Mulan song “Nan Zi Han,” or “Make a Man out of You.” For the first 5 minutes, everyone’s having a blast doing it together. Soon my wife, bored out of her mind, snoozes off, and before long my daughter also gets tired and asks to do something else. I keep at it for another five or ten minutes, while my daughter talks to herself . . .

———–

We are all together at the farm for the weekend. My mom and stepdad, who live in another house on the same property, come by in the late afternoon to watch The Last Train Home in Mandarin, a documentary set during the largest annual human migration—the Chinese New Year. It’s a quasi-cinematic experience, as I have purchased a projector that casts a 100” high-def image on the white wall, and my Big Jambox blasts the Mandarin dialogue throughout the living room.

I try not to focus too much on the subtitles, listening carefully instead to the audio and endeavoring to pick out words and short phrases.

———–

I like philosophy and religion, and try to incorporate them into my daily life to find balance. So I was interested to find animated movies on Buddhism in Mandarin on YouTube. As I watched, I realized they were not the best sources for picking up the language. I also remembered one of the first movies I watched for my experiment, The Jesus Film in Mandarin. It was not only fairly uninteresting from an artistic viewpoint, but also a translation and therefore inherently less appealing to me as a source for learning Chinese.

Nevertheless, I plan to continue watching the Buddhist movies and repeat The Jesus Film soon as well. I shouldn’t say I’m killing two birds with one stone, since that imagery is quite un-Buddha-like. That is the idea, though . . . Perhaps my daughter will join me for some of this spiritual viewing.

 

This past week I listened to very little Mandarin. I’ve started my evening Law classes after a two-year hiatus and it will undoubtedly be a tremendous challenge to juggle so many activities and responsibilities. One way to meet this challenge and not lose momentum in my experiment will be to weave Mandarin into my other activities and priorities.

Learning Mandarin with Kids’ Music – Week 59

Tomorrow I begin my evening Law classes again at the University of Brasilia, after a two-year hiatus. On top of my demanding full-time job, work trips, language institute, farm and tree plantation, and lovely family, my schedule is a bit tight.

But I’m enjoying my Mandarin experiment immensely and there is no way I’m going to stop. I don’t even want to slow down. I intend to keep up my average 45 minutes per day.

Trying to fit so much into one’s day may reflect some underlying existential dilemma (actually, I’m pretty sure it does in my case), but it also takes planning, discipline, and creativity. No time can be wasted. That includes time behind the wheel. Fortunately, I don’t have a long commute, but driving to work and back twice a day and taking my daughter to the gym and school takes up a total of nearly one hour a day. On weekends, I spend at the very least three hours driving to get to my farm and then back to Brasilia.

When traffic permits (safety first, folks), I have been using that time to make hands-free calls (probably not the best idea), listen to spiritual music and talks, mentally plan projects for my language institute, and more recently listen to French radio broadcasts.

This imperative of efficiency has led me to make a significant change in my Mandarin experiment. I have increasingly incorporated listening to music into my “studies.” I have listened to music since early in my experiment, but initially only as it appeared in the videos I was watching anyway: mostly dubbed Disney movies, but also Boonie Bears and Qiao Hu.

I transitioned to using music as a deliberate learning tool when in June of last year I began repeating the video segment of Nan Zi Han (Make a Man Out of You) in the Chinese dub of Mulan, attempting to decipher and memorize the syllables. I made some progress, but it was extremely slow and I put that mini subproject on the backburner.

This year, I took up the Boonie Bears intro song, which is much shorter, and set out to learn it. That is when I started listening in the car for the sake of efficiency. I found that repeating single lines over and over again—sometimes actually turning the music off to better focus on memorizing lines—was at least as effective as watching the video endlessly. I found I was making good use of my time and advancing my learning process. I learned the entire song and made the infamous video of my daughter and me singing and dancing.

I then returned to Nan Zi Han, and I am slowly learning it, mostly while driving. Stay tuned for a much sillier home video, coming soon.

In the meantime, I chanced upon an awesome little album of Chinese children’s songs with a electronica accompaniment. It’s Little Dragon Tales by the Shanghai Restoration Project. I downloaded the album, which came with a pdf file that included the lyrics—in Chinese characters, pinyin, and English translation. The temptation was too great. Not only that—I’m fully convinced that using music for language acquisition is much more effective when one actually learns the lyrics. So I began peaking.

I now listen to Little Dragon Tales, the Boonie Bears song, and Nan Zi Han while driving. Obviously, this is exclusively oral (and mental). However, occasionally I will spend two or five minutes studying the lyrics to these songs (at zero miles per hour—no worries) to be sure I am getting the syllables more or less right, and that I have a general sense of the meaning of what I am singing.

So far, just 20 out of my 300 hours have been used for listening to music, but that proportion will increase over time. All told, approximately three of those hours have been spent while accessing the lyrics.

I have updated my Hypothesis and Methodology pages to include listening to music, which I had not thought of when I started my experiment. I am tracking the time I spend with music as carefully as my video-viewing time. When assessing my results at the end of this experiment, I will certainly take into account the use of music as well as the videos.

In sum, practical considerations, especially the imperative of efficiency, have trumped methodological purism and rigid attachment to rules. However, I believe listening to Chinese music is fully in the spirit of my experiment, even if critics will undoubtedly pounce on my use of lyrics (even though it accounts for 1% of my experiment time) to question its credibility.

Language acquisition debates – Week 56

 

One of the reasons for undertaking my Mandarin experiment is as a motivation and context to engage with language enthusiasts and with language-acquisition theory. I have done that in the past year through forums such as HTLAL and Chinese-forums, commenters on my blog, other blogs, online research, and personal observation and analysis.

For this week’s post, I decided to write down some of the major questions that are debated in the second-language-learning community and that speak to my Mandarin experiment, whether directly or tangentially. I tried to formulate them in a way that allows for yes/no type answers, and is thus conducive to an opinion survey. I converted the first few questions into the above polls and would greatly appreciate if you take just one minute to give your opinion—regardless of whether it’s strongly held or just a hunch.

Please note that, as far as I am aware, there is no consensus among polyglots, language instruction professionals, or academic research on any of these questions. There are very smart and experienced people on both sides of each debate.

Here is the complete list of questions. At the end I comment this week’s study activities.

  • Is it optimal to acquire languages essentially by natural/communicative methods, i.e., just listening, speaking, reading, and writing, or to include a good amount of formal/abstract study of the languages (as one would study an academic subject such as math or biology)?
  • Are purely immersive methods optimal, avoiding using a first language (L1) during periods that one is studying the second language (L2), or do translations and explanations in L2, when properly used, speed up and improve acquisition?
  • Generally speaking, is deliberate, focused memorization of vocabulary (for example, using flashcards) an effective strategy for language acquisition? Does an optimal language acquisition strategy include a significant amount of memorization?
  • In second-language acquisition (SLA), is it most effective to tackle the input/receptive and output/productive skills simultaneously from the outset, or to focus first on input and then on output? In other words, should one delay speaking until definite progress has been made in listening (and, similarly, delay writing until one has made progress on reading)?
  • In SLA, is it optimal to focus first on oral skills (listening and speaking) and later focus on reading and writing, or to tackle both the spoken and written languages simultaneously?
  • Is listening to audio content of which you understand very little beneficial or a waste of time? In other words, does content have to be mostly “comprehensible” to be useful or, given some visual cues and focused attention, is listening to content that is far beyond your level an effective acquisition strategy?
  • Assuming an equal level of enjoyment and concentration, is it generally more effective to listen to same audio content many times or to listen to as much content as possible just one time? It may be beneficial to mix the two approaches, but for best results should one spend most of one’s time repeating (intensive listening) or listening to new content (extensive listening)?
  • In SLA, is using authentic content (done by natives for natives) generally better than using content made for language learners? Or is using high-quality language instruction material generally more effective, at least until one has reached a high level of proficiency?
  • Do adults ideally learn languages essentially in the same way as children, or are the mechanisms essentially different?
  • Does study of grammatical rules contribute significantly to effective language acquisition? Is it efficient to dedicate a significant portion of one’s time to explicit grammar study?
  • Is efficiency in any given acquisition approach a function of intensity of concentration, or can subconscious acquisition, without attention, be somewhat effective? For example, can listening to radio in L2 in the background while one is completely engaged in other tasks significantly boost acquisition, or is it mostly useless?
  • Is effective second-language acquisition inherently similar or inherently different from first language acquisition?
  • Consider two second language (L2) learners. One seeks to achieve basic proficiency in the shortest possible period of time. The other does not care about short-term results, but wants to attain native or near-native level mastery of L2 with efficiency. Should they follow the same or different methods for their first few hundred hours of study? In other words, is achieving basic proficiency as quickly as possible conducive to the best long-term results, or is there a tradeoff?
  • Do people have widely different learning styles that should be respected for optimal language acquisition? Or is language acquisition an essentially universal neurological process, such that certain approaches are optimal for the vast majority of people?
  • Is there a critical period or neurological window for optimal language acquisition? If so, what, on average, is the age range that defines that period?
  • Given the right approach and sufficient time, could almost any adult attain near-native mastery of a second language, or do only certain people have the ability to attain near-native mastery? In other words, do adults rarely master a second language at a native-like level because most people have an inherent neurological limitation in this respect, or because people rarely put in enough time and effort with the correct approaches?

This week I watched the movie Shaolin. It’s entertaining, has themes I like, and is generally well-acted and produced. However, it is a second-tier wuxia movie, if compared to greats like Hero, House of Flying Daggers, or Dragon.

I watched Not One Less again with my wife, mom and stepfather—a fantastic movie that makes you feel good to boot. I also spent some time on Mulan and the song Nan Zi Han, and a bit of Qiao Hu to round out my Mandarin diet.

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.

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.

Languages and a Technology-Intensive Video Approach to Acquisition – Week 47

I’m back from the Andes and back to Mandarin, after a full 20 days off! I’ve created an Off Topic section to my blog. I hope you will enjoy my write-up on a Choquequirao – Machu Picchu backpacking expedition.

2014-12-01 10.16.33 (2)

Although I spent zero hours on Mandarin for three weeks in Peru (see the leveling off near the end of the blue graph),

hours_13-dez-14

I did have fun learning a few words in Quechua and got an extended immersion in Spanish. Working professionally with the language and having the opportunity to travel a great deal in the past few years has taken my fluency to a new level. Before I reveal my actual origins, I am almost always mistaken for a native Spanish speaker, although nobody can quite pinpoint my accent (because, after all, it’s a complete mix, from nowhere and everywhere at once). In Latin America, I am often taken for a Spaniard, and alternately for a Central American, Mexican, Chilean, Colombian, or Venezuelan.

My French, on the other hand, is in dire need of training. It’s so rusty that I’m hesitant to use it at all. On the rare occasions I have the opportunity to speak in French, things often go well for a few sentences. However, as conversation transitions to untested ground, terrifying gaps in my vocabulary emerge like yawning abysses and I recoil back to a more familiar language. I believe I will soon commence a small French project, perhaps devoting 10 minutes a day, mostly to French radio. I expect it will take a year or two to recover full fluency. Stay tuned as I will keep tabs on this blog.

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My Mandarin experiment is a one-sided approach to language acquisition—specifically, to obtaining listening comprehension. My goal in using such an exclusive approach is to prove the utility of an almost universally applicable method—concentrated listening to movies and other authentic video sources—at any level. Ideally, this method should be combined with reading, writing, and most importantly speaking to natives—preferably including some natives who are willing to correct your mistakes.

A natural, communicative approach to language acquisition is far superior to traditional methods that are heavy on translation, rote memorization, and grammar rules.

However, technological advances and cutting-edge experimentation have introduced new possibilities in language acquisition that are tantalizing. I would like to briefly introduce one approach that, like mine, focuses on listening comprehension through the use of authentic video sources. Unlike my experiment, it requires a great deal of technological expertise and preparation, as well as repetition and (dynamic) memorization. Despite its more difficult application, I believe this method has the potential to be extremely efficient and actually speed up acquisition as compared to a purely natural approach, when used in combination with communicative strategies.

Fortunately for me and for anyone who is interested in this state-of-the-art method, a fellow language enthusiast, emk, who has been following my experiment, is currently using and meticulously documenting this method as part of his own experiment. In fact, it seems that one of the inspirations for his project was my experiment, and his project is a bit of a counterpoint to mine. He believes straight video viewing at a very low level of comprehension (my watching Mandarin is an extreme example of incomprehensibility) is inefficient. I am very impressed by his approach and also grateful for his extremely helpful and detailed explanations.

You can learn all about emk’s project and the technical details of his method by visiting this language-learning forum thread.

I will provide a highly summarized introduction to the method he is using and then encourage you to visit his thread to understand it in greater detail. Hopefully, he will also comment on this post and correct anything I have gotten wrong.

First, a few concepts. Spaced repetition is a memorization technique that presents the data you are trying to learn at increasing time intervals. Each time you get an answer right, it will take longer for you to see the same problem again. On the other hand, if you get an answer wrong, you will encounter the problem again very soon, since you obviously still need to review and properly memorize the solution.

Spaced repetition software (SRS) applies artificial intelligence to this concept. It is often used in language acquisition, such as in the Pimsleur system. It is akin to the use of vocabulary flashcards. As you get answers right, you see a given digital flashcard less and less frequently, but if you get them wrong, it will come back more frequently. The great thing about these digital flashcards is that they can incorporate not only text and written translations, but also audio and video. A commonly used SRS is called Anki, and Anki cards have become synonymous with SRS in the self-teaching language acquisition community.

Bilingual subtitles on movies or TV series can be used to generate Anki cards. An entire movie or episode can be parceled into hundreds of digital cards that contain short video clips with audio in the language you are studying, the corresponding L2 (foreign language) subtitles, and the L1 (your native language) translation of those subtitles.

By some accounts, with a relatively small investment of time (once you’ve created the cards), you can memorize these dialogue snippets in a completely unfamiliar language and then watch that movie or TV series and understand it quite well, as if you had already reached an advanced level of comprehension in that language.

The technology involved is dubbed subs2srs, which I assume is short for “subtitles to spaced repetition system”.

My preliminary assessment is that this approach may constitute an excellent tool for some second-semester students to bridge the gap between study of high frequency vocabulary and grammar fundamentals (learned through games and structured communication activities) and the use of authentic videos, reading, and participation in guided conversation classes.

In this regard, I hope to experiment next year with the use of Anki cards and subs2srs in my language institute. We have previously identified a weakness in our teaching approach for some second semester students, and I believe subs2srs, in particular, may be very useful in transitioning students to authentic listening sources and conversation, thus helping to improve outcomes.

With regards to our respective projects, it is very hard to compare results for several reasons. Although emk has apparently made greater progress in approximately 20 hours than I have in almost 200, that comparison is misleading. First, being a native English and fluent French speaker tackling Spanish, I would estimate his progress in general is expected to be at least five or six times faster than someone like me, learning Mandarin without knowledge of any related languages. In the beginning, this speed discrepancy is likely to be much more pronounced, given the huge number of cognates—probably upwards of 70% of words, as compared to practically zero cognates in my case.

Second, his self-described “cheating” and “narrow-listening” approach is specifically designed to give an initial boost to comprehension, whereas my listening approach is aimed at gradually adapting my ear and brain to a new language and is based on broader and more massive input. An open question is whether this broader input approach holds any long-term advantage as compared to narrow listening.

Third—and I will be glad to receive emk’s clarifications—I don’t think his 20 hours can necessarily be fairly compared to my 200. I am carefully clocking my time and any contact I have with the language is being computed in the tally. As I understand it, his approximately 20 hours refers mostly to using his Anki cards and is being computed by the software itself. When I dabbled with Anki cards, the software I was using clocked about 12 minutes for the entire hour I spent on them. In other words, it was vastly underestimating time as compared to my stopwatch. Further, I am not sure he is carefully clocking and including other types of contact he has with the Spanish language.

In addition, it should be noted that long hours over several days are spent in running subs2srs and preparing the Anki cards, whereas my time spent in purchasing or finding videos is minimal. If you include the preparation phase, the time difference would be significantly reduced.

Having said all that, I still believe emk’s approach may hold a significant efficiency advantage as compared by my pure listening approach (which is not entirely pure, since I have been using subtitles much of the time), especially when tackling a language as difficult as Mandarin. It seems to me to be a wonderful use of technology applied to language acquisition, and though I won’t use it for my Mandarin experiment—as it would violate my rules—I do hope to use it in acquiring some future language. I would probably limit its use to beginner and low intermediate phases of language acquisition, and even then, to at most 50% of my time spent, in order to avoid excessive dependence on translations, which can be pernicious.

In that vein, as emk himself has suggested to me as a possibility, I think finding a way to use Anki cards and subs2srs without translations would be ideal. Of course, for a beginner, translations hold the key to meaning, but visual cues or other creative strategies can also be used in their stead.