Proxies for interaction and mediation – Week 13

Image

(Before reading my post, please note that I’ve updated my graphs page).

Interaction and mediation are undoubtedly important factors in language acquisition. Children do not learn their mother tongues simply by listening and repeating. They continuously receive corrections and other types of feedback from adults. Parents instinctually modify the pitch of their voices and their speech patterns to facilitate infant comprehension. They also generally teach vocabulary in a deliberate manner by pointing to objects and carefully enunciating words, eliciting imitation from their toddlers. They model structures and engage in question and answer sessions. Daily, children have the opportunity and the need to test and hone their skills, first at home, and later at school and other environments.

This type of human interaction and mediation is not only beneficial, but probably indispensable for one to learn to speak any language, and for a child to learn to read and write in their first language. I would say it is evidently beneficial for acquiring any language skill. However, is it indispensable for acquiring listening comprehension of a new language? Is it possible, without any interaction or mediation, gradually to decipher meaning, isolating words and then figuring out how they are combined and altered to construct sentences? Or is that possible only when one already speaks a related language?

In a sense, that is the question my experiment seeks to answer. I will not interact with any Chinese speakers. And nobody will be mediating for me: no teacher, no parent, nobody will modify speech patterns, gesticulate, check if I understood—and if I did not, slow down, repeat, rephrase, clarify.

However, my listening is not devoid of context. I assume that if I were simply to listen to audio recordings or Chinese radio for years and years I would never learn. At best, I might become a Mandarin parrot, imitating sounds and even words and sentences, but without grasping their meaning.

That is why I am watching videos. Hypothetically, the images provide the context I need to decipher meaning. Interaction between the actors can be considered a proxy—if a poor one—for my own interaction in Mandarin, to the extent that I can project my consciousness on characters and situations and experience them vicariously.

There are at least three proxies for mediation in viewing videos. One is simply being previously familiar with the story that is being told—in other words, having added contextual clues. I haven’t yet watched familiar Hollywood movies in Mandarin, as I intend to, but occasionally, familiar themes are presented in Chinese videos, such as in the movie Lost on Journey, which borrows heavily from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

A second, similar proxy for mediation that I consider far from ideal is the use of English subtitles. I have explained in previous posts that when I download movies that have English subtitles, I am allowing myself to view them. However, I don’t think this is an effective strategy in the long run, since it does not allow me to concentrate fully on dialogue, and thus is distracting. Additionally, if it leads me to develop a mental translation habit, it could be perniciously limiting. In the short run, though, it does allow me to pick up some vocabulary.

The third, and probably most beneficial, proxy for mediation and, at some level, for interaction, is watching shows that are made for toddlers. These shows are designed to help Chinese (or Taiwanese) children learn to speak (and read). Therefore, the adult presenters do a lot of the same things that parents do with their toddlers. They speak more slowly, more simply, with repetition and little mnemonic songs. They are not mediating for me, specifically, but they are mediating for small children in general. And, when learning a foreign language, one is analogous to a small child.

These shows are also sometimes designed to elicit reactions and repetition by children. These responses do not constitute authentic interaction, but they can be seen as a proxy for them.

For these reasons, in a way shows made for babies and small children are the ideal video sources for me or any beginner to learn Mandarin, or any new, radically foreign language. There is only one problem. They are so boring for an adult. This lack of appeal is not only a problem in terms of motivation, but also for engagement and concentration.

Nevertheless, I intend to increase my weekly doses of these shows. The two I have found so far are momo, which I have mentioned before, and a show that seems to be by the same producers and somehow related to it. I don’t have a proper name for it, but it might be qihu, or 巧虎 in Chinese characters. I call it Tiger, because the main character is a dorky “tiger” (a person in a life-size tiger suit). Many of the shows center around getting kids to wash their hands. [Correction: I just did a little googling. The show is called Qiao Hu, and it is a Japanese import.]

This show is both very boring to an adult and extremely good for acquiring new vocabulary and comprehension in Chinese (even better than momo). Although I’m not trying to learn script at all, I venture to say it would also be a fantastic tool for someone who was. I watched some this past week and will try to incorporate as much Tiger in my Mandarin viewing diet as I can stomach.

Here is an example of a particularly useful episode. The second half is even better than the first. Among other things, you can learn the names of several types of fruit. Happy viewing, and Happy Easter!

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.