From Chaos to Routine – Week 65

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

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

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

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

Currently, a typical week looks something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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.

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.

Papiamento and Language Acquisition Resources – Week 38

I just spent two days in Aruba, and earlier this year I was briefly in Curaçao. Four languages are widely spoken on these islands, but among themselves the locals speak Papiamento. Listening to the language for just a few minutes reveals that it seems to be a curious mixture of Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch. According to what some islanders told me, slaves developed Papiamento as a way to speak to each other without their masters understanding. Many of these slaves came from Cape Verde, so at its root Papiamento seems to be a Portuguese Creole, but with vast amounts of Spanish and Dutch vocabulary thrown in. The truth about the origin of Papiamento seems to be far more complex and controversial, but this local explanation is colorful and sheds some light.

If you already speak the three source languages, Papiamento is very easy to pick up. I don’t speak Dutch, but English goes a long way toward filling the gap, along with my Portuguese and Spanish. At a meeting in the Aruban Parliament, the President of the Parliament, knowing I had just arrived on the island, was amazed when I requested “Koffie preto” to drink. Unlike less familiar languages, in which I generally need to hear a term repeated dozens of times in order to assimilate it, I had heard Koffie preto just once and began using it immediately. Koffie is pronounced just like “coffee,” and preto is the exact word for “black” in Portuguese. To give just a few more examples, the greetings Bon diaBon tarde, and Bon nochi are ridiculously easy to pick up, as is the polite Danki.

This enjoyable contact with Papiamento led me to reflect again on the relative difficulty of foreign language acquisition. If my language learning goal was to add any fifth language to my repertoire as quickly and easily as possible, I might choose Papiamento, and I’m guessing I could speak it fluently in just a few months of intensive study.

Since I don’t anticipate a need to spend significant time in Aruba or Curaçao in the future (unfortunately), learning Papiamento just for the kicks of speaking a fifth language would be silly.

Nay, I am a serious student of languages! At least I’d like to think of myself as such, and therefore I am tackling a globally important language that I consider the ultimate challenge in language acquisition![1]

In addition, I have been seeking out high quality resources for linguists, students of Mandarin, and language enthusiasts in general. I will eventually compile them into a permanent page on this blog. For now, I would like to share three with you that I have come across recently.

The first resource is a paper entitled Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in government language teaching, written by two staff members from the US Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute: Frederick H. Jackson and Marsha A. Kaplan[2]. The lessons it details are mostly congruent with my language acquisition theories, gleaned from my life experience as a language learner and teacher. Even some small details coincide, such as their opinion that class size should never exceed 6 students—the same rule I stipulated at my language institute.

However, there are a few concepts that diverge, and these differences are most interesting to me, since it is hard to argue with “FSI’s half century of practical experience preparing thousands of adult learners to carry out complex, professional tasks in foreign languages.” I hope to explore these conceptual similarities and discrepancies in a future post.

The second resource is an amazing website called “How to Learn any Language.” About two weeks ago I began participating in the forums on this site, especially in the topic Learning Techniques, Methods & Strategies. I posted about my experiment, and most of the responses I got were very much against the prospects for my experiment to be successful. However, they were very smart and thoughtful responses, so I actually appreciate the challenge. Generally speaking, this forum is an invaluable resource for exchanging ideas about language acquisition and seems to be populated by highly intelligent and experienced language enthusiasts.

Another resource I have been using for some time is It’s specifically for people studying Mandarin and Cantonese, but it also seems to congregate a lot of bright and seasoned language learners. As with the other site, I have mostly gotten challenging and skeptical responses when I mention my experimental methodology. But I’ve also benefited from great film recommendations, the suggestion to produce my Qiao Hu Study guides, and a lot of enriching discussions. The forum is not to be missed by anyone interested in China or Chinese language.



[1] It is interesting to note that a fair amount of Mandarin is spoken in Aruba, since nearly all the supermarkets are owned by Chinese immigrants.

[2] If there is any copyright issue with posting this paper here, please let me know and I will be happy to take it down and provide a link instead.