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.

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

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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.