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.

My Chinese Grandfather – Week 57

I’ll best most of you didn’t know I had a Chinese grandfather. Here’s the story, with many thanks to my mother for writing it down:

Victor’s “Chinese” grandfather

by Greta Browne, Victor Hart’s mother

 

Victor’s grandfather, George Chalmers Browne, would have loved to see Victor and Camila singing in Mandarin.

Chalmers, my father, was born in China in 1915, of Presbyterian missionaries who had met there as single missionaries a few years earlier. They raised three children, Chalmers, Beatrice and Francis, who all grew up speaking Chinese. Eventually my father, his sister and his brother left China to go to college in the United States, and my grandparents also left for good, in the mid-thirties, when the Japanese invasion threatened to engulf them in violence. . . . Read more

 

I didn’t even think about this connection when I started my Mandarin experiment. It wasn’t part of my growing-up experience in any way. I suppose it’s just an interesting coincidence; a subtle karmic link gradually ripening into fruition; or an intergenerational, subconsciously transmitted attraction to China.

At any rate, I love the idea that my grandfather would have enjoyed following my experiment.

This past week was Carnival in Brazil. Instead of spending it in drunken debauchery as you non-Brazilians might expect, I had a great time with my family at the farm. Naturally, I watched three movies in Mandarin—Shaolin (again), Raise the Red Lantern, and To Live, all of which I would recommend unhesitatingly.

I watched the latter two without subtitles. It was the first time since early on in my experiment that I watch a Chinese feature film without any subtitles on first viewing.

I still understand little and it’s far less enjoyable than watching with subtitles. However, the experience was very different from when I saw Farewell My Concubine in the first month of my experiment. The number of words and short sentences I understand, though still small, now actually contributes significantly to my understanding of dialogue and of the plot in general, and thus to my enjoyment. This evidence of progress was encouraging, and I believe this past week will mark a gradual transition away from the use of subtitles when watching Chinese movies.

Another encouraging realization came this week when, speaking to my daughter one evening, I mentioned the Mandarin words for dog and cat. I then reflected that I have picked up quite a few animal names in Chinese! This knowledge comes partially from Qiao Hu and is not representative of my general (lack of) vocabulary in the language. Nonetheless, since I never intended to learn animal vocabulary, I was impressed and pleased that I have happened to pick up so much. Of course, I could be wrong on some of these, but I believe I know:

Animal Mandarin phonetic approximation Where I picked it up
cat mao Qiao Hu and others
dog go Not sure
bear shyong Boonie Bears
fish yu Nemo
tiger hu Qiao Hu, others
bird nyao Boonie Bears
horse ma-ah Various
pig joo Qiao Hu, Lion King
sheep yang Qiao Hu
duck yatzi Qiao Hu
ox nyo Fearless (movie)
rabbit tu Qiao Hu, other
elephant ta shang Lion King

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.

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.

The Boonie Bears are Back – Week 43

Faithful longtime followers of my blog (hi Mom) will remember fondly that during the first three months of my Mandarin experiment, many delightful hours were spent watching Boonie Bears with my daughter, Camila Daya. The humor and basic storyline are quite comprehensible even if you don’t understand one word of Mandarin. Here’s a typical example:

I stopped watching Boonie Bears in April because I finally deemed it too difficult for total beginners. New decipherable words seemed to be very few and far between. I decided I should watch Qiao Hu in its place. Instead, I ended up watching mostly Chinese movies with English subtitles.

Last week I explained that I intend to gradually reduce the use of English subtitles in my Mandarin viewing. I will probably do so much faster than I specified in that post. Just in the past two weeks, I have gone from a previous average of 70% to a current 54% of viewing using subtitles. Watching movies without subtitles, however, is still not very enjoyable because I understand so little of the dialogue. So I decided to give Boonie Bears another try.

I had missed those hilarious fellas! Boonie Bear episodes are a perfect 10 minutes of mindless entertainment at the end of a long day. Even my wife watches with us, without the slightest intention of learning any Chinese!

My assessment of the Mandarin-learning benefit of Boonie Bears has changed significantly. Happily, I understand quite a bit more than before. As I’ve insisted recently with my skeptics, I’m definitely making progress. I am no longer listening to unintelligible garble. I understand a few words in each scene, enough to get the gist of the dialogue.

I also think I may have been somewhat off in my initial assessment. As I watch, I realize I did learn quite a few words from Boonie Bears in the early months—everything from how to answer a phone and ask who it is to specific vocabulary like hat and honey.

An unfortunate consequence of my initial abandonment of the ursine duo was that my daughter pretty much stopped watching Mandarin. Two nights ago, we watched Boonie Bears together just like in the old days—a total of 4 episodes or 40 minutes of viewing.

Shuda and Swar, we’re back and cheering you on as you protect the environment and endlessly torment that poor little lumberjack!

Warning to second language learners – Week 39

If you are setting about learning your first foreign language—and especially if you need to attain fluency fast—do not simply imitate my exclusive video-watching method. I am testing a hypothesis, and although my preliminary results are encouraging, I am not yet sure that I will learn well this way. I believe that I would learn more quickly and effectively by having some private classes in which I could speak to a native and be corrected, and perhaps tackling Mandarin characters from the outset. Further, there is no doubt that thirty minutes a day is far too little for someone who needs to learn quickly. You should put in several hours each day if possible.

Some of my fellow language enthusiasts in the forums at www.how-to-learn-any-language.com have told me and another video-only language student in no uncertain terms that (1) we probably will not learn at all and will give up after wasting hundreds or thousands of hours and (2) by conducting my experiment and blogging about it, I risk misleading less experienced students of languages into thinking this is a good stand-alone method and thus wasting years of their time as well.

So be forewarned! If you are not a seasoned language learner, do not try this at home without expert supervision!

However, I should add some additional warnings that my traditionalist friends at the forum did not mention.

  • Millions of language students worldwide obtain mediocre results after employing traditional language learning methods for years—namely formal study using textbooks, grammar rules, memorization, and translations.
  • You will never have time when speaking—or even when writing—to construct sentences based entirely on grammatical rules. If you rely heavily on formal grammar study, you run a serious risk of never speaking with reasonable fluency or even being capable of employing grammatically sound structures in practice.
  • If you learn vocabulary or study texts using translations into your native language, you may never grasp the semantic richness of the terms you are learning, and you may acquire a pernicious mental translation habit that you will hobble your fluency and practical grammar ability. (Students who acquire a mental translation habit first mentally construct phrases in their native language and then try to translate them into the second language, futilely trying to reorganize the translation using grammar rules.)
  • There are at least four serious problems with an approach that emphasizes memorizing vocabulary. Please note that I am very good at memorization and have aced tests throughout my academic career by simply memorizing a few dozen or hundred terms or concepts the day before the exam. However, memorization has not been effective for me in language acquisition.
    1. Long-term retention of vocabulary memorized using word lists, flashcards, or textbooks tends to be poor. I suspect this has to do with the way our brains work through neural webs. Rich neural connections are made when terms are acquired in real-life contexts that are emotionally charged or personally meaningful. This does not happen using flashcards or word lists.
    2. You need to learn many thousands of words (and their variants) to begin to communicate successfully or even understand a language well. Due to the difficulty of committing these terms to long-term memory, you need to review your full list dozens or hundreds of times over a period of many months or years, which presents obvious practical challenges, including intense boredom.
    3. What will you memorize alongside the term? A translation into your first language? If so, you will be painstakingly committing to memory an extremely limited and potentially misleading equivalence, not to mention risking developing a mental translation habit. To begin to appreciate the spectrum of meaning and connotations of the term, you would need to memorize the full dictionary entry for the word or multiple sentences in which the word is used.
    4. Memorizing a term and its translation or definition is still a far cry from being able to spontaneously use the term in conversation. It does not even transfer easily into writing or listening comprehension. Your goal in language acquisition should be real communication—whether written or oral, receptive or productive. Real communication is inherently fast, complex, and highly dynamic. You may be shocked how difficult bridging the gap is between memorized terms and actual communication.
  • The importance of good pronunciation to successful oral communication should never be underestimated. If you rely too much on the written language; if you take an overly academic (i.e. abstract) approach to language acquisition; and if you do not make a conscious effort to internalize the phonemes and cadence of the language you are learning, you may obtain a vast vocabulary and theoretical mastery of grammar and still have serious, permanent difficulties in making yourself understood.

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible for an adult learner to attain native or near-native level mastery of a second language, but it can never be achieved by traditional, textbook methods. Near-native fluency can only be achieved by a tremendous amount of immersion in the language and a conscious, intense motivation to absorb and imitate the mode of expression of the language and at least some of the associated culture. The example of children exposed to a second language, my personal example, and that evidence of countless other people around the world and through the centuries reveal that no formal study is required to attain true second language mastery. Whether formal study is helpful and can speed things up is open to debate; but there is no doubt that formal study is both insufficient and dispensable.

Over three decades of observing hundreds of people tackling language acquisition using various approaches, I have noted a strong and consistent correlation between the use of natural, immersive, communicative approaches and successful outcomes, and, by contrast, consistently limited outcomes with approaches that place a high emphasis on formal study, including grammatical rules, translations, textbooks, memorization, and prepackaged computer-based methods. Though other people may have very different experiences, the clear trend in applied linguistics is toward a natural, communicative approach to language acquisition.

So, with so many perils and warnings, what is a first-time foreign language learner to do? Do not despair! I’ll give you general guidelines and more specific recommendations, for what they’re worth.

In general terms, the good news is that you can successfully learn a foreign language using a wide variety of methods, as long as a few ingredients are present:

  • Strong personal motivation
  • Regular contact with native speakers and/or authentic listening and reading resources. (You will need feedback and corrections from native speakers to achieve a high level of spoken or written fluency.)
  • Thousands of hours of dedication.

Specifically, I recommend you do the following for best results:

  • Immerse yourself in the language by spending a significant amount of time among native speakers and throwing shyness to the wind. If you cannot spend a long time abroad or make native-speaking friends, hire a native speaker for in-person or online conversation classes.
  • Watch a lot of movies and other authentic video sources. In other words, use my method, just not in isolation. Audiobooks and radio are also excellent listening sources.
  • As soon as possible, start reading. You can begin with picture books or non-authentic texts (readers made for learners), but transition to authentic texts as quickly as possible.
  • Create a need and opportunities to do some writing on a regular basis.
  • Do a little formal study if it suits you and gives you some psychological comfort, especially in the beginning. But do not dedicate more than 50% of your time to formal study at a basic level or more than 10% once you reach an intermediate level. It is often much easier and comfortable to engage in formal study, especially if you are introverted, but it will hamper you over time if you give it too much emphasis.

Endless Vocabulary Expansion – Week 32

I recently decided to keep a daily word list for my Mandarin project. When watching videos, I attempt to decipher vocabulary, and pay special attention to those that are either new or not well consolidated. I add an average of one term per day to my list. My hope is that this approach will guarantee a bare minimum pace of vocabulary acquisition. My word-list goals and method are explained in detail in my Week 30 post.

This simple and unoriginal project-within-a-project got me thinking. Why do we essentially stop expanding our vocabulary in our native language, or at least slow down dramatically? Would it be feasible to use a similar method to continually acquire new words and over time become armed with an outsized lexicon? Could I employ a similar approach to the four languages I already speak as a way to ensure that my skills continue to improve?

These are not entirely new questions for me or for many of my readers. For the sake of brevity, I will not endeavor to answer all of them in this post, though I find the topic fascinatingly complex.

In my case, I know a total of four languages, two of them as a native speaker, and am now endeavoring to learn a fifth. Research suggests that the average university-educated adult has a receptive vocabulary in his or her native language of about 17,000 to 20,000 word families*. Let’s assume I’m at the higher end and have a 20,000-word vocabulary in English. In Portuguese—though I consider myself a native speaker—my vocabulary is somewhat smaller because I have studied and read much less than in English, so a reasonable estimate would be 15,000 words. In Spanish, which I use professionally in written and spoken form, I would guess 10,000. And my French, which is very rusty and quite poor in terms of productive vocabulary, nonetheless probably has something like 4,000 receptive words. In Mandarin, I’m guessing about 150 (listening only) at this point.

So what would happen over time if I were able to add one word per day to my receptive vocabulary in each language?

Estimate of Word Families in My Receptive Vocabulary

Current 40 years old 50 years old 60 years old 71 years old
English 20,000 21,825 25,475 29,125 33,000
Portuguese 15,000 16,825 20,475 24,125 28,000
Spanish 10,000 11,825 15,475 19,125 23,000
French 4,000 5,825 9,475 13,125 17,000
Mandarin 150 1,975 5,625 9,275 13,000

I am currently 35 years old. By the time I’m 71, I would have a remarkably large lexicon in my native languages; a vocabulary comparable to an average educated native speaker of French and above average in Spanish; and a vocabulary akin in size to a native speaker of Mandarin without a college education. That would be amazing. Of course, there are many other components to language mastery, but I believe vocabulary is the single most important factor.

Receptive vocabulary is very different and far less impressive than productive vocabulary, but undoubtedly many words, by some estimates up to half, make their way into our productive vocabulary.

There are a variety of problems with this theoretical undertaking. Without elaborating, I would contend that the two main ones are time constraints and long-term retention.

Nevertheless, for a linguaphile, the prospects are tantalizing. Who knows? This could mark the beginning of a brand new experiment.

*

1. http://iteslj.org/Articles/Cervatiuc-VocabularyAcquisition.html

2. E.B. Zechmeister, A.M. Chronis, W.L. Cull, C.A. D’Anna and N.A. Healy, Growth of a functionally important lexicon, Journal of Reading Behavior, 1995, 27(2), 201-212

A Word a Day Keeps the Textbooks Away – Week 30

I have introduced a new tool to help me focus on acquiring vocabulary while watching videos. If nothing else, it will give me a sense of psychological security that I am progressing, but I believe it will also help me make better use of my viewing time and better commit terms to memory.

The innovation is a word-of-the-day vocabulary list to use alongside video viewing. Each term from the list is spontaneously gleaned from one of the videos I watch, either based solely on clear contextual clues, such as Qiao Hu always provides, or context plus subtitles, in the case of movies. I must be very confident about the meaning of the term to include it in the list. This confidence derives from the video itself leaving no doubt or because I have previously come across that term in other videos and the latest occurrence simply confirms my interpretation.

The list provides just two bits of information. First, I make an approximate phonetic transcription of the term. Second, I note what the video source is, including the exact time or times that it appeared.

It is important to be clear about what the list does not include. There is no English translation and no other explanation of the term. There is no accompanying Mandarin character.

I will not study the vocabulary list in isolation, since my experiment precludes traditional study methods, separate from video viewing. Rather, I will use it when watching that video segment again, to reinforce the terms that I have learned. I am however repeating the day’s term mentally during the day, while doing other activities, with the purpose of ingraining it in my memory bank.

In sum, the list has three immediate goals:

  • Helping me to focus on deciphering new terms as I watch a video.
  • Serving as a guide to watching that same video other times in the future.
  • Repeating a term mentally even when I am not watching videos to reinforce it.

There is also a potential long-term use for this list. Perhaps, many years from now, when I have learned to not only understand Mandarin, but also speak and write it (post experiment), I may partner with native Mandarin speakers to develop an innovative Mandarin-teaching method, based largely on watching videos, of course.

In that case, this list, which by then should include at least 2,000 terms, may be of great value. My idea is that I would add Mandarin characters and then use the video snippets, perhaps associated with images, cartoons, etc. to teach many terms that are appropriate for beginners and that appear, as an example, in a specific classic Chinese film. After students spend an hour or more watching those snippets, repeating the pronunciation, and ideally getting corrections from a native speaker, they would then watch the film in its entirety, with a ready-made guide telling them when each term appears in the film. By this method, and by repeating the film a few times, beginning students may be able to learn a great deal of vocabulary with less effort, greater context (and thus great long term retention), and greater enjoyment than using traditional methods. They will also be acquiring insights into the culture and history of China through film.

This method would work well for any language. Perhaps, through the language institute I founded, I will develop it even earlier as an approach for acquiring languages such as English, Portuguese, French, and Spanish.

Due to the possibility of eventually pursuing such a project, which would include the development of proprietary language acquisition guides, I will not publish my entire list on this blog.

However, at this early stage I will be happy to share the beginnings of my list, still in a disorganized and unformatted Excel file, to give my readers a sense of what I am doing. Eventually, I hope to make a simple Access database that will allow me to easily produce a guide for myself for a specific movie, among other functionalities.

Mandarin Word a Day

In other news, during the past two weeks, I watched Curse of the Golden Flower for the first time and Fearless and A Touch of Sin for the second time. I decided to focus today’s post on my word-a-day list novelty, so I will leave my updated film table and reviews for next week’s post.

Briefly, however, I will say that these three movies are worth watching. Curse of the Golden Flower is worthwhile for the visuals and some good acting, although it’s a true tragedy (not my favorite genre) and I found the second half of the movie somewhat disappointing. I liked Fearless about the same as the first time I watched it and consider it a good, but not great, Chinese film. The true story that the movie depicts is worthwhile on a lot of levels. Finally, I liked A Touch of Sin even better on second viewing. Being a contemporary movie full of (indirect) social commentary and quite unlike the standard Wuxia / historical epic fare, I think it should not be missed by fans of Chinese cinema or Mandarin students in general.

 

Qiao Hu Study Guide 3 – Week 29

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve posted my third ever Qiao Hu study guide. This episode also has a vocabulary review at the end, so start at minute 21:00, then watch the whole thing. Read through the study guide ahead of time, and keep it open for reference, so that you know what to keep an eye out for. You can also use the study guide to as a prod to mentally review the vocabulary you’ve learned.

In next week’s post, I’ll tell you about a new project within my experiment, which I hope will help me better consolidate the vocabulary I glean from videos, and may also, one day, be the beginnings of a Mandarin learning method I can prepare for regular students of the language, based on videos, of course!

I downloaded and began to watch Curse of the Golden Flower, with one of my favorite Chinese actors, the beautiful Gong Li. So please come back for a review of that movie next week, and an updated films file.

Chinese-Actress-Gong-Li

 

Experiment assessment at the 10% mark: I will learn Mandarin! – Week 28

I have completed 120 hours of viewing, or 10% of the total time planned for this experiment. I have averaged 36.5 minutes a day, above the minimum 30 minutes daily that I had planned. My daughter, Camila Daya, has averaged 22.5 minutes daily, for a total of 74.7 hours thus far.

hours_28

I have followed my proposed methodology fairly rigorously, learning exclusively through video sources, but in some cases making flexible interpretations of my self-imposed rules, as explained in the posts from Weeks 13 and 25. The most important interpretation is that I have deemed it acceptable to use English-language subtitles with Chinese movies, though I have begun and will continue gradually to reduce their use when repeating a movie.

Have these 120 hours of viewing over six-and-a-half months given me any insight into my hypothesis?

To answer that question, I would recall that my experiment actually has three related hypotheses. The first and main hypothesis is that I can learn to understand Mandarin just by watching authentic videos. The second—and perhaps most difficult to prove—is that this method is actually efficient and effective as compared to more traditional methods. The third hypothesis is that after watching 1,200 hours of authentic Mandarin videos, I will have attained sufficient comprehension that I can tackle a new video, and on first viewing, understand the general plot or the topics that are being discussed.

To the first and primary hypothesis, I feel more strongly than before that the answer will be a clear “YES!” There are times that I feel I am getting nowhere and that Chinese is undecipherable! Yet I have deciphered and begun to learn at least a couple hundred words, and my ability to pick out new words is accelerating, if ever so slowly. Though I am very, very far from my goal of understanding Mandarin, it seems very clear to me that, sooner or later, I will get there. It will take a long time. It will be arduous at times. However, if I stick with it, month after month and year after year, I will eventually understand Mandarin quite well. I will eventually be able to download a brand-new Mandarin movie, or watch a newscast, and understand it immediately, without subtitles. At that point, I will be able to go to Beijing and understand what people are saying in the street.

I feel that I have not gained much insight into the second hypothesis yet. If anything, however, I feel slightly less confident about it than at the beginning of the experiment. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that while strictly speaking, I still believe this second hypothesis may be proved correct, since the methodology may be shown to be effective “as compared to the traditional methods,” I believe that doing something very similar to my experiment, but with guidance, would be even better.

Although I am generally an advocate of combining the four language skills, I think there are definitely advantages to focusing on listening for the first few hundred hours in the case of a radically foreign language, such as Mandarin in the case of an English speaker. I believe that, experiments aside, watching the amazing original Chinese movies I have seen would be a fantastic way for any new learner to begin tackling Mandarin, but ideally with an added component of guidance—something along the following lines.

Before watching the entire movie, the students would practice, with a native-speaking teacher or even a self-study guide, 50 or 100 new terms in Mandarin. Translation should be avoided as much as possible (but a little might be necessary in the very beginning). Images and, best of all, snippets of the actual movie or of other videos could be used in a didactic way to introduce and reinforce these terms. After an hour or two of practicing the new terms—and ideally actually reproducing them and getting feedback from a native speaker—the students would then watch the entire movie. They would hear the terms they practiced many times, in context.

After a first viewing, they would go back to their guidance, reviewing terms, pronunciation, and snippets. Then they would watch the movie again, and depending on their preferences, watch it several more times in subsequent weeks and months, occasionally referring back to the guidance.

Finally, as to the third hypothesis, which is that 1,200 hours will be enough to attain an intermediate level of comprehension: it is too early to tell, but I am insecure about it. If I take what I understand now and try simply to multiply by 10, or better project my current pace into the future, it seems I will not get there. I have learned many of the most common words, which show up most commonly in any conversation, so the new words I learn now do not make such a large dent in my estimated percentage of total comprehension. Since April, it seems my comprehension has been increasing by about 1% every 4 months. If that rate continues, in five more years I would still understand less than 20% of natural Mandarin dialogue.

timeXcomprehension_m6

However, there are other factors to consider. One is the more subtle neurological adaptation that I mentioned in my early posts. I am, bit by bit, becoming more familiar with the phonemes and the cadence of Mandarin. I hope this increasing familiarity will bear greater fruits later on. Second, my acquisition of terminology is not likely to be linear. I believe that as I understand more, I will be able to pick up new words at an accelerating rate.

If you have ever put together a 10,000-piece puzzle, I believe it may provide an apt analogy. In my puzzle-building strategy, you first find the corners and start separating the edge pieces. These initial successes provide a sense of accomplishment. It would be akin to learning wo, ni, hao, shi, de, and shie shie in the first weeks of Mandarin. Though you don’t really understand any dialogue yet, you can certainly pick out a lot of wo’s, and that feels like progress!

Then, the slow and grueling part of the puzzle making begins. All the tiny pieces look so similar. You have no idea where any of them go, and you can hardly begin to put any together. Bit by bit, though—often by trial and error or some lucky break—you make matches and the puzzle begins to take form. That is where I currently am in my Mandarin experiment, and where I expect to be for a few months, if not years.

When you complete all the edges and parts of puzzle’s interior scenery begin to take shape, your pace picks up quite a bit. You can easily tell where certain pieces fit. You are moving fast and progress is visible on a daily basis. It is a 10,000-piece puzzle, so it’s still a challenge and requires a good deal of patience. But there is no longer any doubt that you will finish, and you can already project about how long it will take. That is where I hope to get before my experiment is finished.

The final phase is when you have completed most of the puzzle and are just filling in holes. That period is truly fast-paced and fun. I certainly don’t expect to get to that phase within my 1,200 hours, but it is something to look forward to eventually.

Importantly, I am enjoying my experiment and continue to feel motivated. I have found good sources, especially Qiao Hu, quality original Chinese movies, and Disney movies in Mandarin. I have set aside sources I don’t like as much, such as Pleasant Goat, low-quality TV dramas and older, low-quality movies, in addition to a source I Iiked quite a bit, but that was too difficult—Boonie Bears.

The project has become a bonding experience with my daughter. By the way, I asked her if she thought she would learn Mandarin if she persisted with the method we have adopted, and if it was a good way to learn. To both questions, she answered, unequivocally, “Yes.”

I have been very regular about this blog, have had a few appreciative readers, and hits in general have been ticking up very slightly. The most interesting aspect has been that people have accessed from all parts of the globe, which I will write about in the near future.

I hope the remaining 90% of my experiment will be as enjoyable, and even more productive, than the 10% that is already past.