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.

 

 

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.

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.

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.