Real live Mandarin – Week 27

I am currently on a brief work trip in Chile. I landed at the Santiago airport half an hour before my boss, so I waited for him in the international arrivals area. I noticed a group of Asians, also waiting for passengers, speaking in a foreign language. “Could it be Mandarin?” I thought to myself. In Brasilia, one does not run into groups of foreigners as a matter of course, as one would in more cosmopolitan cities like New York or London. Moreover, my language institute does not yet have a Mandarin program. So this was the first time I was hearing an Asian language spoken in real life since I began my experiment six months ago.

I drew a little closer to the group and started paying attention. The language sounded familiar and soon I felt that I was deciphering a few words. It was just like watching one of my Mandarin movies! Lots of wo’s and ni’s, among other familiar sounds. As with my videos, I did not understand what was being said, but I was very excited to pick out a few numbers in the midst of the conversation. Although it remains a guess, I think they may have been discussing money, because in addition to the numbers I heard the word tyen, which I believe can have various meanings, among them sword (probably not the case here), dear, and money.

To confirm my perception that I was listening to the language my ears have become increasingly familiar with this year—even without understanding it—I approached a friendly-looking, middle-aged woman in the group. The group’s informal, quasi Western demeanor and in the particular the presence of a Buddhist monk led me to think they were probably not from mainland China, though I don’t know if my underlying assumptions are accurate. In any case, whether on target or off the mark, my reasoning left one major hypothesis in my mind (although others were possible).

“Taiwan,” the woman answered, to my delight, since her single word confirmed my suppositions.

My first encounter with real live people speaking Mandarin was encouraging and reminded me of one of the insights that informs my entire project. When, in the past, I would explain to my English students the importance of watching movies in English (without subtitles), I would comment that high quality films or dramas with professional actors mimic daily language better than any other source. Music is a great way to practice a language for other reasons, and repetitive listening content made specifically for language learners has its place in certain methodologies. Audiobooks are a fantastic resource for more advanced students, as is talk radio or television news programs.

However, none of these sources matches films or quality television dramas in their approximation to how people speak in everyday situations. Granted, many of the movies I have watched are historical epics or wuxia and the language used revolves inordinately around royalty, fighting, and war. Accordingly, my first and best-consolidated sentence thus far is Wo pu sha ni or “I will not kill you.” While that sentence could be extremely useful in certain situations, it is undoubtedly not as important as “Where is the bathroom?” or “I want some food, please.” Nevertheless, even the war and wuxia films do contain a lot of standard conversation and in particular the back-and-forth, natural dialogue that you would not get in music, for example. In addition, some of the movies I have watched do mirror daily situations quite closely—for example, Shower, Slam, or Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.

I still do not understand much Mandarin, and whether my method is efficient is up in the air. Regardless, my point here is that listening to people have a regular conversation seemed instantly familiar to me. It seemed like one of my movies, and that reveals one benefit, at least, of using authentic listening sources, and in particular cinema.

. . .

In other news, this week, because of my trip, I did little to no listening on most days. I only logged significant time on my flight from Rio de Janeiro to Santiago. I watched the beginning of Journey to the West and the beginning of Shanghai Triad again as I flew over the Andes.

Two New Movies and the Song – Week 26

This past week Camila Daya and I watched Beauty and the Beast dubbed in Mandarin twice (and she watched it couple of additional times in English). It’s a great learning source, just like The Little Mermaid, due to its high quality and “watchability”, the straightforward dialogues (not that I understand much of anything haha), and the catchy songs. On a side note, I noticed that buying some of these Mandarin-language Disney DVDs would be a good way to circumvent the lack of availability of Disney classics for regular purchase or legal download, since they have an English language option. I had tried buying Beauty and the Beast in the past for my daughter (regular edition, in English), but it seems to be a Disney marketing strategy to keep them off the market for long periods.


I also watched a new Chinese movie, Shanghai Triad. It’s an excellent movie and I would highly recommend it, as long as you’re not looking for something to lift your spirits or restore your faith in humanity. Set in 1930s Shanghai, it’s an authentic Chinese gangster movie with some interesting twists. It’s a different style from any of the other Chinese movies I’ve seen to date and the first of this genre. I recognized the actress Gong Li from The Emperor and the Assassin and I subsequently realized I’ve also seen her in Farewell My Concubine and Memoirs of a Geisha (the Japanese movie). Gong Li is clearly one of China’s top actresses from the past three decades and I’m sure I’ll see a few more movies from her filmography in coming months.


Finally, I am persevering with THE SONG. Of course, I’m referring to Make a Man out of You, Mandarin version, from Mulan. I’m happy to report that after three hours of listening to it (over a few weeks) I can now sing along with six whole lines! I would have expected to take about 30 minutes to learn six lines. But no matter … I will stick with it. Who knows how awful my pronunciation may be, but it sounds okay to me! I can sing along to these five lines without missing a syllable. In the video above, I wasn’t very focused, so there are grosser mistakes.

I’ve watched very little Qiao Hu, which is what I should be doing, but I do get a few minutes in from time to time and you can look forward to a new study guide in August.

I will soon have completed 120 hours or 10% of my planned viewing time for the experiment, which will be my first big milestone. If I do that by next week, in my next post I hope to take stock of my progress and reflect on my hypothesis and way forward.

Are Chinese characters, subtitles, and songs fair game? – Week 25

As my experiment progresses and unforeseen learning opportunities arise, I’m forced to assess how they fit into my proposed methodology. I have to gauge the value of rigid adherence to my stated rules against a more flexible interpretation that keeps my approach sensible as well as fun and motivating. My Week 13 post deals with this issue indirectly in the context of proxies for mediation and interaction.

The main aspect that I did not anticipate is the use of English subtitles in films. Thus far, Chinese films account for more viewing hours than any other video category. In this early stage of my experiment, I have often watched these films with English subtitles, mostly so that I can enjoy them and stay motivated. In reviewing my methodology, the crux of which I have pasted below, leaving subtitles on is not a clear violation of my rules:

I will attempt to learn Mandarin Chinese (oral comprehension) exclusively by watching movies, children’s shows, television, or other similar media.

I will not take any type of Chinese lessons whatsoever. I will not do any type of self-study coursework or adopt any traditional method. I will not speak to or interact with any speakers of Chinese in that language in any way at all. I will do no research on the Chinese language on the Internet or elsewhere. I will consciously avoid learning any vocabulary or grammar by any means other than listening to the aforementioned media.

The only element that raises some doubt is the last sentence. Even with subtitles on, I am learning vocabulary by listening to videos, but it is also true that leaving subtitles on helps identify new words and thus differs from pure listening (in some ways subtitles also hinder my acquisition process). My verdict is that using English subtitles does not violate my methodology nor the spirit of my experiment, but it is a factor that should be clearly stated as it may influence results for better or worse.

Another situation that merits mention came up recently while I watched Mulan sans English subtitles. Without giving it much thought, I left the Mandarin character subtitles on. I have not and will not study Chinese characters per se (as this would be a clear violation of my methodology), so I did not think it would make any difference to have them on. However, I found myself paying attention to the characters and beginning to recognize one or two of them. In addition, Qiao Hu, which I’m trying to discipline myself to watch more regularly, often includes some Chinese characters.

I don’t think I will end up learning many characters this way, but regardless I believe it is a natural type of acquisition that mimics how children learn. Therefore, it fits nicely into the spirit of my experiment. I will not make a point of learning characters, but I will allow myself to pick them up when the occasion arises. Doing so may distract my attention somewhat from pure listening, but it may also help me better distinguish syllables and decipher meaning. In addition, it will give me a head start for a second, post-experiment phase of Mandarin learning, which will almost certainly include a study of characters.

Finally, another learning approach that I did not anticipate, but that I believe fits well into my experiment, is trying to learn a song by repeatedly watching a video segment. I am doing that with the song Make a Man out of You in Mulan. It is a fun way of adding variety to my project, and I also believe incorporating music will help me better assimilate the language. However, it has been much harder than I anticipated to learn lyrics at all. After watching the video over and over for about an hour, I could only really sing along with one line in the entire song! But I intend to stick with it until I learn at least this song, even if I then decide it’s not worth learning any others.


2nd Camila Daya post and 2nd Qiao Hu Study Guide – Week 24

I’m Camila Daya Hart. This is my second blog post. I think that thank you is “she shie.”

My dad was doing the experiment by himself. And then I said, “Dad, can I do the experiment?” And my dad answered, “Sure my sweetheart.” My dad thinks that thank you is “shie shie“.

I’ve been visiting my dad’s blog post the last few days and leaving lots of comments. My dad is watching more Mandarin than me.

“Wa” is the most common word in Mulan. We stopped watching Boonie Bears and what we are watching the most is Qiao Hu because it is for little children and we need that because we are not so good at Mandarin, so need to watch Qiao Hu.  


My six-year-old daughter asked to write her second blog post and I was happy to oblige. As I hoped, the Disney movies have helped get her viewing Mandarin videos again. In the past 3 weeks, she has almost kept pace with me. It helps that we have been on vacation and spending a lot of time together. I made relatively few corrections to her writing. You can see her original version below, with which she had no help.

I’m also excited to announce that I’ve prepared my second Qiao Hu Study Guide!


(Original version)

I’m Camila Daya Hart this is my second blog post. I think that thank you is she shie my dad was doing the experiment by him self. And then i said dad can i do the experiment? and my dadd answer sure my sweet heart. My dadd thinks that  thank you is shie shie . I’m visiting my dad’s blog post the last few

Days.leaving lots of coments. My dadd is waching more madarin then i wa is the most common word in

Mulan. boonie bears we stop wathing  and the most we are waching is qiao hu because is for little children and we need that because we are not so good at mandarin so need too watch qiao hu