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.


6 thoughts on “Are Chinese characters, subtitles, and songs fair game? – Week 25

  1. David says:

    So nice reading this weeks blog post. I think paying more attention to the characters will help you tremendously and I can almost guarantee you that you will start recognizing more and more characters very quickly. I notice the same for myself. However this is only a passive acquisition of the characters and you won’t be able to write them … but that’s not your goal, so whatever
    Also, I think learning the song will benefit you greatly … I remember learning 2 songs in the beginning of my studies and the words I have learnt through the songs I will probably never forget.
    “Add oil” :D :D

    • Author says:

      Thanks for the encouragement, David. I think you’re right about the characters and the song. It’s incredible how much trouble I’m having learning even an approximation of the lyrics to be able to sing along. I’m decent at learning lyrics in a language I understand. After an hour or two, I’ll have an entire song pretty well memorized. But with Mandarin, after an hour or two, I had about two lines down at best. However, I think you’re right that once I get it, it will help a lot, as I’ll hear the words and phrases repeated in other contexts and will be able to truly acquire many of them.

      • David says:

        haha .. I hear you. It also took me so much time learning these songs. I remember sitting in the living room of our hotel in Shanghai with two of my fellow interns and roommates and they got so annoyed of me repeatedly singing the songs along with my ipod. Although I was whispering the entire time or just trying to move my lips, they still heard me and got sick of it. I needed a lot of practice since I didn’t really have a meaning to the words and sounds and therefore I guess it made it so hard to memorize. Good times, good times…

      • Author says:

        That’s great. Fortunately in my case, my brother and nephew joined in the fun! This was in between World Cup games at my farm.

  2. Greta Browne says:

    As I read your comments I realize that despite your efforts to mimic the learning conditions of young children, it’s impossible as an adult to discard all other aspects and interests. I think you are making necessary compromises, in an intelligent way, and it’s important to acknowledge them and incorporate them into your experiment.

    • Author says:

      That’s true, although some of the “compromises” make the experiment more, rather than less, similar to a child learning his native language–at least in some respects.

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