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.