How to decipher words watching authentic video – Week 45

(It’s Friday night and in a few hours I’m beginning a 9-day hike in Peru, from Cachora to Choquequirao to Machu Picchu. However, I will have this post appear on Sunday evening. The following week, my post may be a couple of days late.)

A fellow language enthusiast and a complete skeptic about the utility of my approach and of my whole Mandarin project was recently arguing on a forum that one cannot decipher words in such a radically foreign language such as Mandarin using straight video. He posted a link to a Chinese movie and said the following:

“For example, it would be interesting to see how one would could figure out how to say  butterfly in Mandarin just by watching this film.”

For this week’s post, I’d like to share with you my reply.

I am so glad you asked! I have not watched that film (I will give it a look), but I will tell you exactly how I learned the word butterfly without subtitles. Watch from 0:45-3:40 of this Qiao Hu episode. (I simply ignore the Mandarin subtitles, by the way, as I understand none of them.)

I also learned how to say “to fly” from that same song. (sounds like “fay” in English)

Then, when watching the movie Casablanca without any subtitles, I learned how to say “airplane”, because it’s the same as “to fly,” but with an extra syllable at the end. It sounds like “fay gee” in English.

The term repeats countless times in the last part of the movie, so if you already know “fay,” it’s easy to pick up. Here is a clip with two instances.

Do you see now how you can learn words without subtitles?

Here are some other words I understood for sure from that same Qiao Hu episode, which I watched at about the 100-hour mark of my experiment. Not to mention many others I think I understood or sort of understood.

I love, You love, daddy, to be, Look!, Great!, my belly, head, shoulders, belly/tummy, butt, sheep, hands

And here are some full phrases I understood. This was at 100 hours of listening, by the way.

“Butterfly, fly, fly, fly.”

“Daddy, it’s a butterfly.”

“Tap your hands / Tap your head / Tap your belly.”

“Tap Qiao Hu’s head.”

By the way, I’m a bit embarrassed to say it, but I actually like that baby song about butterflies. And I enjoyed watching the whole Qiao Hu episode well enough.

Now, I agree with you on several of your explicit or implicit points:

  1. Subtitles make deciphering words a lot easier.
  1. Understanding what you’re watching makes it a lot more enjoyable.
  1. Pure video, or video with subtitles, is not an efficient way to acquire new vocabulary at a very low level in an utterly foreign language.
  1. Compared to my experiment, a method that included at least a little formal study and some speaking and character study would probably be more effective.

That said, the additional points I’m trying to make, which you may not agree with entirely (and that is fair enough), are:

  1. Watching movies and other video is probably useful at any level.
  1. Using subtitles has the disadvantage of not allowing you to focus very well on the audio.
  1. Getting used to the phonemes, cadence, and mode of oral expression in a language is a very important task that takes a long time. Focusing your full attention on natives speaking from early on is very useful.
  1. Subtitles can also be very misleading in trying to learn new words.
  1. There are serious pitfalls to using translations in learning a foreign language. I

have seen this time and again with students. These pitfalls become more apparent at higher levels, as depending a lot on translations often creates a ceiling, and many people cannot seem to overcome that barrier and learn to speak naturally, fluidly, and with good grammar.

In sum, there are tradeoffs between using more formal, abstract study and more immersive methods. Some of these tradeoffs involve short-term learning vs. long-term results.

How long does it really take to learn Mandarin? – Week 44

Before delving into this week’s topic, I am pleased to announce that this blog now has Spanish pages. Este blog cuenta ahora con páginas en español!

So, how long does it really take to learn Mandarin? I will briefly introduce one possible approach that begins to answer that question. Stay tuned for future posts that will explain the concepts in more detail and depth.

My estimate is that it takes at least 4,600 to achieve a professional working proficiency, 9,200 hours to achieve full professional proficiency, and 18,400 hours to reach native or bilingual proficiency.

Please refer to the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale of language abilities. The US Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has provided estimates, based on extensive empirical observation, of how long it takes to learn a variety of languages. The languages are grouped into four categories, according to difficulty for a native English speaker to learn.

Mandarin, of course, is in Category 4—the most difficult. FSI estimates that an adult native English speaker who is highly educated, motivated and already a polyglot takes 2,200 classroom hours to reach IRL 3 in speaking and reading. When this estimate is cited, however, people often fail to note that many additional hours are spent studying independently or being immersed in the language.

FSI students are also dedicating 3 to 4 hours daily to directed self-study, and no mention is made of possible additional contact with the language during “free” time. The latter is especially relevant for Category 4 languages like Mandarin, where an entire year of study is done in-country. I assume many of the students, during their free time, watch TV in Mandarin, in addition to going out and making native-speaking friends.

When one includes just the directed self-study time at the higher end of the range, the total number of hours to reach ILR 3 in Mandarin jumps to about 4,600 hours, which is thus the minimum time I estimate for attaining professional working proficiency in the language.

I have not found information on how long one would take on average to get from ILR 3 to ILR 4 and then ILR 5. My guess, based my own empirical observation, is that you would have to approximately double the total time in each case, because of the law of diminishing returns. To take one example, while knowing 5,000 words might get you to ILR 3 because they represent 95% of the spoken and written language (these numbers are fictitious and meant only to illustrate), you might need 10,000 words to get to 98% comprehension or ILR 4 because word frequencies diminish so much, and 20,000 to attain 99.8% comprehension or ILR 5 (educated native equivalency level). Idiomatic expressions, colloquialisms, cultural references, and native-like pronunciation and accent are necessary to get to these higher levels (especially ILR 5), which also can take a ridiculous amount of time to achieve (if ever).

That is why I estimate 9,200 hours to attain full professional proficiency and 18,400 to speak like a native.

These figures for reaching ILR 4 and ILR 5 are obviously wild estimates that, even if they happened to be accurate averages, would still allow for a tremendous amount of variation.

Please share your thoughts, opinions, and personal experiences!

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!

L1 subtitles in language acquisition – Week 42


Should one use L1[1] subtitles when watching foreign language films with the purpose of improving one’s L2[2] oral comprehension? In the case of my experiment, should I use English subtitles when watching movies and other videos in Mandarin?

Let’s consider three advantages and three disadvantages with regards to using L1 subtitles in general.[3]


  1. Increased enjoyment because one understands the plot and dialogue better.
  2. Greater ease and likelihood of dedicating many hours and sticking with it (as a result of the first advantage).
  3. Greater ease in deciphering new vocabulary, especially at lower levels of comprehension.


  1. Decreased focus on the audio and on the listening itself. Lower effectiveness in getting the brain deeply immersed and accustomed to the phonemes, intonation, cadence, structures, and mode of expression.
  2. Risk of losing sight of learning objective. Need for greater effort and discipline to maintain viewing as a learning activity. In other words, it’s easy to watch just for fun and learn almost nothing.
  3. Pitfalls associated with translations generally: learning terms by sometimes incorrect and frequently misleading equivalences and risk of developing a mental translation habit.

In sum, I would say that movies with L1 subtitles are easier to enjoy and keep watching, but more difficult and problematic to use for improving listening comprehension. At a very low level of comprehension, watching with L1 subtitles does give one the added practical and psychological advantage of deciphering new vocabulary more quickly.

As a general rule, I would recommend watching movies without L1 subtitles as long as students can enjoy and stick with this type of study. If and when they cannot, I would recommend using subtitles, but with great care to focus a large portion of their attention on the spoken dialogue, even while referencing the text.

So how does this apply to my Mandarin language acquisition experiment?

In terms of isolating variables more carefully, and thus making the experiment more scientifically rigorous, it would be ideal never to use subtitles. However, one of the underlying conditions of my project is that my viewing needs to be relaxed and enjoyable. Since I knew absolutely no Mandarin when I began the project, and no languages that are remotely related to it, I was and continue to be an extreme example of a student with very low comprehension.

Therefore, purely for the sake of enjoyment and motivation, I have often used subtitles. Without them, watching Chinese films can be tedious, whereas with subtitles, I have found them very enjoyable. If I never used subtitles, I would probably feel the need to watch a lot more shows for toddlers and to repeat movie scenes more often. Needless to say, I might get bored.

However, as I’ve explained, in terms of effectiveness of acquisition, I believe the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.

For this reason, I have devised a plan to transition gradually away from using subtitles. I expect this plan will allow me to continue to enjoy my daily viewing, but provide better results in terms of developing listening comprehension. I am currently at 182 hours of viewing, and thus far I have used subtitles for approximately 70% of my total viewing. I plan to maintain that percentage through the 200-hour mark, then reduce as follows:

Total hours of viewing Maximum percentage of viewing with English subtitles
0-200 70%
200-300 60%
300-400 50%
400-500 45%
500-600 40%
600-700 30%
700-800 20%
800-900 10%
900-1000 5%
1000-1200 0%

[1] Your native language or, analogously, another language you already know well and use when learning a second language.

[2] The language you are endeavoring to acquire.

[3] In this post I will not assess the use of L2 subtitles, which has its own set of peculiarities, advantages, and disadvantages. I will also not assess the use of technology-intensive methods such as subs2srs.

At a Chinese restaurant – Week 41

2014-10-27 20.40.35

Watching Chinese movies in which people slurp down steaming hot noodles with evident pleasure has made me hanker for Asian food more often than usual. More than once the only recourse has been to eat Ramen noodles, which I had given up many years ago. I won’t lie–I have found them scrumptious!

Last week, after watching A Touch of Sin, I needed noodles again, so I took my wife and daughter to a local Chinese restaurant here in Brasilia. The owner is Sichuanese and was once the cook at the Chinese Embassy. As we were finishing our meal, he sat at another table to have dinner with his family, including a small boy, apparently his grandson.

My daughter, Camila Daya, is not a bit shy, and before long she had left our table and sat down at theirs (see picture above). She was welcomed, and my wife and I observed the scene with slight embarrassment, but mostly great mirth. (I did not converse with them in Mandarin out of respect for the rules of my experiment, of course—and not, ahem, because of my total lack of ability.)

At one point, my daughter handed something to the boy, and his mother said, “shie shie,” or thank you. To everyone’s surprise and delight, Camila Daya responded without the slightest pause or hesitation, “Bu ke chi,” or you’re welcome. Any vestige of embarrassment faded and I was one proud baba!

2014-10-27 20.46.40 (2)

That small experience may have helped motivate her, along with the arrival of some Disney DVDs, to put in a few hours of Mandarin listening after an almost three-month hiatus. We watched The Lion King in Mandarin twice, and Pinocchio once.

lion_king pinocchio

 Her memory is remarkable. This week I also started listening to the song Nan Zi Han or Make a Man out of You from the movie Mulan again. (One of these days I will really learn it!) She has probably listened to it fewer than half the times that I have, but she remembered the first few lines much faster than I did.

Here is our updated Hours of Viewing graph.


In other news, I also watched my first non-Disney movie dubbed in Mandarin, Casablanca. I watched it without any subtitles. My comprehension was even lower than I had expected. I thought having seen the movie in English before would help me understand many words and phrases, but in fact I did not understand significantly more than I do when watching Chinese films. Nonetheless, it is such a great movie and very dialogue-intensive, so I will watch it again.