A Little Mandarin and a Lot of French – Weeks 86, 87, and 88

The past three weeks have been quite intense at work, and I haven’t done too much Mandarin viewing, except for four movies early in the month. I did watch a regular English-language TV show recently–an entire season–for the first time in many years. Narcos, while a US show, has as its director and main actor Brazilians, and a good deal of the dialogue is in Spanish. I found this mix fascinating, and I gobbled up most of the ten episodes in just two (late) nights.

While I enjoy Mandarin, listening to French is truly relaxing for me. In fact–and I find this hilarious–I have become somewhat addicted to falling asleep while listening to French news. My brain won’t turn off now without it. I’ve also started reading a book in French, a few minutes each day. So instead of a regular blog post on my Mandarin experiment, I wrote up, originally in French, a reflection on my French Fluency Recovery Project and how it relates to my Mandarin experiment. I’ll paste an English translation below.

But so as not to leave you entirely bereft of news on my Mandarin project, here’s a wrap-up. The past three weeks, I’ve watched a little over 13 hours of Mandarin. The best part was watching four movies with a friend: Touch of the LightGetting HomeShower, and Hero. The first two I had only watched once, and Touch of the Light, I had watched without subtitles the first time around. These are both contemporary movies that are definitely worth a viewing.

Ok, here is the text I promised. Please access the original French version here.

French and Mandarin – Two Singular Projects


I’m in the midst of two language-acquisition projects. It’s an interest I’ve had since I was a child.

I remember when I lived in Niger in 1983, when I was just four years old. One day I reflected that Portuguese and French were more similar to each other than English, since the word “ciel” is similar to “céu” in Portuguese, while the word “sky”, though also beginning with a consonant sound, is less so. I also remember, a year later, when we were traveling through Europe on our return trip to the States, that we visited Portugal, France, and England. I thought to myself, “It’s so strange: in these three countries, the languages I know are spoken, but in a completely different way from what I am used to.”

I had learned French in just a couple of months, and I forgot it just as quickly. A few months after arriving in the US, I had forgotten every last word of the language, without exception. The only word I knew in French, like any other American kid, was “bonjour.

Thirty years later, it was January 2014, I lived in Brazil, and I was about to begin a peculiar experiment. It was a bit crazy, perhaps, but I was quite excited about it. I would try to learn Mandarin Chinese exclusively by watching movies and other authentic video—just thirty minutes a day. I knew it would take quite a long time—perhaps six years, I imagined, to reach an intermediate level of comprehension.

Fast forward eleven months. The project is going well. I’m learning a thing or two and having a lot of fun. It isn’t clear whether my method will prove minimally efficient, but regardless, I feel motivated. Once again, I’m an active language enthusiast, and I begin to think about my French.

When I was twelve years old, I had learned the beautiful language a second time during a semester (five months, actually) at a French school in Burundi. I had the distinct impression that the fact that I had previously learned the language, when I was a little kid in Niger, made no difference at all. Nevertheless, since I was still quite young and made a lot of friends, at the end of these five months I was speaking quite fluently. Unfortunately, after returning to the US, my French deteriorated progressively. I didn’t forget it entirely like before, but for the subsequent twenty-three years, I had few opportunities to practice.

So, now it’s December 2014. When I hear French, I understand reasonably well, but I am no longer fluent. My pronunciation is good, but my lack of vocabulary is so dire that it’s hard to complete a single sentence. It’s depressing. I’ve completely lost the ability to communicate naturally.

Finally, it’s decided. I’m going to recuperate my French once and for all! However, I have the same problem as with my Mandarin project—lack of available time. I work hard as a government auditor; I manage my farm and tree plantation; I have to provide support to the language institute I founded; my evenings are completely taken up by Law school classes at the University of Brasilia; and, of course, most importantly, I have a family to take care of.

While I was able to set aside at least thirty minutes per day to Chinese, it will be much less for French. “Ten minutes,” I decide rather impulsively. It’s what’s possible. In any case, I’m confident that, which this minimum time, I can make progress. I make some calculations: after two years, I will once again speak French fluently. Within five or ten years, I will speak better than ever and attain a C2 level, or Mastery, level of French in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

That same day, I design a self-applied test to measure my proficiency in French. I don’t actually grade it; I’ll do that a year later, when I take the test again to assess my progress. Nonetheless, it’s obvious: my French is not fluent. My comprehension is good enough, but I express myself haltingly and without a shred of elegance or nuance.

During the subsequent seven months, I did almost nothing except listen to Radio France Internationale (RFI). Normally, I would listen to ten minutes, but not every day. Thus, during the entire seven month period, I listened to a total of twenty hours, or six minutes per day. Other than that, I took a single conversation class and translated a short text.

I should mention that I love RFI. It’s my favorite news source, regardless of language. I especially like the ten-minute international news broadcast. It’s straightforward and balanced. Free from useless banter and commentary, it provides, in a pleasant and crystal clear format, a great amount of information in a very short period of time. I also enjoy listening to a few specialized broadcasts, especially “Débat do Jour,” “Grand Reportage,” and “Géopolitique, le débat.

Just these twenty hours during six months have had a considerable impact on my French. When I meet a quasi-native French-speaking friend (in the US) in July, I am able to communicate successfully—still somewhat haltingly and lacking vocabulary, without a doubt—but nevertheless with significantly more confidence and ability than during my first (and only) French class in February.

After this experience, newly motivated, I began listening to even more RFI and I added a new exercise on almost a daily basis: reading. I am reading my favorite book, which I have already read a dozen times in English and also in Portuguese, but this time in French. It’s Autobiography of Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda.

With renewed enthusiasm and having added daily reading, I have increased the time I dedicate to French. Through today, September 27, 2015, I have dedicated 37 hours of listening, 8 hours of reading, 6 hours of speaking, and 3 hours of writing (including 2 hours writing this text in French), for a total of 54 hours in 9 months. That is an average of 11.5 minutes per day.

I’m looking forward to taking my self-test again at the end of the year. I’m confident that the results will speak for themselves and reveal significant progress. I believe that my initial projection was correct. At the end of 2016, at the latest, I will be able to confidently state that I speak French fluently again; and I hope that two or three years later, I will speak better than I did when I was a child in Burundi. Of course, a vacation or two to Paris will be warranted—or better yet, to the French countryside.

In the meantime, I’m plugging away with my Chinese. Even spending much more time (40 minutes per day), the results are far less evident. I feel like a snail climbing a high mountain in the Tibetan Himalayas. Nonetheless, I’m having fun, and I know that I’ll reach the summit one day, safe and sound. Mastering languages requires the patience of a saint, or perhaps of a mule, but it’s all good.

One-Third Done! – Weeks 83, 84, and 85

I have completed 400 hours of viewing, which is 1/3 of the total planned time for my experiment!

Today I updated some tables, statistics, and graphs to provide a summary of my experiment thus far. I will not assess or comment in much detail on my progress or results obtained. I am doing that each time I complete an additional 10% of my experiment, so I will provide the next progress update when I reach 480 hours, or 40%. If you are interested in my progress, you can read about my recent careful self-assessment conducted at the 30% mark.

As the following graph illustrates, I am averaging nearly 41 minutes per day, above the minimum 30 minutes I planned at the outset. I began my experiment on January 17, 2014. Last December, January, and February were the months I did the most Chinese viewing. Since then, I have been averaging about 30 minutes a day again.


In previous versions of this graph, I also included my daughter’s progress, but in the past few months, she has done practically no viewing.

Though once again I would refer readers to my June post for discussion of the results, I will reproduce the graph in which I contrast the time I have spent on my experiment to my estimated comprehension.


I created a new graph today to track my vocabulary acquisition. The data comes mostly from my word-a-day database, in which I make note, by means of a phonetic approximation, of words I am able to decipher from the movies and other viewing sources. I developed a simple spaced-repetition system within the database. When I watch that same video a second (or third, fourth, fifth, etc.) time, my database provides me with a list of the words I wrote down for that specific source. As I watch and review the words in context, I assess my own mastery of them as hard (not at all mastered), medium, easy, or mastered.

My database now has nearly 560 words, of which 209 I currently consider “hard,” 228 “medium,” and 120 “easy.” Of course, I have picked up many words that have not made it into my database—in particular, words I learned before even starting the word-a-day system. For assessment purposes, I am most interested in words I would classify as “easy” or “mastered,” which assumes I would be able to pick these words out and understand in natural standard-Mandarin conversation on a regular basis. I am roughly guessing there are at least 50 words in this category, outside of my database. Thus, the total of “easy” words (including “mastered”) comes to 170. For the medium and hard categories, I am including only words in the database.


Most of my viewing is of movies that were originally made in Mandarin—approximately 222 hours. In second place is my viewing of “Toddler” content. In this category, by far the most important source is Qiao Hu, which I have written about extensively. In third place comes cartoons, namely the Boonie Bears. Next, are Disney movies dubbed in Mandarin, followed by music videos, gleaned from movies, such as Nan Zi Han in the movie Mulan, and music for kids, namely Little Dragon Tales.


Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to produce new Qiao Hu Study Guides since I started studying Law again. However, today I did finally update my Films table. I have watched 60 movies in Mandarin since my experiment began, and my favorites I have watched numerous times. I think anyone studying Mandarin will find this table very useful, whether viewing authentic sources is central to their study methodology or just an occasional side exercise.

You can download the complete Chinese Film Table. For those who just want a taste of the information, here are the top ten movies and their aggregate scores (according to a formula I designed).

Name of Movie Aggregate Score Order watched Original Language Year
Hero 10.0 3 Mandarin 2002
Dragon (Wu Xia) 9.1 32 Mandarin 2011
Not One Less 8.9 38 Mandarin 1999
House of Flying Daggers 8.7 13 Mandarin 2004
Nemo 8.5 20 English 2003
Shanghai Triad 8.5 24 Mandarin 1995
Mulan 8.5 19 English 1998
Raise the Red Lantern 8.4 46 Mandarin 1991
The Lion King 8.3 33 English 1994

In sum, after 400 hours of viewing, I am greatly enjoying my Mandarin experiment, and in terms of outcomes I consider it is being moderately successful, in that I am learning, but slowly.