Is language acquisition a priority? – Week 68

I had hoped to make my two-day trip from Cape Town back to Brasilia (via Dubai) an unprecedented Mandarin movie marathon. Then, I got news that I have a Criminal Law exam next week. I did watch a couple of movies, but I split my time with my Law book. And when a flight delay meant we had to spent 24 hours in Dubai, I obviously made seeing the city my top priority.

Should I have made my Mandarin studies a higher priority? How important is language acquisition to me? I have been reflecting on this in light of advances in machine translation.

I picked up an Economist magazine at the Cape Town airport and read the cover article on Artificial Intelligence. It discusses how deep thought and big data are, among other things, bringing us much closer to the point where machine translation will match the quality of human translation. For years, people (especially translators) have told me this will never happen, but I’m quite sure it will. One of the more interesting and well-made points of the article is that white-collar jobs will be increasingly replaced by computers. The translation and interpreting professions have limited lifespans. You might need a few high-level professionals to tweak important documents and of course guide improvements in software, at least in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, I would not recommend my daughter consider translation a primary professional option.

So how useful is my Mandarin-learning quest? Of course, I am doing it for pleasure, for the challenge itself and the benefits to my brain, and as a pedagogical experiment. However, underlying my enjoyment and motivation is the assumption that I am acquiring a very useful skill. If learning more about forestry and government auditing work–two activities that have a significant financial impact for me–would be vastly more useful for my future, why should I invest so much time in acquiring and improving Mandarin and other languages? I won’t be surprised if within five or ten years Skype allows me to communicate seamlessly with people in all major languages (they are working hard on this), but I doubt computers will replace human judgment on audit reports, international cooperation, or managing labor to care for my tree plantation.

For now, I will continue my language acquisition project undaunted. (On the Emirates entertainment system, returning to Brazil, I finished watching Brotherhood of Blades, then watched 20 Once Again, The Golden Era, and The Crossing I. I would only recommend The Crossing. The Golden Era is well done, but too long, depressing, and unentertaining. The other two movies are well worth skipping.)

But I will keep an eye on technological advances in the field of translation and continue reflecting on the utility of language acquisition.

From South Africa – Week 67

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I spent the past week in South Africa with my wife and daughter, much more concerned about cheetah sightings than Mandarin viewing.

The isolated Mandarin-experiment highlight of my week was during the wee hours of my Emirates flight from Dubai to Cape Town. After finishing the first draft of a paper due the next day for my Property Law class, I was too caffeinated to go right to sleep. So I browsed the extensive in-flight film collection, and to my delight, there was a whole section of Mandarin-language films. I decided to watch the first 15 minutes of Brotherhood of Blades. An hour and 15 minutes later, the sun was already rising and I realized how badly I needed to sleep. (The next day, I had to drive four hours on the left side of the road for the first time.) Fortunately, the movie was rather lousy and I was able to pull myself away from it—which is ne’er an easy task for me.

After that, I had a Mandarin-less week, except for one morning that I had a terrible headache, missed the safari drive, and instead watched Dragon for the umpteenth time. We will be in Cape Town now for another week, during which I will be working rather intensively, but hopefully I can squeeze a little Chinese in on the evenings.

Regardless, I’m very excited for the flights back to Brazil next weekend. I have two 10-hour flights on Emirates. I expect I can watch four to five new Chinese movies during these flights and clock in some 8 hours of Mandarin viewing—a true marathon and definitely a new record!

Of Lions, Bears, and Chinese Songs – Week 66

This week my daughter Camila Daya and I watched two movies in Mandarin together, and also practiced children’s music a bit on our way to her gym classes.

We watched The Lion King dubbed in Mandarin for the fourth or fifth time and enjoyed it thoroughly, as always. The momentary inspiration for this selection was the fact that we are going to do a safari in South Africa next week, so seeing the animated lions and other animals helped us get excited.

Previously, when looking up Boonie Bears episodes, I chanced upon a feature-length Boonie Bears movie that I had not even previously heard of, so of course I downloaded it. It was the second movie we watched last week. There are no English subtitles, so we understood very little of the dialogue, but had a good time watching it. The plot is relatively easy to follow, of course. In addition, I was pleased on several occasions to pick out words I would not have understood a few months ago, and which helped me understand the storyline. Even my daughter, who has done only a third of my Mandarin viewing thus far, understood several words.

It took me a while to discover the title of the movie. Finally, Google told me it is a 2015 film called Boonie Bears: Mystical Winter. I didn’t find it as entertaining–and certainly not as funny–as last year’s Boonie Bears: To the Rescue. Nevertheless, there were touching moments, and I found the mystical aspects of it quirky but interesting.

On my way to the farm this weekend, I was very pleased to be able, for the first time, to sing along with Nan Zi Han from Mulan the whole way through. I have finally completed its memorization, after many months! So, my dear (and dwindling) readers, you can look forward to a new music video soon, hopefully in May, when we get back from Africa.

From Chaos to Routine – Week 65

I remember the first few days of my Mandarin Experiment, in January 2014. I did not even know where to start. I had coincidentally met a couple of people in previous days who had lived in China and recommended a couple of kids’ shows, which I plugged into YouTube. I looked up Mandarin films in Google and tried to figure out how to start watching them.

I found Pleasant Goat and Bad Bad Wolf trippy, but uninteresting. Watching Farewell my Concubine without subtitles on some unknown website was a chore. The best viewing experience was Momo, which allowed me to understand my first few words, such as English imports bye-bye and hi, and homonyms like mama and baba. But the infantile and repetitive nature meant I could only take so much.

Gradually, I chanced upon new sources and experimented widely. I began having a lot of fun. The first year, I spent most of my time on movies with subtitles, Boonie Bears, and Qiao Hu. I continue with those three staples, and more recently I’ve begun watching more movies without subtitles and added children’s music.

Going back to Law school and having an extremely tight schedule has contributed to my forming somewhat of a routine in my Mandarin viewing–a far cry from the experimental chaos at the beginning of last year.

Currently, a typical week looks something like this:

– Two evenings out of the week my wife and daughter and I watch two Boonie Bears episodes together before going to bed.

– Two or three times a week, while driving to work, to classes, or to my farm, I listen to kids’ music from Little Dragon Tales or practice lines from Nan Zi Han, from the movie Mulan.

– Once a week, while having lunch at home by myself, I’ll review clips from a couple of movies or Qiao Hu episodes that contain vocabulary from my database.

– One or two evenings a week, I’ll spend 45 minutes to an hour watching something, usually a movie but occasionally another source, with the specific goal of deciphering vocabulary to add to my database.

– On the weekend, out at my farm, I’ll relax at night watching a new movie without subtitles–at least until I fall asleep.

In addition to having settled into regular viewing sources and habits, I’ve also gradually added some structure by way of the database I mentioned and my self-tests. Beginning in August of last year, I added an average of one word a day to the database, a phonetic version of a word that I was able to decipher with a high degree of confidence–either because of context or subtitles. Two months ago, I decided to increase to an average of two words a day, which has sometimes been a challenge and taken up more time (in deciphering) than I had hoped. I currently have 317 words, some of which I’ve internalized, but most of which I am still in the process of learning by continuous review.

Sometimes I feel, like I mentioned in a recent post, that I’m merely plugging away with my project. Even on those occasions, watching or listening to Mandarin is a welcome respite from more pressing responsibilities. In other moments or moods, I continue to have a lot of fun and consider Mandarin viewing one of the most enjoyable parts of my day.



Spaced Repetition System (SRS) – Week 64

This week, I finished re-watching Dragon with subtitles clip-by-clip, often repeating lines again and again, in an attempt to decipher new vocabulary. I now have over 50 terms in my Word-a-Day vocabulary list from Dragon–far more than from any other source. I register a phonetic transcription (using my own haphazard system), the source (Dragon), and the exact time that the term comes up in the movie. I do not try to translate the term, although I often have a rough translation in mind based on the subtitles and context.

When I again watch this movie or any source that I have previously worked on in this way, I am able to produce a chronological list of terms and reference them as the scenes come up. By this method, I gradually learn and reinforce vocabulary that I have been able to decipher.

These terms are all in a simple Access database that I created. In addition to using them as I repeat an entire movie or episode of a show, I also sometimes do a “Word List Review”, in which I will watch isolated scenes of various different sources to specifically reinforce vocabulary. In 30 minutes, I might watch clips from two different movies, a Boonie Bears episode, and a Qiao Hu episode, for example.

In order to render this process more efficient, I make use of a concept I became more familiar with when engaging in discussions last year on language learning forums: spaced repetition systems (SRS). The most cited example of SRS are Anki cards, a kind of digital flashcard for memorizing vocabulary or anything else. Anki cards are cool because they allow you to insert images, audio, or even video, and you can use them on your cell phone or any other device. Some people take this the next level and break down an entire movie or episode into tiny clips, with dual-language subtitles, in a process abbreviated as subs2srs. Supposedly, you can use this high-tech method of memorization, in a short period of time, to be able to watch a movie in a completely new language, whether Japanese, Bahasa or Mandarin, without subtitles and with full comprehension.

Now, mind you, I never really used Anki cards or subs2srs. Being me, I had to reinvent the wheel. I didn’t really want to distract myself with creating Anki cards or parsing videos and using dual-language subtitles. Instead, I created simple queries in my Word List database that incorporate the spaced repetition concept. The idea is that, each time you review vocabulary or whatever you’re trying to memorize, you rank its difficulty. Items that you rank as more difficult will come back or repeat sooner, while those you rank as easy will only come back to you after much longer intervals.

I made a couple little formulas in a database query to assess the priority of reviewing each term I register.

For those who are minimally familiar with Access or SQL, they will be very easy to understand. First, I defined a variable called “age”, which is the current date minus the date that I registered that term.

age: Now()-[when]

Next, I attributed a number to each level of difficulty. Each time I review a word in a clip, I assess its difficulty as hard, medium, easy, or mastered.

difficulty: IIf([difficulty_LR]=”hard”,8,IIf([difficulty_LR]=”medium”,4,IIf([difficulty_LR]=”easy”,2,IIf([difficulty_LR]=”mastered”,1,8))))

Finally, I use these variables to help calculate the priority. The higher the number, the higher the priority and the sooner I should review the term. The field “reviewed” refers to how many times the term was reviewed in that specific source, while “total reviews” refers to how many times the term was reviewed in any source.

priority: ([age]/([total reviews]+[reviewed]*2+1))*[difficulty]

I then use a simple query to generate lists of terms with priorities over 50 and over 100, respectively. The lists indicate which words I should focus on reviewing. The way I most often use the lists is to choose what movie or episode to watch when I want to review vocabulary. For example, if I see that a movie I haven’t watched for a while has 15 words show up on the 50+ list, I will then watch the whole movie or, alternately, review the specific scenes where those terms come up.

This system consumes very little time. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not sure whether this type of artifice improves or distracts from my learning. On the whole, I believe it is probably beneficial. However, what I am sure of is that it provides a psychological boost, as I have some quantitative parameter of progress.

Plugging Away with Intensive Listening – Week 63

For those who read last week’s post with consternation, I’m glad to report that I’m still plugging away, and had a much better week in terms of listening hours. The journey continues.

Said journey—The Mandarin Experiment, as I like to call it—is mostly an exercise in extensive listening. By “extensive” I mean that I listen to a great deal of authentic material—mostly Chinese movies, but also dubbed Disney movies, Boonie Bears, and Qiao Hu, among other sources—in the hopes that I will gradually pick up phonemes, words, and other language patterns, which repeat in endless permutations, regardless of the viewing source. Often, I will watch a movie or episode just once, never coming back to it.

However, I also incorporate some intensive listening—of late, quite a lot. “Intensive” listening entails repetition, with a view to deciphering and assimilating more vocabulary from each segment and getting closer to real comprehension. I think my motivation for doing more intensive listening, like other adjustments to my experiment, is largely psychological. While I truly believe in the power of extensive listening and extensive reading in language acquisition, the results they bring are cumulative and organic and ripen in their own good time. The ripe fruits are satisfying and the nourishment is solid and reliable; however, we often have a psychological need for faster and more apparent progress, even if it is somewhat ephemeral. We need a sugar rush, so to speak.

Intensive listening, though generally not as enjoyable as extensive listening, does give you a sugar rush of apparent progress in language acquisition. If you listen to segments of a movie over and over with subtitles, you can end up deciphering many new words and, in a sense, “understand” the dialogue. I think this is largely what subs2srs is all about. You get the satisfaction of supposed comprehension and concrete knowledge. Some argue this method jump starts learning and is a prerequisite (in lieu of traditional learning methods) for effective extensive listening.

I’m not entirely convinced. Nevertheless, I think some mixture of intensive and extensive listening (and reading) is probably optimal, though I don’t know what the ideal ratio is for myself or others, whether in acquiring Mandarin or easier languages. Regardless, after dozens of hours of extensive listening with sporadic doubts about its effectiveness, some intensive listening is psychologically refreshing and motivating.

Here are a few examples of my intensive listening:

  • As I’ve mentioned in a few recent posts, I have been learning kids’ music in Mandarin while driving. I’ve learned the Boonie Bears intro song and a couple of very short tunes from Little Dragon Tales, and I think I’m now 90% done learning Nan Zi Han from Mulan. This approach involves endless repetition.
  • As previously reported, I keep a word-a-day list from my viewing sources. I then generate lists of words I have picked up from specific sources, such as my movies, and from time to time repeat the sources with special attention to those terms.
  • Recently, I chose one Boonie Bears episode (19 from Season 1) and my favorite movie (Dragon or Wu Xia) and have been repeating scenes many times to decipher as much vocabulary I can. My goal is eventually to be able to watch them with a fair amount of comprehension without subtitles (Boonie Bears does not have subtitles, and with Dragon I cover them).


One additional factor that has led me to incorporate more of this type of intensive listening is that, over time, I have discovered sources that I enjoy enough to endure such repetition. If I had tried to do such exercises with Momo or Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf—two of my early sources—I might not have been able to stand the boredom. By contrast, I actually have fun with the Mandarin tunes, the silly Bears, and the ass-whooping Dragon sequences.


Worst Week Ever – 62

This week, I watched a grand total of 35 minutes of Mandarin, while my daughter watched absolutely nothing.

(Written by Camila Daya: Yeah I watched 0 minutes and my dad watch 35 minutes, we could not watch lion king  because the DVD player would  not make sound.)

To keep pace with my original proposal of 30 minutes per day, I would need to spend 3 hours and 30 minutes a week on Mandarin viewing and listening, or six times more than I did.

Is this the beginning of the end for my Mandarin experiment? Now that I am back to studying Law, after a two-year hiatus, traveling regularly for work, and focusing on other personal priorities, will I simply be unable to find time to continue? After putting in 315 hours of viewing, getting my ear reasonably familiar with the language and its sounds, and learning a few hundred words, will my efforts dwindle off and come to nothing?

Taking a few months off is not an option. I would forget just about everything. Persistence and regularity is the key to success. Yet, how can this crazy Mandarin project compete for my time when I have real responsibilities and much more pressing goals? When one’s schedule is so packed, something needs to give, and the nonessential pet project is a natural candidate.

My blog readership has also dropped off now that I am unable to participate regularly in language-learning forums. Though I greatly appreciate the readers I do get each day, there has never been an explosion of interest and it seems that without some type of promotion, my following may never grow organically to significant numbers.

Will I persist? Please drop by next week to see. :-)