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!

Endless Vocabulary Expansion – Week 32

I recently decided to keep a daily word list for my Mandarin project. When watching videos, I attempt to decipher vocabulary, and pay special attention to those that are either new or not well consolidated. I add an average of one term per day to my list. My hope is that this approach will guarantee a bare minimum pace of vocabulary acquisition. My word-list goals and method are explained in detail in my Week 30 post.

This simple and unoriginal project-within-a-project got me thinking. Why do we essentially stop expanding our vocabulary in our native language, or at least slow down dramatically? Would it be feasible to use a similar method to continually acquire new words and over time become armed with an outsized lexicon? Could I employ a similar approach to the four languages I already speak as a way to ensure that my skills continue to improve?

These are not entirely new questions for me or for many of my readers. For the sake of brevity, I will not endeavor to answer all of them in this post, though I find the topic fascinatingly complex.

In my case, I know a total of four languages, two of them as a native speaker, and am now endeavoring to learn a fifth. Research suggests that the average university-educated adult has a receptive vocabulary in his or her native language of about 17,000 to 20,000 word families*. Let’s assume I’m at the higher end and have a 20,000-word vocabulary in English. In Portuguese—though I consider myself a native speaker—my vocabulary is somewhat smaller because I have studied and read much less than in English, so a reasonable estimate would be 15,000 words. In Spanish, which I use professionally in written and spoken form, I would guess 10,000. And my French, which is very rusty and quite poor in terms of productive vocabulary, nonetheless probably has something like 4,000 receptive words. In Mandarin, I’m guessing about 150 (listening only) at this point.

So what would happen over time if I were able to add one word per day to my receptive vocabulary in each language?

Estimate of Word Families in My Receptive Vocabulary

  Current 40 years old 50 years old 60 years old 71 years old
English 20,000 21,825 25,475 29,125 33,000
Portuguese 15,000 16,825 20,475 24,125 28,000
Spanish 10,000 11,825 15,475 19,125 23,000
French 4,000 5,825 9,475 13,125 17,000
Mandarin 150 1,975 5,625 9,275 13,000


I am currently 35 years old. By the time I’m 71, I would have a remarkably large lexicon in my native languages; a vocabulary comparable to an average educated native speaker of French and above average in Spanish; and a vocabulary akin in size to a native speaker of Mandarin without a college education. That would be amazing. Of course, there are many other components to language mastery, but I believe vocabulary is the single most important factor.

Receptive vocabulary is very different and far less impressive than productive vocabulary, but undoubtedly many words, by some estimates up to half, make their way into our productive vocabulary.

There are a variety of problems with this theoretical undertaking. Without elaborating, I would contend that the two main ones are time constraints and long-term retention.

Nevertheless, for a linguaphile, the prospects are tantalizing. Who knows? This could mark the beginning of a brand new experiment.





2. E.B. Zechmeister, A.M. Chronis, W.L. Cull, C.A. D’Anna and N.A. Healy, Growth of a functionally important lexicon, Journal of Reading Behavior, 1995, 27(2), 201-212

Experiment assessment at the 10% mark: I will learn Mandarin! – Week 28

I have completed 120 hours of viewing, or 10% of the total time planned for this experiment. I have averaged 36.5 minutes a day, above the minimum 30 minutes daily that I had planned. My daughter, Camila Daya, has averaged 22.5 minutes daily, for a total of 74.7 hours thus far.


I have followed my proposed methodology fairly rigorously, learning exclusively through video sources, but in some cases making flexible interpretations of my self-imposed rules, as explained in the posts from Weeks 13 and 25. The most important interpretation is that I have deemed it acceptable to use English-language subtitles with Chinese movies, though I have begun and will continue gradually to reduce their use when repeating a movie.

Have these 120 hours of viewing over six-and-a-half months given me any insight into my hypothesis?

To answer that question, I would recall that my experiment actually has three related hypotheses. The first and main hypothesis is that I can learn to understand Mandarin just by watching authentic videos. The second—and perhaps most difficult to prove—is that this method is actually efficient and effective as compared to more traditional methods. The third hypothesis is that after watching 1,200 hours of authentic Mandarin videos, I will have attained sufficient comprehension that I can tackle a new video, and on first viewing, understand the general plot or the topics that are being discussed.

To the first and primary hypothesis, I feel more strongly than before that the answer will be a clear “YES!” There are times that I feel I am getting nowhere and that Chinese is undecipherable! Yet I have deciphered and begun to learn at least a couple hundred words, and my ability to pick out new words is accelerating, if ever so slowly. Though I am very, very far from my goal of understanding Mandarin, it seems very clear to me that, sooner or later, I will get there. It will take a long time. It will be arduous at times. However, if I stick with it, month after month and year after year, I will eventually understand Mandarin quite well. I will eventually be able to download a brand-new Mandarin movie, or watch a newscast, and understand it immediately, without subtitles. At that point, I will be able to go to Beijing and understand what people are saying in the street.

I feel that I have not gained much insight into the second hypothesis yet. If anything, however, I feel slightly less confident about it than at the beginning of the experiment. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that while strictly speaking, I still believe this second hypothesis may be proved correct, since the methodology may be shown to be effective “as compared to the traditional methods,” I believe that doing something very similar to my experiment, but with guidance, would be even better.

Although I am generally an advocate of combining the four language skills, I think there are definitely advantages to focusing on listening for the first few hundred hours in the case of a radically foreign language, such as Mandarin in the case of an English speaker. I believe that, experiments aside, watching the amazing original Chinese movies I have seen would be a fantastic way for any new learner to begin tackling Mandarin, but ideally with an added component of guidance—something along the following lines.

Before watching the entire movie, the students would practice, with a native-speaking teacher or even a self-study guide, 50 or 100 new terms in Mandarin. Translation should be avoided as much as possible (but a little might be necessary in the very beginning). Images and, best of all, snippets of the actual movie or of other videos could be used in a didactic way to introduce and reinforce these terms. After an hour or two of practicing the new terms—and ideally actually reproducing them and getting feedback from a native speaker—the students would then watch the entire movie. They would hear the terms they practiced many times, in context.

After a first viewing, they would go back to their guidance, reviewing terms, pronunciation, and snippets. Then they would watch the movie again, and depending on their preferences, watch it several more times in subsequent weeks and months, occasionally referring back to the guidance.

Finally, as to the third hypothesis, which is that 1,200 hours will be enough to attain an intermediate level of comprehension: it is too early to tell, but I am insecure about it. If I take what I understand now and try simply to multiply by 10, or better project my current pace into the future, it seems I will not get there. I have learned many of the most common words, which show up most commonly in any conversation, so the new words I learn now do not make such a large dent in my estimated percentage of total comprehension. Since April, it seems my comprehension has been increasing by about 1% every 4 months. If that rate continues, in five more years I would still understand less than 20% of natural Mandarin dialogue.


However, there are other factors to consider. One is the more subtle neurological adaptation that I mentioned in my early posts. I am, bit by bit, becoming more familiar with the phonemes and the cadence of Mandarin. I hope this increasing familiarity will bear greater fruits later on. Second, my acquisition of terminology is not likely to be linear. I believe that as I understand more, I will be able to pick up new words at an accelerating rate.

If you have ever put together a 10,000-piece puzzle, I believe it may provide an apt analogy. In my puzzle-building strategy, you first find the corners and start separating the edge pieces. These initial successes provide a sense of accomplishment. It would be akin to learning wo, ni, hao, shi, de, and shie shie in the first weeks of Mandarin. Though you don’t really understand any dialogue yet, you can certainly pick out a lot of wo’s, and that feels like progress!

Then, the slow and grueling part of the puzzle making begins. All the tiny pieces look so similar. You have no idea where any of them go, and you can hardly begin to put any together. Bit by bit, though—often by trial and error or some lucky break—you make matches and the puzzle begins to take form. That is where I currently am in my Mandarin experiment, and where I expect to be for a few months, if not years.

When you complete all the edges and parts of puzzle’s interior scenery begin to take shape, your pace picks up quite a bit. You can easily tell where certain pieces fit. You are moving fast and progress is visible on a daily basis. It is a 10,000-piece puzzle, so it’s still a challenge and requires a good deal of patience. But there is no longer any doubt that you will finish, and you can already project about how long it will take. That is where I hope to get before my experiment is finished.

The final phase is when you have completed most of the puzzle and are just filling in holes. That period is truly fast-paced and fun. I certainly don’t expect to get to that phase within my 1,200 hours, but it is something to look forward to eventually.

Importantly, I am enjoying my experiment and continue to feel motivated. I have found good sources, especially Qiao Hu, quality original Chinese movies, and Disney movies in Mandarin. I have set aside sources I don’t like as much, such as Pleasant Goat, low-quality TV dramas and older, low-quality movies, in addition to a source I Iiked quite a bit, but that was too difficult—Boonie Bears.

The project has become a bonding experience with my daughter. By the way, I asked her if she thought she would learn Mandarin if she persisted with the method we have adopted, and if it was a good way to learn. To both questions, she answered, unequivocally, “Yes.”

I have been very regular about this blog, have had a few appreciative readers, and hits in general have been ticking up very slightly. The most interesting aspect has been that people have accessed from all parts of the globe, which I will write about in the near future.

I hope the remaining 90% of my experiment will be as enjoyable, and even more productive, than the 10% that is already past.

Real live Mandarin – Week 27

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.

Mandarin Vocabulary – Week 16

I know some of my readers are curious not only about how much Mandarin I’m understanding—which I’ve commented on regularly and which I’ve made a graph about—but also about what type of vocabulary I’m picking up and consolidating. Therefore, I will dedicate this short post to giving a sample of the words and expressions that I’ve learned.

First, a couple of clarifications. I’m not studying written Chinese, nor pinyin. So the way I write words might seem silly and is probably inconsistent. It’s just whatever comes to my head as a rough way to transcribe the sounds into an English type of spelling.

Second, writing posts is absolutely the only time I write down words. My experiment does not include making any kind of notes. I do this solely for the purposes of my blog, not as part of the learning process (and believe it has a negligible impact on my learning).

Another third point I should reemphasize is that, since my experiment does not allow me to get feedback or check my learning with people who actually speak Chinese, please do not specifically try to teach or correct me in the comments. You can certainly give me an overall opinion of whether I’m doing well or poorly, just not get into specific words. This lack of feedback also means I might be making serious mistakes, but that’s fine and is part of the whole experiment (and the natural learning process).

In watching The Emperor and the Assassin, I learned the word sha, which means kill. With that knowledge, it was easy to understand the full sentence (which I’m really happy about), Wo pu sha nee, since I already knew Wo (I or me or my), pu (no or a general negative) and nee (you). Therefore, this extremely useful phrase (because I can say it to anyone and it might help me in a pinch haha) means I will not kill you. The verb tense was clear from context, and it seems to indicate that verbs are not conjugated in Mandarin (or not always).

I learned many weeks ago that Nee shi shey? means Who are you?, which brings me to a very important word, shi, which is the verb to be. For example, Wo shi Victor would mean I am Victor, or simply Shi wo would mean It’s me.

As suggested above, the pronoun wo seems to serve as a subject pronoun (I), object pronoun (me), and possessive pronoun (my). That is also the case for nee. These are among the first words I learned and have had ample opportunity to confirm and consolidate. Recently, I believe I have learned my third personal pronoun, which is of great importance. I’m still not entirely sure about it, but I believe that ta means he, she, and it.

Dandanmeans wait. Dandan wo means wait for me.

The most used word in Mandarin, with the possible exception of the personal pronouns and shi, seems to be hao, the very first word I learned, and which can have many translations, but is always positive—good, okay, great, beautiful, etc.

I know few verbs, but one very important one I’m pretty confident in is ba, which means go. One of the places I picked this up was from the Frozen song Let it Go, or Sui ta ba in Mandarin, but this of course would not have been sufficient, since I watched this song with my daughter in several languages that I speak, and the specific meaning of the refrain often varies. For example, in Brazilian Portuguese it’s sung as Livre estou or I am free, while in continental Portuguese it’s sung as Já passou or It’s already passed. However, I’ve heard the word ba in various other contexts that appear to confirm that it means go.

Another very important verb is to know. I believe it is (or can be) chi in Mandarin, but I’m not sure yet. And I do know the verb ai (pronounced like “I”), which means love, so that Wo ai nee means I love you.

A very important recent acquisition is ka, which means look or see. I usually can pick this out when used in the form Nee ka, which means Look! (literally, you look or you see).

I know the numbers from 1 to 10, and believe I can continue counting to at least 19.

I know the words for mom and dad, mama and baba, while mother and father are something like muzenand fuzen—the z may be closer to an r.

Sheygua means fruit, and while I watched a Qiao-hu video that teaches the names of several fruit, the only one that stuck so far was Moogua, which means papaya.

Pigu means butt. If I repeat the Qiao-hu video enough times, I should learn several other body parts.

A more useful word is Shie-shie, which means Thanks, to which nee can also be added (Thank you).

I believe lai means here (or in some cases there). La is a suffix added to many words. Lai la seems to mean various things, such as Come here, I’m coming, or Let’s go. Similarly, a is often as a suffix, such that Shey-a? seems to mean Who is it?

Because this list is not exhaustive, and I’m sure there are many words I know pretty well that I am not remembering right now, I can confidently say I have a fairly well consolidated vocabulary of 50 or more words. However, there are many additional words that I am in the process of learning. That means I have heard and understood them in one or more contexts, but need to hear them several more times in other contexts in order to (1) be sure I have gotten the meaning and connotations right and (2) “memorize” them so that I can readily pick them out (and, theoretically, would be able to use them in speaking, although this is not particularly relevant now since my project is exclusively listening).

If you add these words, I would say my fledgling or tentative vocabulary is closer to 100 or 150 words.

Is this good for 70 hours of study (exclusively viewing authentic videos)? Taken on its own, I would say it is not so good. In 70 hours, using word lists, I would guess that I could have truly memorized perhaps 400 words. Hypothetically, I could at that point start to watch videos, but with a larger vocabulary than I have now, and also have simple conversations.

However, that’s a rather poor comparison. The three main points to make are that, first, without the contexts, those words may not have been committed to as long-term memory as the words I’m learning through movies and other videos. Second, I would run the risk of developing a mental translation habit, which can be pernicious and in the long run make it extremely difficult to develop real fluency. Third, my learning is far from limited to this consciously acquired vocabulary. It includes a growing familiarity with the phonetics, cadence, tonality, and even cultural aspects that are relevant to language acquisition.

In sum, I feel good about my vocabulary acquisition, but I don’t think it or any other indicator is enough, at this early stage, to either begin to confirm or refute my hypothesis.

Proxies for interaction and mediation – Week 13


(Before reading my post, please note that I’ve updated my graphs page).

Interaction and mediation are undoubtedly important factors in language acquisition. Children do not learn their mother tongues simply by listening and repeating. They continuously receive corrections and other types of feedback from adults. Parents instinctually modify the pitch of their voices and their speech patterns to facilitate infant comprehension. They also generally teach vocabulary in a deliberate manner by pointing to objects and carefully enunciating words, eliciting imitation from their toddlers. They model structures and engage in question and answer sessions. Daily, children have the opportunity and the need to test and hone their skills, first at home, and later at school and other environments.

This type of human interaction and mediation is not only beneficial, but probably indispensable for one to learn to speak any language, and for a child to learn to read and write in their first language. I would say it is evidently beneficial for acquiring any language skill. However, is it indispensable for acquiring listening comprehension of a new language? Is it possible, without any interaction or mediation, gradually to decipher meaning, isolating words and then figuring out how they are combined and altered to construct sentences? Or is that possible only when one already speaks a related language?

In a sense, that is the question my experiment seeks to answer. I will not interact with any Chinese speakers. And nobody will be mediating for me: no teacher, no parent, nobody will modify speech patterns, gesticulate, check if I understood—and if I did not, slow down, repeat, rephrase, clarify.

However, my listening is not devoid of context. I assume that if I were simply to listen to audio recordings or Chinese radio for years and years I would never learn. At best, I might become a Mandarin parrot, imitating sounds and even words and sentences, but without grasping their meaning.

That is why I am watching videos. Hypothetically, the images provide the context I need to decipher meaning. Interaction between the actors can be considered a proxy—if a poor one—for my own interaction in Mandarin, to the extent that I can project my consciousness on characters and situations and experience them vicariously.

There are at least three proxies for mediation in viewing videos. One is simply being previously familiar with the story that is being told—in other words, having added contextual clues. I haven’t yet watched familiar Hollywood movies in Mandarin, as I intend to, but occasionally, familiar themes are presented in Chinese videos, such as in the movie Lost on Journey, which borrows heavily from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

A second, similar proxy for mediation that I consider far from ideal is the use of English subtitles. I have explained in previous posts that when I download movies that have English subtitles, I am allowing myself to view them. However, I don’t think this is an effective strategy in the long run, since it does not allow me to concentrate fully on dialogue, and thus is distracting. Additionally, if it leads me to develop a mental translation habit, it could be perniciously limiting. In the short run, though, it does allow me to pick up some vocabulary.

The third, and probably most beneficial, proxy for mediation and, at some level, for interaction, is watching shows that are made for toddlers. These shows are designed to help Chinese (or Taiwanese) children learn to speak (and read). Therefore, the adult presenters do a lot of the same things that parents do with their toddlers. They speak more slowly, more simply, with repetition and little mnemonic songs. They are not mediating for me, specifically, but they are mediating for small children in general. And, when learning a foreign language, one is analogous to a small child.

These shows are also sometimes designed to elicit reactions and repetition by children. These responses do not constitute authentic interaction, but they can be seen as a proxy for them.

For these reasons, in a way shows made for babies and small children are the ideal video sources for me or any beginner to learn Mandarin, or any new, radically foreign language. There is only one problem. They are so boring for an adult. This lack of appeal is not only a problem in terms of motivation, but also for engagement and concentration.

Nevertheless, I intend to increase my weekly doses of these shows. The two I have found so far are momo, which I have mentioned before, and a show that seems to be by the same producers and somehow related to it. I don’t have a proper name for it, but it might be qihu, or 巧虎 in Chinese characters. I call it Tiger, because the main character is a dorky “tiger” (a person in a life-size tiger suit). Many of the shows center around getting kids to wash their hands. [Correction: I just did a little googling. The show is called Qiao Hu, and it is a Japanese import.]

This show is both very boring to an adult and extremely good for acquiring new vocabulary and comprehension in Chinese (even better than momo). Although I’m not trying to learn script at all, I venture to say it would also be a fantastic tool for someone who was. I watched some this past week and will try to incorporate as much Tiger in my Mandarin viewing diet as I can stomach.

Here is an example of a particularly useful episode. The second half is even better than the first. Among other things, you can learn the names of several types of fruit. Happy viewing, and Happy Easter!