Super Qiao Hu Study Guide and French Fluency Recovery Project – Week 48

My Mandarin viewing is back in full throttle. In fact, upon returning from my Peru trip, I believe I set an all-time record for total viewing hours in a seven-day period. I watched nearly 12 hours—an average of 1:40 per day! By contrast, my average daily viewing time for the entire 11 months of the experiment has been just 36 minutes.

I’m happy to report that my daughter Camila Daya also got back into watching Chinese videos with me, especially Boonie Bears, and tallied nearly six hours in the same period. I don’t necessarily expect her renewed enthusiasm to be sustained, but we always have fun and I think the exposure to Mandarin is positive for her on various levels (even if the exposure to the Boonie Bears’ sadistically violent tormenting of Vick the Logger is not morally enlightening).

Here’s a little table summarizing our recent viewing time.

Victor Minutes Daya Minutes
11-Dec-14 108
12-Dec-14 140 80
13-Dec-14 75 75
14-Dec-14 93 52
15-Dec-14 122 42
16-Dec-14 41 101
17-Dec-14 134
Total Hours 11.9 5.8
Avg Minutes 102 50
Experiment Average 36.3 16.3

This week I also spent a significant amount of time preparing a Super Qiao Hu Study Guide. These guides were originally suggested to me (by an administrator at as a way to show my progress and level of understanding to others. They are of course also intended as a helpful tool for other beginning students of Mandarin, and I highly recommend using the episodes I review for learning purposes. Reading through my guides beforehand, and occasionally referencing them, will help students know what to listen for and may also serve as a useful yardstick to measure their own understanding. However, the rules of my experiment and my time constraints impose some limitations on how useful I can make these study guides. For instance, I cannot research terms or include Chinese characters or pin yin.

The original diagnostic purpose of the Qiao Hu reviews still holds. In this respect, I was pleased that in this episode I was able to understand far more phrases and complete sentences than ever before. My improved comprehension is reflected in the length of this Study Guide Seven—four whole pages, instead of the two or three for past guides. I believe looking at each of my seven guides in sequence would provide a fairly clear indication of my progress over time.

I should note, however, that my comprehension of the Qiao Hu episodes, as reflected in the guides, is not the result of a single viewing. I spent at least a couple of hours preparing this latest guide, including watching each scene an average of about four times. In other words, I was able to understand all I did because of very careful listening and repetition of dialogue.

In other news, today I began a brand-new language acquisition project that I will also report on in this blog. I will henceforth spend an average of at least 10 minutes per day studying French—probably most of it on listening, but also including reading, writing, and speaking. Unlike my Mandarin project, my main purpose is not experimental: I simply want to recover my fluency in the language. However, since I am always interested in contributing to the understanding of the language acquisition process, I will carefully record my activities and report on my progress.

I will continue to focus my weekly posts here on my Mandarin experiment, though I may occasionally comment on my new French project en passant. However, I will create specific pages to report on my French project—albeit with much less detail and frequency.

What I did to kick-start my French project today was to devise and take a self-administered test to measure my reading, writing, and speaking ability before getting started. I have detailed the test procedure and posted my actual performance (without any corrections yet) on my new French project pages. I hope you will take a look!

Languages and a Technology-Intensive Video Approach to Acquisition – Week 47

I’m back from the Andes and back to Mandarin, after a full 20 days off! I’ve created an Off Topic section to my blog. I hope you will enjoy my write-up on a Choquequirao – Machu Picchu backpacking expedition.

2014-12-01 10.16.33 (2)

Although I spent zero hours on Mandarin for three weeks in Peru (see the leveling off near the end of the blue graph),


I did have fun learning a few words in Quechua and got an extended immersion in Spanish. Working professionally with the language and having the opportunity to travel a great deal in the past few years has taken my fluency to a new level. Before I reveal my actual origins, I am almost always mistaken for a native Spanish speaker, although nobody can quite pinpoint my accent (because, after all, it’s a complete mix, from nowhere and everywhere at once). In Latin America, I am often taken for a Spaniard, and alternately for a Central American, Mexican, Chilean, Colombian, or Venezuelan.

My French, on the other hand, is in dire need of training. It’s so rusty that I’m hesitant to use it at all. On the rare occasions I have the opportunity to speak in French, things often go well for a few sentences. However, as conversation transitions to untested ground, terrifying gaps in my vocabulary emerge like yawning abysses and I recoil back to a more familiar language. I believe I will soon commence a small French project, perhaps devoting 10 minutes a day, mostly to French radio. I expect it will take a year or two to recover full fluency. Stay tuned as I will keep tabs on this blog.

. . .

My Mandarin experiment is a one-sided approach to language acquisition—specifically, to obtaining listening comprehension. My goal in using such an exclusive approach is to prove the utility of an almost universally applicable method—concentrated listening to movies and other authentic video sources—at any level. Ideally, this method should be combined with reading, writing, and most importantly speaking to natives—preferably including some natives who are willing to correct your mistakes.

A natural, communicative approach to language acquisition is far superior to traditional methods that are heavy on translation, rote memorization, and grammar rules.

However, technological advances and cutting-edge experimentation have introduced new possibilities in language acquisition that are tantalizing. I would like to briefly introduce one approach that, like mine, focuses on listening comprehension through the use of authentic video sources. Unlike my experiment, it requires a great deal of technological expertise and preparation, as well as repetition and (dynamic) memorization. Despite its more difficult application, I believe this method has the potential to be extremely efficient and actually speed up acquisition as compared to a purely natural approach, when used in combination with communicative strategies.

Fortunately for me and for anyone who is interested in this state-of-the-art method, a fellow language enthusiast, emk, who has been following my experiment, is currently using and meticulously documenting this method as part of his own experiment. In fact, it seems that one of the inspirations for his project was my experiment, and his project is a bit of a counterpoint to mine. He believes straight video viewing at a very low level of comprehension (my watching Mandarin is an extreme example of incomprehensibility) is inefficient. I am very impressed by his approach and also grateful for his extremely helpful and detailed explanations.

You can learn all about emk’s project and the technical details of his method by visiting this language-learning forum thread.

I will provide a highly summarized introduction to the method he is using and then encourage you to visit his thread to understand it in greater detail. Hopefully, he will also comment on this post and correct anything I have gotten wrong.

First, a few concepts. Spaced repetition is a memorization technique that presents the data you are trying to learn at increasing time intervals. Each time you get an answer right, it will take longer for you to see the same problem again. On the other hand, if you get an answer wrong, you will encounter the problem again very soon, since you obviously still need to review and properly memorize the solution.

Spaced repetition software (SRS) applies artificial intelligence to this concept. It is often used in language acquisition, such as in the Pimsleur system. It is akin to the use of vocabulary flashcards. As you get answers right, you see a given digital flashcard less and less frequently, but if you get them wrong, it will come back more frequently. The great thing about these digital flashcards is that they can incorporate not only text and written translations, but also audio and video. A commonly used SRS is called Anki, and Anki cards have become synonymous with SRS in the self-teaching language acquisition community.

Bilingual subtitles on movies or TV series can be used to generate Anki cards. An entire movie or episode can be parceled into hundreds of digital cards that contain short video clips with audio in the language you are studying, the corresponding L2 (foreign language) subtitles, and the L1 (your native language) translation of those subtitles.

By some accounts, with a relatively small investment of time (once you’ve created the cards), you can memorize these dialogue snippets in a completely unfamiliar language and then watch that movie or TV series and understand it quite well, as if you had already reached an advanced level of comprehension in that language.

The technology involved is dubbed subs2srs, which I assume is short for “subtitles to spaced repetition system”.

My preliminary assessment is that this approach may constitute an excellent tool for some second-semester students to bridge the gap between study of high frequency vocabulary and grammar fundamentals (learned through games and structured communication activities) and the use of authentic videos, reading, and participation in guided conversation classes.

In this regard, I hope to experiment next year with the use of Anki cards and subs2srs in my language institute. We have previously identified a weakness in our teaching approach for some second semester students, and I believe subs2srs, in particular, may be very useful in transitioning students to authentic listening sources and conversation, thus helping to improve outcomes.

With regards to our respective projects, it is very hard to compare results for several reasons. Although emk has apparently made greater progress in approximately 20 hours than I have in almost 200, that comparison is misleading. First, being a native English and fluent French speaker tackling Spanish, I would estimate his progress in general is expected to be at least five or six times faster than someone like me, learning Mandarin without knowledge of any related languages. In the beginning, this speed discrepancy is likely to be much more pronounced, given the huge number of cognates—probably upwards of 70% of words, as compared to practically zero cognates in my case.

Second, his self-described “cheating” and “narrow-listening” approach is specifically designed to give an initial boost to comprehension, whereas my listening approach is aimed at gradually adapting my ear and brain to a new language and is based on broader and more massive input. An open question is whether this broader input approach holds any long-term advantage as compared to narrow listening.

Third—and I will be glad to receive emk’s clarifications—I don’t think his 20 hours can necessarily be fairly compared to my 200. I am carefully clocking my time and any contact I have with the language is being computed in the tally. As I understand it, his approximately 20 hours refers mostly to using his Anki cards and is being computed by the software itself. When I dabbled with Anki cards, the software I was using clocked about 12 minutes for the entire hour I spent on them. In other words, it was vastly underestimating time as compared to my stopwatch. Further, I am not sure he is carefully clocking and including other types of contact he has with the Spanish language.

In addition, it should be noted that long hours over several days are spent in running subs2srs and preparing the Anki cards, whereas my time spent in purchasing or finding videos is minimal. If you include the preparation phase, the time difference would be significantly reduced.

Having said all that, I still believe emk’s approach may hold a significant efficiency advantage as compared by my pure listening approach (which is not entirely pure, since I have been using subtitles much of the time), especially when tackling a language as difficult as Mandarin. It seems to me to be a wonderful use of technology applied to language acquisition, and though I won’t use it for my Mandarin experiment—as it would violate my rules—I do hope to use it in acquiring some future language. I would probably limit its use to beginner and low intermediate phases of language acquisition, and even then, to at most 50% of my time spent, in order to avoid excessive dependence on translations, which can be pernicious.

In that vein, as emk himself has suggested to me as a possibility, I think finding a way to use Anki cards and subs2srs without translations would be ideal. Of course, for a beginner, translations hold the key to meaning, but visual cues or other creative strategies can also be used in their stead.

Papiamento and Language Acquisition Resources – Week 38

I just spent two days in Aruba, and earlier this year I was briefly in Curaçao. Four languages are widely spoken on these islands, but among themselves the locals speak Papiamento. Listening to the language for just a few minutes reveals that it seems to be a curious mixture of Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch. According to what some islanders told me, slaves developed Papiamento as a way to speak to each other without their masters understanding. Many of these slaves came from Cape Verde, so at its root Papiamento seems to be a Portuguese Creole, but with vast amounts of Spanish and Dutch vocabulary thrown in. The truth about the origin of Papiamento seems to be far more complex and controversial, but this local explanation is colorful and sheds some light.

If you already speak the three source languages, Papiamento is very easy to pick up. I don’t speak Dutch, but English goes a long way toward filling the gap, along with my Portuguese and Spanish. At a meeting in the Aruban Parliament, the President of the Parliament, knowing I had just arrived on the island, was amazed when I requested “Koffie preto” to drink. Unlike less familiar languages, in which I generally need to hear a term repeated dozens of times in order to assimilate it, I had heard Koffie preto just once and began using it immediately. Koffie is pronounced just like “coffee,” and preto is the exact word for “black” in Portuguese. To give just a few more examples, the greetings Bon diaBon tarde, and Bon nochi are ridiculously easy to pick up, as is the polite Danki.

This enjoyable contact with Papiamento led me to reflect again on the relative difficulty of foreign language acquisition. If my language learning goal was to add any fifth language to my repertoire as quickly and easily as possible, I might choose Papiamento, and I’m guessing I could speak it fluently in just a few months of intensive study.

Since I don’t anticipate a need to spend significant time in Aruba or Curaçao in the future (unfortunately), learning Papiamento just for the kicks of speaking a fifth language would be silly.

Nay, I am a serious student of languages! At least I’d like to think of myself as such, and therefore I am tackling a globally important language that I consider the ultimate challenge in language acquisition![1]

In addition, I have been seeking out high quality resources for linguists, students of Mandarin, and language enthusiasts in general. I will eventually compile them into a permanent page on this blog. For now, I would like to share three with you that I have come across recently.

The first resource is a paper entitled Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in government language teaching, written by two staff members from the US Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute: Frederick H. Jackson and Marsha A. Kaplan[2]. The lessons it details are mostly congruent with my language acquisition theories, gleaned from my life experience as a language learner and teacher. Even some small details coincide, such as their opinion that class size should never exceed 6 students—the same rule I stipulated at my language institute.

However, there are a few concepts that diverge, and these differences are most interesting to me, since it is hard to argue with “FSI’s half century of practical experience preparing thousands of adult learners to carry out complex, professional tasks in foreign languages.” I hope to explore these conceptual similarities and discrepancies in a future post.

The second resource is an amazing website called “How to Learn any Language.” About two weeks ago I began participating in the forums on this site, especially in the topic Learning Techniques, Methods & Strategies. I posted about my experiment, and most of the responses I got were very much against the prospects for my experiment to be successful. However, they were very smart and thoughtful responses, so I actually appreciate the challenge. Generally speaking, this forum is an invaluable resource for exchanging ideas about language acquisition and seems to be populated by highly intelligent and experienced language enthusiasts.

Another resource I have been using for some time is It’s specifically for people studying Mandarin and Cantonese, but it also seems to congregate a lot of bright and seasoned language learners. As with the other site, I have mostly gotten challenging and skeptical responses when I mention my experimental methodology. But I’ve also benefited from great film recommendations, the suggestion to produce my Qiao Hu Study guides, and a lot of enriching discussions. The forum is not to be missed by anyone interested in China or Chinese language.



[1] It is interesting to note that a fair amount of Mandarin is spoken in Aruba, since nearly all the supermarkets are owned by Chinese immigrants.

[2] If there is any copyright issue with posting this paper here, please let me know and I will be happy to take it down and provide a link instead.


You can learn any language in an enjoyable 30 minutes a day – Week 36


I am learning Mandarin, and I am having a blast!

I am not taking any classes, I am not studying per se, and I have not even met a single Chinese person.

Last night, I watched Eat Drink Man Woman, and the night before, Wedding Banquet, two critically acclaimed Ang Lee comedies. (A couple of weeks ago, I enjoyed Ang Lee’s thriller Lust, Caution). On average, I spend just 30 minutes a day watching Mandarin movies or TV shows.

If I can learn Mandarin this way, you can learn any language, despite your busy schedule and limited energy. All you need to do is starting downloading movies in your desired language (with English subtitles is fine to begin) and find some shows on YouTube (I recommend children’s programming). In short, this is what my experiment sets out to prove.

No, this is not the fast way to learn a language[1]. The fast and most effective way to learn a language is to completely immerse yourself in it. Go live in a country where it is spoken, make a lot of native friends, listen to countless hours of radio and video, devour the literature, speak all you can, and get a private teacher to correct your structure, pronunciation, and the pages of essays you should write each day.

What? That is not an option for you? You are extremely busy and have a series of professional and personal commitments that keep you otherwise engaged from sun to sun and well into the night? Even the thought of scheduling regular class times with a teacher over Skype is daunting? Welcome to my world. I have three jobs, a family, and I study Law.[2]

Of course, like you, I do need a little time to wind down. I used to do that by playing pointless blitz chess online[3]. But watching films in Mandarin is my new way to relax at the end of a long day. I often do that by myself at one o’clock in the morning. However, depending on the genre, my wife will sometimes enjoy Chinese movies with me (at a more civilized hour). My daughter, who does not mind subtitles, will watch movies like Finding Nemo or Mulan with me in Mandarin.

I am not making fantastic progress. After eight months, I estimate that I understand about four percent of the dialogue in a brand-new Chinese soap opera episode, without subtitles. At this rate, at the end of six years, my listening comprehension will probably be at a low- to mid-intermediate level. However, I am having fun, so I am very likely to stick with it. Beyond my experiment, my guess is that within a decade I will understand Mandarin quite well, and within two decades, I will speak and read Mandarin fluently. I will have surmounted the ultimate language acquisition challenge without giving up anything except pointless online blitz chess. I will reap a series of benefits, such as improved brain power, deep insight into a culture that is incredibly rich and highly relevant to contemporary society, and renewed professional horizons.

So what are you waiting for? Start your own language acquisition adventure today and learn Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese, German, or might I recommend Brazilian Portuguese?


(Please note I have updated my Chinese films table and my graphs).










[1] In addition, at some point you will need to add other elements to learn to speak, read, and write. However, listening comprehension is an excellent first skill to develop, and mastering it will make acquiring the other skills comparatively easy down the line.

[2] I’m a full-time civil servant with managerial responsibilities and an intense travel schedule, in the evenings I provide support to my small business with its dozens of employees, and on the weekends I manage my tree farm. I’m my daughter’s driver to gym and school in the morning, spend time with my family in the evening, practice meditation daily, and stay in pretty good shape. Next semester I’ll be starting up my Law program at the University of Brasilia again.

[3] Which was likely downgrading rather than improving my game, since I didn’t take the time to play longer matches or to study at all. I was playing 5-minute time controls and even starting to play lightning chess (1-minute per side), which is especially inane. I do love and miss chess, but learning Mandarin is more rewarding for me.

Guarani, Sanskrit, and Mandarin – Week 35

In my Week 14 post, I tackled the question Why study Mandarin? and explained the motivation behind my unusual methodology. I also asked my readers to indicate which language they would fancy learning without any effort.

Of course, there is no magic pill nor even anabolic steroids for acquiring languages. Even if there were, I would prefer not taking them, assuming there would be harmful side effects. Just like in natural bodybuilding, half the enjoyment and value is in the process. The satisfaction that the results bring is enhanced by the memory of the struggle and the associated health benefits.

Thus, it doesn’t daunt me that learning Mandarin might take a decade or more. That knowledge does not keep me from wanting to improve my mastery of other languages and even dreaming of learning new ones. I spent this past week in Paraguay, and while I enjoyed practicing my Spanish, I was captivated by sueños guaraníes.

How cool would it be to learn an Amerindian language—one that, with its variants, was once the lingua franca in a large swath of South America; gave name to countless cities, natural landmarks, and wildlife in Brazil and neighboring countries; and is still spoken by millions of Paraguayans and thousands in Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina? Like Mandarin, the challenge would be enormous, given its complete lack of organic proximity to the Western languages I already speak.

While I’m dreaming, another fascinating challenge would be learning Sanskrit. Like Latin, this ancient Indo-European language evolved into or influenced several contemporary vernaculars. It is the language of millennial Vedic philosophy and by some considered unusually flawless and rich[1]. Unlike Latin, there is controversy as to whether it is a dead language: a few thousand people currently consider it their native language, literature is still published in Sanskrit, and there is a strong revival movement in India.

A more modest and short-term goal would be to bring my French back to par, and I am just waiting for a good opportunity to do so, though to begin I should start listening to Radio France Internationale again.

In the meantime, I’d better get back to Qiao Hu and my Mandarin films. I’ve fallen behind recently on my viewing time.

[1] See Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, end of Chapter 2.