Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Last Emperor

It's 1:00 AM Tuesday. In a little more than 3 days, I finished watching all 28 episodes of The Last Emperor. The original title in Chinese is 末代皇帝. Supposedly 1400 minutes long. I think each episode was about 45 minutes long. I skipped the title and credits when watching.

Anyway, this drama, the 3rd Chinese drama for me, has a LOT of non-verbal time in it. The drama was like a biography of the last emperor of China, so there seemed to be no plot. Because it has so little dialogue, I won't be repeatedly watching this one. I'll either watch it again when I have gotten tired of watching what I already have, or I'll wait until my understanding of Chinese has greatly improved. I may even start watching it and then quit.

It was really surprising to me just how much non-dialogue was in the drama. I kept thinking, maybe it's just the first episode like this. Maybe it's just the first two episodes. Maybe it'll just be this way on the first of 6 discs. But it never changed. Throughout the whole series there was so much just being shown and with actors not speaking.

Next, I'll be watching the first drama again. It is about 30 hours long. With that one, I may be able to tell how much my understanding has improved. When I watched it the first time, I felt that I could only understand about one percent of it. The second time I watched it, I noticed some improvement. Maybe I could understand two percent. Then I watched a 25 hour drama and now this 23 hour drama. That's 108 hours for these 3 dramas that I bought. Before that I was watching online TV as much as I could. I started doing this TV method on October 10th, 2008. I was using online TV, but since November 18th, I have been using TV dramas on DVD. On December 19th, I bought a portable DVD player which has helped me to increase my viewing time. Although, at home I prefer to use my computer to play the dramas on my computer monitor. The computer drive is quiet, while the portable DVD player spins the disc more noisily.

I won't be able to buy a new drama until February. The store I bought these three at, might not have anything in my price range for me to buy come February, so I'll need to check out some other stores. It might be better for me to just buy them from an online store in China, if I can find one. Maybe I'll get some help. I'm sure at least one of my Chinese acquaintances could help me.

All three of the dramas I have bought so far, have been put on DVD and published by a Japanese company called CONNY VIDEO. All of them have had Japanese subtitles on the screen which cannot be hidden or turned off. I'll be glad when I get DVD dramas that are done properly. But for now, this will have to do.

Now it's 2 AM. It's time to publish this post. It takes an hour just to write this short post.

Friday, December 26, 2008


It is 11:13 PM Friday night. I just finished watching my second Chinese drama for the first time. Being packaged and sold in Japan, it has this name: 西太后の紫禁城. It looks like the original Chinese title is 日落紫禁城. There are 30 episodes. Each one runs for 49 minutes. 3 per disc, 10 discs.

This one was set around the late 1800s I think. There was an early camera and an early car in the drama at one point. While most of it took place in the same location as the first one I watched, the story was quite different.

It was much easier to follow than the first drama I watched. There were personal relationships as the main story, so the dialogue had a bit more that I could catch and understand. Whereas the first drama was more about political power struggle, it was harder to tell what was going on.

Since it was a different story, it is hard for me to make a comparison and to be able to tell whether my understanding of Chinese has improved or whether the improved comprehension was due to the more transparent storyline and simpler dialogue. But of course, with all the repetition of basic words, that part of the language which I had previously encountered while studying is sinking in deeper and deeper into my brain.

The more I hear Chinese, the more I feel it is becoming a part of me. When I've watched 5 or more hours (perhaps less) in one day, and then I lie down to sleep at night, anytime that I relax and am not thinking about something, I hear these Chinese sentences in my head. They just pop in there. I'm not making any intentional effort to think about Chinese and suddenly I realize that I'm hearing Chinese in my head. And it just goes on and on. My head is just full of Chinese. Sometimes I just want to speak Chinese and I don't even know why. I know I don't have enough vocabulary right now to get very far. But once I've acquired a significant amount, I know I'm going to speak quite well, and without hesitation.

Even while writing this post, I keep hearing those Chinese sentences or phrases in my head. Dialogue from the drama is so full of emotion. Those strong emotions seem to keep playing back in my head. They are so rich with feeling. I think it is having a strong effect.

I knew I was going to finish that drama tonight, so I bought my next one earlier this evening. My next one precedes the one I just watched. It is called The Last Emperor.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

雍正王朝 2

This morning, on the train home from work, I watched the last episode of the Chinese drama. That completes the second viewing of my first Chinese drama. It looks like it took me 3 weeks for this second round. That's about 3 times as long as the first viewing. I guess some days I was a little busy and some days I didn't feel like watching as much.

I just now discovered their is a discrepancy. The packaging says it is 2200 minutes, but 45 minutes X 44 episodes is only 1980 minutes. Only if the episodes were 50 minutes each would it make 2200 minutes. I wonder if there are some bonus episodes hidden on the disc somewhere.

Well then it only takes 33 hours to view the whole series and so that averages to about 11 hours a week for this second viewing. That's too few hours so I'm disappointed in myself. I want to spend 20 or more hours a week. With my new language acquisition device, I'll make that happen.

When I started on the second viewing, I noticed right away that I was hearing some sentences that I hadn't heard the first time. There was no huge improvement, but just a few here and there. I noticed that there is more that I could have understood the first time around if my brain had been in tune with the language because I had already studied those words but I'm just not processing them automatically. That's when I realized that my brain is being slowly tuned to the language.

When you think about it, this is an important step that any language learner must go through. Most learners do lots of studying and learning before they ever tune in to the language. They may know a vast amount of words and grammar, but the first time they encounter the language in a natural setting, they complain that their hearing is not good. The words and sentences fly right past them and they can't catch much in the beginning.

I feel that I'm coming from the opposite direction. I'm tuning my brain to the language before I know lots of words. Over a period of time, I should come to being able to hear the language quite easily. Once is it easy to hear, then I expect it will be easier to figure out what is being said. As I posted not too long ago, the brain learns on its own. And you would have to agree that there are many words where the meaning is quite obvious from the context, such as crying or laughing. People do say, "what are you laughing at?" or "what are you crying about?" People also say, "what are you doing?" And then people answer, "I'm doing such and such..." And then there are commands of course. "Eat!" "Don't eat!" "Stop whining!"

It amazes me how much language is repeated. The same sentences, words, and phrases are used over and over. Your brain will figure it out. It's not usually obvious the first time you hear it. And no amount of thinking will give you the logical answer. But mysteriously, the meaning suddenly becomes clear. Maybe that's after the fifth exposure or the 50th exposure. And then the next time you will be able to confirm it. And then you keep watching for it and you keep thinking to yourself, "I'm right! I'm right." A while after that, it just becomes one of those words you've known for so long that it feels natural to know what it means.

This highly repetitive language is what I want to learn first. I want to know the obvious and basic language first. Course books don't spend enough time on it. They want to advance you as quickly as possible and so the books start teaching you difficult words that are hard to grasp. I have never seen a course that has a smooth transition. They all go from "hello" to "I'm an electrical engineer specializing in mechanical solar distributions of the sub microscopic level." And so you have to sit there and pull out from memory the meaning of every word in that sentence even though you still are not even used to saying hello.

I feel I'd rather take a natural method with a natural progression and just naturally pick up what I can while naturally building the natural language in my brain. It's just natural. It's also effortless. There's nothing forced with this method. You take as much time as you need.

I'm really enjoying getting the sound of the language into my brain. Hearing the language so much really gives me this natural feeling for it. I guess I've always liked the sound of Chinese. I know that by hearing the words over and over, I am creating a model soundtrack in my brain that I will use subconsciously when I begin to speak. I can use it consciously now for that little amount of the language which I know, but I want to avoid creating a habit of having to think and needing to play my internal sound bites before speaking. When I read the words of other Chinese language learners who have been learning Chinese for quite a number of years and they say that they still make tone mistakes or say in some way that they need to be more careful when speaking, I just feel so bad that everyone falls into the same trap of studying the language. I know what it feels like to have to think about how you can express what you feel. That's why this massive exposure is necessary. In order to make the language natural to you, you need a wide variety of exposure and lots and lots of it. I know I'm not comfortable saying something unless I know and feel that I'm saying it the natural way. And it does take time for a new phrase to feel natural to me. I'm not going to be comfortable with something that was just taught to me which I had never heard before. Given some time and some more exposure I will become comfortable with it. That's why the natural method feels right to me.

What are the objections to the natural method that I always see? Some people seem to think you have to learn everything, that you can't figure things out for yourself. Hmm, thinking about it now, it seems there is this progression of beliefs. On one end of the spectrum, there are those who believe you have to have a teacher who will teach you the language. Next, there are those who will learn on there own from books and audio. And at the other end of the spectrum, people like me who think the language will just form in your brain given enough exposure.

Another objection is that it can be done but would take way too long to make it practical. This objection is a feeling of the objector. They have not come to a conclusion from a full trial but rather it comes from a worry that a lot of time would be wasted if they were not successful at natural language acquisition. While there are examples that natural language acquisition works quite well for adults, and I have written posts on what I have found, there are no examples where natural language acquisition has failed. If you have links to such failures, feel free to post them here.

I plan to progress from my current ultra-low understanding of Chinese to an ultra-high level of acquisition through my TV method. By ultra-high, I don't necessarily mean that I will be able to understand more than the average layman. I just hope and expect that I will have a fully functional vocabulary and native-like ability in the language. And if I should ask other Chinese people what such-and-such means, I will be able to learn that way until I get to the point where most of them don't even know what it means and they refer me to someone who is more educated or specialized. And then I will get a sense for what the average person is going to be able to tell me and I'll know when I need to ask an educated person. I expect to sound like a native speaker of the language at some point and to get different reactions or no reaction at all. I imagine some people will do a double-take and some will try to pinch themselves to see if they wake up from a dream. I don't know how long it will take me to get to that level, and maybe by the time I do get there, it will already be quite normal to see non-Chinese speaking Chinese so well.

Why do I have such high expectations? Frankly, I see no reason why I can't reach that level. As long as I don't stop doing what I'm doing, I expect to keep progressing. In 2011, I will switch from watching Chinese TV to watching Japanese TV and try to overcome my bad habit of thinking about the Japanese language. I will give Japanese TV 2 years and then I will go back to Chinese if I feel I need more Chinese exposure. I will keep blogging about what I'm doing and what obstacles I run into. I will refrain from trying to persuade anyone to use the TV method until I have found it to be successful. Until then, I just want to document my progress.

In the middle of writing this post, I had to go out and buy my next drama. The next one is the same genre as the first one. It says it is number 4 in this series of Chin Dynasty China. The first one was number 2 in the series. Next time, I will buy number 3. This new one has 10 discs with 3 episodes per disc. It says it is 1500 minutes all together. I think I will be able to finish watching it in 6 days. I will let you know when I've completed my first viewing of it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

language acquisition device acquired

Today, I bought a language acquisition device! I'm so excited! This device will help me acquire languages. As you probably know, I am acquiring language through the TV method, so the language acquisition device of choice for me is a portable DVD player. With this little player, I'll be able to watch TV dramas while commuting on the train to work. Each episode of what I currently am watching is 45 minutes long and my train time is about 50 minutes one-way, so I figure I'll be able to watch one episode each way. That matches up pretty well! Also, my workload is pretty light on the night shifts and weekends, so I plan to make better use of my time there. The new notebook computers at work don't even have CD drives, and the old ones had disabled drives. By bringing my new portable DVD player with me, I'll be able to bring my language acquisition hours to a whole new level!

In case you would like to know, I bought a BLUEDOT 1725. Here's a picture of it from the manufacturer. It can also play DivX from a SD memory card. The monitor is 7 inches and the resolution is 480 x 234. The best thing about this and newer BLUEDOT models is the 5 hour playback battery life. I could have purchased the 2705WD which has higher resolution at 800 x 480, but I didn't think that alone is worth paying 25% more. I think most of what I'll be watching will be TV dramas which won't be widescreen and high res. I couldn't identify any other significant improvements either, so I decided to save the extra 5,000 yen so that I can purchase a new used TV drama set.

Perhaps you are wondering where I got the extra money to buy this luxury device. Well, I'll tell you. Today I was paid to be interviewed for some product research. A consulting company is doing this research for a manufacturer who will make products for overseas markets and they were looking for people to interview from certain countries to get their opinions. That probably wouldn't be too hard to find here in Tokyo, but there was also a requirement of having previously been an owner of a certain product. So with all of those stringent requirements, they offered attractive compensation which was just the right amount for me to be able to buy this portable DVD player. The whole interview lasted 2 hours and was conducted entirely in Japanese. There were 3 Japanese men interviewing me.

I received the money at the end of the interview and then I headed straight over to Akihabara. For those of you not familiar, Akihabara is an area in Tokyo with a high concentration of electronics stores and many tourists will go there to buy cool gadgets from Japan. Consequently, there are Duty Free items that can be bought there. I went there for the purpose of buying my portable DVD player because I wanted a region-free model. I ended up purchasing from Akky International. Looking at the selection, I could find no where that it stated they were actually region free, and this with everything being written in English. So I had to ask the sales clerk about it to make sure. And then when I got home, of course, I put in my only region 1 DVD to check it and it was alright. I only had to go to the second floor of that narrow building and after I got there I heard the sales clerk phone somebody and I believe he must have been talking to someone who could come to translate because he was telling the person on the other end of the phone that there was someone on another floor (I don't remember which) and there was someone on the 2nd floor. I was the only customer on the second floor so I'm pretty sure he was talking about customers since he himself could not possibly be on 2 different floors at the same time. Of course, I only spoke to him in Japanese and didn't need a translator. When I went to the counter to pay for my purchase, it was then that I could clearly see who had come. To me it was obvious that she was the person who could translate, and a person who could speak at least 3 languages, for she had a Chinese name. It ran through my mind to say hello in Chinese to her, but I successfully restrained myself. I shall be content to wait until I can actually speak Chinese. Saying hello in Chinese could be dangerous. I wouldn't want to surprise the Japanese sales clerk that I was just speaking to in Japanese! He would probably get the wrong idea and think that I can speak Chinese too. There's no reason to give someone a heart attack under false pretenses. But come 6 months from now, or maybe a year, look out!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

don't use a dictionary!

If you are learning a language, you should not use a dictionary to learn words. It is a colossal waste of time. You look up a word and then proceed to forget what it means and so you have to look it up again. This process repeats itself over and over again. What does it mean when you have to re-look up a word? Well, it means you didn't learn anything the first time, doesn't it. It also means you wasted your time.

Instead of using the dictionary, let yourself wonder what the word means. Let your brain try to figure it out. Give it some time. This is what you did when you were 2 years old. It must be the natural way.

There was a study done on memory that is known as the "Zeigarnik effect." A quote from the article where I discovered this:
it was shown that tasks that are interrupted are remembered by adults approximately 90% better than those that are fully completed, and that children, in general, remember only interrupted tasks.
You see, when you look up a word in the dictionary, the task is completed. That is why you don't remember the meaning. Your brain is spending no more time thinking about the word or trying to figure it out. You're satisfied, it's over, done, and forgotten about.

Let's look for some other ways in language acquisition that we can apply what Zeigarnik discovered. Perhaps, if you read a story in your target language and never find out how it ends, you will be able to remember the details of the story better. You might recall certain phrases or words that were used in the story. If you are really curious about how it ends, you might end up dreaming about it which means that your brain is processing that story.

Does anyone have any other ideas or comments on the Zeigarnik effect?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

the brain will learn on its own

Steve Kaufmann has just posted a summary of a book about the brain and learning by somebody named Manfred Spitzer. Who is he? I don't know. The book is in German so I guess I won't be reading it, but here is what I found to be interesting from the summary.

Under point 2, The brain controls what it is going learn, it says this:
The brain does most of its learning on its own. With the right input, the brain is quite capable of creating the necessary labels and rules required to organize the information it has received and stored. It is not always necessary, and is sometimes counterproductive, to teach rules explicitly. It is often more effective to let the brain develop its own rules, from the observation of the information received. We all learn to speak our own language and yet most of us are unable to provide rules to explain how the language works. We just know how to speak our language.
This basically means that we need not try to teach ourselves anything. Our brain will just learn! If we sit in front of the Chinese TV all the time, we'll learn Chinese! Sure it takes lots of input. A huge variety of input is best, I believe. You must also have patience, which is what most people don't have.

Just stating that last sentence reminds me of those contests where the person who holds out the longest wins a big prize. Sometimes they are roller coaster rides, sometimes they are just sitting in a lounge chair, and sometimes they have to keep a hand on a vehicle. They begin with a dozen or more people and soon, participants start dropping out. Probably after about a day there are only 3 or 4 people left. Out of those, only 2 will be so patient and willing to continue the wait for days and days on end. Unfortunately, those endurance contests sometimes end tragically.

But for language acquisition, you can go at your own pace. You can go to the bathroom whenever you want! You can take breaks and eat or sleep. Just have patience and don't give up. Get the language input and be patient.

Trying to memorize words is a bad way to go. Here's what you do when you try to memorize words: You look at the foreign word and then to check if you know it, you think of the meaning in your own language. You look at the word in your language and then try to remember the word in the foreign language. That's the only way you can check yourself. But this kind of connection is what slows us down. It becomes a habit. If we get enough input, I believe we overcome this habit one by one, for each word. But some habits, like incorrect grammar, are much harder to break. Speaking slowly is also hard to overcome for myself.

But I think this can all be fixed through exposure. However, it is much harder to fix what's broken than to build something correctly the first time.

And if the brain will learn on its own, then why should we get in the way of that?