Saturday, February 28, 2009

the natural order of natural language acquisition

On Wednesday evening I started watching 西太后の紫禁城 for the 5th time and I just finished it this morning. I believe I learn something new every time I watch the series and everything I already learned gets reinforced. This time I believe I learned the words for prince and princess, although I can't be 100% certain because I didn't consult a dictionary. The reason I couldn't figure this out before is because the word that I believe to mean 'princess' is not used as often. I already knew that the word for 'prince' referred to a son, simply from exposure to it. There is one young woman who is always called by what I now believe to mean 'princess', but her father is not the emperor, although he does have a high status which I can tell by the clothing he sometimes wears, but I cannot figure out what exactly his relationship is to the ruling family. At first, I thought that maybe this word was her name, but I found it to be a rather weird name, so I thought it was a nickname because the word sounds similar to the word for big brother in Chinese. So naturally in the beginning I thought it was that word for older brother since her brother is retarded, I thought she must have had to take on the role of the oldest male offspring for her family. But then during this fifth viewing of the drama I heard one of the characters ask something to the equivalent of "she is the princess of whose place?" In other words, I heard the word "where" used with her title and obviously in reference to her. I have long suspected that her father might be the brother of the queen/empress but I'm still not sure. Anyway, by the way the question was phrased, I could rule out that the word was definitely not "brother" and thinking about "princess" I figure that would work well in that sentence. Then later in the series, there is a woman who gives birth to the next heir to the throne and the queen was wanting to know if it was a boy or a girl. So it was at this point that I heard the two words together that paired them up and made perfect sense. "Do I have a prince or a princess?" she says. Before I had never really caught the last word, or I hadn't linked it to the woman who is always called this. Once I had enough pieces to the puzzle I could validate my suspicions. And with respect to the other TV drama that I have watched 5 times, the word "prince" makes perfect sense because in that drama the Emperor/King has many sons whom are all called this word from time to time. This is not the only thing I learned this time but it is the biggest one for me. I kept wondering why and couldn't understand why they kept calling that young woman a name which sounds to me like older brother!

The other thing I couldn't keep from thinking about was how helpful it is to be able to hear the language. If you think about your native language, it is so easy to hear what's being said. You don't even have to be fully paying attention! In your native tongue, you don't listen for words. You don't need to have your ears perked up. You can follow what's being said even if your mind wanders a little bit. After 300 hours of the TV method, that's what I'm starting to be able to do. There are those sentences and words that are so familiar to me that I can't miss them so easily. Even when the audio seems a bit muffled, I can understand those sentences that I'm totally familiar with. And I do it without even trying. There's no effort. The familiar words don't even trigger a reaction. I'm so used to them.

What is the order of language learning in a typical classroom course? Perhaps it goes like this: First learn to read the alphabet/writing system of the language. Then associate some words to meanings through vocabulary. Next learn to pronounce those words. Then learn to speak/reproduce some sentences while learning grammar. And finally learn to hear the language. And no doubt, all of this attempted on the first day!

What is the natural order? Hearing comes first! The most important thing is to be able to hear the language as well as you hear your native language. With the ease of hearing comes the ease of attaching meaning to words. The more you can hear, the more you can understand. When I started out on the TV method and I could only understand 1%, that was because I couldn't hear all the words which I had already studied. They were there! But I just couldn't catch them. And what I did catch, I was pulling up translations for, which made me miss out on the rest of the sentence as well as the following sentences.

Second in the natural order is meaning. You're going to find out the meaning of what you hear. The wonderful thing about this order is the fact that you may have been hearing the word for a long time before you learn its meaning. That means you are quite used to that word. When you hear a word you are used to hearing but don't know the meaning of, you don't even react. You are trained not to respond. After you add the meaning, you just relax and understand. You don't get excited, because you've already been hearing that word for quite some time. Your relaxed state of mind allows you to keep listening.

What happens when you study new words? You catch the word and then you react. You're like,
hey there's a word I was just studying!! Now what does it mean? Let me think. Oh yeah, now I remember... it means ______! Whoohoo! I'm really learning now!
And all the while you completely miss out on everything else that has been said. The next time you hear the word you do the same thing. You've got yourself trained to react. Maybe you don't hear the word for a while and then it takes you longer to recall it. That means you tried learning a word you weren't ready to learn. If you're cramming vocabulary then you're just getting way ahead of yourself and setting yourself up for a long, slow journey.

The third step of the natural order is speaking. I'll have to write about that when I get there with Chinese. But hopefully by now you can see the aim of my method is to not get bogged down by thinking about the language.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

real Chinese

I downloaded the latest real player this morning. When I went to the radio link I searched for China to bring up radio stations listed in China. I couldn't connect to a lot of them but I did connect to China National Radio 6. I found a radio drama being aired. It was a really weird experience for me. I could recognize about 40 to 60 percent of the words but they were speaking much faster than the TV dramas I've been watching and there were no visual cues to help me follow what was going on. I had trouble processing the information. It was just so fast and while hearing the voices I kept expecting to see something. There was also this slight echo and all of that combined made me feel like I was in a dark room hearing voices and couldn't see the people speaking. While it all sounded familiar I wasn't making sense of it. I found myself trying to concentrate on the words and trying to make sense of the familiar words I was hearing. All of that runs contrary to my present methodology.

Right now there is a story being narrated by a woman. The speaking speed is much slower. But still I need to concentrate on the words. I guess the visual information is important to distract me from thinking so much about the words. I will go back to the TV method.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

weekly update

This week I did not watch anything in Chinese from Monday morning after my last post to Friday. I could not get well rested and I was busy with moving files and setting up email on my new domain host.

I skipped sign language circle on Tuesday, but I did go to sign language class on Wednesday. I also met a deaf Japanese person on Tuesday night. It was the first time meeting him. He is actually learning English and has plans to go to Sweden in about 2 years. We met for almost 3 hours. He will be helping me with Japanese sign language and I will try to help him with English. I'm not sure how much help I can be. I will try to encourage him to do lots of reading. Friday night I went to a meeting of deaf people. There were also several people from the sign language circle, so I benefited from some interpretation.

Today I watched about 2 hours of The Last Emperor. I didn't really enjoy it so I didn't continue it.

The other thing I did today besides reviewing some signs, was to take some old Kanji Kentei tests. I am (still/again) studying for level 8. I took 3 tests from a test collection book which comprises of about 12 previous tests. I have more test collection books. The next KanKen test is in June so I have plenty of time to study them all.

Monday, February 16, 2009

西太后の紫禁城 4

I finished another complete viewing of 西太后の紫禁城 (the Japanese name). I can't believe this is only the fourth time I've watched this drama. And every time it ends the same way!

There's no doubt about it. I'm making progress in my understanding of Chinese. And that's without the help of dictionaries, subtitles, explanations, notes, grammar rules, and studying. I'm putting together more 2+2's every time. I can't seem to help but figuring out some things. Especially as I get to know the story better and better. When I know a certain scene is coming up and that the dialog in that scene will probably provide the answer to why the following actions occur, I perk up and try to hear the answer. Many times with no luck, though, because I don't understand enough or any of what is being said.

But you see, when you do understand three quarters of the sentence, you can start guessing what the other part means. Once you've figured out what the missing part means, the next time you hear it you can pick up the word for the meaning. As Dr. Brown wrote, the words don't carry the meaning, the meaning carries the words.

And that is what I discovered this time around. I figure out the meaning first and then I can hear the words. The funny thing is, in one instance, I already knew the words but I couldn't hear them until after I knew the meaning. It may sound strange, but in a language like Chinese with a lot of one syllable words, some of them are not distinct enough to register in my mind unless I know what the meaning is.

Monday, February 09, 2009

雍正王朝 5

I finished my 5th viewing of 雍正王朝, a Chinese drama in Mandarin. This time took 9 days to complete the 30 hours. It feels like I've watched it 20 times already. There are still some characters whose names I don't know that I feel like I should know by now. I guess they do not appear as frequently as the ones whose names I do know, and they are probably not addressed by name as often.

I have stated before, my intention to not think about the words I hear and to try not to figure out the meaning or wonder about the meaning of the words. It is actually very difficult to do that. I find myself trying to figure out the meanings quite often. But there are a few words that I know I am not going to try to figure out what they mean. For example, when someone enters the room, kneels and greets the king. I often hear this same greeting. Well I know that it is a greeting. I can see what is going on. It doesn't really matter what the words mean. I just know that when they come in and do this and say that, it's the kind of greeting they use for the king. That's all I need to know.

All these other words that I had studied before starting the TV method, the words that I could translate, I tend to do just that. I'm trying not to, but when there is a pause, I can hear my mind translating. I wish I hadn't studied Chinese. Not even a little bit. For words I have never looked up, I don't automatically translate them. Translations are like an anchor. They slow you down. When you hear a word and you translate it, that's like throwing an anchor overboard. It's easier to throw the anchor overboard than to bring it back up. If you're throwing dozens of anchors overboard while listening, you're never going to be able to keep up.

Just listening attentively, but not thinking and analyzing is difficult to do. It's very difficult to control yourself. Just try listening to Steve Kaufmann talk about how long it takes to become fluent in a language and see if you can sit there and listen without agreeing or disagreeing with what he says. Can you just listen and not react to what he says? Or are you always coming up with something in your head? I find myself disagreeing with a lot of points he makes. When he says something I don't agree with, I think of exceptions or reasons why he is wrong. Even when I tried to stop doing that and just listen, I couldn't!

I studied French in High School. Since French word order is so similar to English, if I translate all of the words as I read a sentence, I can understand what it means. If I just read the sentence and don't translate anything, I don't know what it means. It's exactly like the example Jerry Dai gave.

So I definitely feel that translation is a bad bad thing. Looking up words in a bilingual dictionary is bad. Flashcards are bad. Textbooks are bad. Teachers who speak your language are bad. Study is bad. Being in a hurry is bad. It's all bad bad bad. Speaking early is definitely bad. Slowly spoken language learning material is bad. Grammar is bad.