Tuesday, March 31, 2009

learn homophones by ear

The picture above is one of the new DVD boxes that I bought to store my TV dramas in. The disc you see on the left side is on a hinged panel. It swings around and the first disc is on the other side. What's interesting is the way the discs overlap on the right side. This box is the same size as a regular DVD case but holds 4 discs. It's 19 cm tall and 1.5 cm thick.

You can see a picture in my previous posts that shows the Heroic Legend packaging. It has 1 disc per box. So I have 12 DVD boxes for that series. An unfortunate waste of space.

As promised, (did I make a promise?) I finished the Last Agent series by the last day of the month. This is the 2nd time I have watched the 15 hour series, and I still don't know who the last agent is. I'm not sure which character the title refers to. Maybe "agent" has a different meaning than the one I'm thinking of.

There are so many words in English that have multiple meanings. You don't even realize it until you search in a dictionary to try to find the right word. On Sunday, at work I had to translate some English to Japanese. What a pain that was.

Chinese can be said to have a lot of homophones. English has a lot too, but we don't recognize it so easily because given a certain word we may think of one basic meaning. But for many words there are other uses that are actually different meanings. One of the things about being a native speaker is that when a word is encountered in context, the other meanings of the word never come to mind.

If I say I'm going to break a board, or I need to take a break because I'm bored, you would never stop to think about which meaning I intended for the words break and board/bored. And to us the word "break" might seem like the same word because in both instances something is being divided. But a coffee break is fundamentally different than a board break and a learner of English might see them as totally different. I can say I'm breaking a board, but I can't use the -ing for the other kind of break.

So I think that saying a language has a lot of homophones is not a good criterion for a language being difficult to learn. When you know the language well, the context is so specific that you never get the wrong idea, nor do you have to stop and think about the meaning because of all the homophones. Just try this one on for size: A competition to learn how to tie a tie in Thai ended in a tie.

With the TV method, I'm learning by listening. I don't know if this is the same as learning to play an instrument by ear or not. I haven't learned to play the piano, although I did take a piano class in college. But I was thinking the other day that if I was learning to play the piano, it would be a good idea to actually listen to the song that I was learning. If I knew the song well I would be able to recognize if I hit the wrong key in practice. If I didn't know the song well, I could be practicing an unnatural pace and I wouldn't even notice if I got some keys wrong.

When I was in band class around 5th grade, at first I was on drums. I was so bad at keeping the beat that I had to change instruments after a while. I changed to the slide trombone then. I found it difficult to learn to read the music sheet. So I was a pretty bad music student back then too. In fact, I remember a music class where we each had to sing something individually so the teacher could grade us once. I was so off tune that the music teacher didn't seem to believe it. In fact, she seemed disgusted by my awful performance. I'm still bad at singing.

Even though the TV method is a 'learn by ear' method, it won't be a problem learning different meanings for words that sound the same. The brain figures these things out. Just like when you were growing up, before you ever learned to read, you never had a problem with there, they're, and their.

Friday, March 27, 2009

watching TV really helps!

Whether used exclusively or as an addition, watching TV in your target language helps people to acquire fluency. One of the Japanese people I met when I briefly taught English conversation was not a student but rather a teacher just like us Americans, Australians, Brits, Canadians, and Kiwis. She had a perfect American accent and you would never suspect that she grew up in Japan. When I asked her about how she learned English, she told me about watching US TV shows repeatedly and even memorizing the lines in the shows.

I also have a coworker from Sri Lanka who speaks Japanese very fluently. He is much better at Japanese than I. His advice to me was to watch Japanese TV. He credits his fluency in Japanese to watching TV. Before he started watching lots of TV, he said used to have a hard time with Japanese.

There is also a comment on Steve's blog about watching TV that is not dubbed into your own language by Jamie.

Steve, your point about TV programme dubbing is an important one which is often understated. I live in Holland, where nearly everyone speaks English. Kids are already functional well before the age when they receive formal English at school (not until 11 by the way). The reason is exposure, and by having a wealth of English-speaking programmes, films, cartoons etc. on TV that they like watching. i.e. Meaningful input.

My Dutch neighbours speak excellent English, not through schooling or of necessity through work, friends etc., but by what they watch on TV: English programmes and films (often using Dutch or even English subtitles). They have made this point themselves.

The situation is not the same in other European countries, such as France and Italy, where programme dubbing is commonplace. And the average standard of English in these countries is much lower, despite the fact that English is taught in schools.

I think one of the reasons that TV is such a great tool would be that you can get lots of input from TV. You don't need a native speaker or a teacher or a tutor. You can get as much input as you want from TV without relying on anyone else.

Heroic Legend

I finished my second viewing of Heroic Legend, a 23-hour, 35 episode Chinese TV drama. I watched it in Chinese with no subtitles, no translations, and no explanations. And I don't even speak Chinese. I am not a Chinese speaker. I do not have Chinese ancestry.

So why am I watching Chinese TV dramas? I am not studying Chinese. However, I am learning Chinese. This is my method to acquire Chinese. I call it the TV method. Following the principles of Automatic Language Growth (ALG), I am allowing the Chinese language to grow inside me.

On Wednesday, I received my shipment from Amazon China. I ordered 4 items for a total of 22 discs comprising 216 episodes in Chinese. I think it will take more than a month to watch all of it only one time each. I mentioned before about the type of box that my previous DVDs came in. One of the 4 new items used that exact box type for 5 discs. It had 2 stacks of 2 discs and 1 disc by itself, though the box has 4 areas. I guess if they wanted, they could easily stick 8 discs in that box. I mentioned before that this box type does not hold the discs securely. Well, in this item, all 5 discs are quite marred. I've checked the playability and there doesn't seem to be a problem so far. Out of the other 3 items, 2 of them don't even have boxes. The discs are in sleeves and put into a flat box sleeve. And the last one that does have a box is not a DVD box, so the discs also were in sleeves. So today I went out and bought a bunch of DVD cases for the discs.

I signed up for an account at Amazon China on March 12th and placed an order on March 14th. I payed for my order on March 17th, which I think was also the day the order was estimated to be ready. The next day, on March 18th, my order was shipped and it arrived a week later. Shipping costs seem to be calculated at 80% of the order price. I originally had ordered about twice as many items. Comparing the two orders, both were charged 80% for shipping. After the initial order placement I decided to remove the items which had the smallest discounts and keep the items which had the bigger discounts.

Now the next thing I need to decide is what to watch next. I want to watch something that I can finish up by the end of the month. Then on the 1st of next month I'll start on a new series. All of the new arrivals are quite long series. The shortest of those is 30 episodes, and if each episode is about 40 minutes which seems to be the norm, then it would take 20 hours to watch. Just so I can take it easy, I think I'm going to watch Last Agent again. It is only 15 hours long.

difficulty or method?

In response to the post, How difficult is Chinese?, I would like to express my current thoughts about the points made in that post.

The first thing that comes to mind in general is that the difficulty of learning a language could be attributed to the methods used for learning that language and not the language itself. If you were to ask me about Japanese, I would say it is very difficult to learn. But if you were to ask another fellow, he would say you can learn Japanese to native level in 18 months. I would say, No Way! There are language students who come to Japan and take a full-time course (30 hours a week) for 18 months and they are nowhere near native-level. However, we must consider the methods used and what makes learning the language easier or faster.

The second thing that is important is time. Of course time is a factor. If you spend 3 hours a day or 9 hours a day, your progress will differ. I think that's agreeable to all so I won't explain it further.

The first point made in the article is about the number of characters you must learn in Chinese. My response is: What makes this difficult is method used and time spent. In the paragraph explaining that point we can see the method described, write the words over and over, is probably not the best method. It is necessary to use the characters every day, to read them and write them, but since it is hardly necessary in today's computerized world, most learners do not keep up with it.

In my own experience with Japanese, living and working in Japan, I find there is no pressing need to be able to write characters. Practice writing takes much more time and effort than reading, so I advise learners to spend the time to get good at reading before spending time on writing. Knowing characters well enough to have no problem reading them will make the task of writing them a little bit less of a burden. Another point is, if you are an advanced reader, you will know lots of vocabulary that you can use when you write. You see, when we practice writing characters but don't know any vocabulary, then we really have nothing to write. Since writing is the least beneficial and most time consuming part, it makes sense to leave it for mastering last. You will use reading skills much more often than writing skills. I'm not saying don't learn to write characters; I'm saying learn it last.

What will make reading characters easier is knowing the language beforehand. If you already know how to process the language easily, then while working on reading you only need effort for the reading task. You see, there are two parts. One is reading; the other is understanding. When you finish reading a long sentence, do you understand it or do you have to go back and reread it again? While struggling to read, it can be easy to forget what you just read, especially when the meaning of the words also takes time to comprehend. This is why I recommend working on reading and writing after listening and speaking.

The next point in the article is that Chinese has a tonal system. The problem here is definitely the method. Almost all courses and teachers focus on tones. I believe you should not focus on tones. Tones are actually a speaking problem, but if you don't speak until you have reached the proper level of understanding, you will have no problem with tones. You won't need to think about tones as you will have acquired the rhythm and prosody of the language. But what they do in classes is to start pronouncing words right after learning about tones. Of course the students have no idea what the word is supposed to sound like so they have to use their memory of rules and numbers to reproduce the words with the correct tones. But with natural learning you only need to hear the word or phrase inside your head which will be a Memorex recording that your brain supplies.

The next point is that it is difficult to use a Chinese dictionary to look up words. If you've been reading my blog, you know what I'll say! Don't use a dictionary. It's time consuming, slows you down, and does other bad things to you. If you know the language well before reading, you won't need to look up words for meaning. I know of one guy who is reading Chinese without a dictionary and he is enjoying it.

Another point about Chinese in the article is that it has a lot of vocabulary. Well, I guess most languages do! A Chinese man I know often complains to me about how much vocabulary he has to learn for English. He doesn't agree with me that Japanese has a lot of vocabulary. That would be because for him it was not as difficult since Japanese has tons of vocabulary from Chinese, but for the rest of us we have to learn many words which have the same meaning because there are Japanese words and then there are words borrowed a long time ago from Chinese. And we don't see them all of the time because some have been replaced by a 3rd set of words originating from English and other languages. It is unlikely that Chinese has borrowed as many words as other languages have. I have been listening to it for hundreds of hours and I haven't picked up on any borrowed words from English except for "CPU" when someone was buying a computer.

The next problem mentioned was this:
One of the most frustrating things you’ll find, even after years of studying Chinese, is that you will always encounter unknown words and characters in any book you read. Even children’s books like Harry Potter can be a challenge as you will rarely see the word 魔杖 (wand) used in any other context. It’s quite disheartening to have trouble reading a book that many Chinese schoolchildren can zip through.

First of all, the word "wand" is also a very rare word in English! However, all English speakers would know the word. Children's books will always have these kind of words that everyone knows but don't use in everyday adult life.

Secondly, in Mandarin, 魔 and 杖 have but one reading each which means that if you knew the individual characters you could read the word, then if you knew the word already you are done. If you didn't know the word but knew the meaning of each character, you could figure out the meaning of the word, and given the context of the book it would make sense that it's a magic wand. But in English, just looking at the letters in the word is not going to clue you in to the meaning. In Japanese, the first character has only one reading but the second character has two readings. If you already knew the word you could read it, but if you didn't know the word you would have to verify the reading for it. Actually, this two-character word does not exist in Japanese. I asked a Japanese coworker to look at this word and he had a painful look on his face while he unassuredly tried to read the word. Although he was not sure how to pronounce it, he could tell me what it means. Both Japanese and Chinese have this word, 魔法, which I know in Japanese and somehow knew the reading for the first character. But as for the second character in the original Chinese word given as an example, I didn't know that character nor the word it represents. It means "stick." The kind of stick that you find under trees and you pick up and played with when you were a child. When I told my Japanese coworker that I didn't know that word, he jumped back with surprise. Every language has an enormous amount of vocabulary that you don't need, but you will want to eventually learn. You will more likely come across this extra vocabulary while reading because it's not likely your boss is going to ask you to go outside and find him a nice long stick. This is one of the reasons why I put the importance of reading after that of learning to listen and to speak. If you try reading before mastering listening, you will be spending more effort trying to learn too many words.

Language learning skills are easier to master when you have already mastered one of the skills previous to a different skill. If you are good at listening, then speaking will be easier. If you are good at listening and speaking, then reading will be easier. If you are good at listening, speaking, and reading, then writing will be easier. If you try to do more than one at the same time then you will not have this advantage. The mastery of one skill can cut down on the time it takes to master the next skill.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

what to do to stay focused

Thomas has asked a good question in the comment of the last post and I started replying to it there but my reply is so long I think it'd be better to make it a post.

Hello. I thought your TV method sounded pretty cool so I started it with Thai recently (well, yesterday). I'm not going as hardcore as you are, but I'm trying to watch at least one drama episode per day.

Naturally I understand almost zero of what is said in the Thai dramas. My ears are still getting used to the sound and rhythm of the language. I don't expect to pick up many words for a long while yet, so I'm not stressing it. I actually enjoy it. It's mysterious and musical.

Anyway, I have a question. When I watch, I find myself spacing out a lot from time to time. I try to concentrate and really listen the whole time, but it's my mind's tendency to wander away from the mystery talking and towards thinking about everyday things. Sometimes I'll snap back and realize I wasn't really listening to the drama for the past 5 minutes or so. When you watch your DVDs all in one go like you do, does this happen to you too? Any tips on how to counter this?

Hello Thomas! I'm excited to hear you are giving the TV method a go. Right now you are in an adjustment period. It will take some more time before the language becomes clearer and until then it easy for your mind to start wandering. You also will be getting used to this style. That is, instead of being occupied with a task like studying does for you, you will become an observer. You will adjust to this observer mode.

At this early stage, you will observe what is happening. To keep your attention on the story, you can use your imagination. If you see a man and woman arguing, you will just imagine what it is they are arguing about. You will guess what their relationship is and keep your eyes open for clues that will tell you whether you are right or wrong. By the end of the series, you will know more than you did about it when you started. When you watch it again, you'll understand better what is going on and try to look for things you missed the first time.

Another thing to do when you feel like it is to listen to all the different sounds the language has. When you do this, think about how in the world these people can make those sounds. How much air or friction do you hear in each sound? When you find a peculiar sound, listen for it again.

I have heard (or rather read) people say that they need a description of how sounds are made and that they would never be able to get the sounds correct even if they listened to the language for hundreds of hours. Of course, they never tried listening for hundreds of hours. They are the people who give up right away and cling to something which they can "do" in order to give them some sense of progression.

In my experiences, the sounds will sound differently after you have heard them long enough. The sound you may have first thought was just like an English "sh" sound will become distinctly different after you've listened to it long enough. Sounds that are similar to English become noticeably "not the same."

Another thing I did sometimes was to look at the decorations in the background of the scene. How are the houses or apartments furnished? Do dramas always revolve around wealthy people? I also looked at the people in the crowds or walking on the sidewalk in the background. Sometimes you can find editing inconsistencies. Such as, there was a scene where the character in the story was writing on a big piece of paper, and then the angle changed but the paper was small. Just funny things like that are mildly interesting. I was surprised at how many there actually are!

If you want to notice words, you should be able to recognize greetings. Do the people greet each other when they meet or leave? Is the greeting the same? Some languages have the same words for hello and good-bye. What do they say when they answer the phone? Greetings are really a prime example of where a translation is unnecessary clutter. As a beginner, all you need to do is to recognize the fact that it is a greeting. The actual meaning of the words doesn't matter.

In the beginning it is better to not know what each word means so that you don't start asking questions that don't have answers. For example, in English we say, "Good Morning." Now, a student from a language which doesn't talk like this might ask, "Why do you always say good morning? What if it's a bad morning, then what do you say? How come this other guy just says Morning? Why doesn't he say good? How am I supposed to know which one to use? Is one more polite than the other?"

One more thing I tried was to see how well and how long I could hear the language. If you can just hear each syllable and then let it go so that you hear the next syllable you'll find that what is required is an ability to not get caught up on some word. I don't know if this might be easy for you since you don't yet know words or if this will be challenging. The language is kind of a blur in the beginning. It's interesting to notice how the clarity of the language will change for you over time.

So those are some ideas for keeping your attention on the dramas when you don't understand much yet. This adaptation stage is letting your brain know that these foreign sounds are important. Your brain will do the work for you, so just let it happen. Remember, your brain is one smart cookie!

Let us know if you start a TV method blog! Yours would be the first to go from zero knowledge of a language using the TV method.

Monday, March 23, 2009


I've finished watching yet another Chinese TV drama. It has 24 episodes on 3 discs and is 16 hours long. I watched the first 2 discs yesterday and the 3rd disc today.

This drama had less dialogue in it and it seemed to drag on and on. Therefor, I won't be able to watch this one again for a long, long time. I'll watch it again once I can understand Chinese pretty well and have forgotten most of the story.

I enjoy acquiring Chinese through the TV method. For me, it is more satisfying to know new words from observing how they are used. This method also gives the words real meaning as I acquire the words through feeling. I can feel the meaning of the words and they hold real value to me.

Whenever I have studied and memorized words, they don't feel real. You can say the words and know what they mean but it takes a lot of time to actually feel the meaning of those words. Until then, the words don't mean anything to me.

I consider my TV method to be 99% reinforcing known words and one percent acquiring new words. It's fun because the words I know show up all the time. I hear them again and again and they sink deeper and deeper into me. I think this builds a strong foundation for acquiring more words. I don't think that the one percent of acquiring words is slow because I am acquiring multiple words simultaneously, not one at a time.

I don't consider the acquisition of a word to be a one moment event. What I mean is, a word is not unknown one moment and then suddenly acquired the next moment. The language is gradually acquired. At first you start to recognize a new word. But you are not ready to know what it means. When you are ready, you will be able to start guessing at the possible meanings.

After that, you'll find it in more situations and you'll narrow in on what it means. Your understanding of the word develops gradually from your encounters with it. You'll find it used in unexpected ways and you'll adjust your understanding. You'll be able to adjust because you didn't look it up in a dictionary and get fixed on a definition. When you start using that word yourself, you'll use it just the way you've seen it used. You'll have had a lot of exposure to it and it should feel pretty natural to you when you use it.

That's what I really want; to be able to use the language and for it to feel natural and to have the confidence that I am using it naturally. I'm not comfortable speaking a language when it doesn't feel natural and when I have to wonder if what I am saying is even correct.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Last Agent

Yesterday and today I watched Last Agent, not for the last time, but for the first time. It has 22 episodes and is about 15 hours and 20 minutes long. This is the first Chinese TV drama on DVD that I've watched where nobody mentions the word "emperor." It's a modern day drama, complete with computers and cell phones. It is a drama with affairs and relationships and a conniving woman. It is very easy to get the general picture of what is going on and to generally follow the story.

It has just about every word that I have ever learned in Chinese. Well, except for "emperor." So I certainly get a lot of reinforcement by watching it. One of the words I learned from watching the 2nd drama that I bought was "hate." Of course, that word was used a lot in this drama. Hate is easy to learn. You don't need a dictionary or flashcards or an SRS. I picked up on it when one person had asked, "Do you hate me?" And the other person replied, "I don't hate you." When I first saw this situation, I knew the other words in the sentences. I also knew about the situation. I knew why the one person would hate the other. That's about all you would need to know. Of course, in reinforcing situations, a person will say, "I hate you!" and you can see the emotion.

And yes, in this drama too, somebody said one time, "I'm going to kill you!" It's surprising what kind of vocabulary gets reinforced! You can bet too, that I can say that in Chinese without hesitation. Ha ha. Hey, now I know just what to say the next time someone tells me to say something in Chinese!

This is also the first drama where nobody spit up blood. That happened quite a bit in the other dramas. An interesting thing of culture in this drama was that the people had marriage documents that were similar to passports. Each married person had one and when they got a divorce the official stamped the picture of the couple inside. It must have been a big CANCEL stamp.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

tips for hiding hard-coded subs

This post marks the completion of my sixth viewing of the above-pictured drama (雍正王朝). This was the first Chinese TV series drama that I bought. I purchased it on 11/18/2008 which was 4 months ago. I have watched it 6 times already because I did not have very many dramas. Since then, I have watched 3 other Chinese dramas and I have 2 new ones that I will be watching next. Not only that, but I have 4 more on the way from Amazon China. From here on out, I won't need to watch each drama so frequently.

The first three dramas that I bought have hard subs in Japanese. I have tried to avoid catching any glimpse of the subtitles. This time around, I found two ways in which I can effectively hide them. However, it also means hiding that part of the screen as well.

The first way to hide them is to not play the drama in full screen on the computer. Take another window, like the finder window, and cover up the bottom of the screen where the subtitles appear. This will be about the lower 1/4 or 1/5 of the screen. So the DVD player application is not the front window.

The second way applies to my Portable Language Acquisition Input Device (PLAID). On my portable DVD player I can zoom the screen to 2x. Then I can slide the screen down so that I see all of the top. This is just enough to hide the bottom portion where the subtitles appear. Of course the video becomes a little pixelated with the zoom and the right and left edges of the picture also get cut off.

My 2 new Chinese TV dramas that I will be watching next also have hard subs, but there are two differences. The first is that the subs are in Chinese, the same language as the audio. The second difference is that the subs are not actually on the picture. The picture is letterboxed with the subtitles appearing below the video. So if I use method 1 to hide the subtitles, I won't be missing any of the picture. Also, it will be easier to not see the subtitles when they are not directly on the picture anyway.

Even though the new dramas will have Chinese subtitles, I think it is better for me to not be looking at them now. Later, after I have acquired listening and speaking and want to focus on reading, I can use the Chinese subtitles to learn to read, I think.

I'm looking forward to watching all of the new dramas that are coming. I believe that in each drama series, there will be certain words which appear more often than in other series. For example, in this drama, from the very first time through it, I learned the word for "emperor" because the emperor is the main character that the whole story revolves around. In the second and third dramas, that word was also used quite a bit. In the fourth drama, that word is used just a few times and because I knew the word I knew exactly who they were talking about the first time it was spoken in the drama. In that fourth drama, the emperor doesn't appear until near the end. The emperor is just a small part in that series. But from that drama, I learned the word for "kill." People kept saying, "I'm going to kill you!" I had noticed the word previously, but I didn't know if it only meant "stab." But then when someone was killed by a gun, I knew that it was not a word used only with swords and knives.

So I do think it is best to get a wide variety of exposure to your target language. You don't have to guess at what every word means. Somewhere, there is a situation that will make it patently obvious what a certain word means.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

oops! I spoke Chinese today

I can tell you that my order for 2 Chinese TV dramas arrived on Sunday when I was about half way through 雍正王朝. So I just need to finish watching that drama and then I'm going to watch the new ones.

I bought the two new ones from a website which is available in 3 choices, simplified Chinese, traditional Chinese, and English. They ship from several locations in Asia and my order should have come from China but the package came from Singapore, so I don't know what that means. One of the two DVD cases is kind of damaged. The cases are made from really cheap plastic. The kind of plastic that gets brittle, not the shiny good plastic. Also they are cases that carry 4 discs with 2 on each side, one above the other. While that makes it thin, it's also tall. I don't know if that is a common case type for DVDs from China or not, but I don't like them and I'm not going to store my discs in them. They hold the discs too loosely.

Just recently, perhaps last week or maybe it was during the weekend, I don't remember which, I discovered Amazon China. The prices there are just so cheap! The only downside is that the website is only in Chinese. This might be expected, however Amazon Japan has this link 'see this page in English' that you can use to get the interface in English but of course not the product descriptions. Anyway, the Chinese-only interface of the China site is no deterrent for me! After all, I am Kanji Keith! And I also have the Firefox plug-in, Chinese Pera-kun which looks up words for me when I hover the mouse over them. But, don't worry! I'm not using it to learn any Chinese. Just to cheat when looking at the Amazon China site. I ignore the pinyin and just look at the English so I don't inadvertently learn anything. I mean, I don't want to get translations stuck in my head.

So I had no problem creating an account. I browsed through the TV dramas and put a bunch on my wishlist, or whatever it's called in Chinese. Then maybe the next day, I decided to place an order. Here's where I ran into a problem. I wanted to pay by credit card and the only option which looked like it could be credit card payment was already checked. It basically says bank card, I guess. Since it was already selected as the payment type, I just clicked the button to continue. Then to actually make the payment, you need to click a button on another page. It's different than the normal order process that I'm used to because placing the order and making the payment are separate. So I had the order placed but I didn't have the payment made.

Then I press a button to make the payment and I get taken to joyo.cn for payment processing. Well, the form there did not seem to be for credit cards. So this is where I was stuck for a couple of days. I didn't know how to get to the credit card processing form. So I asked my coworker/friend to find out how to do it. He sent me a link to the help page for paying by credit card. From there, I could see on the payment selection type that there were many option buttons for selecting type of cards. So all I needed to do was to actually click on the bank card payment area and then those option buttons become visible. Then I could select Visa or MasterCard.

So that is how I was able to set up my order so that I could go to the correct payment site to pay by credit card. So then I clicked the button to make the payment, went to the right page and filled in the card info and then the transaction failed! I had no idea why. Well, there was the actual failure message in English but it was not specific enough for me to understand what was wrong. It said something like, 'verify enrollment failure.' I tried doing the payment several more times and on different days but I kept getting the same failure message.

So today, first I called the card issuing company to see if anything was wrong with my account. That was my chance to speak Japanese. But I don't look forward to such chances to speak Japanese on the phone. The phone is the most difficult situation because the other party cannot read my face to see how well I don't understand. I always get nervous about speaking on the phone. Anyway, there was no problem with my card and they had no data about the transaction that I was trying to complete so my only other option was to contact the company that processes the credit card payments for Amazon China.

For that, I used Skype. I bravely called the Chinese payment proccessing company. Since I wouldn't expect the first person that you reach to be able to speak English, I spoke a little Chinese. It was probably stupid, but this is all I said. "Sorry. I can't speak Chinese." She said in Chinese, "Hello?" Then I said, "Would you speak English for me?" I don't know what the tones for the words Chinese and English are supposed to be, so I think I said them wrong. I'm pretty sure it was wrong. I don't hear these two words in the dramas that I'm watching. Upon listening to the recording again, it sounds like my tones on 'give me' are not good. I was almost laughing after she had said hello in response to my first statement. Anyway, I believed the answer I got was that she could not speak English. Upon listening to it again, I can understand it better but not perfectly. It sounds like she says she doesn't hear well. I don't know if that's in reference to English or if she meant that she doesn't understand what I'm saying! So then I said in Chinese, "I speak English." I didn't know what she said next, but now I think she asked me, "Who are you calling?" but this not the word 'who,' it's the direction word, 'which way,' if I now understand correctly. I didn't catch what she said so I didn't answer that and so she said again, "Hello?" and I said, "Hello" and then she asked me the same question again. So I start over again and say in Chinese, "Sorry, I can't speak Chinese." She says, "Don't worry about it" in Chinese. And then she said something in Chinese but I'm not quite clear on what the meaning is. She probably just asked why I'm calling. Then I ask in Chinese, "Is there someone who can speak English?" And she responds to me in Chinese, "It's possible. You may speak English." (My translations are kind of literal. The correct translation probably sounds more natural.) So then I ask in English, "It's OK to speak English?" She says, "Yes." Then I confirm with her that I have the correct company to which she answered "Yes." Then I try to confirm that they process payments for Amazon. After that question she told me, "hold on please."

Perhaps it was naive of me to expect that the second person would have been told that there was an English speaker on the phone and for me to expect that person to start off in English! So you can imagine my amusement when the 2nd woman taking the phone answered in Chinese and again I had to spit out my horrible Chinese. This time I mistakenly said, "Sorry. I... I can speak Chinese. English--. Can you speak English?" I didn't even know I left out the negative! I just realized it now after listening to the recording. I probably started the question with the word 'English' because of Japanese syntax. Either that or I was thinking about the words 'Chinese' and 'English' because I just knew that the tones weren't correct. Then she answered my question. I think her response means that she can't speak English, but not in those exact words. Then the next statement she said I didn't catch it at the time, but now I understand it. She said, "I can't clearly hear what you are saying, right now." That sentence pretty much passed over my head at the time, so next I asked, "Can you speak English?" She answered back, "It's not possible." So then I asked, "Is there someone who can speak?" I inadvertently omitted the word 'English' in my question. Then she asked me something I didn't understand so I said, "What?" Then I think she rephrased the same question. The wording is almost identical. She asked me, "Please, what is your question?" Then, not knowing what else to say, I said, "I can't speak Chinese." which made me laugh because here I am calling a Chinese company about my paying for my order at Amazon China to buy DVDs of Chinese TV dramas and I can't even speak Chinese! So then she said in Chinese, "well then you just speak English and I'll speak Chinese."

So I said to her in English, 'OK, I don't know if I will understand you.' Then I heard her gasp. I can only imagine what ran through her mind as she heard me speak English. Then she said something in Chinese which I still don't understand. So from there I tried to explain in simple English. After that she did her best to speak to me in English. She couldn't explain well but eventually I got the idea that I needed to activate a new verification feature that the credit card companies are using now. So at the end, I told her, "OK. Maybe I understand" and she sounded so relieved.

Then I called the credit card company again and I found out how to enroll for the special security feature. I had to go to a website, in Japanese, and fill out the form there. I waited a while for it to process and then went back and successfully paid for my Amazon China order.

Now I just need to finish watching the drama I'm on now so I can start on my new ones. Any commentary on my funny phone call to China?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

too few learners of Chinese

Even though many more people have taken up the study of Chinese, there are still not enough doing so, according to this article. It says there are 40 million foreigners learning Chinese. But how many will actually become speakers of Chinese? I think the drop out rate is very high. And what percentage of learners reach a decent level of reading skill in Chinese?

For reading, it really helps to know what word to expect next. If you know what words are likely to come next then you can read much faster with only a glance at the words or characters. Just like a cloze test, if you can't fill in the blanks then you are not familiar enough with the language so while reading you have to do a lot more work. In Chinese and Japanese as well, it becomes much more critical because there is often no clue to the pronunciation of the words. A strong knowledge of the language will make reading much easier which is why I would recommend learners to put off learning to read Chinese or Japanese until they have a good command of the language.

To me, it does not matter how many learners there are of Chinese if the success rate is low. If, for example, you have 100 million learners of Chinese but only 10 million of them are successful, that is worse than having 40 million learners where 20 million succeed. What we must consider is the final outcome and not just the number "in progress."

My formula for success is listening, then speaking, then reading, and finally writing. Each one reinforces the next. If all aspects of language learning are undertaken at once, then where is the reinforcement?

Sunday, March 08, 2009

heroic Chinese dramas

I checked on my online order of new Chinese TV dramas a couple of weeks ago. Since it had been 3 weeks since I had placed the order I emailed the site and asked them to investigate. I was told that one of the two dramas was out of stock so I had to replace that one with another one so I could still qualify for free shipping. Since my order was not on its way here by March 1st, I went to the local used bookstore and I was lucky enough to find another drama series that was in my price range. But before buying it I asked the store clerk to test it to see if the Japanese subtitles could be turned off or not. Since the publishing company was not the same as the other ones that I had bought before, I figured it was worth checking. I didn't want to buy another Chinese TV drama series with hard-coded subtitles and I wasn't about to buy it if that was the case. At first, the store clerk said he thought the subtitles could be turned off, but I knew he wasn't sure so I asked if they had a DVD player to try it on. Then another clerk took over the task. She put one of the discs in a player and hooked it up to a small monitor. It started playing and then she proceeded to tell me that the subtitles would have appeared in the beginning and since they didn't appear right away she took this as evidence that the subtitles were off. However, from the moment I saw the video display, no one had said anything yet. So I just waited and watched. Sure enough, as soon as someone spoke the subtitles appeared. For whatever reason, they said that player was set to show the subtitles, so the clerks then got out a used game console and played the disc from there. On that console they were able to turn off the subtitles so I went ahead and made the purchase.

I bought Heroic Legend (DVD-BOX❶ 6枚組) on Sunday, March 1st. I only bought box one at first. They had box 2 as well, but I waited until I finished the first one before buying the second half of the series. Each box has 6 discs and there is a total of 35 episodes. This drama is filmed just like a movie. It looks very good. The other ones I bought before look like TV shows, but this one feels like a movie. It looks very good at full screen as well. One of the main actors, Huang Hai Bing, is from the 2nd drama that I was watching. It's interesting to note that he looks exactly the same but he sounds very different. I felt like it was someone else's voice.

Besides the excitement of having a new TV drama to watch, the reassuring feeling I get from this one makes me feel good. This is the first time I have watched the series and there are a lot of things in it that I can understand only because I had watched the other dramas. This drama is like a testimony to me that my understanding of Chinese is growing. I can recognize all of the words, phrases and things in it that I would not be understanding if this had been the first drama that I watched. I hear them and I can say to myself, I know that word because it was in the other dramas. It is a building process.

When I watched my very first Chinese TV drama, I could say that I don't understand Chinese. But now I would say that I can understand a little Chinese. I don't feel like someone who is sitting there not following the dialog, not understanding the story, not knowing what's going to happen next. I feel like I understand enough of the words to know what to watch for next. I'm following the dialog to some extent. I'm not completely lost. I'm not only looking at the pictures. Again, this was the first time watching this series so I had no previous knowledge of what's going on, so I know that my understanding is coming from the spoken language and confirmed somewhat by what can be seen happening on screen.

I watched the first half from Sunday to Thursday and then Thursday evening I bought the second box. I finished watching it early this morning.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

don't use flashcards!

You do yourself a great disservice when you use L2-L1 flashcards. Studying with flashcards is only training your brain to respond to the language you are trying to acquire by giving you the language you already know. That is how you are checking your supposed knowledge. And yet you don't know the word in reality. So you are just fooling yourself.

Let's say A and B are words. B is in your target language. A is in your native language. If you look at B and you don't know what it is until you've brought up A, then you still don't know what it is. You'll only know the word when you see B and don't need to think about A. However, if you're using flashcards then you are training your brain to give you an automatic response. When you see B, your brain will respond with A. It takes a number of repetitions or reviews in order to shorten the response time. Most learners feel that a short response time means they really know the word. But again I say, you don't know the word if you need to think about it.

You may think that with enough training you won't need to think about the word. But that thinking is flawed. You've trained yourself to come up with the translation! You're like Pavlov's dogs. It's going to happen without your will. It's going to be hard to break as well.

Besides the trained response that will keep you plodding along slowly, the other bad thing about flashcards is the speed at which you accumulate all of this false knowledge. I call it false knowledge because it's a translation. It would be the same as if I told you about some magnificent place on earth. I could give you all the details and you could paint a pretty picture in your mind. And then you go around telling people that you know this place when you have never even been there. You have never experienced it for yourself. In order for you to tell other people what that place is like, you have to recall the words I used to describe it to you. That is a completely different process than if you had actually been to the place and you could use your own words to describe what you experienced and what you remember about the place.

Now compare that to all of the false knowledge you have about your target language. All the words that you can translate because you have trained yourself to remember something the dictionary gave you. And every time you hear one of those words you have to go through a process to recall the meaning. And not because you want to, but because you are trained to involuntarily respond. Reineke mentioned in a comment to my Feb. 9th post about
results show that the Chinese-English speakers, who'd describe themselves as fluent English speakers who access meaning directly from English without word-by-word translation in Chinese, are in fact accessing Chinese subconsciously.
I think that's because, even though they've gotten past the stage of needing to translate, they have trained their brains to do this. Or it could simply be that the researchers misinterpreted what they found and what's really happening is that those speakers just like to use their native language for thinking and analyzing. Just because you may be having a discussion in a foreign language, it doesn't mean you need to think all of your thoughts in that language. Or, perhaps another reason that the researchers are wrong about the findings is that they assume you can only process a foreign language in a different area of your brain than you do your native language.

I know somebody would comment and say that they can first learn the translation and then later get the experience. They believe it is better and quicker to do both. But in that way you are still not replacing your training. First you will be comparing. You will say, how does my experience compare with what I have learned? You will be like the man with two clocks, always looking at both of them to make sure they agree. You may try to make one of them your main clock but you know you've always got that backup clock. Ever heard the statement, "you never get a second chance to make a first impression?" First impressions are strong. They don't disappear easily. So you want to make the right first impression. You want to acquire words the right way, the first time.

Now, while I'm watching Chinese TV dramas, I do have a tendency to think, "oh this word must mean such and such." But what I'm not doing is sitting there drilling it into my brain and reinforcing a translation which would be the truth. What I mean is that when you have looked up the translation you unquestionably accept it as the truth. B = A; case closed. Instead, I keep a very open mind. I'm willing to adjust my understanding of the words in the target language. I want my associations to my native language to be as weak as possible. I want what I see and experience to form the meanings of the words. I just want a feeling for the words.

Language is something that requires not a thought process but a feeling. Just like what I need for a perfect serve in volleyball. I want to serve the ball so that it is as close to the net as possible. If I hit the ball too high, it will go out unless I reduce the power. But if I hit the ball so that it goes just above the net then I can turn up the power because I know that after it goes over the net it will fall into the court. But I can't stand there and be thinking, "ok throw the ball up just the right height and then swing exactly 1.5 seconds after releasing." No, I can't be thinking about the process at all. But once I have the feel for it I can toss the ball and swing to hit it and make it go just over the top of the net. If I were to do any conscious decision making then I would never be able to get it right. Instead, I have to get a feel for the toss and also have a feel for how good that toss was because I can't always toss it exactly the same height. I have to hit the ball without ever looking at the net.

If you have a feeling for the language, you'll be able to go to a level that you aren't able to by thinking about the language. People cannot speak a language fluently while thinking about grammar and words. The more you train yourself to think about the language, the harder it is to break that habit and to get a feeling for the language. Flashcards just reinforce the associations of the target language to English or your native language. You do them and create those connections quickly but you'll have trouble truly getting rid of those associations.

Pierre J. Capretz, author of French in Action says,
"French is not a translation of English. It is not English that has been coded into French. French is French. It is not a code of English. So that you cannot just replace a French word with an English word. It does not really work. When French people say something in French it is not that they really mean something in English but say it in French because they don't know better or to show off or out of perversity. No. When they say something in French, they mean something French. So to understand what a French word means what you have to do is observe the circumstances in which it is used. That's what will tell you what that word means."

Another reason for not using flashcards is simply that you don't need them. When I watch Chinese TV dramas I hear the same words over and over. The words I learn from one drama will be used again in the next drama. I get all of the exposure that I need without any of the labor. I sit back and take it all in. The highest frequency words are the ones I'm going to hear the most often. Plus, I hear them spoken by native speakers with the correct prosody instead of hearing them in my head or from my mouth. If a word is brand new to you, you don't know exactly how it sounds. You don't know which syllable is stressed. It doesn't feel natural to say it. You need to do some mental work to read it, think it, or say it. All of your conscious effort could easily affect your pronunciation. There's really no need to put yourself through learning a bunch of new words. I easily get tons of exposure by watching the drama series. All of my review and reinforcement comes naturally. I eventually learn the meaning of words in the way that Pierre Capretz describes. I observe the circumstances in which the word is used.