Sunday, January 30, 2011

in response to Friedemann's challenge

In this post, I will respond to Friedemann's comments and his challenge.

Friedemann says little kids cannot understand the new because of their intellect. I say, they cannot understand the news because of their lack of words and experience.

Friedemann asked which dramas some words would be considered rare ones? For most of the words he mentions, I would say most dramas do not focus one those things. There are many other phrases that are just constantly repeated in dramas.

Apparently, I wasn't simply asked, "Where do you live?" which is exactly what Friedemann wrote as one of the questions I didn't understand.  The keyword in the actual question I was asked apparently had the word for city or town. I do not know that word.

"What languages do you speak?" This is a very rare question in a drama. Everybody is speaking Chinese. The dramas are not about people speaking foreign languages. Sure, people will ask Friedemann that all the time in China. But they do not make many dramas about polyglots.

"Could you say again please?" Again, another question Friedemann has to use all the time, but in dramas there is no need for this as it's all scripted out. I have heard often in the dramas, "What did you say?!" But not because they couldn't hear what was said. They say it because they can't believe what they heard.

My response to the above questions is not to make excuses. I never pretended like I was going to do great in the first conversation. If someone had thought of those questions which I would likely have been asked and asked me if I would be able to understand or answer them, I would have answered No.

I have known the words for the English language and Chinese language and Japanese language since before I started the TV method, but these words have not come up often enough in the 2,000 hours that I have watched, so I don't have confidence that I am pronouncing them correctly.

Words need to come up very often in order to acquire them. A few times is not enough.

Friedemann provided some statistics for English words. Need I mention that English and Chinese words do not share the same frequencies? Perhaps it is because they are different languages. Let me provide some statistics for the Chinese word for city or town that I did not know. These statistics come from James Dew's book 6000 Chinese Words: A vocabulary frequency handbook for Chinese language teachers and students.

The book contains two sets of frequencies. One is from the Frequency Dictionary of Modern Chinese published by the Beijing Language Institute (BLI) Press in 1986. From that source, the frequency of 城市 is 968. The other source is from Taipei, known as the Academia Sinica study and abbreviated to CYY.  From that source, the frequency rank of the same word is 3046.  The CYY source is 8 times as large as the BLI corpus. The BLI corpus includes spoken language material from plays and tape-recorded speech. The CYY corpus is almost completely from newspapers.

But in order to understand the Frequency rank, we need to know what the cumulative frequency is. For the BLI source the word is between 71.5% (900) and 73.0% (1000).  For the CYY source, the frequency rank of 3000 is 83.1% and 3500 is 85.3%.  So from the BLI rank, this means that the words more frequent than 城市 occur about 72% of the time. The CYY source says that words more frequent than 城市 occur a little more than 83% of the time.

Is it possible to learn less frequent words before more frequent words? It certainly is. With the right situation the meaning of the word is made clear and the observer picks up on it. However, this hasn't happened yet for me for this word. My point is just to show that 城市 is not as frequent as you would "think" it is. Nor does it have the same frequency rate in different studies, even in the same language.

Friedemann would like to test my comprehension of TV dramas. I have decided that it will do me no harm to try.  Let me state how I propose to do the test and my request for cooperation from Friedemann.  First of all, we will connect via Skype and I will record the test and upload it to YouTube with it also embedded in my next post. It does not matter if I fail miserably, I will still post it just as I did with my first conversation. I do not mind because this is not the end result. This is just an intermediary stage.

What I would like, is for Friedemann to choose an episode from a drama on the website After we get connected on Skype, Friedemann will give me a link to it, and I will load it in my browser. I would also like Friedemann to explain and introduce what we are doing and why the test is occurring. I will switch my video to screen capture so you can see the video. I will play and pause it every few seconds to explain what I understand or what I don't understand. I would like Friedemann just to confirm or deny my comprehension, but not to give me any ideas about what he thinks it means.  I do not want to be given any translations or help in understanding. All we need to know from Friedemann is whether he thinks I am correct in what I think I comprehend.

For the benefit of others wanting to learn Chinese naturally, before I upload it to YouTube, I will remove the sound portion where I give my translations of the Chinese. I don't think it is necessary to hear what I say something means and there will be those who don't want the translations either. All we need to hear is Friedemann's opinion. That will be enough for me. Afterwards, Friedemann can revise or confirm his feelings about my comprehension.

If we can produce the above scenario, I will be happy to accept the challenge. How does Friedemann feel about this?


  1. You really have no qualms about people judging you! That's a very admirable trait! I can't wait to see this video.

  2. I like how you analyse these 2.000 hours of natural study of Chinese.
    I think this experiment is really very very interesting !!
    Like The Arabic Student, I can not wait to watch your next video !

  3. I don't think it matters for 'natural language learners' to hear your take on the translation (There are always people around that speak a language less than perfectly, and it doesn't seem to have any influence on the kids), and I'd be very interested to hear it. If you really think you need to delete it, how about two versions?

    Kudos for accepting that challenge. I don't agree with your method, but I respect your honesty in the experiment!

  4. I still don't quite understand why you want to get rid of your translation. The video would be more complete if you keep it. But it is up to you.

  5. Edwin, et all: Because there are people learning Chinese who frequent this site, will be interested in watching this video, and who use a natural language technique in which they shouldn't be exposed to translation. Whether you agree with their method or not, this is Keith's valid reason for choosing to edit out translation (I'm assuming). It's valid because it is done out of respect for his reader's who are attempting to use a similar method to his own. It's neither my method, nor my language of study, but I can completely understand the logic behind the decision.

  6. Keith,

    I'll pick from your impressive excel list with material you have listened to. I have time starting Thursday. I am on Beijing time so we should have no problems finding a time slot. Looking forward to this. You can look up my skype name over at my lingq profile.

  7. Keith, I second phyrex's idea of posting two versions of the video. It would be interesting for those of us who can understand the Chinese to hear your interpretation of what's being said.

    Incidentally, this "exercise" might be quite a challenge for those using natural language methods. I grew up (in the U.S.) speaking Mandarin with my parents, and I just noticed a few years back when I was asked to translate a short video clip from Mandarin to English that translating it took some effort for me. I think it might be because the two languages were always kept separate in my mind and I never had a need to map one to the other before.

  8. I suspect that cheng2shi4 is rarely heard in Chinese dramas especially historical ones but you have to remember the lego like qualities of Chinese syllables.

    I picked a drama at random from Keith's list and skimmed a couple of episodes (萍踪侠影 found on Tudou) within 20mins or so cheng2 on its own was used for city or town in a sentence something like "at the time the city was cordoned off" in meaning. Shortly after cheng2men was used for city/town gate. I would expect cheng2 and various derivative words to be common.

    Shi4 can also mean city but in this type of drama I would expect to see if frequently to describe a market, perhaps as shi4chang3. The dictionary definitions of single syllables is dodgy cheng2shi2 called be read as citycity if you feel inclined or probably more correctly as walledmarket if you are looking at the original intention.

    Historical dramas will I guess veer more towards single syllable versions of words (I get the impression this with some older dialogue chucked in sounds a little more olde worlde to Chinese ears). Anybody feel free to correct me if I am wrong.

    This is part of the nature of Chinese a lot of picking up new words is stitching together bits of already known words.

    This isn't a judgement call on the TV method in its pure form but is the kind of reason whilst I personally combine watching native material in the raw with watching with subs. etc. This kind of association is easier to make then. Now it may be argued that I am making the associations the wrong way then but that is beyond the scope of this comment... Even if Keith had watched dramas with the Chinese subs he may have associated the shi use of city with the Japanese kanji 市 and words like 都市 (which has a similar meaning and vaguely similar pronunciation in Chinese).

    And yes Melissa I agree, even my partial naturalistic approach leaves me rubbish at translation even when I fully understand. Often the best I can manage in anything like real time is pidgin English.

  9. It's perfectly natural for Keith to not know "obvious" words like city, but to know others. I have been acquiring German for 200 hours and can say rocket-launcher, shotgun, military strike and mother-ship, but haven't a clue how to say magazine, banana or pencil. I might have heard the word pencil a large number of times, but I have yet to intake it. It will come with time.

    It's worth pointing out that I haven't purposefully learnt those random words, they have just come to me through natural acquisition whilst watching the TV.

  10. It would be foolish to place German and Mandarin in the same boat; one language has lots of words that can be infered from mere exposure, while the other has none.

  11. Chris, let me help you out: 'Magazin' (okay, or 'Zeitschrift'), 'Banane' and 'Bleistift'. Ah.. the wonderful world of cognates :D

  12. First and foremost, I'm not saying that someone who knows English will pick up German and Chinese at the same rate initially. There will be a lot more comprehensible input between English and German, than between English and Chinese.

    Secondly, many of the German words I have picked up are nothing like their English counterparts: Schrotflinte (shotgun)
    Angriff (strike)
    Soll das ein Witz sein? (Is that supposed to be a joke?)
    Das ist ein Befehl! (That's an order!)
    Wegtreten! (Dismissed!)
    Ich hab dich lieb. (I love you [between girlfriends])
    Es war nicht meine Schuld! (It's not my fault!)
    Du verfluchter Mistkerl! (You bloody arse!)

    Thirdly, I have also acquired a lot of Japanese in the same way (I spent a quite a number of hours watching Japanese movies and playing video games) and can happily say something quite complicated like "私は猫の頭をそっとなでる。" (I gently smooth the cat's head) or "こちらは禁煙ですのでご遠慮ください。" (This is a no smoking area, so please desist from doing so.) Though if you were to ask me to order lunch or talk about my hobbies I wouldn't have a clue.

    Fourthly, I think it is okay to put German and Chinese in the same boat. They are both human languages being acquired by humans. In language acquisition the idea of "easy" or "difficult" doesn't apply. The brain is simply doing its job through the acquisition process. I agree that having comprehensible input from day one will accelerate the initial stages of the process, but this effect won't last long and it doesn't change the process in any way. Mandarin may take an extra six months to a year to acquire, but what's the rush?

    Fifthly, my previous post simply illustrates that the language acquisition process is similar across languages. I was simply showing how both Keith and myself have not acquired certain "basic" pieces of vocabulary yet, even though they may be commonly heard.

    **(All writing in German and Japanese is the product of a dictionary, Google and spell-check, I do apologise if anything has been corrected incorrectly! Also my translations are approximate, just to give an idea. :P)**

  13. @phyrex haha Thank you! Though I haven't a clue how to pronounce them. xDDDD


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