Sunday, February 06, 2011

Chinese comprehension challenge

Last night, I took another language test called The Friedemann Chinese Comprehension Challenge. It's a grueling 20-minute test where you watch scenes from a drama and have to catch every technical word and the names of all kitchen cooking equipment. Boy, was I not prepared!

The video below is the result of the previous post where I responded to a challenge from Friedemann.

Actually, Friedemann is not a bad guy. I think from watching the video, you can realize that he is coming from a different perspective than I. We are both learning Chinese but we have a different mindset.

We first tried to do the test mid-day, yesterday but the audio from my side was not transmitting clearly and he could not hear what I was saying. So we met up again late in the evening. At first, I loaded the wrong episode. So, the video you will see below is after a couple of false starts, hence, there is no introduction as I had planned.

Also, the drama that was selected was on a different website. We used this drama: 大女当嫁 Episode 22. The video player on this site gives me a bit of trouble trying to restart it after pausing. So, instead of pausing the video after each line and me translating each sentence, I played it a bit longer and then stated what I got from what was just played.  For that reason, I have not muted any of the audio.

Another difference from what I had planned on doing is that you will not see the drama in our recording. After the earlier attempt, I looked at what was recorded and found out that my Skype plug-in recorder does not record the screen sharing. So I did not share my screen during the test. If I would have, the recorded video from my side would just show a still picture of me during that time.

You will also hear some interesting comments from Friedemann as he had some very interesting things to say. So I think the video will be interesting to watch for most people.


  1. As much as I (obviously) disagree with the silent period approach, I think what you're doing is great! Having the guts and passion to put it all on youtube now shows that good or bad method, you will definitely make progress ;)

    If only so many of my readers were as brave as you! (Although I'd use that bravery in the context of speaking earlier).

    Had a listen to a few minutes. I'm still far from being convinced of the efficacy of what you do, and there are some problems with this experiment in terms of understanding particular words. By watching a video you can get so many other clues of what's going on from context that you wouldn't from listening. And even listening you can tell if someone is angry etc. As Friedemann explains it to you, that context makes what comes after it clearer.

    These are in fact good things that I use myself to help me in the early stages of speaking, and tools that I say help people despite lack of vocabulary.

    Anyway, keep up the good work! Disagree as I might, it's a fun experiment to follow in this stage!

  2. Thank you very much both Keith and Friedemann, for preparing this video. Very helpful in understanding this experiment.

    This was a difficult piece indeed. I needed to look at the subtitle myself. No matter how many time you repeat watching it, there is no way a beginner can figure out these dialogues without looking up anything.

    I think this whole experiment has further proven Krashen is right. We need 'comprehensible' input. I think Keith would have done better if he were to choice easier content. TV episodes are way to hard for a beginner.

    BTW, it was life insurance to be exact.

  3. Great job, Keith. You've illustrated how the TV method works. The TV show gives you clues as to what is being said (through pictures, emotions, and actions) and thus allows your brain to assimilate new words.

  4. I thought I understood the challenge and was looking forward to watching it, but now having watched the video, I feel disappointed. Not in you, Keith, but in Friedemann, for what feels like an unfair execution of the challenge. It might not have been intentional on his part, maybe just the thought of "no way does the TV method work" subconsciously driving him.

    Alexandre's going to come out and say I'm waiting for the messiah that's not going to appear.

    I'm not waiting for anything. But I do know this much -- I watch Chinese TV dramas (have done so ever since I was a kid) and I talk to my parents and many relatives in Mandarin. Though my vocabulary is limited to "daily conversation" and I can't debate politics, religion, etc. in Mandarin, I would be considered "fluent" by many (including Benny above). But no, I did not know that the pot was made of ceramic material nor did I catch the smoke part (though yan1 might have clued me if I really focused).

    I'm not saying Keith has my level of understanding; he doesn't. Nor am I saying that my level is what he should aim for -- I know my limitations and want to eventually improve my Chinese to that of an educated speaker.

    What I AM saying is let's at least be somewhat fair in challenging him. I don't understand why Friedemann picked clips that he himself had to watch several times to understand, or, that even on these clips, why he nitpicked at certain pieces of vocabulary. Wasn't the idea for Keith to give his interpretations and Friedemann to simply state whether those interpretations were correct or not?

  5. I'm sorry Keith, I really admire your spirit, and that you did the experiment - kind of in the public interest - but I just watched your second Chinese conversation, and it's just awful :( I'm not even speaking about talking, but you didn't even understand the simplest statements. "It is the time of Spring festival". "This is a place in China". "I wish you health". "Have a good day". Things that you really can't tell me don't come up in dramas. I'm writing this so the people that don't speak Chinese have an idea how this is working out for you :-/
    Really, good experiment, but you should really objectively face the results here..

  6. I have to agree this doesn't seem like a particularly fair or scientific experiment, but remember that Keith himself had already watched this episode (was it more than once?). I couldn't get a clear impression of what he understood from the drama (as opposed to focusing on what he didn't understand) because most of the time was taken up with Friedemann and his typical German need for precision :-)

    A more scientific test would be to watch a brand new show that Keith hasn't seen before, and to get a mix of people who have either learnt no chinese, or who have done up to lesson 64 in Assimil "Chinese with Ease" as Keith has done, and then just get them to describe the action and what they understand from a scene. This is a way in which Keith could demonstrate his passive knowledge in Chinese. The other people are "controls" to see if people with no learning, and then some similar self-guided learning, can achieve the same level of comprehension.

    But that sounds like a lot of effort to go to verify the veracity of claims that people seem to either love or hate :-)

    Anyway, Keith, you put it up as promised, regardless of the results. Good on you!

    And Good Luck with your further efforts!

  7. phyrex, I did too understand "this is a place in China." The fact that you think I don't understand that sentence shows that you can't accurately comprehend my understanding. What's the big deal if I don't know the name of one holiday?

  8. Just watched that part again, you're right, you did understand "This is a place". Sorry, I must have misremembered.

    As for the spring festival, I would have thought that you would have at least picked up some more about Chinese culture from all your watching: spring festival is not a minor holiday, it is THE holiday. It is Christmas, New Year, Father's day, Mother's day, Thanksgiving, and everything in between all rolled into one. It is the absolute focal point of many Chinese's lifes, the time when everybody goes home to see their families, even migrant workers that don't see them for the rest of the year! I'd say there is hardly anything that is more important in Chinese culture than Spring festival..

  9. I am sorry, but I do not know any Chinese holidays. When watching a drama, it is difficult to tell what month of the year it is or how much time has passed during the drama. I'm not yet at the level to pick up that information. I've seen a lot of weddings, though.

    @yetanotherlanguage, about the drama used for the challenge, I have only watched it once and that was six months ago.

    I've got to write a lot of posts to answer a lot of questions and to remind the viewers what this is all about because I can see some people are making a lot of assumptions. So just hang in there and some more posts will be coming out.

  10. Yeah, it would be nice if you could specify what exactly your goals are, and how exactly you believe the TV method can help you with it. Is it just the most lazy method? Is it because you're striving for absolutely native Chinese in ~10 years? If you're following ALG philosophy, why don't you go for largely comprehensible input? What would be bad about being "just" really really good but not native, but in less than half the time?
    Looking forward to some answers!

  11. I appreciate the effort you have put into showing us the results of this experiment, and many people have expressed the same. In unison, we command you for this controversial undertaking.

    Personally, however, I sincerely wish you had kept your objectivity. There is nothing to gain in professing that the method works if it doesn't. Nothing for you to gain, and nothing for any us to gain.

    In the context where you have spent the last 4 years studying Mandarin, dedicating the more recent half of those to the TV method, and where you publicly hail that method as one which yields results only attainable through it, most of us can't conceal our general disappointment. Some of us drape it in a disconcerting blind faith in giant strides to come, but the current general short-term evaluation is still disappointment.

    I can think of 3 possible explanations for our disappointment:

    1) the method isn't working
    2) the method isn't working yet
    3) your language learning skills cannot do the method justice

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't remember anyone commenting that the method has been doing wonders so far, so we have to at least agree on 2), that the method isn't working yet.

    For us to think that the method could yield future unexpected results, it's only fair that we ask for some sort of indication of potential. Anything at all. Again, correct me if I'm wrong, but you have presented no such indication. Until we see one, it's reasonable to assume, at least tentatively, that 1) is true, namely that the method doesn't work, period.

    As for the last option, I shall leave you to tackle it publicly.

  12. "I've seen a lot of weddings, though."


    To me, Keith, I am more interesting to know what you have learned so far instead of what you don't know. The experiment suggested by yetanotherlanguage sounds very interesting.

    May be Friedemann or someone else can select a wedding scene not in Keith's list. Something not too easy but not too hard. Keith can do the test first. Then Keith can ask for volunteers (1 to 3) who would have no knowledge of Chinese to go through the same test.

    It would be better for Keith to host the tests for the volunteers, since he is not going to give away hints to them in any way.

  13. @yetanotherlanguage

    In my opinion and that of at least one other person I know of so far we can say that Keith's pronunciation is better than Friedmann's (and many other longish time learners with far more speaking experience), although Friedmann obviously has a much higher level of Chinese than Keith on other measures. This is significant if is suggests that actually for pronunciation listening is far more useful than speaking (counter intuitive for most) and that endless correction by native speakers is not actually required.

    This could suggest to some people that more listening is helpful even though they won't go anywhere near the extremes that Keith has. Yes of course it doesn't PROVE anything, Keith could just be a good mimic anyway, so it wouldn't matter how he studied in that respect, but it is interesting.

    This supports my belief that a lot of listening alongside some work with dictionaries and "cheating" with subtitles etc. is a very good option for learning a language, that fits in with many peoples current lives and that output will quickly catch up with your level of comprehension.

    Yes this is only ever going to be quasi scientific, if Keith is like me then I found even at the early stages that with the little I did know it didn't really matter what speed the Chinese came at me (most learners can't say that) there are so many factors that we don't know yet as we are not inside Keith's head, I for one am looking forward to the rest, maybe other things apart from pronouciation will be highlighted.

    I will never follow this method in the pure form (at an hour a day it would take over five years to get to this stage), but I am happy to try and extrapolate what advantages this kind of practice can give at some level.

    The other extreme would be the many people who study languages for a long time and shy away from real speed (it is too fast, too hard etc.) How can it be too fast? You don't train to be a sprinter by jogging all the time. This fear of not understanding and embracing real language input can be as big and significant as the fear of speaking imho.

    So we have potential for pronouciation, lets see what else, none of us have to invest much time in watching Keith's progress but there may a number of insights along the way.

    Note my observation is based on the interview that Friedmann did with Steve Kaufmann and that I believe that Freidmann has done a good job of learning Chinese which makes this observation more significant than it might otherwise be.

    Also note Keith may well have spent more time on his Chinese than Friedmann (2000 hours is a lot of time in any-ones life).

  14. Where can I find the interview between Friedmann and Steve Kaufmann?

  15. Edwin,

    I believe you are ethnic Chinese, right? I think the interview with Steve was late 2009 or early 2010. You should be able to find it in the archive of Steve's blog. Alternatively we can have a skype chat in Chinese and you can judge for yourself. You can lookup my skype name in my lingq profile.

  16. I think Steve nailed it. You sounded fluent and had rich vocabulary but needed to work on your tones. Of course, that was almost a year ago, and you must have improved a lot since then.

    I think it is unfair to you to compare Keith's Mandarin with yours with the material we have so far. You spoke a lot more in your interview than Keith in his videos.

    The question of course is whether Keith will have a good accent in the long run. I can tell his tones are not bad at this stage.

    One might argue that if he had taken part of the 2000 hours speaking instead of watching TV, he would even be better. But would he? Would his accent get fossilized by speaking too early instead? This is something we will find out.

    I would love to chat with you when we have a chance, not to judge your Chinese, but to learn from your language experience.

  17. Yes of course it is unfair to make that comparison ;) of accents, but I did want to point out based on what Keith has said so far his pronunciation is better than the vast majority of Chinese learners at his level in my opinion.

    Whether my assessment was correct or not, it is not far off I think, I wanted to raise this for the non Chinese speakers who many have not have considered this aspect.

  18. " (2000 hours is a lot of time in any-ones life)."

    2,000 hours is a big-sounding number, but it's really not sizable when it comes to language learning. It's roughly three months. Again, think of this from the perspective of children, second-language speakers who learned it from family, and so on: they take in tens of thousands of hours, and their competency invariably depends on just how many thousands of those hours they took in. Second-gen Chinese who learned a little at home will be capable of speaking, well, a little, while Hong Kongers who move to Dubai are often completely bilingual.

    As someone who learned a language to fluency by basically Keith's method (I also used flash cards and listened exclusively to Arabic music), I'm not certain what people would have him do otherwise.


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