Learning Language through TV and Movies
In previous writing I have disused the ALG method, Automatic Language Growth, a listening based approach to language learning. The full ALG program for Thai language, taught in Bangkok, consists roughly of 800 hours of pure listening, followed by 1,700 hours of a mix of all four skills.
Presently, I am in China, studying Chinese, trying to create a do-it-yourself ALG program by watching TV and movies and by using some podcasts, whereby podcasts play a very small part in my daily routine. I do a minimum of 4 hours of listening per day. That makes a bit more than a hundred hours per months. So, it will take a total of eight months to get through the listening part.
Rules I set for myself.
- Never use a dictionary, never take notes. Just understand what you can, and let the rest go. Hopefully you will get it next time or the next, or the next.
- Listen at least 4 hours per day.
- From the time I wake up, every minute that I am in my room, I have Chinese TV playing. But I only count the hours that I actively sit and listen. While I am brushing my teeth, answering email, marking papers, the Chinese TV is on, but none of this time counts toward my 4 hours.
- I bought a small MP4 player that I load with series of Chinese TV shows. I watch it any time I am on a bus or subway. If we get caught in traffic on the way to work, I sometimes get an hour of listening done before I even start my day.
- Although I sometimes listen 6 hours or more per day, I only count 4 hours per day and only 25 hours per week and 100 per month. This way, I am obligated to keep this up for 8 months. By the end of 8 months, I will have done much more than 800 hours.
- If I miss an hour one day, the deficit carries over and has to be made up. Surplus hours, however, don’t carry over. You wake up each morning at 0 or less than zero.
- Use Chinese news, infomercials, dramas or talk shows as background all day in my room.
- Use American movies dubbed into Chinese or original Chinese movies for intensive listening at home.
- On my MP4 player I only use Chinese or Taiwanese drama series. And I only watch these while I am moving.
- Always leave the Chinese subtitles on and practice reading while watching movies.
A quick note about not using a dictionary and not doing note taking: Most language learning methods would tell you to use notes and try to understand everything, but most methods only do a few minutes of listening per chapter, or a few minutes per week. When you are doing 800 hours, it’s OK if you don’t understand some or even most of it. By the end of 800 hours you will hopefully acquire the language naturally and in context.
After 300 hours of pure listening, I began taking 5 hours of Chinese classes per week. Because of the Chinese subtitles I watched on TV, I found my reading level had increased a lot. When I have completed my 800 hours, and when my reading gets better, I will hopefully move to the Core Novel method, which, in addition to watching TV, is how I learned German. Core novel method is basically identical to the TV method. You just read and read, obsessively, every day, never using a dictionary. You understand what you can, and you let the rest just wash over you. Hopefully you will get it next time.
One problem with watching 800 hours of Chinese TV is that Chinese TV is awful and most foreigners don’t like it. While it is important to get a feel for the TV that Chinese people are watching, to understand the culture, it is also necessary to like what you are watching, or it would be impossible to watch 800 hours of it. Chinese drama series are almost all very sappy emotional love stories or military dramas which rehash and rehash the Second World War, with no mention of the US army.
The sitcom genre hasn’t really hit China yet. To date, I have only found two, and have watched both, from season one to the present season, IPartment (爱情公寓; Aìqíng Gōngyù) and At Home with Kids (家有儿女; Jiā yǒu érnǚ). So far, my favorite series has been a Taiwan drama called KO One or (終極一家 / Zhong Ji Yi Jia ). Two other dramas that I found not horrible included Beijing Youth (北京青年) and Men’s clique《男人帮 nan ren bang).
Dramas are good because there are so many episodes, usually about 20 per season. At 45 minutes per episode, 20 episodes per season and 3 seasons, Aiquing Gongyu, for example, comprised 45 hours. I watch each show or movie twice. That means, just Aiquing Gongyu accounted for 90 hours of my 800. On the street, I bought a whole season for $2 USD. So for $6, I got 90 hours of listening.
There are a handful of Chinese movies that are good or at least watchable. Beijing Bicycle is one of my favorites so far. It’s important to find and watch as many original Chinese movies as you can. The language in original movies will always be more authentic than the language used in dubbed movies. But, you need 800 hours. So, the fastest, most easily swallowed remedy is to buy Chinese dubbed versions of American movies. I have seen Goodfellas, The Godfather, Thor, Tin Tin and countless others in Chinese. Finding a series, like a box set of all the X-Men movies is a Godsend because the multiple disks comprise about 12 hours of listening. Assuming you can watch any set of movies twice, that’s 24 hours of listening practice for cost of about $2 per disk.
Watching movies is cheaper than taking lessons. A down side to watching movies, however, as opposed to news broadcasts, is that, depending on the movie, there could be long action sequences with no dialogue. News broadcasts have constant language, where 30 minutes watched is 30 minutes listened. This is part of why I discount my listening so much, following strict rules about which hours count and which ones don’t, always erring on the side of watching more and counting less.
When I was a kid I saw an interview with one of the women who had been held hostage in the US Embassy in Iran, after the Islamic Revolution. The interviewer asked her how she got through the 444 days of captivity without going insane. She said that she had been given unrestricted access to the library. To fill her day, she made a strict schedule for herself. I don’t remember the exact schedule, but it was something like reading classics in the morning, modern literature in the afternoon and non-fiction in the evening. Similarly, to get through 800 hours of pure listening, followed by 1,700 hours of mixed skills, I have made a schedule for myself.
- Chinese news, talk shows, dramas and infomercials as background noise all day.
- Play podcasts while ironing, cleaning my room, or sometimes while doing video work on the computer.
- American movies dubbed in Chinese for intensive viewing at home.
- Chinese and Taiwanese dramas on my MP4 for when I am moving, on the bus, subway, or walking to and from the gym.
- I managed to find one box set of Spiderman cartoons (1990’s series) which is composed of 60, twenty-minute episodes. This is perfect to watch in the morning, while I eat breakfast, before going to school.
Sadly, when I finish the 60 episodes of Spiderman, twice, not sure what I will watch, because dubbed versions of American TV shows are hard to find. I really wish I could find the original Star Trek. That would be about 60 hours of viewing, twice, 120 hours.
Because of my work and publishing commitments and my own research, I don’t have a lot of time for Chinese, outside of my 4 hours of viewing per day. But, in the six months I have lived in China, I have completed about 200 hours of reading and writing practice on my own, over 400 hours of listening and have attended about 40 hours of Chinese classes. Apart from normal daily needs, like shopping or exchanging the occasional pleasantries or discussing my schedule with my coworkers or people at the gym, I almost never speak Chinese.
I put a very low priority on production skills. We learn by listening, not speaking. If you learn first, you can activate your production at any time. In other words, if I don’t have an opportunity or need to speak a lot of Chinese till next year, so what? The important thing is to put the language in your brain, or else it can’t come out when you need it.
If anyone out there knows where I can get Chinese dubbed versions of Star Trek the original series, The Next Generation or the Star Trek movies, apart from the 2009 one which I already have, please let me know.