I noticed a big sudden spike in visitors yesterday. Turns out Khatzumoto tweeted my last article. That’s a nice coincidence, because I came here to write about the importance of large quantities of input.
I’ve been looking for “The Fix” recently. The thing that I can do that will allow me to do things in Chinese more like native speakers do them. Grammar, phrasing, word choice, accuracy, the whole nine yards. I’ve tried tons of things. Except one, until recently.
Turns out, that one thing happens to be the “One Thing” I’ve been looking for, so why was native, comprehensible input the one thing I didn’t try? I can’t figure it out for the life of me, except that I knew I was focused on learning academic Chinese, and that I knew that such a high proportion of people who use Chinese in academia went to ICLP, so I focused on using their curriculum and textbooks as my blueprint.
As I think is clear in my last article, it worked reasonable well. I’m working as a translator, I’ve attended graduate-level lectures, etc. Nothing to sneer at.
But still, when I speak Chinese, it isn’t comfortable. I don’t always phrase things the way a native speaker would, so I often sense a moment of confusion, however brief, before they understand. It’s rare that they don’t understand, but that brief moment really bothers me.
It isn’t my pronunciation, my tones, or my intonation. I’m not one for false modesty, and I can say that those things are good enough that they almost never cause problems. It’s my phrasing and word choice. It’s called 翻譯腔 in Chinese. I’m translating directly into Chinese from English. Not all the time, of course, but it happens often enough.
I think Krashen would say it’s because I’ve learned the language, but I haven’t yet fully acquired it. Sounds right to me.
So a few weeks ago I was reading some articles over at AJATT, and I thought I’d give this whole comprehensible input thing a shot. Again, I don’t know why I didn’t do more of this before, but so it goes.
I put on a movie while I was translating one day a few weeks ago, and I haven’t looked back since. I found my brain putting phrases on repeat. I kept hearing 姜文 and 葛優 in my head (the movie was 讓子彈飛) for the rest of the evening, and I was thinking in Chinese more than in English. It was like my brain had been put solidly into Chinese mode, when that’s usually a pretty tenuous state for me. The next day I did more, and I felt comfortable speaking Chinese. I’m generally somewhat reluctant about it because I’m too aware of my shortcomings, but this time I had no hesitance. I spoke freely and more fluently than usual, and felt much more confident about it. I was hearing Chinese in my head the whole day, even when I wasn’t listening to it.
So I went home and read about the “din in the head” that Krashen talks about. I had heard the term but hadn’t really looked into it, but I knew that this onslaught of Chinese my brain was feeding back to me must what it referred to. I was right. Krashen believes that it signals that language acquisition is taking place. The article resonated with me, because it described exactly what I was experiencing and allowed me to make sense of it.
An important point that Krashen points out (and has been borne out in my experience) is that aural input triggers “the din” much more effectively than reading does. Read a lot, by all means (I’ll be participating in the 多読コンテスト/Tadoku/Read More Or Die challenge next month, and you should too). But put in lots of time with your headphones on. I’ve found it to be much more effective as far as this goes. Krashen says two hours seems to be the dose that makes the magic happen. Again, he seems to be right in my experience.
Also, I should emphasize that it needs to be comprehensible. It’s fine if there are some things you don’t understand, even preferable. But you need to be able to follow it. On the easier end, 龍貓 (Totoro) is a great choice.
I should say here that no amount of listening to recordings of ICLP textbooks did this for me. I think it’s because they’re boring. As much of a fan as I am of what 思想與社會 teaches, I can admit that the lessons are mind-numbingly dull. 讓子彈飛 is fun. It’s really entertaining, so I found myself tuning into it while I should have been working, when I would tune out something like 思想與社會 even when I wanted to focus on it.
So I’ve gotten so excited about all this that I’ve even started sentence mining again. New rule (for me): it only goes in if I find it interesting or funny. So there’s a lot from 讓子彈飛, Deathnote, the Chinese translation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (馮尼果，《貓的搖籃》), articles on 台語書面化, whatever. The funny stuff is especially fun to review because it takes me back to that moment in the movie or book, and the other stuff is fun because it’s interesting. I’m also putting in things from a book I’m reading on pre-Qin history, which is 一舉兩得 because it helps me learn stuff in my field and improve my Chinese at the same time. That book is in 簡體字, so those cards are too, because I need to get better at reading the language of Mordor anyway. I think I’m going to do this with a lot of the books I’ll be reading in my field. If I’m diligent and thorough about it, I think it will help a ton.
Anyway, that’s it. Go out and buy some movies in Chinese. They can be Chinese movies, or dubbed movies. I’ve found that Disney and Pixar movies tend to have great voice acting if you get the official version (though the shady street vendor versions can be their own brand of fun awfulness), as do Ghibli movies. A lot of Hong Kong movies have Mandarin dubbing too. Other than those, most movies in Taiwan don’t get dubbed as far as I know, but apparently they do in China, so you can order from there. Watch them and listen to them repeatedly, and let the magic happen.
Let me know how it works for you.