Note: I do a lot of flip-flopping on this blog. A lot of changing study methods, a lot of “here’s this new thing I’m trying,” etc. That may get annoying for people who come here looking for “The Answer”, but I don’t think that really exists anyway. From the beginning, this blog has always been more about me working out my own thoughts than anything else (though I am glad that some people find it helpful), so of course some of this flip-flopping is inherent in that. Also, you’ll notice I’m not selling you anything, so I have no motivation to stick to my guns about any given method, hoping to convince you it’s the right one. Learning a language to a high level of proficiency is a long process. Some bumps in the road and some changing of direction will naturally be part of that process, and that’s what you’re seeing on this blog rather than a neatly packaged final product.
I’ve been sitting on this for almost a week because I didn’t know what I was going to do about it, but here it is. I met with a language exchange partner (who is a professional translator) last week and showed her some of the sentence books I was planning on using. She couldn’t believe how unnatural the Chinese was. I thought I had a decent radar for that stuff, but I guess not. One of my big problems is that my Chinese isn’t natural-sounding, so the last thing I need is to practice a bunch of unnatural-sounding sentences. I kind of knew that the books contained some of these, but I just didn’t realize how many. She said there were many more bad ones than good ones.
I really felt like I was back at square one. I had spent so much time planning this, gathering new materials, recording sentences, etc., and now it’s useless because it isn’t going to help the thing I was hoping it would help the most. There’s no resource like this for learners of Chinese (at least not in English), so I was really at a loss for what to do. One thing I knew though, was that I wasn’t going to waste my time using these books when they were so full of exactly the thing I’m trying to avoid.
Fortunately, something else happened recently too.
I was at one of my usual restaurants the other day talking to one of the waitresses. She always speaks English to me, which would usually irritate me, but from her accent I could tell she’s an American so I figure it’s more natural this way. But then I heard something not quite…right. A misplaced vowel or a choppy syllable or something, I don’t remember what it was, but something alerted me to the fact that I might not be speaking to a native English speaker. So I casually asked, “Where are you from?”
“Taiwan” she says, confused.
I had to pick up my jaw from the floor. I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who speak English that well as a second language, and I’ve known a LOT of ESL speakers from every corner of the world.
“But you’ve lived in America before, right?”
“No but a lot of people think I’m American.”
“Yeah, so did I.”
“Oh, where are you from?”
Now it was her turn to be surprised. “You’re an American and you thought I was too?” “Yeah, so did my American wife.” Seriously, we both thought she was an ABC. I asked her how she had learned to speak English this well, and she replied “I watch a lot of American TV. I started watching Sex and the City on STAR World (TV station in Taiwan that plays American TV and movies). For a while I just kept it on that channel all the time. Then I started renting American movies and TV shows at the video store.”
That sealed it. That was the proverbial last snowflake. I’ve had a notion slowly taking shape in my head over the past several months. Nearly every person I’ve asked who has achieved an impressive level of English, especially when it comes to things like accent, intonation, natural-sounding word choice, etc., has said that they watched a lot of American TV. Usually Friends or How I Met Your Mother or the like. The evidence has been piling up, and I can’t ignore it anymore. People online, blog authors, YouTubers, etc. too.
I know one guy who knows what happens every episode from Friends. Every one. And he can quote large portions of them. He watched them that many times, and imitated the way the characters talk. Now not only is his English very good (though not quite native-like), he also has an excellent innate feel for American humor. More than once he’s surprised me with his ability to make really funny, American-style jokes on the spot.
Another example, from right here on this blog. A while back I made a post about how to put Chinese TV shows on your phone (why didn’t I continue with that??). Kaiwen said, as part of his very helpful comment, “Coming up in the game I watched so many Taiwan-mandarin dramas I have an unshakeable accent — even when I change my accent mainlanders can tell by word choice.”
So I’m going to watch more TV. Movies. Even those sappy serial dramas that are so popular, if they’re not too saccharine (I’m watching 我可能不會愛你 right now, and it’s acceptable so far). I’m going to watch the eff out of some Taiwanese media. As many times as I can. Until I’ve memorized it if I can. And I might even pull some sentences from these shows and movies, and put them into Anki, AJATT style. Or…old AJATT style maybe, I don’t know what’s going on over there anymore.
But there’s a difference. I still think Glossika’s approach makes a lot of sense. So these sentences will also become my practice material for his Massive Sentence Method. I’m not exactly sure how I’ll be going about it, but I’m trying to figure it out. But these will be guaranteed, by definition, to be the types of sentences Taiwanese people would actually use in real life.
One thing I do know is that I’ll be making extensive use of subtitle files. I have the subtitles for a few things I’ve been watching lately (easy to find: google “movie title” 字幕), and I plan on going through them with a fine-toothed comb, practicing the sentences, looking up new words, etc. I’m also ripping the audio from the file and putting it on my phone so that once I’ve watched the episode/movie (so I can know what’s going on) I can listen to it while walking around.
I just can’t ignore the TV thing any more. The evidence is overwhelming. So going forward, I’ll of course be devoting time to 文言文, writing ability, and 文字學 (after all, I do have an MA to prepare for), as well as a little bit of time to learning Japanese and Taiwanese. But I’ll be devoting as much time as I can to watching TV shows and movies, imitating the actors, etc. Time to get serious about couch potato-ness.