Chinese Resources

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Reaction: Benny's video two weeks into the challenge.

Last night Benny put his first video attempt in Mandarin on the web for the world to see... or to use a Chinese phrase I learned yesterday (在眾目睽睽下Benny開口了說出國語)

After speaking Chinese for just two weeks, it is clear that tones are a big focus for him. As well they should be. It will allow him to be understood while speaking to a native speaker who is not a Chinese teacher. I'll talk more about this in another post, but for now I'll just say I think we should all start learning Chinese this way. Don't wait a month or a year to learn tones. Learn them and use them from day one. 

This video has a very raw quality to it. For nearly 10 minutes we watch Benny struggle for every word, trying his best to get the tones right. As he states on his website the video is scripted, translated by his Chinese teacher. No doubt that during the process he also learned everything that we hear him say into the camera, so no need for monkey jokes. 

My big question, however, is how we as language learners (or teachers) should feel about how the video was made. There is no doubt that he is speaking Chinese, and I can understand just about everything he said, but he didn't write the script. In his words: 
"So with that in mind, a couple of days ago I asked my Chinese teacher (I’ve getting private lessons for now) to translate a script with everything I would say if I was giving a tour of my home in a language I speak fluently. I wanted to explain complex things, like that I replaced my laptop with a desktop, that I don’t really use my fridge etc., and she wrote it up for me in Chinese (which I used for the captions) and in pinyin, which I was studying to learn all the new vocabulary, and memorising the lines themselves since then."
For some this is blasphemy, "he is using a teacher, or  "he didn't write the script" they say, but negativity never seemed like a very good way to learn anything, so instead I want to discuss what we might learn from his video.

When we open a text book we are presented with new material. There is a dialogue or maybe even a short essay. After the essay we get a nice word bank (with further examples if we are lucky) and a section on grammar. Some of us memorize that material.  That is essential what Benny did, he memorized the textbook, only he also helped write the textbook... or script rather. While this video may not be his own words (or at least the Chinese) yet he now has a pretty good understanding of how to talk about: time, location, distance, direction etc. He can also tell people why he can or can't do something (因為....所以).

Okay, now for my point. Sometimes when learning a language we need to memorize things. We can't do it passively, cause that is a huge waste of time, but we should do it actively, taking sentences or phrases and committing them to memory. However, we can't stop there. Once we have the phrase (or sentence) we need to make it our own, by swapping out nouns, verbs, adjectives etc. to create new strings of communication, sort of like what I did at the start of this blog. The phrase 眾目睽睽 isn't my own, but through the active process of studying it, understanding it, and committing it to memory, I learned how to use it.

I'm sure that Benny will be a lot more comfortable "in the wild" now that he understands everything he said in the video. Even if he can't create sentences of his own using some of the grammatical phrases (yet), he will be able to understand them in reading and listening when they come up.

This  in Chinese is called 語言定式教學法, a sort of formulaic speech teaching method and I find it quite effective. I've wrote roughly about how it works in a classroom setting in a past entry called Stuff the Duck.

I would love to hear all your thoughts, so please post them below.


  1. Like you said, it's great that he pays attention to the tones. That's something I didn't do enough when I started learning Chinese and even though Chinese people usually understand me quite well, I should polish my tones a lot.

    I think for Benny's next video he could learn to say words instead of pausing after almost every character. That would also help him to get a better flow to his speaking.

    Next time he could also write the script himself (if he needs it) and after that ask his teacher to correct it. He would surely learn a lot in the process.

    I have recorded my self once speaking Chinese (can be found in my blog) and plan to make a video next time partly inspired by Benny. It's hard to see or hear yourself on a video, but I'm sure it also a great tool to help you improve your Chinese.

    1. I agree. I'm sure the next video he drops will be a lot more fluid. I wish that I had as much help on my old Chinese video as he is getting on his. My first (and only) video I have of me speaking Chinese is from 4 years ago when I was getting ready for a statewide speech competition. My topic was boring, but I worked hard on writing in myself and I made tones my top priority. I was only a few months into studying Chinese at University at the time. It was a blast to make, and I too am thinking about putting up some more videos in Chinese thanks to Benny.

      Here is the link if anyone is interesting in checking out the old gem:

    2. I watched your old video and it was totally better than what I did after only a few months of Chinese. Actually I didn't really speak Chinese before I came to Chinese even though I studied it for 1,5 years in Finland.

      You should make a new video, would love to hear how you have improved during these 4 years.

  2. I have to say I'm a little surprised with Benny's first video. I've been ignoring him up to now, but today I did a little clicking around to figure out what he's all about.

    He seems to have a philosophy close to my own: lots of communicating, conquer your fears, etc. I realize now that my own mastery of the European languages that I speak came at around three months of good immersion as well. I like Benny better than I thought I would.

    I guess what surprises me most about the video is how unnatural he comes across, given that his approach seems so "communicative" (in the industry sense of that word).

    I think I know what's going on. When I was in CET, the first four weeks of our 5-hours-a-day of classes they had us singing every syllable, and when we made a mistake they used to correct us by interrupting us, shouting the correct tone. I call these first four weeks "the Terror." After the midterm, the singing and shouting-down ended, which led me to believe that "the Terror" had been an instructional choice.

    So my guess is that Benny is in the middle of the Terror. He's shining at all the things that are appropriate with his ACTFL level (lists, descriptions, simple actions in the present), plus he's got a tone terror agent with a gun to his back, and so Benny's playing ball.

    That's just my guess. Look's like he's doing fine; he should probably get out more... make Taiwanese friends, interact more.


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