Archive for October, 2008|Monthly archive page

Kids Don’t Learn Calculus Faster than Adults

In Linguistics and Language Learning on October 18, 2008 at 11:42 am


Why do most people believe children learn languages Faster?

By Antonio Graceffo


David Sedaris, the hilariously funny American author, has lived in France for a number of years and written a good number of humorous pieces about his own struggles with learning the French language. In one of his stories, he was standing in line at a bakery. The woman behind him was holding a bright orange ball over her baby stroller, saying to the baby, in French, “ball, ball.” The baby giggled and laughed. The woman smiled and repeated slowly, “ball, ball.” David Sedaris said something to the effect of, ‘I am sure I could learn French too, if all I had to do was lay comfortably on my back and have smiling people wave objects in front of me, while slowly repeating themselves until I got it.’


Christophe Clugston, an internationally recognized, professional Muay Thai fighter, is a graduate of the famed Defense Language Institute (DLI) and a brilliant linguist, competent at both academic and interpersonal levels, in more languages than most of us would care to count. In a recent email, referencing one of my earlier linguistic articles, Christoph echoed David Sedaris sentiment that the reason children appear to learn faster is simply because people are nicer about helping them.


“If you are and adult, the world is hostile to your learning.” Said Christoph, “Others expect you to understand their slang and idiomatic speech.”


People who haven’t studied languages often have no idea that they can’t speak to a language learner, or non-native speaker, in the way, rate, speed, and appropriateness of language, as they would with a native speaker. They see you as an adult, so they talk to you as an adult. If you don’t catch on right away, they simply write you off as stupid, and walk away. With children, on the other hand, people are used to adjusting their speech, dumbing it down, for children. It doesn’t matter if the child is a native or non-native speaker. Most adults have more patience with children. Children are also used to being students. Their entire lives have centered around learning things. So, it is normal for them to ask a question fifty times. And normal for adults to answer them.


With myself, I gave up on asking questions long ago. If you ask a Chinese friend (or a native speaker of whatever language you are trying to learn) “how do you say, language?” They come back with an answer, “blah, blah blah.” The dutiful student, you try to repeat it, but before you have said it twice, they come back with another answer. “Of course, in another context it could be blah,blah blah.” This happened to me in my first week in Taiwan. I made the mistake of asking a Taiwanese man, with a PHD in education, how to say “language.” A half hour later, he was still talking. He had given me no less than seven ways of saying language, and explained each of their usages in excruciating detail. Needless to say, I didn’t learn any of them.


Most people wouldn’t give a child seven different words for language. And when the child asked again, two minutes later, the adult would simply repeat himself. And he will continue to do this, fifty times, till the child learns the word. Try asking a colleague the same question fifty times and see what kind of reaction you get.


I have learned never ask, just listen. When the word comes up in conversation fifty times, then I can own it. Asking is taking a shortcut which is doomed to fail.


Christoph refers to non-language learners as “monolinguals.” It sort of sounds like a disease that needs to be cured. “Monolinguals also have no tolerance for slowing down, trying to explain, using language, that a new learner would probably have mastered.”


Christoph gave this example: I remember someone in the USA asking a native East German “Where do your kin live?”  I told the person, there is no way that word is in the lexicon–why don’t you try the word “family?” 


The feeling I have on children learning faster is this: a motivated adult could sit down and study a language much faster than a child. BUT, dedicated adults, with unlimited study time, are not very common. What generally happens is a child moves with his family to a foreign country. He attends school or plays with local children all day, while his parents work and spend most of their day using English. By the end of a one-year contract, the parents have only learned a few words of the local language, and the child is talking with ease.


“Children learn faster.” Is always the conclusion people come to. But it isn’t that they learned faster, it was that the adults didn’t put in their study time.


When I was studying Thai in Bangkok, I had two classmates, who were a missionary couple, from the united states. They completed nearly 2,000 hours of Thai listening, in an ALG Thai classroom. Their children, in contrast, were home, with an American governess. Home was an apartment in Bangkok, so, technically, the kids and the parents spent the same amount of time in Thailand. The kids had some limited contact with Thai children, during recess from their home-schooling. The parents spent all of their time at school, studying Thai, and never mixed with Thai people. At the end of the year, the parents could speak Thai and the children couldn’t.


Learning a language is a function of exposure, whether that exposure is studying or immersion. Just being in the country wont do it for you. And just being a child doesn’t mean you will learn a language at all.


Recently, at an English teacher’s conference in Taiwan, a senior trainer told us that it takes a Taiwanese child nine months to learn the phonetics of the English language. This is not surprising. Chinese is a pictorial language. The very concept of reading, as we know it, doesn’t even exist in Chinese. The words are composed of the pictures, and there is nothing about those pictures which coincides with the pronunciation. So, even related words may have completely unrelated sounds.


When Chinese kids first learn English reading, usually around age seven or eight, they have had some exposure to Chinese reading. They try and memorize the shapes of the English words, rather than the sounds. In Chinese, if you see a word for the first time, one you have never studied, you can’t even begin to guess at how it is pronounced. For the kids memorizing the appearance of English words, the same is true. I have literally had children in my class who could read the word “drive” because they had memorized it, but froze when they hit the word “driver” and couldn’t even guess at how to pronounce it.


Both Chinese and English are hard to learn. But, comparing a Taiwanese child learning English, to a foreign adult learning Chinese: it takes a Taiwanese child nine months to learn to read English phonetic. It takes the average foreign adult less than a week to learn the entire Taiwanese phonetic alphabet (BuPuMuFu).


You may not speak Danish, but if someone put a Danish newspaper in front of you, you could read all of the words. Your pronunciation would probably drive a Dane to distraction, and you would have no idea what the words meant, but you could read unlimited pages of text. The same is true for Taiwanese phonetic. At the end of one week of part time study, an adult learner could read unlimited pages of Chinese phonetic. He would have difficulty, and he would struggle and miss pronounce, but by the end of the first month, he would be an expert.


Since I am a proponent of ALG, I agree that the key to fluency is listening. But, having lived a bookish life, I cannot deny the magic of reading. Once you have mastered the phonetic, just weeks into your study, you can then read and study pages and pages and volumes of text, and learn and learn. Your learning would be limited only by the limits of your own dedication and energy invested.


My sixth grade students have attended ten hours per week of English classes, at private school, plus several hours per week of English lessons at government school, for six years. They are just beginning to read their first novel, “Charlotte’s Web.”


One of my coworkers, an American, has been in Taiwan for five years. In addition to teaching full time, he has been studying Chinese, for the same length of time as the gifted children I teach. He just started a university program, studying forestry management, taught in Chinese. Not only could my students not pass a similar program taught in English, at an American university, they could also not pass such a program taught in Chinese.


Universities don’t usually allow 12 year-olds to attend. There is a reason for that.


The test of adult vs. child language learning, could be done in this way.


An eight year old child and I would go to Czech Republic, where neither of us knows a word of the language. (We would sleep in separate hotel rooms, though. I am not Michael Jackson.) We would study in an intensive Czech program, the goal of which will be to pass the Czech equivalent of TOEFL or PNDS in order to be admitted to university in Czech Republic.


I have to believe an eight year old wouldn’t even make it through the first day of the program. But I, or any adult, could be nearly academically fluent at the end of a single year of intensive study. And assuming the adult in this example failed the exam, no worries, have him repeat the whole program, and at the end of two years, he would have achieved academic mastery. But the child wouldn’t.


Take my example a step further. Instead of a foreign child learning Czech, take a native born Czech, growing up in Czech Republic, a random school kid, turning nine at the end of this experiment. He would not be permitted to attend university and probably couldn’t pass the admission test, but a foreign adult could.


After being admitted to university and completing a two-years translation program, the same adult could pass a translation exam, reading a Czech newspaper, translating it into English, or an English newspaper, translating it into Czech. A Czech eleven year old, no matter how good his English was by that time, wouldn’t possibly posses the breadth of knowledge necessary to do that same translation. He couldn’t learn the words for the world financial debacle in English, because he doesn’t know them in Czech yet.


All of the experts or professionals I have had contact with recently seemed to agree that the new data suggests that children do not learn language faster than adults. Children are more likely to find themselves either in full time school or in full-time immersion than most adults. But, given the same circumstances, and adult would learn faster. The one difference does seem to be that children who learn a second language before the age of puberty have a higher probability of losing their accent.


The experts seem to be in agreement that these children lost their accent, but they aren’t sure why, or if it even means that children have a clear cut advantage in the accent department or if it is not an anomaly of the way children learn languages in a foreign country.


Please understand, the purpose of this article is not to bash children. It is just that I hope I can motivate more adults to learn languages. Some people believe they are too old. This is simply not true. Given the advantages of intelligence, experience, and knowledge that adults have in learning languages, I guess we could say:


When it comes to learning a new language, you could never be old enough.



Antonio Garceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, is available at See his vieos on youtub.


His website is

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Learning Languages in Your Pajamas, Eating Captain Crunch

In Linguistics and Language Learning on October 18, 2008 at 11:40 am

The Core Novel Method

By Antonio Graceffo


It was a Saturday morning, and I did what I had done every Saturdays since I could remember. I got up early, put on my favorite sweatpants, I had outgrown my Batman pajamas, made myself a huge bowl of captain Crunch, which I had bought at the PX of the nearby US Army base. I went into the TV room of our dormitory, and I spent the next several hours watching cartoons: “Die Retter Der Erde”, “Die Simpsons”, and “Die Familie Feuerstein.” Around twelve o’clock, I ran back to my room, during a commercial, and made a stack of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, with the crusts cut off. Accompanied by a glass of chocolate milk I ate my sandwiches while watching shows for big people, like “Raumschiff Enterprise”, “Ein Käfig voller Helden”, and “Unbekannte Dimensionen.”


I watched till I thought my retinas would burnout. It was a struggle, but I knew this was the price I would have to pay if I wanted to learn German.


After only nine months of German language study in the US, I had earned a place as an exchange student at the Department of Applied Linguistics, University of Mainz, located in Germersheim, Germany.


Of the roughly 2,300 students, about 20% were foreign, that is non-German. We all had to chose a three language combination and majored in either translation or interpretation. To even be admitted to the program, Germans had to demonstrate competence in English and French, as well as German, regardless of which language combination they planned to study. So, in some cases, students passed the French and English entrance requirements but then studied Russian and Dutch, giving them five languages. Foreign students had to pass the PNDS, which is the German equivalent of the TOEFL or IELTS, a difficult exam which proves a foreign speaker’s competence in German.


In short, my classmates were the absolute cream of the crop. As a rule, the poorer the country they came from, the more competent they were, because they were required to jump through more hoops to get there. Many of the Africans and Eastern Europeans had already graduated, in some cases they already possessed a PHD in their home country, but came to Germany to obtain a degree which would be accepted everywhere.

In my case, as an exchange student, I skipped all of those entrance requirements. At the end of my exchange semester, when it came to time to register for the next semesters classes, I was already in, so, I registered as a regular student. By exploiting this loophole, I stayed at the university for nearly four years without ever having passed a single entrance requirement.


Needless to say, with only nine months of German, I was way behind my classmates. The first day of classes, my head felt like it was splitting. By the third day of attending lectures, I thought I would die. I was doing well to pick out the odd word here and there. There was no way I was going to learn anything by going to more classes. Giving up on school, and consequently on myself, I limped back to the dorm, grabbed some comfort food, and flipped on the TV.


I was watching “Feivel, der Mauswanderer,” a Disney film with the original title of, “An American Tail.” Feivel was the mouse’s name in English. Maus was mouse, but why wanderer? Then it hit me, the German word for immigrant is Auswanderer. So, mouse wander was a cute play on words, meaning the” mouse immigrant.”


I thought that was pretty cute, so I kept watching. Before I knew it, night had come, and I was still glued to the TV. I wasn’t understanding everything, in fact, I probably understood less than 20%, but I knew that I was learning. So, the next morning, instead of going back to the university, the site of my defeat, I stayed home and watched TV. I set up a rigid schedule for myself of watching TV and working out (to burn off the Captain Crunch) and I stuck to it. Over the next several weeks, I saw my listening and speaking grow by leaps and bounds.


Occasionally German students would come in the TV room and criticized me for watching so much TV.


“Be quiet!” I yelled. “I am studying.”


One day, taking a break from my dedicated TV viewing, I walked into a bookstore. Germans are prodigious readers, and they have some of the best bookstores in the world. I stood in the center of the shop, looking at all of those wonderful books on the shelves, thinking, someday, I will be able to walk into this shop, take any book of the shelf, and read it. At the moment, however, it seemed an impossible dream. While I was standing there, one book caught my eye, “Der mit dem Wolf tanzt,” (Dances with Wolves). I don’t know why I was so drawn to the book, but I used some of my food money to buy it.


I took it back to the dorm and it took me a whole day to read about three pages, using a dictionary. This really ate into my TV time, so I abandoned the dictionary and just made a new schedule of reading for so many hours, without looking anything up, and watching TV for so many hours.


Once again, the same Germans who had seen me limp out of the university with my tail between my legs asked, “Do you understand everything in that book?”


“No,” I answered, without hesitation, “But I will the fifth time I read it.”


“That book is not so serious.” Said one of the countless German girls named Sabina. “Don’t you think you should be reading technical texts about linguistics?”


“If I can’t understand a book with a picture of Indians fighting on the cover, how am I going to understand a technical book?” I countered.


“Don’t you think you should read German literature, by German authors?”


“I don’t even understand German literature when it has been translated into English. I will stick with my novelized movie book.”


“But that was written for housewives!” shouted Sabina.


“GERMAN housewives.”pointed out. And at that point, I would have been satisfied with being able to read as well as a German housewife.


Reading “Dances With Wolves,” instead of a “real” German novel made sense to me. I knew the story, the context, the history, it was all tangible for me. Only the language was new. And that was what I sought to learn. It made perfect sense to me.


I didn’t know it at the time, but my TV viewing and my novel reading, without a dictionary were part of a language acquisition method called “The Core Novel method.” Developed by a brilliant Hungarian polyglot, named Kato Lombo.



Lomb Kato (her personal name) was considered, by Hungarians, to be the greatest living polyglot implemented the “core Novel method. Basically she chose a novel she loved to read, found a copy in the foreign language she wanted to learn, and worked through it.


Dr. Lombo said that when she set out to chose a language and a novel, she asked these questions: “How much am I interested in it? What do I want with it? What does it mean for me? What good is it for me?”


It just seems so incredibly sensible to me that Dr. Lombo was essentially saying, allow the learner to chose a language and study materials that have meaning for him or her. And to chose those stories that he was interested in. I liked the story of “Dances with Wolves.” I related to the main character, who is living in another culture, so different from his own. Quite often, in Germany, I considered writing a book, entitled “Dances with Translators.”  


I cared what happened on the next page and I wanted to learn the language, simply because I wanted to read faster.


Interestingly, Dr. Lombo also suggested not using a dictionary while reading this foreign book. If there was a word or phrase, which repeated and was clearly pivotal to understanding the book, but you haven’t figured it out by the fourth or fifth viewing, then you could reach for a dictionary. But, from my own experience, using the dictionary, the story had no joy, no relevance, and no flow. I could neither follow nor remember the story. Once I abandoned the dictionary I found the story flowed. I just read and read. Where I understood, great, where I didn’t understand, also great. Words and phrases that made no sense on page twenty came to life on page eighty.


My next book was “The Body Guard, then “Dracula.” Next, I was in France at a street market and saw a very compelling book about a kid growing up in war time Germany. My French reading level was quite bad, but so strong was my desire to read the book that I bought it anyway. Upon returning to Germany I brought the book to a book shop where they helped me find the German language version. It was the fourth book I read in German and the first where I had no idea of the story before reading. 


In addition to reading, I kept up with my TV watching. In Germany, TV is dubbed. Unlike terrible dubbing employed in the old Russia, where a single guy reads all of the parts, they have excellent, professional-quality dubbing in Germany. Famous American stars, such as Robert Deniro or Arnold Schwarzeneger, had their own official dubber. So, from movie to movie, their voices remained the same. I would watch “The God Father,” “Simpsons,” “Star Trek,” anything I enjoyed watching I watched again in German. German students would come in the TV room and ask me “Did you understand all of that.”


“You shouldn’t watch that.”

‘Why, are you going to ship me off to a camp?’ Sometimes I actually said things like this as a way of getting Germans to leave me alone. Sometimes, I felt like practicing my speaking, so I continued the argument. It was like a free German conversation lesson, the cost of which was a little anger.

“Aren’t you worried that you don’t understand everything?” asked the German.

“Why? Do we have a test?”

“You shouldn’t be watching TV and reading things you don’t understand.”

“But if I only read things I understand, I won’t learn anything. Besides, it would be really boring because I would only be reading children’s books.”

“But “The Simpsons” is a cartoon. Cartoons are for children.”

“Don’t say, that!” Like all delusional people, I became aggressive when my delusions were challenged. “The Simpsons” is more than a cartoon. It is a way of life.”


A huge advantage of reading novels or watching TV is that you get relatively real dialogue. Yes, we don’t all speak exactly like Clint Eastwood in “”Ein Mann Sieht Rot”, but none of us speak the way people do in dialogue 23 of the average language textbook. Why do all language textbooks have dialogues about renting hotel rooms or going to market and buying vegetables? These aren’t discussions I would ever have with a native speaker. These are things I just don’t do all of that often. But watching “The Godfather” I learned all of the vocabulary necessary to live as a Mafia don. This is something I have aspired to for years anyway. And now, I am qualified to do the job in two languages.


Fast forward more years than I care to count, and I am in Taiwan, studying Chinese. My Taiwanese friends, the ones who are dedicated students of English constantly read books about English language: books on idioms or gender biases in grammar exercises…. They never just sit down and read a book. As a native speaker, you have most likely never sat down and read an entire book about the English language. But you have probably read, enjoyed and learned from literature written in english.


In school curriculums, language learners, if they read literature at all, are subjected to Mark Twain, “Charlotte’s Web,” and often Shakespeare. These are terrible choices for people who want to learn language. Mark Twain is brilliant, but the dialect makes it hard for low-level learners to read. Do we really want a bunch of Taiwanese kids talking like Riverboat Jim? Shakespeare is the least logical thing to have kids read in a first language classroom. Why on earth would we make them read it in an English learning environment? Kids in Taiwan love baseball. Why not have them read a biography of Babe Ruth?


In my English language classroom I show the kids videos, such as “Mulan” and “Kung Fu Panda.” The context is Chinese, and the stories are familiar. Mulan, for example is an ancient Chinese legend, which the kids had all read in Chinese, before seeing the Disney movie. For myself, I use these and other Disney cartoons to practice Chinese listening. Disney DVD are equipped with a language switch, so you can choose English or Chinese, complete with same language subtitles.


Reading real German books or watching real German TV would require knowledge of the culture, history, and geography. By using American movies and books, I knew who the bad guy was without anyone telling me. In German I wouldn’y have a clue. For example when I was in Spain, parents were telling me they didn’t let their kids watch the Bill Cosby show because the children were disrespectful toward their parents. This was amazing because in the States, Cosby was considered a family show, which parents encouraged kids to watch.


When Germans saw “Rocky One” they said things like, “But he did not win. So he is not good.” They missed the point entirely. As I imagined I would miss the point entirely in a German movie I stuck with what I knew.


I once tried watching a Chinese movie, and when I asked who the bad guy was, the Chinese all looked at me like I was nuts. “Didn’t you see the opening scene? General Tsao walked in backwards. Clearly he was in defeat.”


Of course! How could I have failed to pick up on that culturally universal reference?


Eventually, to truly know a language, you will also need to master the culture. So I would eventually have to start watching German, or now, Chinese movies, but one thing at a time.


Now that I am in Taiwan, learning Chinese, there is absolutely no way that I foresee myself changing my tastes and desires to a point that I would enjoy or even understand Taiwanese TV shows. The culture is just so vastly different. For this reason, to do my listening practice I watch Disney movies such as “Mulan” or “The Incredibles,” which have been dubbed into Chinese.


This type of viewing, and the corresponding reading, is a good way to get started, but obviously it has its pitfalls as well.


An American guy in Taiwan, call him Richard, chose not to learn Chinese characters. Instead, he mastered the reading of Bu Pu Mu Fu, a phonetic script used for teaching reading to Chinese children. We all learn it, as we are learning Chinese. The thought is, however, that you would eventually transition into learning real Chinese characters. Richard, like many foreigners, decided characters were just too hard. So, he reads books in Bu Pu Mu Fu as a way of improving his general Chinese fluency. The problem, however is that only children’s books are written in this alphabet.


“Now, I am as fluent as a five year old.” Richard told me. “I don’t know how to move forward.”


The answer seems to be that no what language you wish to be fluent at, you will eventually need to learn the writing system and read original literature targeted at college educated adults, if you wish to be as clever in your foreign language as a college educated adult. And that means a lot of work, no matter what language you are dealing with.


Fortunately for me, I am not at that point yet in Chinese. So, I can just watch Cartoon Network, and let the learning seep in.


Antonio Garceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, is available at See his vieos on youtub.


His website is

Join him on

Contact Antonio:


Immersion Sandwich and a Side of Rice

In Linguistics and Language Learning on October 5, 2008 at 5:24 am

By Antonio Graceffo


For forty years, I had a lonely secret, I could not read Chinese.


The first time I lived in Taiwan and China, I was desperate to learn to speak. Asia is much harder than Europe, if you don’t speak the language. And in countries, such as China and Thailand which use a different writing system, you can’t even read street signs. You try taking a taxi, because you can’t read the directions how to go somewhere, but you aren’t able to tell the taxi driver where to go. In fact, for most foreigners, their own address remains a mystery.


Possibly, the worst part of not knowing the language is that you can’t read menus. Most of us find out the name of a few dishes, which we like, and always order them. My first year in Taiwan, I ate pork fried rice nearly every day, because I knew how to say it. A lot of foreigners wind up at McDonalds, not because they are culturally insensitive or unwilling to sample local food, but because McDonalds has a picture menu. Before I could even put together a sentence, such as ‘my name is,’ I knew how to say, “I will have a number 5. And super-size it.”


When I signed up for Chinese classes I was desperate to learn speaking as quickly as possible. I wanted to learn reading too, but right away, I realized that I had to make a choice.


To survive in a foreign country, you need a basic vocabulary of about 500 words. If you want to start having conversations, real conversations, you need 1,500 or more words. When you sign up for Chinese classes, they will usually ask you if you will chose the speaking and reading option, or only speaking.


Most foreigners living in Taiwan are working as English teachers. Some are working at corporations. Very few are full-time students. Students have the luxury of taking an academic approach to learning the language. But working people cannot. We have jobs, and lives, and learning Chinese is a matter of survival, not a hobby. Attending classes one or two hours, four days a week, is already a lot for most working people.


At that rate, learning to read, you would be doing very well if you could pick up ten words per week. So, to get to your goal of 500 words would take a full year. If you chose a speaking only option you may be able to do thirty or more words per week.

As a side note, if you chose a writing option, you may only learn between three and ten words a week. And if you aren’t doing homework, that number won’t be attainable.


Most of us start with good intentions, but then realize very quickly that we will be miserable till we learn at least basic Chinese. And, the reading option will take just too long. So, we quit reading and concentrate on speaking. At least, that’s what I did. A lot of people just quit, give up. You find them ten years later, still unable to put a basic sentence together. There is even a surprisingly large market to teach private lessons in European languages, such as Spanish and German, to foreigners who gave up on Chinese, but still want to learn a language.


After a few weeks of struggling with Chinese characters, you are convinced that you could master German in about a week.


If you don’t speak Chinese, you are no longer an independent adult. Every time you need to buy something, or settle a problem with the landlord or your cell phone, or fix your motorcycle, or mail a package, someone will have to go with you to translate. Without speaking Chinese, you feel like a retarded uncle who everyone has to help and make excuses for.


I originally signed up for a few hours of classes per week, planning to supplement this with tons of homework, done on my own. At the end of the first week of classes I shut off the phone, laid in a supply of food and coffee, locked the door, and said I wasn’t coming out of my apartment till I had memorized 500 words. I opened my textbook, took one glance at it, and realized that not being able to read also meant I couldn’t do homework. There was almost nothing I could do on my own, to help my Chinese.


(Author’s note: There are Chinese phonetic writing systems, such as Romanization and Bu Pu Mu Fu, but for the most part, you can’t just sit and write out vocabulary or even use a dictionary, like you can when learning a European language.)


I went back to school and signed up for twenty-four hours per week of classes. It cost me 25% of my income, but I realized that the only thing I could do to improve my Chinese was to spend time with my teacher. I have written extensively elsewhere about the myth of immersion. The fact that your are living in China doesn’t mean that you are being exposed to Chinese. And even if you lived in a house with a Chinese family who talked to you twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week, if you didn’t have any Chinese base at all, you just wouldn’t learn it.


The goal, as I saw it, was to acquire 1,500 words as quickly as possible. After that, immersion, talking with Taiwanese friends, and all of these outside methods could be used. In my case, I went to Mainland China, and studied in the Shaolin Temple. For three months I lived and trained with monks. No one spoke a word of English, and my Chinese listening and speaking soared.


Toward the end of my three months, however, I really began to question the value of the exposure I was getting. I was living with a bunch of uneducated Chinese guys, most of whom couldn’t read. We trained in Kung Fu about twelve hours a day, so much of our conversation revolved around martial art. In the end, what was I learning? What was I being exposed too? Would these guys be able to provide me with the vast breadth of vocabulary and subjects I would need to achieve real fluency? Probably not.


I left China with a new theory, which I called “The Immersion Sandwich with a Side of Rice.” To become fluent in Chinese, the recommended method would be, first acquire 1,500 words by-hook-or-by crook. This could even be acquired in the States or a university outside of China. Next, live in a true immersion environment for a period of months. This will activate your listening and speaking. But step three has to be a return to school. Unless you learn to read, you won’t be able to teach yourself more Chinese, and your vocabulary and language growth will stagnate.


A classmate of mine, Dr. Craig Callender, from University of Mainz, is now a professor of linguistics at an American University. In discussing language competency, often referred to as fluency, he explained that there were two kinds of competency. BICS (basic interpersonal communication skills) and CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency). He went on to explain, “Being good in one does not guarantee that you will be good in the other.”


Basically, the first, BICS, is your ability to hang out in a bar and talk to people. For many foreigners, living abroad, this is the goal, just to be able to communicate or chit-chat. For most adult learners, even this level of competency is an unattainable goal. Those who reach this level, of being able to hold a conversation, often overestimate their abilities and call themselves fluent.


Once a foreigner learns passable Chinese, everywhere he goes, native speakers say to him, “Your Chinese is very good.” And he believes it. Next, they ask him the standard questions, “where are you from? How many brothers and sister do you have?” He answers all of these questions accurately. If his Chinese is good enough, he may even get invited out with a group of Chinese people, who will sit with him, drinking beer from big bottles and small glasses. In between karaoke songs, they will each ask him the same set of twenty question, times five friends, a hundred exchanges, which he has dutifully mastered.


In the wee hours of the morning, he stumbles home thinking, “Wow! My Chinese is so good, that I am able to maintain friendships with Chinese people who don’t speak English.” And, “I am able to maintain a Chinese conversation all night.


This is the point where most people decide they don’t need “book learning” anymore. They use phrases like, “real life,” or “on the streets” and see these situations as better than learning in school.


In my opinion, this guy didn’t have a conversation. A conversation goes in two directions. I ask. You answer. The other guy interjects. You ask. I answer. We all become interested in the topic, and that leads to more questions, answers, anecdotes, stories, parallel subjects, sedge ways…. A conversation is a living, breathing thing. It grows. It develops. It moves. Five drunken Chinese guys, focusing all of their attention on you, asking banal questions about your family and origins is not a conversation. If you were to transcribe one of your Chinese conversations and compare it to an average coffee or beer drinking session with your native speaker friends, you would see that they don’t even compare.


To further illustrate the difference between BICS and CALP, I remember an American soldier, stationed in the village where my friends and I were attending university, in Germany. The soldier considered himself fluent because he was able to talk to his uneducated German wife and her family, when he visited their pig farm. When I heard him speak German at a party, I cringed. What he referred to as German was not standard, academic language, but dialect. It is important to note that German dialects vary dramatically from the standard, High-German. The dialects have terrible grammar and can’t even be written. Basically, he talked like a hillbilly. Germans with such a heavy dialect would be required to pass German exams in order to begin studying at the university.


His vocabulary was also shockingly small. He lacked proper verbs for anything. He just used “make,” to express his needs and desires. Instead of saying, “take off the lid,” he would say, “make it open.” Instead of repair, he would say, “make it good again,” and so on. This was exactly the type of trap university-students were taught to avoid. A typical exercise in the university setting would be a list of fifty activities which you wish to express, but you were forbidden to use the word “make.” You had to know the actual, proper verb for each action.


While striving to reach academic competency, a student will pass through this stage of development. He will be able to say everything he wants. He can express nearly any concept, tell a story, or relate the day’s events, but he doesn’t know any of the correct vocabulary, instead, he is describing. For example, when I was sick in the hospital in China, I needed to tell my doctor that I was dehydrated. I didn’t know the Chinese word, so instead, I said, in Chinese, “I went to the bathroom twenty times last night, and now there is no water in my body.” I didn’t know how to say, “fever.” So, I said, “Inside my body is hot.”


Yes, I got the point across, but it sounded like an eight year-old or the least educated redneck in the universe, rather than like an educated adult. What if you went to the hospital, in your hometown, and the doctor informed you, “Inside your chest have something big grow. We must cut.” You would probably demand a different doctor, or even another hospital.


This level of proficiency is dangerous, because academic learners can get sidetracked into believing they are already fluent, or that they can break off their studies and will just “pick up” the rest of the language. This is completely untrue, and was part of the reason why I left the temple when I did.


The thing that separates an uneducated native speaker from an educated one is formal study and tons and tons of reading. The same goes for the academic language learner. When he reaches this point of fluency, it is time to go back to school.


And so, I invented my language learning theory, “Immersion Sandwich and a Side of Rice.” To become fluent, academically fluent:


1. First develop a vocabulary of one thousand to fifteen hundred words, and basic grammar through formal study.

2. Next, arrange a total immersion. BUT, make sure you are actually immersed and not just living abroad.

3. Last, you need to go back to school. Learn to read, write and do academic study. Use educated native speakers as your models. Read 100 books in your chosen language, and you will be fluent. 

Antonio Garceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, is available at See his vieos on youtub.


His website is

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The Banking Debacle Explained

In Business and Finance on October 5, 2008 at 5:15 am

By Antonio Graceffo


I did not go into banks and do an audit. Neither did I do an in-depth analysis of the current banking industry dilemma. I wrote this piece, however, just to explain in simple terms, how a bank can become insolvent because of poor credit policies and over-inflated assets.


Banks make money by making loans to people. The largest loans most consumers will ever take are home loans. The more home-loans a bank makes, the more profit they make.


When a bank loans money, for example $100,000, to a consumer to buy a home, that loan is carried as an asset on the bank’s balance sheet. The value of the loan is the loan, plus the interest. This seems simple, but there is one more fact that has to be calculated in. Not everyone is going to repay their loan. So, the value of the loan is discounted by the percentage chance that the person won’t pay it back.


Simple English: (This is a simplified example and doesn’t reflect real life numbers or factors such as the time value of money, or the rate and or schedule of repayment. It is only an illustration of how credit worthiness affects the value of a loan.)




Mr. Mork wants to buy a house. He applies to the bank for a $100,000 mortgage.

The bank evaluates Mr. Mork’s credit and deems him 80% likely to repay the loan. The bank has a policy that says they can only loan money to people who are 80% likely or more. So, Mr. Mork qualifies.


The bank loans Mr. Mork $100,000. With all of the interest that Mr. Mork will pay over the life of the loan, the loan is worth $150,000. (These are not real numbers.) The value of the loan on the balance sheet, however, has to be discounted by 20%. So, it doesn’t go on the books as $150,000. It goes as $120,000.


The bank makes a profit of $20,000.


The more loans the bank makes, the more money they make. So, it is in the bank’s interest to make more loans.


Mr. Warf and Mr. Data also apply for $100,000 bank loans. The bank does a credit check and deems them 70% likely to repay the loans. So, they are denied.


The bank CEO wants to make a larger profit. His annual bonus and compensation package is based on a percentage of the total revenue of the bank as well as his annual performance. So, he wants to loan more money. He is not permitted to loan money to people with a 70% likelihood of repayment, because this is set in the bank charter (or other public document.) he can’t change this policy because when the shareholders bought shares, they understood that this bank was only going to make loans to people who were 80% likely to repay. If the CEO started loaning money to un-creditworthy people, he would be violating that agreement.


Luckily, someone at the bank has an idea. They decide that their current credit evaluation procedures are too stringent. So, although they won’t loan money to anyone who is less than 80%, they will reduce the requirements to reach the 80% bracket. They reevaluate all of the loan applications from last year and under the new credit evaluation procedures, a number of people suddenly jumped to the 80% grid.


The CEO goes before the board and says, “My revolutionary new credit procedure will allow us to make three times the loans we made last year. So, our profit will increase 300%. And, I am happy to reassure you that we won’t be loaning money to anyone lower than 80%.”


Most of the board likes it. They don’t really understand what changes are being made behind the scenes, but they like it. A few board members have degrees in accounting. They see through this suicidal procedure and try to convince the others to block it.


The CEO or his PR people go before the shareholders. Before the meeting, they have already gone to the worst ghetto or trailer park imaginable. They come back with a poor, but honest, hard-working family, who “deserve” a place of their own.


“Would you deny Jorge and Roselda a decent house and a good school for little Pablo and Conchita? You fatcats sit back in your beautiful homes in suburban America. Your kids go to private schools. You sit back and collect dividend checks based on the sweat and labor of thousands of people like Jorge and Roselda, but now you are denying them a home.” If the shareholders are not in tears yet, he begins quoting Jimmy Stewart, from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“It is people like Jorge and Roselda who do most of the working, and, paying and dying in this town. Is it too much to ask that they do it in four decent rooms with a bath?”


The credit evaluation policies are changed. The bank makes three times the number of loans they did the previous year. Two thirds of those loans would not have qualified the previous year. The CEO triples the income of the bank. He gets a huge bonus. Often, new policies are accompanied by a “golden parachute.” There is a fear that a CEO is will not try anything new, because if it fails, he could be left with nothing. So, to encourage executives to think out of the box and try to pioneer new policies and lines of business, risky businesses are often accompanied by a “golden parachute.” Basically this is an incredibly lucrative compensation package paid to an executive if his “brain-child” revolutionary new idea fails.


There are other financial analysis that come into play here, but these are technical details. So far, this has been a simplified version of the problem. One more detail is this. People who default on home loan don’t usually miss their first or second monthly payment. The credit analysts would know, with some certainty, when a particular person would likely default. Maybe, for example, the average loan will default after four years or five years. So, the CEO announces that this last major program is the crowning achievement of his career. He will over see it for five years and then go into retirement. At which point, he will collect his percentages for the brilliant increase in the bank’s revenues.


The problem worsens.


What is an overvalued asset?


The banks borrow money from a central bank, in order to loan money to the public. They also sometimes sell debts to outside companies, in order to get cash to loan to other people. Banks, like everyone else, have to qualify as being credit-worthy. So, when a bank wants to borrow money, they have to show their assets listed on their balance sheet.


Now, Jorge and Rosalinda’s mortgage was $100,000 and they were meant to repay $150,000 with a 20% probability of failure to repay, so their home loan is valued at $120,000 on the bank’s balance sheets. So, they borrow money accordingly. But, according to last year’s policies. This loan would not have been made, because Jorge and Rosalina were only deemed 70% likely to repay the loan, which means the real value of the loan is only $105,000. So, the bank is over-extended. It can’t make good on the money it borrowed.


Another wrinkle.


Now, consumers are asking: “How do these guys live with themselves? It is so obvious that this is a ponsy scheme which will eventually explode.”


Well, maybe not so obvious.


One of the reasons that the bank executives were willing to lower the credit requirements of consumers was that they knew the average person wouldn’t default for five years (five years is just an example). At that time, the bank would take possession of the house, and resell it, to recoup its losses. By that time, the bank would have collected five years of mortgages plus the value of the resale of the house. So, the money could be repaid.


The bank calculated the probability of selling the house, and what the value would be, and it looked like a safe bet. If Jorge and Rosalinda defaulted, there would be 100 other buyers, willing to buy the house at its appreciated value. The banks bets were covered.


This next bit is an extremely simplified example, so if you know deeper economic theory and banking procedures, please don’t rip me apart. This is just a way of explaining it so everyone can understand it.


Five years down the road, the CEO retired, taking his millions with him. Jorge and Rosalinda defaulted on their mortgage, and the bank took control of their house. Jorge and Rosalinda lived in a housing development which was all financed under the same set of loans, with the same diluted credit policies as Jorge and Rosalinda’s house. So, the same week, 70% of the houses in the development defaulted. Now the bank is sitting on a ton of foreclosed houses.


They try to sell the houses, but in the mean time, the convenience store, the auto-repair shop, the restaurants…every business which was serving the housing development has closed because 70% of the people are gone. Prospective home buyers drive out, take one look at a deserted neighborhood, with no businesses close by, and they decide not to buy. So, the houses get harder to sell.


Let’s say that they do decide to buy anyway. They apply for a loan. Since the bank is getting slammed with foreclosures and lack of income, they decide to raise their internal credit policy back up to the previous, more stringent rules. Now, instead of 100 qualified buyers for these houses, they only find 10. So, 90 homes are now on the bank’s balance sheets. They are unsellable assets. The laws of capitalism basically say, if you can’t find buyers at $100,000 you drop the price to $90,000 and then to $80,000… The price of the house keeps dropping till it finds a market of buyers willing to buy it.


Now, remember that these houses were being carried on the bank’s balance sheet to secure major loans the bank took. But, the houses are steadily dropping in value. In a simplified example: The bank carried a house at $120,000 and borrowed $120,000. Now the house is only worth $90,000. the bank’s creditors come in and say, “You have to give us $30,000 in cash to make up for the shortfall of your collateral.” The bank doesn’t have $30,000. So, they can’t pay their creditor.


The creditor can take the house from the bank, but the creditor will now have a loss of $30,000. And remember this didn’t happen on one home loan or in one bank. It was across the industry, which means the companies who extended credit to the banks are now in danger of collapse. The banks are also in danger of collapse.


The buyout package which has been in the news, from what I can see, will be loaned to banks, to pay their creditors, so banks and their creditors can stay in business.


How does this affect you?


If you have large amounts of cash in a bank, FDIC insurance will protect up to $100,000 worth of cash. So, if the bank went belly up, your $100,000 would still be safe.

IMPORTANT! Not all money stored at banks is FDIC insured. If you have mutual funds, IRAs, or money markets they will probably not be covered. Check with your banker and make sure your money is in an FDIC insured account.


As a side note: credit unions and S and Ls are not banks. They often are not covered by banking regulations and are not FDIC insured. If you have money at those types institutions, or money in a cash account at a brokerage house, check with your representative and find out if you are covered under FDIC.


If your money is FDIC insured and the bank dies, your money should be fine. BUT if there is a credit crunch, which there is, this means that some banks are failing and others have no money to lend, this will send ripples through the whole economy. Certain types of business can only stay open if they have access to nearly unlimited credit. For example, a car dealership or a taxi company, or car rental business often does not own the cars on the lots, they are all financed. If there is no cash available in the finance system, these businesses cannot buy or lease cars, which will ultimately mean they will have to close.


The employees will lose their jobs. So, if you are an employee of these types of firms you will be directly effected. If you work for a company which sells services to these types of firms, you will eventually be effected, because your company will lose its customers.


Construction, real-estate, and land development is another sector which is completely dependent on the availability of credit. If credit dries up, all of these employees stand to lose their jobs. People who sell good and services to these industries or their employees will lose their customers and possibly have to close.


All of these employees will suddenly lose their income, which will mean defaulting on their personal debt and home mortgages…..


On a global note: The US is one of the largest consumer nations in the world. If millions of Americans lose their jobs and lose their access to credit, they will stop their consumer spending. There are entire manufacturing companies in China, for example, who only sell products to Wallmart. Any foreign country with a positive trade balance with the US (meaning countries selling products to the US) will lose their customers, and eventually have to close.


The flutter of a butterflies wings in New York becomes a typhoon in Asia.


Antonio Garceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, is available at See his vieos on youtub.


His website is

Join him on

Contact Antonio: