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.


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