Archive for November, 2008|Monthly archive page

Interpersonal Communication vs. Translation and Academic Fluency

In Linguistics and Language Learning on November 25, 2008 at 4:08 pm

Two types of fluency are at complete odds in the brain and may require two distinct styles of training.

By Antonio Graceffo


When I learned German, living in a dormitory in Germany, I made a rigid schedule of reading novels in German, watching TV, and talking to native speakers. I never used a dictionary or kept vocabulary lists. If I didn’t understand something in a film or a book, I just let it go. The same words or concepts would reoccur later, in other books or movies, and I would eventually learn these concepts. By the end of one year, I could understand 80 – 90% of a movie or a novel, and I spoke well.


Or so I thought.


My American classmate, Frank, who is now a high ranking professional translator warned me. “You think you understand, but you don’t.”


I didn’t know what Frank meant at the time. When I started working as a translator, I found that I made a lot of mistakes, particularly that I had a lot of omissions. I wasn’t sure why. So, I kept reading and watching German movies, and trusted that I would improve.


Frank suggested that I open the books and write grammar and translation exercises. I argued that the professional translations I was doing were practice enough. I thought I just needed time. So, I stayed with my method, hoping to prove Frank wrong.


Insanity is defined as doing what we have always done and expecting to get different results.


Obviously, I never reached true academic fluency in German.


Fast forward fifteen years. Now, I am studying Chinese in ROC. When I started, I only learned speaking. I tried the same rules as before, whatever I don’t understand, I will just ignore. Eventually, my speaking got a level that impressed native speakers. But I still couldn’t read and couldn’t understand most of what I heard on TV.


Once I made the decision to reach academic fluency, translation, in Chinese, and began intently studying the reading and writing, I suddenly understood the mistakes I had made in the past.


The method I used for German, and in the beginning of my Chinese studies, is called the natural way, or the core novel method. It goes by a hundred other names, all of which tend to center on the concept of natural language. The idea is, children learn their native tongue naturally. They don’t make vocabulary lists. They don’t do exercises. They simply hear or read the language. What they don’t understand is ok, they will get it next time.


This natural type approach has been the way English has been taught for years, breaking away form the old grammar translation method. The advantage of natural approach is that it builds interpersonal fluency, the ability to talk with or communicate with people in the foreign language. For most people, this is what they need, and the method works just fine for them.


The problem for translators, or those seeking academic fluency is that these natural methods teach you to ignore words that you don’t know, or to “guess” based on context. You are taught to use intuition in understanding and to take linguistic chances, when producing language. Good enough is good enough.


These natural methods don’t work well for translation or academic fluency because in translation you need to focus on every single word. The nuances and slight differences in meaning are important and need to be understood and translated correctly.


After years of natural acquisition, it is possible that the learner will no longer hear those words that he doesn’t know. This is why, when you tell your foreign co-worker, “bring me all of the boxes in excess of 10KGs,” he brings you all of the boxes. He didn’t know the words “in excess of,” so he ignored them and took his best guess.


Natural methods suggest that language is for communication, and that focusing on the words and grammar, the nuts and bolts, gets in the way of communication. This is absolutely true. If you are trying to think of verb tenses and terminal “s” when speaking, you will not speak fluidly, and worse, you won’t hear the next thing being said, and will fall behind.


And, as said before, for most people, communication is the goal, so these type of natural approaches will produce communication faster than grammar translation or other book and grammar methods. But, the speaker will never reach full fluency.

For translators, the goal is not communication. The communication already exists in the source text. Now, the translator needs to convert that text, exactly, into the target language. If he ignores the words he doesn’t know, the translation will be wrong.


In Chinese, the time pronoun “zai,” can mean again. But, a separate character, with the same phonetic pronunciation, “zai” can be the progressive, such as, “I am eating.” Yet another “zai” can give the implication of having waited a long time for someone and they have finally arrived. Granted, the difference is minimal for interpersonal communication. He is arriving or he just arrived but he is late… But, what if it was a letter of complaint that the customer sent to the company? Then it because a very distinct difference.  

The kids who grow up in English schools in Taiwan are always taught not to translate, which is more of a natural approach. We have all had teachers tell us, at some time or another, “don’t translate in your head, think in the foreign language.” The result is people understand, or think they understand a written text. They can even answer all of thee comprehension questions correctly, but when asked to translate it, they draw a blank.

As one of my linguist friends, David Long of the ALG method put it, “Their brain just isn’t wired that way. The pathways just aren’t there.”

David went on to say, “My experience with translation for ALG students is that it’s an almost completely different mode than what our students are in. The problem seems to be in the fact that by learning to understand a new language without linking it to your other language(s), those links never really form. On the other hand, the problem with ‘learning by linking’ is that the ‘real’ meanings and their facets are never able to be learned because they’re blocked by the linkings.”

The question I asked next was, if translation is the goal, is interpersonal communication or listening and speaking even remotely important? For Chinese, I spend all of my time writing, but perhaps for translation, this is what one needs. The best translation professor we had in Germany, Dr. Kiraly, was an American whose spoken German was competent, but never flashy, and where possible, he always spoke English. But, he was the best German to English translator. I googled his name recently and found that he has become somewhat famous, speaking at conferences around the world.

In analyzing my experience with German language, David had this to say. “I would consider that the basis you had in conversational German would be foundational. Then, a formal linking up, would be required to be a top translator.”


This supports my own, new, theory, which is that a natural approach would probably helpful, if not necessary, as a basis. After the student has learned to speak and communicate, then he could change gears and start to learn translation. I often believed that if I went back to school now, to study German translation, I would be in good stead to learn, because my prior knowledge and experience with the language are so large. The same is turning out to be true of Chinese. The high degree of speaking I had when I began my formal, written study, have been invaluable in learning to read and write characters.


David is a strong supporter of natural method, and in particular ALG. I don’t disagree with him. There is something magical about a method where you sit in class, listening for one thousand hours and then suddenly start speaking well.


“I don’t think that a person can accurately translate without the foundation that an ALG type approach offers.” Said David. “The exception is in contract type areas where great care is taken to be exacting in any language. In such situations, there isn’t much room for double meanings or cultural differences of expression.”


David tells his students that cultural understanding is perhaps more important than prior knowledge of a language when it comes to learning to communicate. He believes that this is true for all but the most sophisticated type of academic work.

I think I am further convinced that my earlier article, “Emersion Sandwich and a Side of Rice,” is right. I think we need to start out with a natural, communicative approach, such as ALG. This would give the student a good foundation of understanding and vocabulary, as well as a model for pronunciation. At some point, the student would need to decide what his goal is. If he wants to be a translator, he should switch to a nuts and bolts approach. If he wants to be a good communicator he could continue with the natural method.


Antonio Graceffo 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:



Monkey Master in the Cage

In Martial Arts on November 25, 2008 at 4:06 pm

One of Taiwan’s last remaining Monkey Masters wants to fight in the K-1 and UFC to show the world the power of traditional Chinese martial arts.

By Antonio Graceffo



Master Hisam’s hands are huge and swollen, as hard as rocks. In demonstrations, he uses them to smash granite slabs to dust. One could only imagine what those hands would do to your skull, even through boxing gloves.


The gym is a four story walkup, overlooking a highway in Tainan, the ancient capital of Taiwan. Here, 37 year old Al Haroun Hisham, a German born Syrian is one of the last keepers of the traditional monkey fist. After several hours of forms and body hardening exercises, Hisham begins his daily ritual of bag work, running, weight lifting, and wrestling with a 50 kg dummy. This the training that won him the International San Da Wang championship last year, and the one which he hopes will carry him on to a repeat win of San Da Wang, followed by the Art of War in China, and eventually landing him in the UFC or K-1.


Hisham weighs over 80 Kgs of rock solid muscle and carries very little body fat. At first glance, his routine looks like a mix of East and West, new and old, but, Hisham says that most of the techniques he uses were developed in China centuries ago.


“The ancient monks ran. They hit the bag. They did everything that we do today. But, they also used meditation and Chinese medicine to harden the body both inside and out.” Explains Hisham. He doesn’t believe he is brining something new to the MMA world. Instead, he believes he is helping the world to rediscover something that was lost.


“My traditional Chinese martial arts training involves hardening the forearms, inside and outside. In the monkey, we punch with the wrist, so we have to harden the wrist. We punch back hand, and hand knife edge, as well as the palm. If we condition the entire hand, the monkey claw is very, very dangerous.”


Hisdham also uses Chinese conditioning on all parts of nees, elbows, and feet. “I practiced the conditioning like iron shirt, combined with Chinese medicine. Internal and external training: this make the body like a weapon.”


Hisham’s family originates in Damascus. “My father immigrated to Berlin in early 60s. Back in Damascus, my family practiced wrestling for generations. I grew up with it. My grandfather wrestled. My uncle was a wrestling master, a national team member. He won many regional championships and went to the Asian games. He was my first teacher. We didn’t have a real school, so we wrestled on the floor with mattresses.”


“Old school wrestling in Syria is different than modern Greco Roman They used to head-butt and grab skin or cheek muscles. So, when they threw you, they ripped out the flesh and muscles. And, they did really bad stuff to you on the ground.”


Hisham first fell in love with Chinese Kung Fu when he was a young buy, watching movies.


“My father exported German cars Damascus. He used his money to buy several cinemas in Berlin. In the 1970s, we were the first ones playing Chinese martial arts movies. My father sat my right in the front row, when I was only four years old. He watched the Shaw Brothers and all of these old school martial arts movies. Afterwards, I went home and practiced what I shad seen.”


“My parents pushed me to do some exercise. My mother was a ballet dancer. My father didn’t want me to do that, but my mom taught me the split and stretching. My father always wrestled with me.” But most important was the influence from the movies. “My goal was to become a Shaolin monk. This was something I really admired.”


While growing up, Hisham earned a black belt in Tae Kwan Do. While he did his national military service, he also learned some Chinese martial arts which were taught to German paratroopers. He eventually found a monkey master in Berlin and studied with him for four years. He liked the Chinese martial art that he was learning, but he suspected that something was missing.


“It all looked like the ballet my mother used to do. It was very beautiful, but where was the application?”


The old school wrestling had taught Hisham that modern sport arts could be watered down versions of ancient, deadly martial arts which were applicable in real fighting. So, in 1996, he came to Taiwan first time.


“I did a lot of research which said that there were three major migrations of Chinese Kung Fu masters to Taiwan. The first was in 1644, during Ming and Ching Dynasties.” Next, the Boxer, after their failed rebellion in the summer of 1900, escaped to Taiwan. Finally, during Mao’s cultural revolution, when all masters of ancient arts were being killed, many Kung Fu masters took refuge in Taiwan.  


According to Hisham, “The real martial art is not found in Mainland China because of the communism. But, I thought it could be found outside of china, in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan.


Hisham used money he earned from his school in German and from his work as a bodyguard, to finance his trips back and forth to Taiwan, seeking the masters. Eventually, in 2005, he settled permanently in Taiwan. He is married to a Taiwanese woman, who shares his vision of rediscovering the ancient Chinese arts and showcasing them to the world by winning the K-1 or UFC.


“I am not a snake. I am not a tiger or a praying mantis. My body looks like a monkey. So, this is a style that works for humans, and the animal inside you can come out. I traveled all over Taiwan to find masters. I heard some legends that they didn’t pass their knowledge because monkey is a special technique which they didn’t want to teach just anyone. They taught some bits of monkey and incorporated it into existing animal styles. But no one wanted to teach the real monkey because it is so deadly.”


Hisham feels that the Hanaman boxing practiced in Thailand should also be included into Monkey Kung Fu. After all, it is the same monkey god in both countries. Therefore, he used flying knees and elbows.


Eventually, Hisham found an 88 year old master, who was practicing monkey, but teaching crane. This master was one of only two which Hisham found, and he has since died.


Next, Hisam went to the monkey temple. “They had a Dao oracle, who meditates then goes crazy, gets possessed, and people ask him questions. I was watching and he called me in and asked what do I want what is my wish. I asked him some questions he couldn’t know, things about Germany. And he gave me some answers which were correct. I don’t really believe but my family does some Sufi things so I asked more about monkey fist.’


Eventually, Hisham was given permission to meditate in the temple. After 12 days, something happened. I started to move in a strange way, I couldn’t open my eyes, and I nearly collapsed.” Then came the visions. “People told me they saw me and knew the Monkey King was in my body. I saw monkeys jumping around. I was very afraid. Afterwards, I created some new techniques which I learned from the visions and I made a new monkey form.”


“I believe this because it happened to me. If I tell westerners they don’t believe. But I have a different background so it is different for me.”



During his search for a monkey master, Hisham found a lot of so called masters, but they weren’t fighting.


“In Germany there is a branch of Wing Chun which made their name fighting like the Gracies did. They challenged everyone and won. So, now there is no question. We all know Gracie jiu Jitsu is good. Some people say you shouldn’t fight, it is against the code. But how do you know what level you are at if you don’t fight?”


“I want to fight in MMA and K-1 because there aren’t many Chinese or traditional martial arts in there. I think in the beginning there were a few, but I don’t know if they had thirty years of experience.”


“When you meet MMA guys, Thai boxers, and boxers, if you tell them you do TMA, they look at you and smile.”


A lot of the reality and professional fighting crowd think TMA is a useless joke. Ken Shamrock said in his interview, after his loss to Hois Gracie, that when he saw Gracie come in, wearing a ghi and a black belt, he just assumed that he didn’t know how to fight. Ken guessed wrong that day. And this is what Hisham hopes to show to the world.


“People look down on Chinese martial arts. They say Muay Thai are the hardest, boxers are the fastest…But what about traditional martial arts? They have 3000 years of development. How can they not be good? I think the big question is how you practice martial art. If you really practice six hours a day you can be good. If you chose the right way, and if you don’t involve into so many techniques you can be good.”


“I was a student of TMA before. The master said, for that style, you need 36 forms. For that one, 72 forms. But after a while, I wondered why am I trapped into a lot of techniques if I can’t use them. So, real martial arts only have a handful of forms five is enough, including a breathing form. And then the rest is application.


Hisham has many reasons for wanting to fight on the world stage. “First, I want to prove if this thing I made up works or not. Secondly, for a boxer, 25 years old is peak, but for TMA 40 or 45 is the peak. I really admire old MMA masters Randy Coutour for example the best example for real martial artists. He is over 40, but it is not easy to defeat him. The young guys 25 to 30 are good, but how long can they keep this level?”


Hisham tells about a Taiwanese master who still trains at age 88.


“Chinese martial arts says, learn chi and ne gong, and you can stay healthier and stronger. Add the gong the working out and the skills and this is real kung fu.”


Hisham says, “Many masters are practicing martial art, but they forgot the martial part.” He went on to say that many westerners are only practicing the external, the fighting, and have forgotten to add the rest. Hisham believes a complete Chinese TMA fighter can win.


“I want to fight first in San Da Wang in Taiwan, again, and the Art of War, in China because I want to show the biggest audience in the world that traditional martial art can win. Today everyone is looking at MMA looking to the west rather than to CFhina and to traditional martial art. They say Gracie Jiu Jitsu is the best, but Randy Couture doesn’t do BJJ he does traditional wrestling and he shows everyone there is something more.”


Hisham wants to do the same, to show the world that there is something beyond the mat.



Antonio Graceffo 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:



Antonio Graceffo Wanted for Opposing the Junta

In War in Burma on November 18, 2008 at 6:18 pm


Wanted for Opposing the Junta

Burma’s ruling junta, the SPDC, uses disinformation and modern technology to issues a wanted order against Antonio Graceffo.

By Antonio Graceffo


A friend who engages in cross-border aid activities in the genocide afflicted war-zone of Burma sent me this link, which, in Burmese, is the equivalent of an old wild-west wanted posted, with my photo on it.


If you click over to the poster, the Burmese characters may not come up on your computer, unless you have installed the appropriate software. At a glance, the link appears to be a website of the KNU/KNLA, the ethnic Karen resistance group, featured in the film, “Rambo IV.” The site implies that I am wanted by the rebels, which makes no sense, since the only crime I have committed, if in fact it is a crime, is supporting the rebels.


I sent the link to one of the anti-junta groups I am in communication with, and they verified that it was a proxy site, a fake site, created by the Burmese SPDC junta, to pass on disinformation and create disunity and infighting within the resistance groups. Fortunately, most people working on the Burma issue don’t trust anything written in Burmese. Each of the tribes has its own language and alphabet. Most of them are smart enough to use English on their websites to garner international support. The junta, it appears, is not that smart. But, since General Ne Win forcibly closed all of Burma’s universities, to prevent smart people from meeting and exchanging political ideas, it is no wonder that they are slipping intellectually.


Of those few SPDC officials who speak English and know how to use a computer, many studied abroad. Some studied on developmental scholarships, paid by foreign governments and aid groups, to help raise the general education in what was once the richest and best educated country in southeast Asia. The application procedures, within Burma, are so stilted that often only junta supporters can apply. The education freely given to them, to help the people, becomes another tool of repression against the uneducated and underfed populace.


Here is the translation of the wanted poster. It was prepared by an exiled Burmese intellectual, who had to flee Burma and seek asylum in another country. He hates the junta with a passion and supports the resistance groups.


Translators note: I got your reply, Antonio, that the KNU has cleared your name and so we cannot sell you by the kilo to them.




[[article begins; double parentheses [[   ]] are the translators; single parentheses ( ) are the original author’s]]


Wanted  [[photo of Graceffo]]

Antonia Grace-fawt (former Marine) Italy Citizen


[[no author’s name seen]]


The Former Marine Who Would Combine Military Forces with Terrorists.




To the armed terrorists of KNU, SSA, KNPP who are based in Thailand’s Chiangmai City and are present along the Thai-Myanmar border  —–  [[there is an]] American & 2 other foreigners who are teaching them Close Combat and how to set up mines and traps. 


It is learned that a former US Marine Italian race, American citizen, Antonio Grace-fawt and two other foreigners, a total of 3, had finished discussions with KNU officials about entering and moving around the KNU 2nd Brigade region (Toungoo District).

The aforementioned Antonio group on (08 October 18) came via Chiangmai to Mae Sot. At Mae Sot, they met the new General Secretary Naw See Ra Pho Sein      [[I’m just transcribing them phonetically; might not be correct since it is a 2nd or 3rd transliteration]]

KNU Tactical Commander Saw Beelah Sein, 2nd Brigade Commander Ah See and discussed about procedures on how to get help from foreign groups and how to  transform the defensive guerilla warfare into offensive guerilla warfare within the KNU areas. It is learned that they discussed plans drawn by the KNU, SSA, KNPP Joint Military Movement Committee and how to put in practice the military tactical procedures. 


[[will make my own paragraph here. original writer is having verbal diarrhea and does not appear to know how to make paragraphs]]


KNU 5th Brigade Baw Kyaw Hair [[again, this is just a transliteration and probably has original errors    SPDC writers are notorious for mispronouncing non-Burmese names… take, e.g., your name]]  said that in the areas under his responsibility, the 5th Brigade area, (Papun District), the supply routes for weapons and food for 2nd Brigade had been blocked. He also refused to take responsibility for the security and safe passage of Antonio Grace-fawt’s group if they travel from 5th Brigade area to 2nd Brigade area.


5th Brigade Commander  Baw Kyaw Hair, on his part, was dissatisfied with how the present congress has appointed a central group in which General Tamlabaw’s sons and daughters have important posts in the KNU.   [[Baw Kyaw Hair’s ]] group  favors having a ceasefire with  the present military government and exchange arms for peace [[this is an SPDC phrase for complete surrendering of one’s forces and one’s weapons to SPDC —  very indicative of an SPDC author ]]


[[my paragraphing]] Another brigade that is similar in spirit to Baw Kyaw Hair is 6th Brigade.   It is heard that 6th Brigade Commander Hsarmi is dissatisfied with Tamlabaw’s circle of  family  and friends.  Therefore Antonio Grace-fawt’s group is unable to travel through Baw Kyaw Hair’s area and is making preparations to travel through the Mae Hong Son KNPP’s area to reach 2nd Brigade area.  On (22-10-08) Antonio and group departed from Mae Son [[sic; I think it is a typo]] to Mae Hong Son. 


Antonio Grawfawt ‘s group [[sic, another typo by crazy SPDC author]]  is surely going to have to run and escape for their lives as they go through the Armed Forces’ Offensives [[but ]] it is more certain they will die violent deaths.  [[ i.e., it is more certain they will die violently rather than run and escape with their lives ]]


[[end of article]]


Further translators notes:


It is now evident from the author himself that you were never a wanted man by the KNU.  The article is very poorly written and has sloppy composition. 


I hear you, Antonio, that you replied it is not true about you meeting the KNU since on the dates mentioned you were out of country. It is funny SPDC is making up all these lies. 

But why? 


“Wanted” does not mean by the KNU. It means Wanted by SPDC but not explicitly mentioned, only by inference. 


And it is not true one faction of KNU hates you. It is just that one faction is said to be discontent with Tamlabaw and therefore will not allow you safe passage. 


It is just the age-old SPDC tactics of playing off one brigade commander against another brigade commander and tempting them to surrender to the government, thus scoring propaganda and psychological victories and gradually defeating the KNU. 

No faction in KNU hates you, it is only the author who wishes you evil.  


Buddha has been famously quoted about not returning evil for evil. Our Monk once taught me that if you send me a package [of evil wishes] and I decline to accept it, then the evil goes back to its sender.  Not that I wish the sender any evil; I just simply will not take it and so the sender just gets what his Karma dictates.


What shall we do to protect against the evil efforts of SPDC to discredit each of us, and set one against the other, and tempt us into surrendering. Such things have happened time and again, and it appears the 5th and 6th brigade commanders, if this is true, are wishing to surrender and that they are discontent with Gen. Tamlabaw. 

How true could this be? If it is not true, is it possible for the enemy to make it come true and create fear, suspicion, and hatred amongst the KNU? How do we eliminate this and help unify KNU? Perhaps as outsiders with no connections to any faction, we can act as mediators and help make peace. Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall unify the Forces and Defeat the enemy.  


It is sad that during Gen. Bo Mya’s time, his Christian officers were said to have gotten all the promotions and benefits and the Buddhists did not fare well. SPDC fanned these flames in the early 90’s and by 1994 or 1995 were able to split KNU and form a quisling group, the DKBA — which made it possible to find a way to invade the KNU headquarters, their stronghold, in Manerplaw and conquer that area. 


Then, in the last two years, they were able to splinter off other KNU commanders, even the Reverend Timothy, who wanted to negotiate a separate surrender.  Now it seems they are working on the 5th and 6th Brigade Commanders. 


Oh, God, when and how can we turn the tide? 


Antonio Graceffo begs you to please say a prayer for the people of Shan State.


Antonio Graceffo 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:





Language Learning and Learning Disability

In Linguistics and Language Learning on November 13, 2008 at 3:38 pm


Learning Disabilities and Learning Opportunities

By Antonio Graceffo


A linguist friend, David Long, recently forwarded me a story about Daniel Tammet, a high functioning autistic genius who has mastered ten languages. In a test of his phenomenal mental powers, he was flown to Iceland, where he was given just one week to learn the language. A youtube video captured the panel interview, where several Icelandic professors tested his language.

“He seemed to understand all of our questions. He answered them. And, his grammar was quite good.” Said one of the professors.

In a BBC interview, Daniel Tammet explained that his memory experiences are visual. In other words, when asked how he memorized pi to more than 22,000 places past the decimal, he said that he could see the numbers, moving in front of his mind’s eye. He said that various types of data would be surrounded by sparks or lights in his brain.

While Daniel’s ability to memorize data by converting it to visual images has implications for learning any language, or any discipline, I wondered if this experience would more helpful in learning Chinese, which has a pictorial writing system. Maybe some similar visual transformation occurs in the brain of anyone who learns to read and write Chinese, but where we have to study for years, developing these images, Daniel was born with this ability.

Top salesmen often cite similar, visualization techniques when explaining how they can memorize the names of all of the potential customers they met at a cocktail party. Fake psychics and people who earn their money doing cold reading in Las Vegas type shows, also use visualization techniques. One such entertainer said that he had built a house in his brain. Each room was filled with data. For example, in the case of language learning, the living room was for verbs, the kitchen for nouns, and so on. So, when learning a language, the learner would just open the appropriate room in his head.

In a quick google search on language learning techniques, one suggests building neon signs in your brain, which point to the words. Another suggests building a movie in your head and playing it when you need to recall information. Others suggested assigning numerical values to data. By visualizing a procession of numbers in your brain, you would simply wait for the desired information to march by.

In theory, once you built the structure, whether it be a movie, a house, or a neon sign, then you would just create a blank for each new language, and plug in the new information. So, eventually you would have a Chinese house, a German house, a Haka house, and so on.

It takes tremendous mental discipline to utilize any of these techniques. But, people capable of mastering this high level of self thought control must be capable of achieving anything.

In the book, “Schach-Roman” (The Chess Novel), by Stephan Heime, the main character was locked in solitary confinement. To keep himself from going insane, he decided he would play chess. Slowly, he began using pieces of uneaten food and bits of hair and threads from his clothing to fashion a chess set. But when the guards discovered the set, they destroyed it. He eventually comes on the idea of playing a game of chess in his head. He says that playing a fair game of chess in your brain is very difficult because you have to play both the white and black pieces, with two separate brains, each, not knowing what the other plans to do next. He had to create a wall in his brain and separate his two rational thought lines.

Daniel Tammet was born with this type of visualization and mental separation in his brain. When he was a baby, his learning “disability” was recognized, and his parents were told to institutionalize him. Daniel Tammet took his problem and turned it into an opportunity.

Although I have often been accused of being an idiot, I am not autistic. I am, however, dyslexic. When I was a child in school, my teachers noticed right away that there were certain things I couldn’t do, which other children could. I couldn’t tie my shoes till I was about sixteen. I learned to ride a bicycle at sixteen and learned to drive at nearly twenty. I graduated high school with a 1.97 GPA. Or maybe it was 1.79 but the point is I don’t have a history of academic achievement. Also my English hand writing is terrible. No one can read what I write on paper. I couldn’t copy or use a dictionary in school because being dyslexic I would miscopy. I tried cheating on a spelling test once and still failed although I was looking at the answers written on a note in my palm.

Most of my essays were so messy and illegible that they were given back to me unmarked. In those instances when the teachers did try to make corrections, the page would be covered with red ink. They would tell me to recopy, but of course, being dyslexic, I couldn’t copy. So, my second draft might have the same, or even more mistakes in it. Dictionaries were an impossibility. While I was looking up a word, the letters would keep switching places and I couldn’t decide where the word should be in the dictionary.

As an adult, with a more analytical brain, I discovered that I recognize words by the central vowel sound. I don’t know why I do this. But it would explain why I would search for “candle” in the “A” section of the dictionary. Obviously I would never find it, and would eventually give up.

Paul Orfalea, the founder and original CEO of the massive Kinkos Copies corporation in USA, attributes much of his success to his inability to operate a copy machine. Dyslexic people, myself included, completely lack mechanical reasoning ability. I remember often being locked out of my house, because I didn’t know how to insert the key in the lock and turn it. In the dead of winter I would have to wait outside the house till one of my siblings came home and let me in. In junior high school, our school lockers were secured with combination locks. For weeks, I went to class without my books or went without my lunch, simply because I couldn’t open my locker.

In Paul Orfalea’s case, because he couldn’t operate the copy machine himself, he hired someone else to do it. This gave him free time to talk to customers and business owners and to decide on other services that they needed. As his first little Kinkos grew out of a stall in front of the university, he added binding, printing, and graphics to the menu of products and services. He was unable to do any of these things himself, so he hired people.

Paul Orfalea now works as a motivational speaker. He tells audiences that if he had been able to operate that first copy machine himself, he would never have had the mental leisure to look for other business opportunities. Said another way, if he had been able to operate that first copy machine, he would still be operating it today, in a little shed in front of the university.

In the case of Daniel Tammet, savantism is clearly an advantage. It would be difficult for most of us to say that he is “disabled.” Paul Orfalea says that he doesn’t have a learning disability, he has a learning opportunity. Being dyslexic forced him to think in other ways, which produced solutions other people missed.

Thomas Edison attributed much of his success to his deafness. Because he was so hard of hearing, it was laborious for people to talk to him, so they often left him alone, giving him time to read and educate himself rather than engage in idle chit-chat. He also admitted that he often used his deafness as an excuse to just tune-out other people when he wished to concentrate on his work.

Lacking mechanical reasoning ability also means I don’t have very good hand eye coordination. As a result, I never learned any of the sports “normal” American boys learned in school. I never learned to play or to appreciate baseball, football, basketball or any ball related sport. My father, a professional contractor, always wanted to teach me to work on cars or repair things, which he enjoyed doing. For other boys, this would have been a bonding experience, for me it was nightmare, tightening bolts when my father ordered me to loosen them. At least once, I remember he had to use a torch to cut off a bolt he had told me to loosen, because I had turned it in the wrong direction, permanently locking it in place.

Unable or unwilling to do the things most kids did, I put my energy into reading and lifting weights. To lift weights, you didn’t need any athletic ability at all. Sometimes I would need someone to help me change the weights on the bar, because I had trouble opening and closing the locking mechanisms, but beyond that, lifting weights was a stagnant affair which I could manage. Eventually, I also learned martial arts. The going was very slow. It took me much longer than it took “normal” kids with athletic ability, who had played football or basketball. But, when ball season started, these fast learning kids would leave the martial arts school to play ball. I stayed, and continued learning martial arts. Having no other sports opportunities gave me focus.

Many people ask how I could have read so much if I was dyslexic. The answer is, although I would often see the words backwards or inside out, I learned to use the context to guess at the meanings of the words I couldn’t make out. Interestingly, this would later be the method I would apply to learning foreign languages. While reading German novels, I didn’t use a dictionary. I simply used context and probability to decide what words meant. When I discovered the Automatic Language Growth method of language acquisition, it appealed to me, because it was the way I had always employed for language learning.

In academics, I failed all of my math classes and failed or nearly failed everything else. The only things I did well at were reading and speaking. So, I concentrated on those subjects. I also enjoyed writing stories, but I couldn’t read what I had written, so I would try to memorize the stories I wrote. Similarly, I would try and use memorization as a way of taking notes in lectures, because my hand written notes would be useless.

Fortune Magazine had an article about dyslexic CEOs. They claimed that 1 in 3 US entrepreneurs is dyslexic. One reason for these people’s success is that they were unable to fit in or to succeed within the confines of “the system.” So, they went out and found their own way.

I have often wondered how my being dyslexic effects my language learning ability. Also I am wondering if learning Chinese is a very different experience than all other languages because it is tonal, and I am non musical and can’t sing at all, and because it is visual you must remember the intricate figures, the Chinese characters for reading.  

So, is learning Chinese a different skill set? Are there people who can master European but not Asian languages? Is much of the language research and study, widely published around the world, not applicable to the study of Chinese? And is it possible that research in some other unrelated field, such as the study of mathematics or music, may be more pertinent?

Antonio Graceffo 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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The Trials of Learning a Dominant Language

In Linguistics and Language Learning on November 13, 2008 at 3:34 pm

Or, The Trials of the Dominant Language Learner
By Antonio Graceffo

Why is it that foreigners (non-native English speakers) can speak the worst (or most creative) English imaginable, and we, native-speakers, understand them, but although you’ve studied French or Thai for fifty years, only people who really love you understand what you are saying?

Linguists define dominant languages as: a set of very unforgiving languages, which demand that learners speak perfectly. With dominant languages, it’s my way or the highway.

In this sense, French and Thai are dominant languages. English and Italian are not. You are free to speak English as badly as you desire. And as for Italian, if you speak any at all, Italians are happy to chat with you.

Sociologists would definition a dominant language as, a majority language which pushes out or drives minority languages to extinction. The example would be the way English replaced Native American or Hawaiian languages in the US, or the way Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer, or any number of other official languages stomped out the local tribal languages. In some countries, the “dominant” or official language was imported, such as in Taiwan, or it was an artificial language, such as Filipino, which was constructed for the purpose of standardizing communication between the many language groups in the country. In countries such as Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, and Philippines, nearly all classes at university are taught in English. So, these countries would appear on the second list, as countries of “high English use,” regardless of the political choice to list or not list English as an official language.

By this second definition, English would probably qualify as the most dominant language on the planet. According to Wikipedia, there are 25 countries which use English as their official language. But, when we extend the definition to include countries where English is the second official language, or is widely spoken, such as Philippines or Singapore, the list grows to over 100 countries. Disclaimer: I am using the word “country” very loosely. Some of these “countries” may only qualify as nations or territories. Puerto Rico and American Samoa were counted separately from the USA. Hong Kong was count ed separately from China.

The second list also becomes more problematic because it is arguable if Creole and pigeon count as English.

However you count countries and English usage, more than one hundred countries is a lot. Most bodies who give recognition to countries agree that there are less than 200 countries in the world. The UN recognizes 192 and the US recognizes 194. So, nearly half the countries have English as either a first, second or official language for business or education.

Does this evidence prove that English is a linguistically dominant language? No. In fact, the wide use of English and the large number of dialects, for example Singapore, Scotland, Nigeria and Arkansas: demonstrates how non-dominant English is. English, while being one of the more complex languages in the world, is also one of the most malleable and most forgiving to learners or non-traditional native speakers.

Take any kid growing up in London or New York and ask him to imitate a French guy speaking English or a Chinese, German, or Indian accent, and he could do it. Being an urban, native speaker of English you have grown up hearing recent immigrants speaking your language your whole life, and yet you understand them.

Ask a Chinese teacher to tell you which problems a French native speaker has vs. a German native speaker, and they couldn’t tell you. If they did give you an answer, it would be based on a sampling of one, instead of a sampling of hundreds. Ask an ESL teacher in a summer ESL intensive program in England or Australia, what problems Japanese learners face vs. Germans, and they could talk all day. Even if they hadn’t made the observations themselves, the information would be readily available on the internet.

The countries which are considered as the major English speaking countries, those countries who nationals are granted teaching visas by most Asian governments, include: England, USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. (Most of the legislation doesn’t specifically cite the Republic of Ireland, but Irish national are also granted native-speaker visas and considered by all to be standard native speakers.)

In addition to being countries whose native tongue is English, one more similarity between these countries is that they are countries of high immigration. According to The Ellis Island Foundation, who compile current and historic data on immigration, 60% of New Yorkers are themselves immigrants or the children of immigrants.
What this means, in terms of English language usage is, most of us grew up hearing non-native speakers speaking English our whole lives. From my personal experience, when my family moved to Tennessee, one of the first things I noticed was that all of my new school friends had parents and grandparents who spoke English. In New York, we just sort of accepted that we couldn’t talk to our friends’ grandparents, because they all spoke another language.

How does the concept of linguistic dominance effect the language learner?

First off, it has been said that English is one of the hardest languages to learn. On some easily measured parameters, this is true. English has an extremely difficult grammar and the single largest vocabulary of any language on the planet. Fifteen years ago, a statistic came out which said that American English had hit the million word mark. Today, it must be even larger.

These two facts would suggest that English is hard to learn. Chinese, for example, has very little grammar, and a vocabulary of composed syllables, meaning once learn all of the base root words, the rest are more or less just combinations. But, because of the social dominance of English, there are very few people on the planet who aren’t exposed to some English, everyday of their lives.

Every computer user, every movie goer, every business or technology student, and most pop music enthusiasts, world wide, are exposed to English.

Before moving to Taiwan and studying Chinese, how much Chinese was the average westerner exposed to? For most of us the answer is zero. You can ask a Korean, a Chinese, a Russian…about Harrison Ford, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Schrek and they would know who that was.

And nearly every educated person in the world can read the Latin alphabet. Even in China, one of the largest countries in the world which uses a different writing system, the Latin alphabet is used to teach Chinese children how to pronounce Chinese characters. The Latin alphabet is also used for alphabetical order, since Chinese lacks the concept of alphabetical order. In reading a history of China, I discovered that the reason librarians were monks, was not only because they could read, but also because librarians to be people who would never marry, and just remain inside of the library their whole lives. This was necessary because the librarians committed to memory the location of every book in the library.

Do speakers of dominant languages find it more difficult to learn new languages?

In the case of English native speakers, the constant availability of English language movies, TV, newspaper and books, takes away the impetus to learn a foreign language. In my own case, I find that during periods of heavy foreign language study, I fall behind in my knowledge of world affairs, because I stop watching CNN. In Germany, I knew that learning German would make German books and libraries open to me, and I could gain all sorts of additional knowledge, apart from the language. In countries such as Thailand or Cambodia, the quantity and quality of the information available, the information waiting for me once I master the language, is extremely poor.

You could live a lifetime, watching Deutsche Welle TV news, and stay on top of world affairs. But watching Khmer or Thai news, wouldn’t be particularly enlightening.

Another issue with speaking, THE dominant language, is that everyone, in everyone country wants to practice English with you, robbing you of any opportunity or necessity to learn the local language.

Perhaps worse than English native speakers, French and Thai speakers seem to be terrible language learners, on the whole. When I lived in Cambodia, however, I found that among the foreign community, the French tended to be better Khmer speakers. Khmers and French attributed this to the shared history between the two countries, Cambodia used to be a French colony. Some French attributed this to the fact that Americans are stupid.

One night, at a party, I noticed that the Germans, Russians, Spanish, Malaysians, Indonesians, Americans, Australians and every other nationality of foreigners huddled in small groups, speaking English to one another. The French sat apart, speaking French. An Italian friend of mine, had been taking English lessons in Phnom Penh and was struggling to communicate with the other foreigners. What I later surmised was that, like my Italian friend, upon arriving in Cambodia, a Frenchman, whose English was notoriously poor, was hit with a choice, improve his English, or learn Khmer. A higher percentage of the French chose to learn Khmer. It made sense. We were, after all in Cambodia, so it made sense to learn Khmer in order to talk to Khmers. English was less important to them, since they would mainly socialize with other French.

With the one exception of French in Cambodia, in general, my experience has been that French and Thais are terrible language learners.

If you talk to international ESL teachers, or the Thai teachers in Bangkok, where I studied, they would all agree that Koreans and Japanese are also terrible language learners. But with Koreans and Japanese, the problem may be more cultural than linguistic.

The Chinese culture countries: China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea are countries whose culture does not promote individuality, and where making a mistake, even in a foreign language, is unforgivable. Loosing face is the single most motivating factor in their behavior. These are cultural issues which could hamper one’s ability to learn a foreign language.

Interestingly, the major English speaking countries are countries where risk taking and individuality are encouraged. This is a major aid in learning a foreign language. What may prevent some English native speakers from moving from interpersonal fluency to actual academic fluency is a belief that “good enough, is good enough.” We grew up hearing people speak “bad” English. So, we don’t understand why it’s not Ok for us to speak “bad” Thai or Chinese.

So many English native speakers approach Asian languages saying, “don’t bog me down with grammar and details. Just give me nouns and verbs, and I can communicate.”

David Long, head of the Thai program at AUA Bangkok had this to say about the cultural vs. linguistic challenges to language learning.

“To me this is a very interesting question. As we know we can’t really separate culture from language, perhaps language with culture makes it easier. Would this suggest that it would be more difficult for speakers of dominant cultures to learn foreign cultures because of…’ I think that the two examples of this that come to my mind may help provide an answer.”

“ The US and Japan: In the US and Japan we find the general populace with some of the worst second language ability (I don’t have any research on this so perhaps my impressions are not correct here?) of any people on earth! Why? Is it not that because for so long they’ve been on the ‘top’ as it were, they felt that they were the best – so there has been no real incentive for them to learn a second language.”

“Though we might look for linguistic reasons, my gut tells me that it’s a social mechanism at work here.’

In his ALG writing and lecturing, David Long often states that culture, rather than linguistics is at the core of language acquisition.

The conclusion I can draw is that cultural dominance is perhaps a more important factor in language learning than is linguistic dominance. Yes, it’s hard for English native speakers to master Thai or French, but it is also hard for them to master Chinese, which is not nearly as demanding. It is hard for Thai to learn English, possibly because they are coming from a linguistically dominant background, but Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese have difficulty learning English simply because they are afraid to make mistakes.

And as for the French? I don’t know what I can say about the French, which they haven’t already said about themselves. If the Japanese hadn’t bombed Pearl Harbor, the French would be speaking German, and thus easier to communicate with and to teach.
Antonio Graceffo 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: