Archive for January, 2009|Monthly archive page

New video: Martial Arts Odyssey: Monkey Master

In Martial Arts on January 31, 2009 at 4:47 pm





Travel with host, Antonio Graceffo, the Brooklyn Monk, to Taiwan, where he trains in San Da (Chinese Kickboxing) with traditional Monkey Master, Sifu Hisham. Shifu Hisham is a no-nonsense, practical fighter who believes that the thousands of years of history in traditional Chinese martial arts makes them applicable and deadly in kick boxing, K-1, or MMA.


Watch it for free on youtube.


Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the host “Martial Arts Odyssey,” a web TV show which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.


His books are available on

Contact him:


Join him on

His website is


This episode was edited by Taiwan’s own, “Ohio” Jon Dickerson and features the official Martial Arts Odyssey intro and outro by Andy To.


muay, thai, lao, laos, kick, boxing, kickboxing, martial, arts, odyssey, Brooklyn, monk, brooklynmonk, Antonio, Graceffo, china, Chinese, san, da, kung, fu, monkey, fist, Taiwan, ROC

Cambodian and Thai Martial Arts Explained

In Martial Arts on January 31, 2009 at 4:39 pm

alight3  By Antonio Graceffo

Since the launch of my web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” more than 18 months ago, I have received a lot of email asking about Khmer and Thai martial arts, what they are, and which is better. This is just a brief overview to help people understand the martial arts of Cambodia and Thailand. You can also google my name, plus the words “Khmer martial arts” or Muay Thai and find more in-depth stories I have done on those arts. Also, you can see “Martial Arts Odyssey” on youtube, for free. Or you can get some of my books on Martial Arts Odyssey Cambodia has exactly three martial arts. 1. Bradal Serey (Pradal Serey), which is kick boxing, with nearly exactly the same rules and style as Muay Thai. Bradal Serey is the national sport, and the national television networks features professional fights weekly. 2. Bokator (Boxkator) which is an all encompassing ancient fighting art, includes punches, kicks, knees, elbows, grappling, ground fighting, and weapons. The practitioners fight without gloves. Their hands are wrapped with ropes or traditional krama scarves. 3. Japbab Boran Khmer (Khmer wrestling) The least practiced of the Khmer martial arts. There are a handful of wrestling clubs country wide. They meet annually for the national wrestling competition, which is a big spectator event. In Khmer wrestling, the goal is to force the opponent’s back onto the ground. There are numerous Khmer words which mean fighting or martial art Khorm Yuth, Labok Katao, Kbach Kun Khmer, Wy Khun, Yuthakun, Yuth….but it is all either Bokator or Bradal Serey. One more name I found on the web was Kbach Kun Dambong Veng, which just means short Khmer fighting stick. It is not a separate art but just a small piece of Bokator. Over the last five years, I have met, interviewed, photographed and trained with nearly every single Khmer Bokator master except for two or three who I plan to go see when I return to Cambodia. Grand Master San Kim Saen opened his school in Phnom Penh, which is the largest Bokator club in Cambodia. He has had literally thousands of students in the last few years alone. Most of the other masters I visited had at most twenty students, many of whom weren’t active. Grand Master spent years codifying the system, writing it down, photographing it, and collecting styles and movements from everywhere. The other masters all had their specialty, such as sword or stick or kick boxing, but San Kim Saen was the only one with the complete style. By traveling to various small Bokator clubs around the country you can learn various techniques, but you can learn literally all of them at the club in Phnom Penh. No one knows the exact age of Bokator. The first known reference to Bokator is in the carvings on the walls of Angkor Wat Temple, made between 900 and 1,000 years ago. Anything else about the origin and history of the art is legend, theory and conjecture. The first articles written about the art are only a few years old. Bradal Serey probably had very distinct styles at one time, but since the Khmer Rouge killed most of the masters and practitioners, the few who survived have had to build up the art from nothing. As a result, Bradal Serey is pretty much homogenous throughout the country. Also, as it is a competitive, professional fighting sport, it is subjected to rules, which fairly standardize the art. There are differences from teacher to teacher, but these are more because of personalities, methods…not truly codified style differences. In Thailand there are two martial arts, Muay Thai and Krabi Krabong. If you would consider Muay Thai Boran a separate art, then Thailand has three arts. There are countless styles of Muay Thai depending on which part of the country you come from and which master you follow, but it is all Muay Thai. When they fight professionally the rules are the same. Some styles, such as Muay Chaya are very old, and there are written documents dating back several hundred years. Others, such as Muay Thai Sangha, a religious form of Muay Thai, are fairly new, with the founder still living. Krabi Krabong is fighting with stick and sword. Krabi Krabong is often incorporated into Muay Thai Boran to the point that it is almost never taught separately. Muay Thai Boran, Boran just means ancient, Muay Thai Boran has more techniques than modern Muay Thai because it has many moves which would be illegal in professional fighting. Muay Thai Boran doesn’t use gloves, so there is a bit more stand up grappling and throwing. Muay Thai Boran also doesn’t actually fight. So, there are more flying knees and flying elbows and techniques which are dramatic to watch. If you see a Tony Jaa film you will see Muay Thai Boran. As a side note, there has been much debate as to whether Tony Jaa is Khmer or Thai and if his art is Bokator or Boran. There are even rumors he trained in Cambodia. To find the answer, I traveled to Khmer Surin province, Thailand, where I sought out and trained with Jaa’s first teacher, Sok Chai. Accompanied by Khmer monk friends, I also visited his house and interviewed his parents. We went to the elephant village where Jaa was born and explored the temple where his father had been a monk. The answer is, Jaa is from Khmer Surin, so he and his parents speak Khmer. In fact, our interview was conducted in Khmer. His ethnicity however, will probably be a shock to all but die-hard fans. He is a member of the Kuy tribe, who are the royal elephant keepers, who have served His Majesty, the King of Thailand for generations. Jaa’s father confirmed that Jaa’s first visit to Cambodia was tied to the release of the film “Ang Bak,” So, there is no way he could have studied Bokator in Cambodia before becoming fanmous. I also interviewed nearly every master in Cambodia, all of whom confirmed that Jaa was never their student. Finally, his first teacher, Ajan Sok Chai, who is also from Surin, is ethnic Thai, not Khmer. He taught Tony Jaa Muay Thai Boran and movie fighting. Saddly. it is nearly 100% certain that Jaa has never studied, and possibly, never heard of Bokator. Khmers believe that Muay Thai Boran was stolen from Bokator and this would explain similarities between the arts. No one knows for sure, but what is certain is that knowledge and borrowing of culture and martial arts flowed in both directions across the Thai-Cambodian border. It is unlikely that there was ever a time that one or the other of these two countries didn’t have some type of fighting system. With the possible exception of a very large sword academy outside of Bangkok, Muay Thai Boran and Krabi Krabong are taught as extras at Muay Thai camps and schools. Because there are no professional fights in these two arts, fighters can’t afford to spend a lot of time learning them. Most only pick up a few moves and spend their energy and time concentrating on the money art, Muay Thai. Many traditionalist Muay Thai trainers teach their students legal Muay Thai Boran moves because they believe that the old ways are the most lethal in the ring. Famous people who fall into this category include Prah Khru Bah Neua Chai Kositto, Thailand’s last warrior monk, who I trained with at Wat Acha Thong. The fighetrs learn the Boran style, but then get in a real professional ring and fight for money. Another exception was Kru Pedro, who founded Muay Thai Sangha. He no longer allows his students to fight for money, however. And, most famous of all was Nong Tum, the “Beautiful Boxer.” Whichever art came first, or who stole from whom, is a mute point. Modern Bokator is a codified martial art with a prescribed system of movements, tests, and belts, taught in a systematic fashion, leading to Black Krama. Muay Thai Boran/Krabi Krabong are generally taught sporadically, a few moves here and there. Bradal Serey, Muay Thai, Bokator, and Muay Thai Boran all include stand up grappling. In Thailand, the words “jap ko” are often used. This literally means, “grab the neck.” Only Bokator has ground fighting. Bokator encompasses all of the movements of Bradal Serey plus all of the movements of Khmer wrestling. In my Odyssey through southeast Asian martial arts, Cambodia seemed to be the only country which still practices traditional wrestling. If Thailand ever had traditional wrestling, it has died out. I couldn’t find traditional wrestling or martial art in Lao, although Muay Lao (kickboxing) is still being trained and fought at the national stadium. There is or was an ancient Lao form of martial art, called Ling Lam, but I was unable to find it while I was there. In Vietnam, the traditional art, Vo Vinam had some elements which were similar to Khmer arts, but seemed more closely to resemble a mix of Chinese and North East Asian Arts. There were rumors that traditional wrestling still existed, but I was unable to find it. So, I will be returning to both Vietnam and Lao. Vietnam did not have a traditional kickboxing art of any kind. In fact there is no professional fighting in Vietnam at all. Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the host “Martial Arts Odyssey,” a web TV show which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries. See it on youtube. Martial Arts Odyssey His books are available on Contact him: Join him on His website is Khmer, Cambodian, box,boxing, fighting, muay, thai, lao, laos, kick, boxing, kickboxing, martial, arts, odyssey, Brooklyn, monk, brooklynmonk, Antonio, Graceffo

New video: Martial Arts Odyssey: Muay Lao

In Martial Arts on January 28, 2009 at 5:16 pm



Martial Arts Odyssey: Muay Lao


Travel with Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo, as he takes us into the country of Lao, to explore the traditional kickboxing art of Muay Lao.


Watch it for free on youtube.


Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the host “Martial Arts Odyssey,” a web TV show which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.


His books are available on

Contact him:


Join him on

His website is


This episode was edited by Taiwan’s own, “Ohio” Jon Dickerson and features the official Martial Arts Odyssey intro and outro by Andy To.


muay, thai, lao, laos, kick, boxing, kickboxing, martial, arts, odyssey, Brooklyn, monk, brooklynmonk, Antonio, Graceffo

Struggling with Khmer Language (Part II)

In Linguistics and Language Learning on January 27, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Reading, Writing, and Other Stuff

By Antonio Graceffo


The Khmer language is written with a Pali/Sanskrit based writing system, which is similar to the writing in Thailand, Burma, Lao, and in several of the regional minority languages. Fortunately, every single one of these alphabets is different, and learning one is only marginally helpful in learning another. So, you could study forever and still be illiterate.


Westerners take it for granted that we all use a Latin based alphabet, the only exceptions being Russia and Greece which use a Cyrillic alphabet. But, actually, even the Cyrillic alphabet, although the letters look different, they function exactly the same. In both alphabets, the letters have sound value. Words are written left to right. And the sounds are read in the same sequence and order in which they occur on the paper. There are spaces between words. Words are connected to form sentences, which end at the period.   


With the Latin alphabet, plus or minus a handful of special letters and symbols, you can pick up a newspaper and read it, anywhere from Poland to South Africa, to Australia, to Newfoundland to Tierra Del Fuego. You might not know what the words mean, but you could at least read them. You could also look them up in a dictionary. Write them on flashcards, and memorize them.


None of this is true of any of the South East Asian Alphabets.


When you start going to school, determined only to learn a little speaking and listening, they slowly turn the sales screws, until they got you coming to school three hours per day, seven days per week. Then, just when you think they couldn’t bleed one more dollar out of you, they talk you into learning to read and write. They lure you in, telling you “It’s easy, try it.”


You believe you’re as smart as the average Khmer child. So, what the heck? I signed up for reading and writing, and I paid more than money, I paid blood.


On the first day, the teacher showed me an alphabet chart and said. “You see how simple? This is how small children learn. Each letter has a picture of an animal next to it. So, if you can’t remember how that letter sounds, just look at the picture.”


“That is easy.” I agreed. “So, this W-looking letter, next to the picture of a pig makes a P sound?”


She frowned. “Well, no. It makes a J sound, because pig in Khmer is Jerouk.”


Duh! Now I felt stupid. Of course it would be the sound, according to the Khmer animals names. Ok, no sweat. I figured first thing I would do is just make a list of the animals, and memorize their names.

Starting at the top of the chart, I said “OK, pig?”

“Jerouk” Answered the teacher.





But then I hit a stump. The next picture was of a gold-colored devil-man, with a sword.

“What is this one?” I asked.

The teacher said some Khmer word, which meant nothing to me.

“No, I mean what is it in English?”

“Don’t you know?” She asked, confused. “I thought you were American.”

“I am, but we don’t have golden dragon demons in Brooklyn. So, we don’t really have a name for them.”

We skipped that one. The next one was a picture of a little girl.

“What is this one?”

“Tida.” She answered.

“Oh, Tida means little girl?”

“No, that is her name?”

“How does one know that that girl is named Tida?” I asked, thinking maybe she was a famous Khmer cartoon character or something.

“It says Tida here.” She said, pointing at the Khmer letters under the girl.

“But if you couldn’t read, you wouldn’t know that, would you?” I asked.

“Yes.”  She said.

And we continued. Next, there was a picture of a fruit.

“And what is this?” I asked.

“You don’t know?”

“No, in Brooklyn our fruits tend to be very empirical, apple, banana, orange…What is this thing?” I was beginning to loose my patience.

“The New Zealand students know what that one is.” My teacher said, with a chastising voice.

“Oh yeah, well New Zealand isn’t an adjective.”

“What is the adjective for students from New Zealand?” She asked.

Was it New Zealander students? Or, was New Zealand students correct? Now I was stumped on a question in English. My brain was short-circuiting. How the did they expect me to learn to read these ancient letters if I still hadn’t mastered my native tongue?

“All the New Zealand people know this one.” She repeated.

“Well, hurray for New Zealand!” I shouted. “It’s closer to Asia than Brooklyn is. They probably eat this fruit everyday for breakfast. But I have never eaten breakfast in New Zealand, so I don’t know what it is.”

The same was true of the next four fruits, all of which, allegedly, New Zealanders would know.

“Why do New Zealands know so many more fruits than people from American? Are the schools better in New Zealand?”

“No, its because we spent our free-time creating the first modern democracy, while New Zealand was happy to be the British colony with the largest fruit vocabulary.”


Now I was angry at New Zealand! Normally I didn’t even have an opinion on that country that I always confused with Australia. But on that day, I wanted to get in a boxing ring with them, all twenty-five of them, or whatever the population of New Zealand was.


“Maybe you should have learned more fruits.” Suggested my teacher.

“Yeah, maybe. I mean I’d definitely trade my right to vote for greater fruit identification.” Actually, thinking back on the George W. Bush years, that might not have been a bad trade. It would have meant more fruit, and no George W. Bush. Americans would have got their vitamins and the world wouldn’t hate us. And we would have some type of jolly, fatherly New Zealander for a Prime Minister. The best part would be, the Queen of England would be the ultimate head of state.


That would actually be cool for a couple of years, you know, just try it out till we could elect Obama.


The next five or six pictures were large, flightless waterfowl.

“Pigeons, I have only seen pigeons.” I told her.

“Pigeon is the only bird you know?” Asked my teacher in the same empathetic voice you would ask “And the doctor really said you only have six months to live?” She felt sorry for me.

“I know some other birds.” I amended. “There was a toucan on my breakfast cereal.” Unfortunately, toucan didn’t come up, oddly, either did penguin, which I learned from eating ice-cream sandwiches, which had Eskimos and penguins on the label.   


Luckily the new Zealanders didn’t have Eskimos, so I felt a slight vindication.


I wondered if they had ice-cream sandwiches or cereal with toucans in New Zealand? I really must go visit New Zealand when I get a chance.


Abandoning the alphabet chart, I asked “In just what way is this language easy to read and write?”


“First off it is written left to right.” Answered my teacher.

Well that was good.

When I opened my book, I just saw a huge jumble of characters, written all the way across the page. “That is the longest word I’ve ever seen.” I said.


In Thailand some words were so long I couldn’t even begin to pronounce them. My best friend’s name had about fifty characters in it. I still call him by only the first three. And we have known each other for years!


“That’s not a word.” Said my teacher, momentarily putting my mind at ease. “It is a sentence.”

“But then why is it all written together like that?”

“In Khmer we don’t separate words.”

What a nice system.

“Why are some letters floating in the air like that?” I asked.

“Those are vowels.”

“I thought you wrote left to right.”

“We do. But some vowels are written on top.”


“Yes, some are written under, and some are written before. And some are written after or around a word.”

Of course, boy! this does sound easy. 


“It’s easy compared to learning Chinese.” She pointed out.


That was somewhat true. Now I can read Chinese. And I have to say, it takes five hours per day of writing characters for about a year. The advantage of Khmer, of course, is that it is an alphabet. The letters have sound values and they spell out words. But, because they aren’t pronounced in the order that they are written, it is really hard at first to know when and how to pronounce things. And with the signals, similar to accent marks in other languages, which are written all the way on top, then vowels often written below the signal, but on top of the consonant, then a consonant, with a subscript underneath, you could actually have a stack of four characters, one on top of the other. And these may or may not be read in sequence. The vowels written before or after this huge stack of letters might be read first or in the middle….


Another issue with Khmer writing is that spellings aren’t standardized. This is probably being fixed, even as we speak, but it will be a long time before every printed Khmer document has the same spelling.


In Khmer, as in Thai, I really had the impression that you had to know what the word was in order to pronounce it. When I was reading, in a way, I felt like I was recognizing the physical shape of the words, the same way I did in Chinese. The phonetics were just clues to help me guess at what I was reading.


No doubt, with practice, you could probably master Khmer reading and writing faster than Chinese, but Chinese is much more cut and dry. You see a character and you have memorized exactly how it must be pronounced.


“How many characters are there in Chinese?” She asked.

“Tens of thousands.”

“And how many do you need to read a news paper?”

“About 3,000.” This was a bit of a lie. At this point I could read about 3,000 Chinese characters but couldn’t even begin to make sense of a newspaper.

“And to finish university?”

“At least 4,000.”

“OK,” She said triumphantly. “Khmer only has 33 consonants.”

“33 letters, oh, that is easy. Where do I sign up?”


But that’s how they get you.

Looking at the chart, I counted the 33 consonants, my teacher had told me about. But then, I noticed a bunch of other stuff at the bottom.

“What’s all that?” I asked.

“Those are the vowels.” She said, a little embarrassed that I had caught her in a near-lie.

“I thought you said there were only33 letters.”

“No, 33 consonants. But, obviously you also need vowels.”

“Obviously.” I agreed. “So, how many are there?”

“Twenty three.”

So, fifty-six letters. Yikes! That was a lot. But ok, at least it was a finite number. With Chinese you can’t even write your name with 56 letters.


The first word I read was composed of two characters. There was a consonant GA and vowel A.

“GA” I read, proudly.

“Very good.” said my teacher.

This is going to be easy. I thought.

The next word was consonant KA and vowel A.



Next was consonant GO and vowel A.

Goa?” I guessed.

“No, GEA.” Corrected my teacher.

“Why GEA?”

“There are two kinds of consonants, those with A sounds and those with O sounds. We call them big and little consonants. If a vowel occurs after an A sound it has the sound you are familiar with. But if it occurs after an O sound, it changes.”

“So, there are 23 vowels, but each one has two sounds?” I asked.


“So, there are 46 vowels?”

She looked at me blankly. “I never thought about it that way, but yes, I guess so.”

I was beginning to think I had made a huge mistake.

So, we had 33 consonants and 46 vowels, 79 letters. Annoying, yes, but ok, still better than 3,000 characters in Chinese. I could do it.


The next word that we studied was the pronoun I, which in Khmer is knyom. It seemed to consist only of one letter, Ka.

“But where is the yom sound?” I asked.

“The yom sound comes from these subscripts under the word.” Explained my teacher.

It turned out that each consonant could be converted into a subscript, which appeared below the word, and added phonemes.

Once again 33 consonants meant 33 subscripts. So, now 79 plus 33, now we had 122 characters. I wanted my money back. But we wouldn’t learn how to say that until chapter ten. And by then it would be too late.


The next word we learned was the pronoun ‘he’, which I knew was guat. It was no surprise that guat was both ‘he’ and ‘she’. That is very common in many languages. So, the pronunciation and usage of the word was nothing special. But the writing, of course, left me looking for some razor blades, so I could cut my wrists.


Guat had a ga sound, and ended in a ja sound. That didn’t exactly make sense to me. But Khmer, like Thai, doesn’t have a lot of harsh terminal consonants. A and K, J and T may sound the same to our ears. In fact, that is why when Khmers speak English you don’t know if they are offering you milk or meal. The two words would be pronounced the same. Rice, ride, and right are also pronounced identically. As it is rare that someone would offer you meal with your coffee, the milk/meal controversy is easily remedied by context. But when a girl asks you to Write her, buy you understand RIDE, the results could be catastrophic.


I just realized I am on my second paragraph, writing about the experience of learning the word ‘he’ in Khmer. What other language is so complicated that learning a single word would need two paragraphs? I mean I could barely make a sentence about learning the word ‘he’ in Spanish.


The teacher said HE is el.”


OOOOh! That’s riveting. What an interesting story.


Guat ended in a JAW sound. But it was pronounced with a harsh T. so, “Where does the harsh T come from?” I asked my teacher

“It comes from this symbol here.”

She pointed at two dots over the final consonant.


“Yes, symbols occur over words, and they change the sound of the consonants.”

“Over the words? I asked, skeptically.

“Well, also under words.”

I was too mentally exhausted to shout AH HA! But trust me, I was thinking it. “And just how many of these symbols are there?”

“Oh,” She said, looking reflectively. Then after too long a pause, “about ten.” She answered.

“About, you mean you aren’t sure?”

“Yes.” She said. The only consistency in the Khmer language seemed to be that my teacher always said “yes.”

Would you like a knuckle sandwich?


So we were up to 122 characters. Now, we had ten more so 122. And those ten symbols changed the sounds of all the consonants, so maybe we had 155 phonemes to remember.

“And that’s it?” I asked, not believing it myself.

“Well, also dependent and independent vowels.”

When I asked how many, she just laughed at me.


So, why am I learning to read and write Khmer? I wasn’t so wrapped up with learning obscure languages maybe I would fall in with bad company, join a gang, and get into trouble.


If the nuns could see me now… At catholic school I refused to decline even a single French verb. Now, I sit for hours a day, learning to write this alphabet so I could send letters to my Khmer friends who live in the apartment downstairs. Of course, I could just call them….


In all honesty, given the difficulties which Khmers and foreigners alike have with the language, I really think Vietnam and Indonesia have the right idea by using the Latin alphabet. The Chinese and Thais claim that they can’t switch to Latin because their language is tonal, and there would be too many completely different words with the exact same spelling. But Khmer doesn’t have this issue.


Anyway, as soon as I can write Khmer I am planning to write a letter to the King to outline my reasons why I think they should Latinize.


Until then, I guess I am relegated to sitting in my dark little classroom, with a sixty-watt light bulb, matching Khmer letters with colorful pictures of animals and fruits, which only New Zealanders could identify. 



Author’s Note: Mark Twain once wrote a piece about his studies in Hidelburg, entitled “The Awful German Language.” The piece had a huge impression on me, and my friends and I all read it many times when we were studying in Germany. It was a tongue in cheek piece, which was actually fairly accurate from a linguistic standpoint. I had decided to write a similar series: “On Learning the Awful X Language.” The first one was the Chinese piece, which was well received.


This piece was number two in the series. When it was published, I received numerous death threats. In fact, one editor who published the story in his magazine was threatened by someone who basically said, “We know you have a Thai wife and child. We know where you live. Take this piece down immediately, or we will kill you.” Most of the emails were poorly written, with numerous spelling and grammar problems. Also, they missed the joke. But, to preserve my own well-being, I changed the name of the piece before reissuing it.




Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, and all of his books, are available at See his videos on youtube.


His website is

Join him on

Contact Antonio:



True Chinese Fluency

In Linguistics and Language Learning on January 27, 2009 at 11:08 am

It’s an Illusive Goal.

By Antonio Graceffo


It was 1974 and Kwan (Not his real name. His real name didn’t have any vowels.) sat beside me in Miss Compass’ second grade class. We didn’t know what country he was from, but when his father came to career day, he barely spoke English. All we understood was that he did something with math or computers. The father spoke to Kwan in some strange language. Then Kwan played the violin for us, and the father left. I didn’t learn a lot of useful career options that day, but if we had doubted it before, we were now convinced that Kwan was probably Asia, and must know some secret martial arts.


Kwan’s family had just arrived in America a few days before he joined our class. On the first day, he was given the same stack of books that the rest of us had. He struggled through reading, handwriting, spelling and social studies alongside all of the American born kids. Of course he excelled in math. As for language development, we played with him and spoke to him in English. He probably continued to speak his mother tongue at home, but everywhere else, people spoke to him in English, and he learned to communicate. After a year, Kwan’s English was fluent and he excelled at all of his classes. But he was still best in math.


Apart from the math, why can’t we foreigners do that in Taiwan?


When I attended university in Germany my experience was pretty much like Kwan’s. Apart from our German classes, foreign students went to class with the German students. We were expected to do reading, writing, studying and sit the exams, the same as the native speakers. Outside of class, everyone spoke German with us. TV was all in German. And even in or outside of our German classes where the foreigners met, we spoke German to each other. It wasn’t because we believed it was a good way to practice German. In fact, I am very much against any program which encourages language learners to talk to each other in the language they are studying. No, we spoke to each other in German because it was the lingua franca.


An Arab, a Russian, a French guy, and an American sat down to have coffee together, the only common language they shared was German. So, they spoke it.


Here in Taiwan, I am having trouble finding any foreigners who are one-hundred percent fluent in Chinese. I know a lot of people who speak and read well, but none of them could handle complete and total immersion in the sense that Kwan did in Miss Compass second grade class, or the way the foreigners did in Germany.


When I first arrived in Germany, I spoke German haltingly. I got headaches when I had to concentrate too long in class and could only understand native speakers if they spoke directly to me, and then only if I knew the subject already, and if they spoke standard High-German. One day, I walked into a book store and saw the shelves crammed with books I would have loved to read. I remember thinking, “Someday, I will speak and read German at such a high level, I will walk into this book store, take any book off the shelf and read it for pleasure, the same as I do with English.”


That day was less than six months away. I read my first novel after only a few months in country. By the end of six months I could just kick back on the couch with a German novel and read nearly the same as I could in English. By the end of the year I was averaging between one and three minutes per page in German, and one or more novels per week, the same as I previously had done in English.


In Taiwan, after nine months of intensive study, it takes me about ten minutes to read a page in my Chinese textbook. And I would be wasting my time if I even considered reading a novel.


One of my coworkers, an American (call him Tom) is studying at a Chinese university. He is one of only two foreigners in the program. I always tell him how much I admire what he is doing. The other day I said, “I can’t imagine having the professors hand you a stack of books in Chinese, and then going home and reading them.”


“No one does that.” He said, flatly. “Most foreigners studying at Chinese universities get their reading assignments from their teachers, then go online and find similar articles in English and read them.” His final sentences really chilled my ambition. “It is impossible to reach that level of fluency in Chinese.”


Another foreign friend of mine, Jamal, used his student visa to remain in Taiwan for more than ten years. During the military dictatorship, there were no work permits, or they weren’t common. So, foreigners enrolled in school, got a student visa, and worked illegally. (Things have changed. Don’t try this now!) Jamal and his brother finished the five year Chinese fluency program at the university. The pay for their illegal English teaching was higher than what they could earn if they returned home, so they both enrolled in an MA program, in order to remain in the country. There were nearly zero foreign students enrolled in degree programs in Taiwan at that time. All classes were taught in Chinese, including the reading, lectures, exams and thesis. Jamal and his brother struggled through the entire program and were poised to graduate. They had to overcome just one final hurdle. Jamal’s brother was majoring in architecture and was obligated to take a single course in classic Chinese literature. No matter how much time he invested in this course, Jamal’s brother just kept falling further and further behind. 


One of the problems with Chinese language is that the writing system demands that you memorize thousands and thousands of characters. Each word is a character, or actually each syllable is a character, and you may need two syllables to make a word. Train, for example is two syllables; ‘hwo’ meaning fire, and ‘che’ meaning vehicle. Train station is three syllables, so three characters, hwo che plus ‘jan’ for station. Of course, just as in English, a train station could be called a railway station. The characters for railway, like words in English, would be completely unrelated to the words for train. So, even after studying and memorizing the words for train station, you may not be able to find your way if your map used the word railway station.


So, you memorize the words for railway station.


American English has right around one million words. So, in learning English you also need to learn a lot of words. The difference is, in English you could see a word you have never seen before and guess not only at the pronunciation, but possible at the meaning. The first time I saw the words “neo natal care,” on a doctor’s office, I didn’t know what they meant. But, I new that neo was new and natal was born, so I assumed it was a doctor who specialized in the treatment of new born infants.


Some Chinese words are related composites like this, but many aren’t. Often, the composition occurs inside of the character. You can’t guess at the pronunciation, and your guess about the meaning will be very remote. For example, the first time I saw the Chinese character, ‘bing” for ice, I had no way of knowing how to pronounce it, although I had been using that word in speech since my first weeks of learning Chinese. The closest I could guess at the meaning, based on the appearance of the character was that it had three slashes on left side, which means, “something related to water.” Not a huge help.


So, each Chinese word, even for native speakers, must be taught and learned.

But knowing the words isn’t enough.


Most studies suggest that the average Mainland-Chinese, who is considered literate, knows between 3,000 and 4,000 characters. In Taiwan, Sun Yat-Sen University admissions department told me that a college graduate would tend to know between 4,000 and 4,500 on graduation day. Graduates have said that they continually lose characters for the rest of their life. Chinese teachers say that because of computers, children in modern Taiwan are losing their ability to write Chinese, although their reading is still at a high level.


All of this confirms that learning reading and writing in Chinese is difficult. It also suggests that learning and maintaining characters for native speakers is not that much easier than it would be for a foreigner.


So, why is it still so hard to reach real fluency?


Many people wrongly state that Chinese has no grammar. This isn’t strictly true. It’s not as if you can just put the words in any order you want and it will be OK. There are standards for how sentences must be composed. This is why Japanese students, learning Chinese, may possess thousands of Chinese characters, but still can’t read a newspaper. The word order is important. Beyond the grammar, a significant component of understanding Chinese is the use of phrases, almost like word pictures. For example, in Chinese, if you want to say, “the garden is very colorful,” you could clumsily translate from English to Chinese, and most Chinese people would understand what you were saying. But the common way for Chinese to express this idea is by saying, “In the garden, the flowers have six, seven colors.” If you didn’t know this expression, even if you knew all of the characters, you still wouldn’t quite understand what the speaker was saying.


The first time I heard a Chinese say, “the garden has six, seven colors,” I answered, “Oh really, name them.” This of course made no sense at all to a native speaker.


In college, because I was an English minor, I had to take two semesters of Shakespeare. I failed one and was gifted, although I hadn’t earned it, a D- in the other. I hate Shakespeare, “Beowulf,” “The Canterbury Tales,” in fact any literature which predates Mark Twain. I have said this in print before, and received lots of hate mail telling me how stupid I am for not appreciating culture, blah, blah, blah. In cases where I followed up 100% of these critics admitted that they hadn’t read Shakespeare since leaving school, and they only read it then because they had to. Furthermore, the bulk of them only read “Romeo and Juliet,” a story which has been copied, parodied, allegorized, and redone so many times that we all know the story without opening the book. In fact if most people were truly honest, they would admit that they have NEVER read a single Shakespearean work, not even “Romeo and Juliet,” cover to cover.


In all of my life, I have probably seen less than five people just sitting with a cup of coffee, reading Shakespeare for fun.


Shakespeare and Middle or Old English literature is hard to read because the syntax and vocabulary is so different from modern English. Also, there are anachronistic cultural references and humor, which we just don’t understand today.


Can you imagine reading the Chinese equivalent of Shakespeare? And then added to all of the other Shakespearean problems is the fact that the characters being used are ancient Chinese characters which few modern Chinese would know.


This was all explained to Jamal’s brother when the professors called him to discuss his graduation. They basically said that it was impossible for a foreigner to pass the course. Because he wasn’t a literature major, and had done well in all of his other courses, they went ahead and gave him a passing grade, just so he could graduate.


Jamal’s brother had seven or eight years of full immersion and constant study and yet, still couldn’t complete the course in ancient Chinese literature which the native speakers found difficult, but eventually passed.


What will it take for a foreigner to become fluent in Chinese? On a long enough time line, is it even possible? Is there a lack of trying on the part of foreigners? Or, is the grail just unattainable?


Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His areas of expertise are applied linguistics and second language acquisition. See is video on “Picture Story” applications on

His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, and all of his books are available at See his martial arts and adventure videos on youtube.


His website is

Join him on

Contact Antonio:


Antonio is currently seeking admission to and a scholarship for MA/PHD studies in Asian linguistics or a related field. If you can help, or know someone who can, please contact Antonio: Feel free to forward this story to anyone who might be interested.


Language,acquisition,theory,linguistic,automatic,growth,alg,esl,tesol,efl,second, language,EFL,TESOL,ALG,Antonio,Graceffo,linguist,martial,Taiwan,teaching



New Video: Picture Stories for ESL (TESOL)

In Linguistics and Language Learning on January 24, 2009 at 4:11 pm


Antonio Graceffo uses ALG, Automatic Language Growth theory, to teach English in Taiwan. ALG is a listening based second language acquisition theory developed by Dr. J. Marvin Brown, an American Linguist. The method is currently being employed in Bangkok, where David Long heads a Thai language program, while furthering ALG research and development. Antonio studied ALG with David Long and is expanding its use for EFL, TESOL, and ESL.


See the video on youtube:




Language,acquisition,theory,linguistic,automatic,growth,alg,esl,tesol,efl,second, language,EFL,TESOL,ALG,Antonio,Graceffo,linguist,martial,Taiwan,teaching

Picture Stories, ALG Concept in ESL

In Linguistics and Language Learning on January 23, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Applying ALG Concepts to Teaching English EFL (TESOL, ESL)

By Antonio Graceffo



Mulan and Shrek both stopped by my classroom to help me teach English to second graders. Man, I wish that had happened when I was a kid in school.


Picture story is an incredibly fun and useful tool which can be used in a foreign language classroom for teaching real speaking and listening skills. The methodology can also transition into a writing exercise.


The way picture story works is this. The teacher stands at the board and tells a basic story. Here in Taiwan, I usually try and use a Disney cartoon, such as “Mulan” or “Kung Fu Panda” which the kids are already familiar with. Sometimes, I use old Chinese legends which I read in my Chinese class, so that the stories will be culturally appropriate.


See the video on youtube:


While I tell the story, in English, I draw very simple pictures, on the board, depicting the key points. I write character and place names and any new vocabulary under the appropriate pictures. When I finish, I invite the kids to come to the board, one at a time, and retell the story. I make sure that the kids understand, I am not grading their ability to memorize or repeat what I have said. I just want them to tell the story, as best they can, in their own words, and at their level.


Listening to the story is obviously a listening exercise. Getting up and telling the story is a speaking exercise, which gives each student several minutes of focused speaking time. Again, this is real, not scripted speaking. While the other kids are telling the story, most kids will listen, to see how he deals with certain difficult areas, or if he makes mistakes, which they all love to hear. Once the students are comfortable with the method, I will jump up and make changes to the pictures. Suddenly, between students three and four, I add an elephant to the Pinocchio story. Between children seven and eight I add a UFO or a space alien. The children then have to cope with these new additions to the story. This is completely free speaking, as I haven’t given them a model of how to deal with these new dimensions.


At the end, when the board is completely full of pictures, you can transition into a writing exercise. Have the kids take out their notebooks and write their own version of the story, incorporating every single item on the board.


To help them remember the story and talking points, I give them a pointer, and instruct them to point at each picture as they talk about it. If the child gets stuck, which doesn’t happen very often, I just lead him to the next picture and ask questions.


“Who is this?” I ask, pointing.

“He is Schrek, Teacher.” Answers the student.

“And where did he go in this picture?”

“He went to the castle.”

“Why did he do that?”

“To save his wife.”


Once the kids have done the exercise a few times, it is amazing how rarely they need any help at all. And even when I jump in and lead them, they usually pick the story up on their own, and continue on. As a teacher, you don’t have to worry that helping the student is preventing him from learning, if you are asking him questions, as opposed to him speaking to the class, you have just transitioned the exercise from public speaking, to real conversation. Both very useful skills.


Picture story is an exercise which developed out of my studies of Thai language in Bangkok. There, the director of studies, David Long, is the world’s leading expert on ALG, Automatic Language Growth, a listening based language teaching methodology. The ALG concept is pretty simple. Chinese babies listen for two years before they start speaking Chinese. And when they speak Chinese, they speak it at native speaker level. But most ESL programs expect kids to speak English five minutes into their first lesson. Afterwards, parents and educators wonder why kids have an accent and make grammatical errors. ALG says the errors come because the kids didn’t listen enough. So, in a strict ALG classroom, students would listen for around 800 hours before they are permitted to start speaking.


In our Thai program, we listened as Thai native speakers told picture stories, acted out movies, did news broadcasts, or gave lectures in the front of the classroom. Most English teachers believe that in a one-hour lesson, the students are getting one-hour of listening. This is absolutely not true. Modern English teaching methods instruct the teachers to keep their talk time down to 15%, in order to give students a chance to practice speaking. So, the students are only getting nine minutes of listening per hour. They are also getting a lot or minutes of listening to their classmates speaking English, which gives them an improper model.


In an ALG classroom, one-hour of class, is exactly one-hour of listening. And of course, because students are not allowed to speak, the students are only listening to the perfect native-speaker model.


Sadly, EFL, ESL, TESOL and whatever other acronyms you want to use for English language teaching, is a business. If parents knew that their kids weren’t speaking in class, they would pull their students out and send them to another school. And you would lose all of your students, and then lose your job, and then lose your apartment and wind up living in the park where you would have to eat food from a garbage can. And, since no one likes eating food from a garbage can, you do as you are told.


“Just keep them talking!” is a mantra I have often heard from employers. But how can students talk if they have nothing to say?


Since real ALG wouldn’t go over that well with Taiwanese parents and employers, I struck a compromise. While I am telling a picture story I try to be as entertaining and long winded as I can. This gives the kids the longest “real listening” they will probably get. Telling a story is much better than artificial listening exercises done with a tape or CD. Those stories and conversations are generally scripted. But real communication isn’t. In real life, you make mistakes, you double talk, shift gears, use new vocabulary, and of course, you don’t always speak in neat little sentences.


My drawing skills are quite elementary. In fact, I only know how to draw one animal. It sort of looks like a cow, but I use it for a dog, a wolf, or vegetable salad. When I draw it, I tell the students what it is that day. “This is a giraffe, by the way.” I tell them, and they all laugh. Sometimes I may write under it “giraffe.” The bad drawing just adds to the humor and makes the kids laugh. They stay entertained and listen more intently.


One of the reasons for the pictures, and for the live teacher using hands, body language, and facial expressions to tell the story is to show the kids that most of communication is non-verbal. So, even though you may be using some words that they don’t know, or talking too fast, the kids can still follow the story, using the verbal clues which they catch and the visual clues which you give them. This will increase their self-confidence as well as giving them other communication tools to draw on to make themselves understood in a real conversation.


When kids work with a lab book or do a traditional listening exercise, they are listening for very specific information, so that they can fill in the answers to the questions. Once they have answered question one, they stop listening, and wait for question two. With the picture story, they have no choice but to continue listening, all of the way through, because they will need to retell the whole story.


Perhaps the correct mantra should be “Keep them listening.”


In an ALG classroom students aren’t allowed to have paper, pencils, notebooks or dictionaries. I have the same rule during picture story. I don’t want the listeners to be distracted by these tools, and again, I don’t want them to take notes and try to memorize the story or retell it verbatim. I want them to listen, enjoy, and understand and then retell in their own words and at their own level.


This method can be used for adults as well as children. And it can be used with learners of all levels. Since listening should develop faster than speaking, you can allow low-level students, after listening in English, to retell the story in their native tongue. This is another point about the ALG classroom, if students need to speak or are called upon to answer questions, the teacher speaks the language the students are trying to learn. The students should answer in their own language. Here in Taiwan, most of the English schools (called Bushi Bans) state, in their advertising or on huge signs hung over the door, “The No Chinese Bushi Ban,” or “The English Only Bushi Ban.” They are so proud of their English only policy which is complete silliness.


In language teaching you need to decide what you are practicing in a given exercise or on a given day. So, if you are practicing listening, practice listening, and don’t worry about speaking. If a low-level student can listen to my version of “Toy Story” in English and then retell it in Chinese, then good on him! It means he was listening. He was listening in English and he understood. We can work on speaking another day. If I required him to speak English, and he wasn’t ready, he would get crushed. He would be embarrassed and lose his motivation to learn English. Instead, by allowing him to speak Chinese, his self-confidence and motivation will soar.


Most experts will tell you that motivation is perhaps the most important element in successful language learners, and yet, it is the one we know the least about and the one we most neglect.


Picture story gives students opportunities for real listening and speaking. It is entertaining and helps students stay focused. And, as an adult, it gives me a chance to explore the deeper interpretations of “Toy Story” as a metaphor for life and the dangers of membership in a religious cult. Do you remember the little green alien squeak toys who worshipped the claw? You don’t? Then I’ll get my students to tell you about it tomorrow.



Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His areas of expertise are applied linguistics and second language acquisition. See is video on “Picture Story” applications on

His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, and all of his books are available at See his martial arts and adventure videos on youtube.


His website is

Join him on

Contact Antonio:


Antonio is currently seeking admission to and a scholarship for MA/PHD studies in Asian linguistics or a related field. If you can help, or know someone who can, please contact Antonio: Feel free to forward this story to anyone who might be interested.


Language,acquisition,theory,linguistic,automatic,growth,alg,esl,tesol,efl,second, language,EFL,TESOL,ALG,Antonio,Graceffo,linguist,martial,Taiwan,teaching


Activating Your Foreign Language

In Linguistics and Language Learning on January 18, 2009 at 4:53 pm

You Gotta Learn it to Say It

By Antonio Graceffo


Now that I am a teacher, I understand what the nuns were saying back in grade school. They were saying, “Children learn by listening, not by speaking.” But I couldn’t here them, because I was too busy talking. Actually, I was imitating The Fonz from the “Happy Days,” TV show. While I was saying his catch phrases, “Ayyyy!” and “Woaaaaa”, the other kids were learning useful tidbits of Americana like, ‘what year was Benjamin Franklin elected president?’ because I wasn’t listening, I thought the answer was 1789. But actually, the answer was, “never.”


You see, I should have been listening.


Stephen Krashen, one the world leading linguists, proposed the “comprehension hypothesis” (or “input hypothesis”) which is a smart-guy way of saying, “you learn by listening and reading, not by speaking and writing.”


Speaking is the cream. It’s the icing on the cake. In fact, you don’t even need to ever do it, to learn a foreign language. The learning comes through listening and reading. If you start talking too early, the danger is that you will speak incorrectly. You will have grammatical and pronunciation errors which will become fossilized over a period of time. Another issue is that many learners use speaking as a defense mechanism. To try and avoid having a native speaker say something to them that they don’t understand, they dominate the conversation.


Teaching in Taiwan, I see this behavior with many of my Chinese counterpart English teachers. They are so terrified that I will say something which makes it obvious that their English is lacking, that they dominate the conversation. Sometimes I can’t even get a word in edgewise, which could be very frustrating when you are trying to coordinate your teaching syllabus or explain to someone that they are on fire and need to drop and roll.


Another annoying thing that learners will do is laugh at everything you say. The strategy here is that, if they aren’t sure what you said, it may be a joke. And if they were told a joke, but they didn’t laugh, then people would find out that they didn’t understand. So, they just laugh at everything.


Sometimes, to amuse myself, I will sharp-shoot my coworkers by telling them something tragic, but using vocabulary they couldn’t possibly know. For example, I will say, “My mother is demised. She was engulfed in a raging inferno and had to be euthanized.” 


That one really breaks them up around the office. Actually, in addition to the comic value of saying something like this to a coworker, it also becomes a sort of honesty test. If they laugh, I know they are full of rice droppings. But if they say, “Sorry, I don’t know several of those words, please restate.” Then I know they are honest and willing to learn. But this is the smallest number of cases. Normally they just chuckle and say something like, “Yes, paper is sometimes made of rice in China.”


All playful xenophobia aside, the point is, we learn by listening or reading, input. These learners have demonstrated to me that they have stopped listening. Someone who chuckles at your comment and walks away, or quickly changes the subject, has already reached the pinnacle of their English. They have stopped learning. No matter how many more years they spend listening, their English will not get any better.


Just in the interest of fairness, I see foreigners do this in Chinese too. Just today, I saw a café owner ask a foreign customer, “Do you want soy milk or whole milk in your coffee.” The foreigner just smiled, said “yes, yes.” and then checked his cell phone for messages.


We can’t reject the input or we stop learning.


As children we listened for years before we started speaking. And yet when we started speaking, we didn’t have a foreign accent. We had exactly the same accent as the people around us. For better or worse, I was surrounded by a lot of Italians who spoke English as an eighth language, although they only spoke two languages. So, my model was imperfect, but what are you going to do?


Why do our students have imperfect accents in English and why do we have such terrible accents in Chinese? Obviously because we have spent very little time listening.


If you think of when you were a child learning to speak, there were probably times when your mother made you repeat after her to correct your pronunciation. But, this way of teaching was done for the smallest minority of words in your mother tongue. Most of your language learning happened passively, again, from listening and reading. As a child you were learning without even being aware of it. When you started speaking, those passive words became active. But you were only able to say them because they were already in you brain.


The Thai program I attended in Bangkok didn’t allow us to speak at all. We had to listen for ages, learning passively. The theory was that when we were ready to speak, we would do so, and do so correctly, without having been taught any words or even grammar. Believe it or not, the program worked. Now that I am back to studying Chinese in Taiwan, I am using a similar approach.


I spend hours and hours reading and writing Chinese characters. Everyone keeps saying to me, “Being in Taiwan is a great opportunity to speak Chinese.” Yes, it is. But, we don’t learn by speaking. We learn by listening and reading. So, I study, and study, and study. The variety of words that I get from study would never be matched by hanging out with people in a bar. In fact, if you hung out with people long enough, you would develop a certain vocabulary and then block everything else.


I know several foreigners who have been here for ten, fifteen, or even twenty years. Some of them are married to Taiwanese. And yet, after only a few months of study, I see my Chinese level passing theirs. One simple, mathematical reason for this is hours spent. If you hang out with someone, or even live with your spouse, how many hours per day are you actually speaking? In a Chinese lesson, one on one, we spend a solid two hours talking and listening. That is a lot more than many couples talk to each other each day.


Then, when I sit down to do my homework, I have another three solid hours of input. No matter who you are living with, they won’t be giving you three hours of input. The input I get from my books is perfect in that the new words introduced in the vocabulary section are repeated in the reading and again in the grammar exercises. Slowly, methodically, my vocabulary, grammar, and usage are growing through repetition. Living with someone you would also get repetition. And in the short run you would see your language improve dramatically. But after the initial spike, you would level off. There are certain phrases or certain topics that would make up the bulk of domestic conversation. Once you had mastered those, most of your learning would be done. That is why the foreigner living in Taiwan for three years maybe be at the same level after five years or ten years. But this is not true of people who study.


For the above mentioned reasons, I believe that reading is more important than listening. But, of course, if you don’t practice listening, you will never have good pronunciation. Whether through listening or reading, however, if a word is not in your brain, you simply cannot hear it.


An American friend of mine, who speaks excellent Chinese, was asked to give a lecture, in English to the other teachers at his university. Afterwards, a Chinese coworker approached him and said, in Chinese, “I didn’t understand your lecture.” The American said that this was understandable, and began explaining the lecture in Chinese. But the Chinese coworker stopped him and asked, “Why is it Taiwanese people miss certain keywords when they are listening to Americans speak?”


My American friend was laughing when he told me this story. “It’s not that he missed keywords, he missed EVERYTHING. And, rather than attribute his lack of understanding to his lack of knowledge of English, he attributed it to his race.”


It goes both ways. A Canadian friend told me, “I have trouble understanding the Chinese news on TV, so I need to work on my listening.”


This Canadian only has about 500 words of Chinese. His problem is he just doesn’t know enough Chinese to understand. If the problem were truly listening, then it would mean he could read a transcript of the news and understand it, but he can’t. If the structures aren’t there, we just can’t hear them.


We put them there by reading and listening.


When I studied in Germersheim, Germany, I met many Eastern Europeans, Hangarians, Romanians, and Poles, who had never met an English native speaker or seen an American movie. They had learned everything from books, and their English was nearly flawless. Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, and Ernest Hemingway are by far better models of English than foreign friends in a bar.


A significant point about those Eastern Europeans vs. the Asians we encounter living here is that Asians who are dedicated students of English tend to read a lot of books about English, such as “A Million and One American Idioms, Or “An English Learner’s Guide to Gender Bias in British Syntax.” The European students tended to read literature and books IN, rather than ABOUT English.


Native speakers don’t learn idioms by reading books about idioms. They learn them by reading books about gardening, hunting, baking, stock investing, and how-to make hats out of old tires. You also learned idioms by watching movies about car chases, wars in space, searches for lost relics, Kazak journalists touring America, and severed hands that crept along the ground and strangled people.


When I hear the CNN journalist say: “The tale of how this woman overcame every manner of adversity to build her small business into one of Africa’s leading corporations is a real Rocky Story.” I understand what he means by “Rocky Story,” not because I read it in an idiom book, but because I saw “Rocky” 29 times.


Reading and listening your whole life put English sounds, vocabulary, and grammar in your head. When you first started speaking, all you did was activate them.


Again, my own experiment with learning Chinese mirrors this hypothesis. When I do speak Chinese now, I find myself using advanced vocabulary and grammar that I learned in my books. I had a PTA meeting at school, and while I was talking to the parents of one of my students, I heard dialogue 37 come out of my mouth.


One side of me is saying, “I have been studying really hard from books for several months now, I should go into an immersion situation in China to activate all that I have learned.” But the other side of me, the side I think is correct, is saying, “Whether you activate it now or ten years from now, those structures and that vocabulary will still be there. But if you keep studying, the longer you wait to activate it, the more you will have to activate, and the better you will be.”


So, my best advice to people who want to learn a foreign language is, Shut UP and LISTEN or read a book. The choice is up to you.

Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, and all of his books, are available at See his videos on youtube.


Please by many books by Antonio Graceffo, so he can afford to attend graduate school.

His website is

Join him on

Contact Antonio:


New Video: Kuntaw Stick Fighting (Part 1)

In Martial Arts on January 18, 2009 at 2:28 pm


New Martial Arts Odyssey video release, Kuntaw stick fighting. See it for free on


Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo, takes you back to Manila, to the dojo of Kuntaw Master, Frank Aycocho, who demonstrates the basics of Filipino stick fighting, and explains the difference between Kuntaw and Arnis. This video was edited by Andy To, the American film student, who is quickly building a name for himself as a an expert with martial arts videos.


Watch it on youtube:


Antonio Graceffo is the author of five books, available on He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey.” To see Antonio Graceffo’s Burma and martial arts videos, check youtube. His book, “The Monk from Brooklyn” and all of his books are available on



See his website

contact him

Join him on




Struggling with the Khmer Language

In Linguistics and Language Learning on January 17, 2009 at 10:31 am

By Antonio Graceffo


“During a lecture in Germany, I once fell asleep while waiting for the verb.” Paraphrase, Mark Twain


About the story


Many Americans don’t know this, but author Mark Twain once spent a year studying at the university in Heidelberg, Germany. While there, he wrote an article entitled “On the Awful German Language.” I found the article humorous, as it explored a lot of the same frustrations I experienced, studying at a German university about fifty miles away. And so, I began writing a series of language articles, entitled, “On Learning the X language.” Chinese and Korean went off without a hitch. But the one I wrote about Khmer came back to haunt me.


Once the article was published, I received a constant slue of emails, primarily from overseas Khmers, complaining that I had insulted their culture. It became so bad that my life was actually threatened on more than one occasion. The pinnacle came when one of the magazine editors received an anonymous email saying, “We know your daughter goes to X school. And we know where your wife is. If you ever publish another story by Antonio Graceffo, we will kill them.”


I was just about to publish, “On Learning the Awful Thai language,” at that point, but I decided to change the title and end the series.


Since every German professor I ever studied under had read the Mark Twain piece and found it funny, my first thought was to say, “I guess the Khmer have less of a sense of humor than the Germans.”


But then I gave it some serious thought. Since no one has less of a sense of humor than the Germans, maybe the angry reaction is somehow my fault. Could it be that people don’t like having their language and culture made fun of and plastered all over the internet? After enduring the hardships of the Khmer Rouge genocide, I guess the Khmers didn’t really need me making fun of them.


So, thanks to the literally hundreds of Khmer who wrote in, I sat down to revise the piece. Aside from starting from a position of not making fun of the Khmers, but leaving new Zealanders and Canadians as fair game, another positive about the rewrite was that I had since learned a lot more about the Khmer Language. There were a number of factual errors in the original, so I was able to correct those, while including some new information.


Thanks to the trip back to school, in Thailand, where they taught us about the Khmer origins of significant parts of the Thai language, and a return to Cambodia to work as a field translator for some American TV networks, I wound up speaking the language fairly well, but completely let go of reading and writing. I did most of the research for my third Cambodia book on that last trip, and did a lot of the interviews and translations without a translator. But it took a lot of sweat and tears to get to that point.


Here is my struggle with the Khmer language. Your struggle may be different. And maybe the entire struggle is my fault or reflects my lack of linguistic aptitude, after all, even Khmer preschoolers can speak Khmer. So, clearly they are smarter than I am.


The first five months that I lived in Cambodia, I made a concerted effort to learn the language, by practicing with my Khmer friends, and by studying a grammar book at night, on my own.


Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, is a Mon Khmer language, which has roots in Sanskrit and Pali, two very ancient Indian languages. Said another way, it was completely different than any language I had ever studied. Consequently, almost nothing I knew going into my study of Khmer was going to help. Of course, since the closest linguistic relatives of Khmer language are the Pearic, Bahnaric, and Katuic tribal languages, spoken in the region, if you spoke one of these languages, you would find it easier to learn Khmer.


I kept having nightmares of signing up for Khmer class and finding out that all of my classmates were missionaries, who had been living with the tribes and had mastered the Pearic, Bahnaric, and Katuic languages. The whole curve would be thrown off, and I would be the lowest scoring student. Maybe the teacher would even make me stand in the corner.


The other Indochina languages, Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese (as well as many tribal languages) are tonal, like Chinese. Luckily, Khmer is not. So, that was one slight advantage. One of the arguments for why Chinese is tonal is because it is a single syllable language. Each word is only one syllable or a combination of one syllable words. As there are a limited number of single syllables that can be made, a particular sound, such as dai might appear in twenty different words, with completely different meanings. The way they differentiate between them is through tones.


Khmer has anywhere from 40 – 80 vowel sounds, depending on whose counting and which regional dialect they are studying. As a result, there are slues of sounds that sound identical to western ears, but have completely different meanings in Khmer. The way the Khmers differentiate is through very slight differences in vowel pronunciation, and vowel stress inflexion. The vowel stress was something I had never encountered in another foreign language, and at the end of the day, it might as well be tonal, for the difficulty that it presented me.


I quickly learned to always use words I could pronounce correctly or to use whole sentences, so that if I mispronounced a word, the context would help the listener understand my meaning.


Khmer puts the adjectives and numbers after the noun, like in Thai and Romance languages. But on a happier note, there are no articles or genders of words. In fact, even names don’t necessarily have gender. The bulk of Khmer names could be used for either boys or girls.


Most of the countries in Asia seem to have their own unique writing system. Khmer is no exception. Like Thai, Lao and other regional languages, Khmer has an Indian based writing system, which is similar to those used in the other countries, but is different enough that the writing would be mutually unintelligible across national boundaries. Another minimal advantage for someone who already studied Thai, the vowels in Thai were taken from Khmer. So, you would already have been exposed to about 10% of the language. Instead of a hundred years to master the language, as I estimated I would need, a competent reader of Thai could complete the study in 90 years.


The deeper I got into the language, the harder it got.


The Khmers had their own numbers, and printed them on money and any type of official documents. The country had two currencies, US dollars and Cambodian Riel. The largest Riel note was 10,000 which (at that time) was worth about $2.50. Obviously, for large purchases, you had to use Dollars, because even a hundred dollar  purchase price would have meant counting out 40 of the 10,000 Riel notes. Right off the bat, not only did I need to learn to say and read Khmer numbers, but I had to do it for two separate currencies.


Numbers are generally a pretty straight forward thing to learn, when you are learning a foreign language. But Khmer was different. The counting system repeated after five, instead of after ten. That meant, Zero through five were unique numbers (sune, moi, bee, bai, bon, prahm). Then six was FIVE and ONE (prahm moi). And SEVEN was FIVE and TWO. When you got into the teens, it was staggering how long the words were. Eighteen was TEN, FIVE, and THREE (dop prahm bei).


Khmer had a unique word for ten and a word for twenty. But then the tens, from thirty to one-hundred, were the same as in Thai.


The Angkorian Empire of Cambodia was technologically and intellectually more advanced than any other culture in the region. As a result, Thailand, Lao, and Shanland all borrowed from the Angkorian culture. There were similarities between the religion, martial art, language, culture, and architecture. It was hard to believe, comparing modern Bangkok to Phnom Penh, but Cambodia was once the seat of learning in the region. About 20% of Thai language came from Khmer. But which way did the numbers move? This was a mystery that would take me several years to find out. And the only way you will ever know is  by reading on.


In Khmer, the word for fifty was not related to the word for five, because five in Khmer is prahm, and fifty is hasep. It was hard for me to look at 55 and pronounce it hasep pram, instead of ha sep ha, or pram sep pram. 


I wrote to a linguistics professor in Korea and posed the question that haunted me. Why is it that in Thai, the whole counting system is consistent, but in Khmer it is not. Is it because of a mix of origins of the numbers? If so, would that suggest that Thailand maybe didn’t have a counting system at all, and just adopted the new one from Cambodia, but the Khmers had a Khmer system which went through 29 and then borrowed the numbers 30 – 90 from India?


Granted, he wasn’t a Khmer specialist, but his answer was, “Languages do what languages do, independent of any logic you may impose on them.”


Maybe it wasn’t the most scientific of advice, but it did make sense. The greater meaning was, don’t over intellectualize it.


Doing some research, I found out that Khmer numbers were derived from Hindu Arabic numerals, and they are really old. They were documented in carvings as far back as 611 AD. What really blew my mind was that the Khmers had a zero. Unless are a linguistics or math geek you may not know about the search for zero, but many of the greatest early empires on Earth didn’t have a zero. Without zero, true mathematics can’t be done. The numbers one – five were completely original Khmer numbers. Zero was borrowed from Sanskrit language. But the point is, Khmers had a zero.


The tens, 30 – 90 are the same as modern Cantonese and Thai, and are not related to the other Khmer numbers. It turns out, they were in fact borrowed by the Khmers. So, I will make sure to send this article to my linguistics professor in Korea.


The other question I sent to my linguist friend was about the number 20. In Khmer, hundred is roi. One hundred is moi roi, but when you speak, you shorten it to mroi. Twenty is mpai. It suddenly hit me one day, was twenty actually mpai? In other words one unit of twenty. So, did early Khmers possibly count things by units of 20? In most Asian languages, Chinese, Thai, and also Khmer, there is a unit for ten thousand, so you can count things by ten thousands. In the same vein, maybe early Khmers could count things by units of twenty. Going way out on a limb, I thought about decimal counting systems, such as the Romans used. 


Why did they repeat after ten? People counted on their fingers. They had ten fingers, then they made a tally, or tied a not in a rope, or moved a bead on an abacus, to show how many tens they had counted. Could it be that early Khmers did this by twenties? Again, this was all crazy conjecture, but Khmer has a counting system based on five. So, it would make sense that they only counted to five on the right hand. Then, when they got to five, they counted one finger on the left hand, one unit of five. When they had hit four sets of five on the left hand, they counted one set of twenty.


My linguistics professor’s answer was, “I don’t know.”


On the one hand, this was discouraging. On the other, I realized at that moment, that I could some day become a professor.


Doing research, which I probably should have done before writing to a famous linguist for answers, I discovered that Khmers used a stroke tally system and counted by units of 10, 20, or 100. So, it was a kind of victory, because I had thought this theory up all by myself. But now, I only knew how to count in Khmer, and was still a long way away from learning to communicate.


I opened my Khmer book, became discouraged, and decided to explore the numbers again. Khmer counting system is called a vigesimal system, which basically means, it is a decimal system based on twnety instead of ten.




Once I gave up on learning from my books and my friends, and decided to sign up for school, my struggle just got deeper and deeper. When we started reading decimal numbers I suspected that my teacher was lying to me. She claimed that .50 would be read DECIMAL HA SEP, but .5 would be read DECIMAL PRAM. So I asked her. “Since those two look identical, and since the zero after the decimal has no value, shouldn’t those be read the same?”

Her answer was “yes.” But she continued to read them differently.


In Khmer, almost every answer begins with yes, Bat, and then followed by the actual answer. To the Khmer mind, this is a kind of politeness. It also softens the blow if you have to decline a request or give bad news. Yes just sort of meant, I heard you,” or “I am listening.” But, until I learned this aspect of Khmer culture, you could imagine how confusing it was.


I would ask her something like “Is the word for chair Doc?” Ands she would answer “Yes.”

Then I would continue with my sentence in Khmer. “I sit on the Doc.”

When I finished she would say. “Yes, that is incorrect. The Khmer word for CHAIR is GAUAI, not DOC. DOC is table.”

“But I asked you if CHAIR was DOC, and you said yes!” I protested.

“Yes.” She agreed.



Once I got used to hearing “Yes, but No” we got along a lot better. My new strategy was to ask once, pause, wait for the yes, pause again, and maybe ask a second time, before I would get the right answer. Pausing is hard for New Yorkers. And politeness is also not one of our strong suits. But when in Phnom Penh, do as the Phnom Penhians.


The next hurdle I had to overcome in my Khmer studies was the borrowed words. On any given page of our textbook, I would find up to twenty five percent of the Khmer words were the same as French, Chinese, Thai, or English. Of course the pronunciation would often be pretty far off, because of the differences in the writing system. At the time, I thought Khmer had borrowed words from Thai. But when I went back to study in Bangkok, they told us that Thai had borrowed from Khmer. So, that explained the allegedly “Thai words.”


As for Chinese, every country inside of the Chinese sphere of influence uses a lot of Chinese words. Cambodia is in a unique position, in that it is poised to have borrowed from both India and China. But because I haven’t studied any Indian languages yet, I can’t comment with certainty about the words of Indian origin.


And, of course, Cambodia was a colony of France for a bit more than a hundred years. So, they borrowed French words. Older Khmers told me that schools at that time were taught in French and literacy was probably higher in French than in Khmer. As a result, some Khmer words were probably lost. In some cases, French words were used to describe modern concepts which Cambodia didn’t have, like machines and what was at that time modern technology.


It is hard to believe France was ever more technologically advanced than anyone. I am always glad my country was a colony of England, rather than France.


At the time I was wrestling with Khmer, I really thought it was a hodgepodge language, a synthetic patois spoken by a small minority of people. It would take several years for me to understand or appreciate Khmer. Apart from the Khmer history I learned studying in Thailand, the other factors that helped me realize that Khmer had a right to be its own unique language, was that I studied Korean, in Busan, and attended EMT training in the Philippines.

Korean is a strange language in that scholars claim that up to 80% of Korean vocabulary is Chinese. And yet, Korean is not a Chinese dialect. Its origins are unique and almost completely unrelated to Chinese. By the same token, Khmer has a significant count of words from French, Chinese, and English, but it is its own, independent language. I was unconvinced of this fact, until I was arguing with a language friend in a bar in Taiwan. He said to me, “You studied in the Philippines. How did you understand your medical classes?”


“Most of the Filipino medical vocabulary is English or Spanish. Plus, about 40% of the rest of their words come from those two languages. So, I can often just follow along, if I know the subject they are talking about.’


“In that case, would you say that Filipino is a Romance language?”


“No, of course not.”


“So, having French, English and Chinese words doesn’t make Khmer French, English or Chinese.”


He had a point.



Newspaper and magazine were both French words. The word for air-conditioner is MACHINE DRAWJACK, which literally translates as COLD MACHINE. Now this isn’t too far off. A lot of languages use the word machine for every single apparatus. In Chinese and Thai, and even in Italian machine is everything, from a camera to an airplane.


Aleman was the Khmer word for German. It was also the word for Germany, German language, and German people. Some of these funny French words found their way into the vocabulary of Khmers who could speak English. They would say “He comes from German.” That is, unless they said “He comes from aleman.”


Learning the Khmer language helped me to interpret the unique brand of English spoken in the capital. On Christmas, everyone was coming up to me saying “Happy merry Christmas.” I couldn’t figure out why they did that. So I asked my teacher how to say Christmas in Khmer.

“Bon Noel.” She answered.

It made sense that they used the French word, because they definitely didn’t have Christmas before the French came. But “buon noel” in French was Merry Christmas. So, did they adopt the hole phrase, merry Christmas as their word for Christmas? I sent that question out to a bunch of Khmers around the world, who all said that bon is a Sanskrit word, meaning festival. So, the people say “bon noel” meaning Christmas festival.


That explanation made sense. But it still didn’t explain why people, speaking English, said, “Happy merry Christmas.” But then I remembered the sage words of the linguist guy in Korea. “Languages do what languages do.” I guess the same was true for speakers.




Another theory I came up with was a stretch. The word for tourist is DESKJA. I wondered if it was some bastardization of the word desk job. Maybe when the first tourists came, in the early seventies, the Khmers asked them “why are you here?” And the tourists answered something like, “Oh I have an awful desk job. And I am trying to escape.” Or maybe when the Khmers asked them what they did at home, they said “I am an advertising executive.” or “I deal in collateralized mortgage securities.” And when the Khmers didn’t hear, “I am a farmer, a doctor, or a school teacher,” they would just say, oh, “DESKJOB.”


Once again, a reader wrote in and gave me a Hindi origin for this word, “deskja” meaning vacation. Although he is probably right, I like the cleverness of my answer better.


Where learning to speak had been interesting, and gave me little cultural tidbits to mull over at night, learning to read and write was a nightmare.



Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, and all of his books, are available at See his videos on youtube.


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