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Wrestling with the Vietnamese Language

In Uncategorized on November 26, 2009 at 1:59 pm

 

By Antonio Graceffo

 

Vietnamese is, by far, the hardest language to pronounce, of any language I have ever studied.

 

At the time of this writing, I have been living in Hanoi for seven weeks and studying Vietnamese for six weeks with private tutors. I have an hour and a half of lessons per day, six days per week. Outside of class, I do as much listening as possible, working with a number of commercially available and proprietary listening materials.

 

Before coming to Vietnam, I had made the assumption that the language was related to Chinese. The two countries had been closely linked until less than a thousand years ago, when Vietnam won its complete and final independence from China. Traditionally, the Vietnamese follow Chinese Mahayana Buddhism. And, until the 19th century, they still wrote their language, nearly exclusively, with Chinese characters. For these, and many other reasons, I thought that being a speaker of Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese would be easier for me to pick up.

 

Saying one thing is easier than another, or easier for one person than for another person is always a loaded statement, fraught with opinions and based on a comparison of the known with the unknown. The short answer is, there is nothing easy about learning Vietnamese.

 

Vietnamese is an Austroasiatic/Mon-Khmer language. Many of the regional languages in Southeast Asia fall into this category. The two most widely spoken, the only two which are official languages of a country, are Khmer, the national language of Cambodia, and Vietnamese. Number three would be Mon, a language spoken by tribal groups in Burma and Thailand, but the total number of native speakers is less than one million.

 

Vietnamese grammar is much more complex than Chinese grammar, which is fairly simple for westerners. The Vietnamese language also has elements of registers of speech, with countless forms of address, depending upon the speaker and or the listeners status and age. Additionally, Vietnamese is tonal, like Chinese, Thai, Lao, Burmese and many of the regional languages. But, where many of the other tonal languages only have four or five tones, Vietnamese has six. Tones are hard for most westerners, but a difference of four or six is not the Waterloo in learning Vietnamese. The next hurdle, after the tones, is the sounds. Vietnamese is riddled with sounds that don’t exist in most western languages. So, the pronunciation is extremely difficult. And, as with all tonal languages, if you miss pronounce something, even by the slightest bit, a listener will not understand you. By the same token, unless you really dominate the language, you won’t understand most of what is being said to you.

 

Readers who are familiar with my research and study in the field of ALG (Automatic Language Growth) will know that I am strongly against learning words and phrases. To truly speak a language, you must learn the language, the communication, not a set of words and phrases. When you go shopping, you don’t recite a pre-rehearsed dialogue. You have to accept and be aware of the fact that native speakers can, and will, say things to you that don’t match the script in your head. To communicate, you will have to be able to deal with the fact that Mr. Hai who cuts your hair, didn’t read the chapter in your phrase book called, “At the Barber Shop.”

 

Another tenet of ALG is that native-like pronunciation only comes from extensive hours of listening. There is no way to learn pronunciation from a book. With Vietnamese, if your pronunciation is not close to perfect, NO ONE will understand you.

 

The Vietnamese language is more closely related to Khmer, than it is to Chinese. And like Khmer, it has a large number of sounds. Counting diphthongs, and long and short vowels, Khmer has well over a hundred vowel sounds. A slight change in a vowel changes the word completely. Vietnamese has all of the complexity of Khmer, but with the addition of trip-thongs and tones. Khmer is nearly the only regional language which is not tonal.

 

Speaking Khmer is only slightly helpful in learning Vietnamese. Speaking Chinese will help a bit with vocabulary. Although Chinese and Vietnamese are from completely different language families, with unrelated origins, Vietnam historicaly falls into the area of Chinese influence countries, and as a result, a lot of Vietnamese vocabulary comes from Chinese. These Chinese loan words were once written with Chinese characters and are generally monosyllabic words or compound words, such as the Vietnamese “Dai hoc” which means university. Interestingly, however, the Chinese loan words often don’t match up with modern, spoken Mandarin. These words entered the Vietnamese language so long ago, that they came from Manchurian dialect. Today, there are only a handful of native speakers of Manchurian still living.

 

If you have ever studied Korea, you would find that 60 – 80% of the Korean language vocabulary comes from Manchurian, Chinese dialect, although the Korean and Chinese languages bear no similarity in structure or origin. The Vietnamese word “Dai hoc” is very close to the Korean “De Hak” because they both come from the same Manchurian root.

 

Occasionally, knowing Chinese does help. For example, the names of countries, particularly western countries, are often Vietnamese transliterations of Chinese names for those countries. A British friend, who is also studying in Hanoi, told me that he learned the Vietnamese word for Portugal is Bồ Đào Nha. He asked his teacher what the words literally meant. She couldn’t answer him, but I knew that the three syllables each represented a Chinese character, which, in Manchurian dialect, was the closest they could come up with to sound like “Portugal.”

 

My explanation of the origin of the word for “Portugal” may have been an interesting tidbit of linguistic trivia, but in practical terms, will it really help me learn Vietnamese faster or better? ALG says “NO.” ALG would also say, “don’t get hung up on words and phrases. Learn the communication.”

In short, having a few words and phrases of Vietnamese is completely useless. I see foreigners all of the time trying to “get close to the people” or “Be sensitive to another culture.” They mix Vietnamese phrases in with their English, thinking this somehow facilitates communication. When a foreigner says “xin loi” or “excuse me” without pronouncing the inflection and tone markers, there is a chance that a Vietnamese person would turn around or look at them. So, the foreigner thinks his communication was understood. Actually, the native speaker had no idea what the foreigner had said, only that he had said something. Other phrases or names of things that foreigners use in their regular shops or with their regular friend “appear” to be understood, but actually the native speaker may not even realize these foreigners are speaking Vietnamese. They just think, “My friend Francoise always says “café sua” when he wants coffee with milk.” But it doesn’t mean that Francoise is saying it correctly. Often when Francoise goes to a new coffee shop, where he has never been before, he comes back with a story. “The people in that shop are so stupid. I gave them my order in Vietnamese, as I do in my regular coffee shop. But they didn’t understand me.”

 

Across Asia I have seen couples completely inventing their own quasi-Asian language, where they understand each other, but no one else can understand them. Many foreigners are sadly encouraged by the ability of their spouse or significant other to understand them, and their estimation of their own linguistic ability is inflated.

 

An American engineer living in Taiwan once told me. “I have learned to speak Chinese well, but I can’t understand when a native speaker is speaking.” For me, coming from an ALG background, this is not possible. I don’t believe that you can learn production without learning passive skills first. Not only do I not believe it, but I am willing to get in a boxing ring with anyone who disagrees with me. You learn from listening, not speaking. If you can’t understand when people are speaking to you, then this means the language is not in your head in the first place.

 

This brings me back to Vietnamese and learning words and phrases. A foreigner living in Vietnam or Taiwan or Turkmenistan, who believes they can speak but not listen, has managed to memorize a large number of phrases. For most of what they do during the course of the day, they are covered. They know how to order food, get a hair cut…if they are really good, like one Australian I worked with in Cambodia, they even know how to get their car fixed. But they don’t SPEAK the language. They have memorized the vocabulary that they need for specific tasks. And the second that the conversation takes any kind of unexpected turn, the moment that here is a problem or a bump in the road, they are completely out.

 

The test that I gave the engineer, who believed he could speak but not listen, was “Tell me in Chinese that your company is cutting back on employees and your contract may end at the end of the year, and you aren’t sure what you will do at that point.”

 

Is this too much to ask of a language learner? This story about the contract was something he had told me in English. And it is the sort of thing Chinese speakers tell each other. If you believe that you speak a foreign language, then you should be able to talk about these types of concepts in the foreign language.

 

So, if learning words and phrases is not the same as learning a language, then why do so many people do it?

 

Selling languages, language lessons, learning materials, and courses is a huge business. In business, you want your customers to be satisfied. The easiest and fastest way for anyone to learn anything is rote memorization, rather than understanding. Rote learning is done through repetition and through a mix of sounds, pictures, and texts. The best way to fool someone into believing they have learned something is to put questions on the test, which match exactly what they have learned in class.

 

This is how 90% of the methods and commercially available language learning aids work. They teach you a set of phrases and vocabulary through repetition. Then they test your ability to remember them and spit them back out on the exam. In the end, even if you earn a mark of 100%, you still can’t speak the language.

 

So, how do we learn Vietnamese? How do we learn any Asian language? The answer is, listening, listening, listening, listening, and eventually, reading, reading, reading. But, with Asian languages, particularly Vietnamese, you need incredible numbers of hours of listening to get the sounds right. The NLSC (National Language Service Corps) has assigned Vietnamese a category of Three (out of four) for difficulty. The Foreign Service Institute has established that it requires 88 weeks, 2,200 hours of study for an English native speaker to learn a category three language. They also prefer that at least half of this time is spent studying in the country where the language is spoken.

 

You can’t learn a language in twenty minutes a day. One hour a week won’t get it. To truly learn a difficult language, such as Vietnamese, will take a dedicated student two years. The more listening you do, the better and faster you will learn. Try to find hours in your day to spend with your listening. Take your Vietnamese I-Pod lessons with you to work or on the motorcycle or at the gym. Attend your classes regularly and do as much homework as you can stand.

 

And most of all, listen, listen, listen. Be realistic, but don’t get discouraged. The Vietnamese learned it. So can you.

 

 

See Antonio Graceffo’s multipart video series for free, on youtube.

ALG Vietnamese Linguistics Part 1

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLuCBEn7b7s

 

Also see Antonio’s video

ALG Vietnamese Picture Story Le Loi

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNeUEzYRga4

In a recent round of interviews, networks and media sent Antonio the question via email and Antonio answered on camera. If you are interested in doing a similar interview, fire off the questions to Antonio. Antonio is looking for an opportunity to study for an MA/PHD in linguistics.

 

Antonio Graceffo is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn,” and is he host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts odyssey.”

Contact Antonio Graceffo on facebook.com

Send him email Antonio@speakingadvdenture.com

 

 

 

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Fight in a Hanoi Park

In Uncategorized on November 26, 2009 at 1:58 pm

 

By Antonio Graceffo

 

 

For my web TV Show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” I try to show little known, and culturally interesting martial arts, in unusual locations, which few people are familiar with. We have all heard of China and Japan, and everyone has seen or studied some Kung Fu, Karate, Judo or Jiu Jitsu at some time in their lives. But few people know about the martial arts of Vietnam.

 

When I worked with some of the big budget American shows, I suggested that they do episodes in Vietnam, but they refused. Both of the big American series had formulas whereby the climax of each episode was a fight between one of the hosts and a local. In Vietnam, there isn’t a lot of fighting. It would have been difficult or impossible to find a fighter who could stand up to the experienced MMA fighters who hosted these shows. So, Vietnam was cut from the production schedule.

 

Luckily, “Martial Arts Odyssey” has no budget, and no schedule, and I can do anything I want. So, I returned to Vietnam, Hanoi this time, to film episodes on VoVinam, Vo Co Truyen and a host of Sino-Vietnamese arts, or perhaps Vietnamized Chinese arts. I knew that the level of fighting would be low, but that shouldn’t detract from showing the art and the culture.

 

The problem for me personally, training in Vietnam for several months, is that I can’t keep fit. Without the serious cardio and impact training of fighting arts, Muay Thai and Bradal Serey, I am gaining weight and losing my fitness. The diet is also a problem. In Thailand, Taiwan, and Cambodia, where I spend most of my time, it is not difficult for me to find a diet of only vegetables, fruit, and meat, while avoiding rice, noodles, and bread. In Vietnam, if I cut rice, noodles, and bread out of my diet I will starve to death.

 

When I first arrived in Hanoi, my friend Ling arranged for me to train with his Vo Co Truyen master in a temple in Hanoi. That was a very cool experience. Then I met a VoVinam teacher and a Wing Chun teacher at my gym and they invited me to train with them in the park.

 

The first day I was in the gym, the Wing Chun master came up to me and wanted to knock forearms and also shins with me. He hit me really hard, and it hurt, but I hung in there. Next, he wanted to knock knuckles and I absolutely refused. I can see some practical benefit to this type of body conditioning of forearms and shins, because you need both of those for blocking in real fights. But like a surgeon or a piano player, I don’t want to risk getting my hands damaged and not being able to box.

 

This brings up a number of questions that I have when I get around traditional martial artists (TMA) (as opposed to fighters). First off, although I believe shin and forearm conditioning can be beneficial for a fighter, why are these TMA guys doing it? I have never seen Muay Thai or Bradal Serey guys conditioning any part of their body except their shins. And, they fight and train for fighting all of the time. I have seen TMA guys conditioning all different parts of their body, allegedly because it is good for fighting, but then they don’t fight.

 

When I refused to let the Wing Chun master knock knuckles with me, he laughed. A crowd had formed, and he felt he had won some type of victory. I think the problem with TMA is that he believes his hands are harder than mine, and thus, he can fight better. While I agree that his hands are harder than mine, a fight is a fight. It will be won or lost in the fight, not before and not after. It will be based on who can knock whom out or who collapses from lack of cardio or physical toughness. Hard or soft hands won’t really matter. I have said in a number of articles, pro boxers tend to have really soft hands because they are wrapped, steamed and babied all of the time. But they are the best punchers in the world.

 

Next, the Wing Chun master started punching all of the metal exercise equipment in the gym, to show me how hard he could hit. He invited me to punch metal and I refused. He laughed again. Now he had won two public victories over me. But once again, I don’t know ANY real fighters who stand in a static position, such as horse stance, and punch a metal target with their bare-hands. It has nothing at all to do with fighting. As a fighter, I only hit the bag, the pads, or another person. I am moving when I hit, and the targets are moving, and of course, I am always wearing gloves, or at least hand-wraps. These TMA guys generally stand still and hit a stationary target over and over and believe this somehow has something to do with fighting.

 

This all calls to mind the famous quote from Bruce Lee about why he didn’t hit boards. “Boards don’t hit back.”

 

Next, the Wing Chun master made me understand he was going to hit and kick me. He took up a static stance and started throwing strikes at me. I really wasn’t sure what we were doing. Were we sparring? If so, I was going to move, and strike back. Or was he showing me something? I had no idea. Also, in Asia, there are so many issues related to face that I was afraid if I did anything that caused him to lose face, he might attack me.

 

So, I walked away. Everyone laughed. Now, he had won three victories without even stepping in a ring.

 

I trained a few times with the VoVinam master and he had me spar some of his guys. I was careful not to hurt them, just touch sparing. It was evident to me, as I had anticipated, that they couldn’t fight at all. They were all good martial artists. In fact, they were much better than me. Their kicks were beautiful. Their stances were perfect. They had dedication. They all conditioned their body parts… There were so many admirable qualities to the way they lived and trained, that is why I put them on my show.

 

But, they couldn’t fight. Again, I have written about this question extensively, but does it matter that they can’t fight? Does everyone need to fight? Do we only do martial art to fight? In the Jet Lee remake of the Bruce Lee film, “Fists of Fury” he is training with a Japanese Karate master and refuses to learn a particular karate movement. He says, “My Chinese kung Fu is faster to win a fight.” The Japanese Karate master answers, “The fastest way to win a fight is with a gun.” His point was, if you just want to win fights, then there are a lot of things you could do that would be easier than martial art. Clearly, we practice martial art for some other reason.

 

The other side of me, however, knows that these TMA guys are completely delusional and believe that they know how to fight. Part of me wants to get in a ring with them and show them that they don’t.

 

In addition to having more fighting experience, I was also much bigger than the VoVinam students. So, when I was fighting them I didn’t want to use any grappling, because they would have been at too much of a disadvantage. But, I felt I needed to show the masters and the other students what I could do. After all, that is why they invited me in the first place. So, I did a single take down. And once, when the student grabbed me, I did a standing choke.

 

When the video aired on youtube a lot of Vietnamese people wrote in. One guy apparently contacted the VoVinam teacher and wanted to fight me. So, I went to meet him at the park. When I arrived, I found two men who had come to fight, plus the VoVinam master and two of his students.

 

In Asian countries where I don’t speak the language and don’t know the culture I am often confused and frustrated, not knowing what is expected of me. Did they just want more touch sparring? Did they just want to see my moves? Did they want to win another victory so they could perpetuate the myth of TMA? I didn’t know. I asked several times what they wanted.

 

“We want to fight.” Said the taller man. “OK” I said. I put in my mouth piece, slipped a groin protector over my shorts and started wrapping my hands. The men all started talking to each other in excited Vietnamese. Finally, the tall man said, “No damage.”

 

“What?” I asked. I sort of knew that they now wanted a simple sparring match and no one would get hurt. But I was frustrated and annoyed at this point. They got me out of bed early and called me all of the way down to the park to fight, and now they were changing their minds. Also, I originally thought I was fighting the tall, mouthy one, but instead he wanted me to fight his friend who looked like a retired tuk-tuk driver.

 

There was no way I was going to fight as easily and politely as I had with the young students. The students were kind and respectful. Their master had treated me well. I wanted to help them. These guys had called me out. And since I wasn’t quite clear on what they wanted there was no way I was letting them walk away with another alleged victory.

 

I would fight easy, and not punch hard, since we weren’t wearing gloves, but I decided that the tuk-tuk driver was going to have an accident.

The tuk-tuk drive got in a low Kung Fu stance. Although VoVinam and Vo Co Truyen are Vietnamese arts, with influence from everywhere, Chinese martial arts seem to be the largest influence on Vietnamese arts. I was just about to start kicking when the tuk-tuk driver and his tall friend interrupted to re-explain to me that we were doing easy sparring. They did this three more times. I have it on video. From the time I was standing in the circle, waiting to fight, until the time I threw the first kick was about twenty minutes because they kept on and kept on explaining to me that I needed to go easy.

 

I kicked at the tuk-tuk driver. His extremely low stance took me slightly out of my game, but it wasn’t much of a problem in the end. He threw an upward palm strike that hit me in the face, then he turned his back and ran out of the circle shouting in Vietnamese. I ran after him, grabbed his coat and was tapping him with my fist while all of the other men tried to pry him out of my grip. Apparently he thought he had won by hitting me once.

 

It took ten minutes or more to get reset and restart. This time, I kicked lazily, he grabbed my foot and came in. I caught him in a standing choke. Immediately, everyone was yelling “Stop! Stop!” but I had no intention of stopping. They made this happen, not me. They wanted to see a fight. And, I didn’t want even the slightest chance that they would walk away thinking TMA had beat real fighting. I lifted him off the ground by his windpipe.

 

After twenty more minutes of arguing, we reset. We exchanged a few kicks and punches. I moved in and started raining really soft blows on the guy. He turned his back and ran out of the circle for the third time.

 

They stopped the fight.

 

“Are you tired?” asked the VoVinam teacher.

“No, we have only been fighting for like thirty seconds. No, I am not tired.” I answered

The fact is, I had been in Hanoi for two months and hadn’t had any fighting at all. I was just getting warmed up and excited and wanted to keep going. The master let me fight two of his students. I went especially easy on the students, so it would be extremely clear to the tuk-tuk driver and his friend that I had gone rough on him intentionally.

 

The tall man said to me, “We is difficult for us to fight you because you do sport fighting, we train for street fighting.”

 

Anyone who has ever seen me fight, generally says it looks like a street fight. I even grabbed the guys coat while I was punching him. Apart from going through his pockets looking for change, I don’t know how could have made it anymore like a street fight.

 

The tuk-tuk driver said, and his friend translated, “We do low kicks on the shins and knees, which you can’t take because you do sport fighting.”

 

Once again, I practice Muay Chaiya, which is all low kicks. Although I throw high lazy kicks with these guys, in real fights, I only throw low kicks.

“We also strike in the eyes with our fingers. That is why my friend stopped the first time. When he hit you with his hand, he meant to hit your eyes with his fingers.

 

Since I started training, at age twelve, I have heard this excuse from TMA guys. Essentially what they are saying is, “Our style is so deadly, we can’t spar or go in competition.”  I don’t want someone poking their fingers in my eyes anymore than the next guy, but is this really a legitimate excuse for not sparring?

 

When it was over, they all told me how strong I was, which made me nervous, because in Asia you never know what lies behind an empty compliment.

 

Later, my cameraman told me that at one point the whole crowd was considering attacking me for hurting the tuk-tuk driver.

 

Confused, angry, bitter, sore, tired, exhausted, annoyed, and lost, up one minute, down the next, excited and disappointed…..this is my life in Asia.

 

 

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

 

See all of Antonio’s videos on his youtube channel, brooklynmonk1, send him a friend request or subscribe.

http://www.youtube.com/user/brooklynmonk1

 

His books are available on amazon.com

Contact him: Antonio@speakingadventure.com

 

His website is http://www.speakingadventure.com

 

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Why Don’t We Learn the Way We Teach?

In Uncategorized on November 26, 2009 at 1:50 pm

Or, why don’t they teach us the way we teach them?

By Antonio Graceffo

 

 

Foreign English teachers in Asia have a pretty abysmal record of not-learning the local language. In part, I blame the foreigners, but something needs to be said about the horrendous teaching methods employed by the Asian language teachers.

 

Hanoi, Vietnam: It was past nine o’clock in the evening and the staff room was full of foreign teachers cutting out pictures, making flash cards, inventing games, and writing texts for their classes. Two teachers were at a computer, where one was teaching the other how to use a puzzle-maker website. At the other terminal a teacher was excited because she had just stumbled onto a website with activities for teaching the past conditional to young learners. Files were being shared and copied, as teachers helped each other to prepare their lessons. The goal appeared to be to make the lessons as fun, interactive, and memorable as possible.

 

The next day, I was sitting in my Vietnamese class, reading and rereading the texts and exercises with my teacher. Lesson 7 B had a picture of a room, with a student La saying “What is that? That is a clock. What is that? That is a book.” We had done the exercise several times already, so I attempted to move it out of the book. I pointed at a motorcycle and said, “What is that? That is a motorcycle.” My teacher looked confused. She pointed at question 8 in the book and said, “No, the next one says, what is that, that is an eraser.”

 

“Yes, I know.” I answered. “But, I thought we could practice with real things in my real world.”

 

She frowned, then looked confused, then angry, then confused. She grabbed the book and held it very close so she could be certain she was reading the exercise properly.

 

“It says here to point at objects in the picture. There is no motorcycle in the picture.”

 

“You are right.” I conceded. I always conceded in Vietnam. Arguing got you no where. So, I just accepted that I had become stupid when I entered the country, and that my opinion, my experience and my education meant nothing. The instructions in the book clearly said, “Point at objects in the picture.”

 

Yes, there are a lot of foreign English teachers who were out drinking and misbehaving while my colleagues were preparing their lessons. And probably 30% of foreign teachers are unprofessional and couldn’t be bothered. We all know the TEFL cowboys, who move from country to country, teaching enough to support their partying. BUT, a significant percentage of foreign teachers are dedicated. They invest a lot of time and energy in creating original materials and methods to help their students. The proof would be that if you googled the phrase “free ESL lesson plans” or “activities for the passive voice” thousands and thousands of web pages would come up. The bulk of them were created by foreign ESL teachers who didn’t expect to earn a penny for their efforts. They were just trying to share good teaching ideas with other teachers.

 

Yes, 30% or even 50% of foreign teachers don’t stay late at school cutting out pictures and making flash cards and games BUT 100% of my Vietnamese teachers don’t do anything at all.

 

The same was true of my Chinese teachers, Korean, and Khmer teachers. It was also true of Thai teachers (The Thai exception was AUA school, where teachers use the ALG teaching method). If you go on line and look for resources for learning other Asian languages, you will find that a significant percentage, if not most, of these materials were created by westerners who were frustrated with the antiquated teaching methods employed in foreign language programs in Asia. Most were not created by local teachers. And, whereas in the case of foreign ESL teachers, we share websites and explore English teaching materials on line, the local Asian teachers generally don’t even know of the existence of websites and material online for learning Asian languages.

 

The bulk of foreign teachers fail to learn an Asian language because they quit their lessons. One very common reason why they quit is because they are simply bored.

 

ESL textbooks are written with great care. They try to use texts that would appeal to a variety of learners. In a textbook I am using right now for a pre-intermediate class, there are texts on the first people to climb Mount Everest, as well as reviews of popular movies, such as “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings.” There are celebrity interviews and biographies of Michael Jordan and Jennifer Aniston. There are lessons about Picasso and various art movements in history. There is at least one song per chapter, ranging from the Beetles to Broadway show tunes, used to teach, grammar, culture, vocabulary, rhyming…

 

Back in Taiwan, in my pre-intermediate Chinese textbook, on the other hand, Lee Jing is still going to the market, buying vegetables, renting an apartment, or taking the bus. There is not even one article about politics, history, world events, or any real people whether from Chinese or world history. Lee Jing also does stuff that I would never do, like cashing travelers checks and buying an aerogram at the post office.

 

What is an aerogram? And why did Lee Jing buy travelers checks? Doesn’t he have an ATM card?

 

Taiwan has an extremely developed pop music scene. Couldn’t some of those songs or Taiwanese movies or soaps, or celebrity interviews find their way into our lessons? In Vietnamese my reading level is pretty low, so I am content at this point to read texts like “Lam lives in Hanoi. Lam has two older brothers. Her father is an engineer and her mother is a teacher.” Occasionally, there are little wisdoms or fables in the book, which I appreciate, because they give insight into Vietnamese culture. But I fear that even in the higher levels, most of the texts will be about Lam and other fictitious people farming and getting a hair cut.

 

Obviously, the learners, the foreign English teachers, are adults and thus have some responsibility for their own actions. Some of them miss their Vietnamese or Chinese lessons because they are hung over, tired, or can’t be bothered. When they miss a number of lessons, and are forced to pay for missed lessons, they begin signing up for less and less lessons, and eventually quit all together.

 

Many of the foreign teachers come in with incredibly unrealistic expectations. They sign up for two hours of Vietnamese or Chinese per week saying, “Well, I am exposed to it every day, so I only need a little bit of class time.” These same teachers complain when hey are teaching a Tuesday/Thursday English class: “How can the students expect to learn English only attending class twice a week?”

 

In Taiwan, the foreign teachers often complained that students didn’t do their written homework. But less than 30% of foreigners who started Chinese classes signed up for a writing option. Of the people who did sign up for the writing, the most common reason they cited for why thy quit was because they didn’t have time to do the written homework.

 

Once I hired a teacher in Cambodia and agreed to pay him an hourly wage, which at the time, was equal to the daily wage of most Khmers. On the first day of class, he came in, speaking English, telling me all sorts of things about the Khmer language. Then he explained that Khmer was different from English. He went to great lengths to tell me that the Khmer greeting “Sua se dai” was used to mean both “hello” and “how are you?” and, “People say this when they meet on the street. They say this when they meet at work. You can say it to one person, or to many. English people say hello and French people say buon jour, but Khmer people say sua se dai.”

 

He was still rambling in English when I looked at my watch. We were fifteen minutes into the hour and the only Khmer word I heard was “Sua se dai” which I already knew. I told him. “I didn’t hire you to talk to me in English. I need you to speak Khmer. If by the end of the hour I can’t say hello, good by, and count to ten, you are fired.”

 

Once again, the foreign English teachers generally speak close to zero percent of the local language when they are teaching English. And the students learn. And we all agree that this is the best method. And yet, when they recommend a local teacher to you, they inevitably say “She is great. Her English is excellent.”

 

I am glad her English is excellent, but I want my Vietnamese to be excellent and I won’t get there by having her speak English to me.

 

When Asians teach English in public schools, they require the students to memorize long lists of vocabulary. Nearly all foreign English teachers think this is an ineffective means of teaching English, so we don’t do it in our classrooms. In fact, you would be fired from most schools if it came out that this was your main method of teaching. But foreign English teachers will tell me things like, “I try to memorize five new Vietnamese words per day.”

Memorizing words from a dictionary is nearly useless because you have no context, you don’t know the usage, and the translations or definitions in dictionaries are often wrong or obscure.

 

A student in Cambodia told me, “Schools are closed this week because we must go to the temple to watch the holiday.” I thought he meant he was going to watch some kind of a ritual or presentation. Later, I remembered that the same student had told me he was going to cinema to “observe” a movie. It hit me. His dictionary told him that “observe” and “watch” were synonyms, which they sometimes are. But in this case, what he actually meant was, “watch a movie” and “observe a holiday.”

 

Foreign English teachers all have stories about the failings of dictionaries, and yet many of them attempt to learn Chinese or Vietnamese from a dictionary.

 

When foreign English teachers tell me the ridiculous strategies they employ in learning Vietnamese, I always ask them, “Is that how you teach your students?” The answer, of course, is “no.”

 

If YOU don’t teach Them like that, why do you let THEM teach YOU like that? And by extrapolation, since most of THEM have grown up in a culture of being taught by US: If we didn’t teach THEM like that, why are THEY teaching US like that?

 

In short, why can’t Asian languages be taught the same way we teach English?

 

 

See Antonio Graceffo’s multipart video series for free, on youtube.

ALG Vietnamese Linguistics Part 1

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLuCBEn7b7s

 

Also see Antonio’s video

ALG Vietnamese Picture Story Le Loi

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNeUEzYRga4

In a recent round of interviews, networks and media sent Antonio the question via email and Antonio answered on camera. If you are interested in doing a similar interview, fire off the questions to Antonio. Antonio is looking for an opportunity to study for an MA/PHD in linguistics.

 

Antonio Graceffo is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn,” and is he host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts odyssey.”

Contact Antonio Graceffo on facebook.com

Send him email Antonio@speakingadvdenture.com

 

 

 

Vietnamese,VietnamAntonio,graceffo,Brooklyn,monk,martial,arts,linguistics,odyssey,language,acquisition,ALG,theory,growth,automatic,brown,long,david,marvin,Bangkok,Thailand,thai,Chinese,teaching,learning,studying,linguist,TESOL,TEFL,ESL,English,Second,Foreign,other,languages,AUA,Ratchadamri,Thai,long,david,ALG,learn,teach,hung,viet,kiew,Phuong,live, Nguyen,Chu,Nam,Phuong,trang,le,loi,picture,story,stories,traditional

 

Wrestling with the Vietnamese Language

In Uncategorized on November 17, 2009 at 2:20 pm

By Antonio Graceffo

Vietnamese is, by far, the hardest language to pronounce, of any language I have ever studied.

 

At the time of this writing, I have been living in Hanoi for seven weeks and studying Vietnamese for six weeks with private tutors. I have an hour and a half of lessons per day, six days per week. Outside of class, I do as much listening as possible, working with a number of commercially available and proprietary listening materials.

 

Before coming to Vietnam, I had made the assumption that the language was related to Chinese. The two countries had been closely linked until less than a thousand years ago, when Vietnam won its complete and final independence from China. Traditionally, the Vietnamese follow Chinese Mahayana Buddhism. And, until the 19th century, they still wrote their language, nearly exclusively, with Chinese characters. For these, and many other reasons, I thought that being a speaker of Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese would be easier for me to pick up.

 

Saying one thing is easier than another, or easier for one person than for another person is always a loaded statement, fraught with opinions and based on a comparison of the known with the unknown. The short answer is, there is nothing easy about learning Vietnamese.

 

Vietnamese is an Austroasiatic/Mon-Khmer language. Many of the regional languages in Southeast Asia fall into this category. The two most widely spoken, the only two which are official languages of a country, are Khmer, the national language of Cambodia, and Vietnamese. Number three would be Mon, a language spoken by tribal groups in Burma and Thailand, but the total number of native speakers is less than one million.

 

Vietnamese grammar is much more complex than Chinese grammar, which is fairly simple for westerners. The Vietnamese language also has elements of registers of speech, with countless forms of address, depending upon the speaker and or the listeners status and age. Additionally, Vietnamese is tonal, like Chinese, Thai, Lao, Burmese and many of the regional languages. But, where many of the other tonal languages only have four or five tones, Vietnamese has six. Tones are hard for most westerners, but a difference of four or six is not the Waterloo in learning Vietnamese. The next hurdle, after the tones, is the sounds. Vietnamese is riddled with sounds that don’t exist in most western languages. So, the pronunciation is extremely difficult. And, as with all tonal languages, if you miss pronounce something, even by the slightest bit, a listener will not understand you. By the same token, unless you really dominate the language, you won’t understand most of what is being said to you.

 

Readers who are familiar with my research and study in the field of ALG (Automatic Language Growth) will know that I am strongly against learning words and phrases. To truly speak a language, you must learn the language, the communication, not a set of words and phrases. When you go shopping, you don’t recite a pre-rehearsed dialogue. You have to accept and be aware of the fact that native speakers can, and will, say things to you that don’t match the script in your head. To communicate, you will have to be able to deal with the fact that Mr. Hai who cuts your hair, didn’t read the chapter in your phrase book called, “At the Barber Shop.”

 

Another tenet of ALG is that native-like pronunciation only comes from extensive hours of listening. There is no way to learn pronunciation from a book. With Vietnamese, if your pronunciation is not close to perfect, NO ONE will understand you.

 

The Vietnamese language is more closely related to Khmer, than it is to Chinese. And like Khmer, it has a large number of sounds. Counting diphthongs, and long and short vowels, Khmer has well over a hundred vowel sounds. A slight change in a vowel changes the word completely. Vietnamese has all of the complexity of Khmer, but with the addition of trip-thongs and tones. Khmer is nearly the only regional language which is not tonal.

 

Speaking Khmer is only slightly helpful in learning Vietnamese. Speaking Chinese will help a bit with vocabulary. Although Chinese and Vietnamese are from completely different language families, with unrelated origins, Vietnam historicaly falls into the area of Chinese influence countries, and as a result, a lot of Vietnamese vocabulary comes from Chinese. These Chinese loan words were once written with Chinese characters and are generally monosyllabic words or compound words, such as the Vietnamese “Dai hoc” which means university. Interestingly, however, the Chinese loan words often don’t match up with modern, spoken Mandarin. These words entered the Vietnamese language so long ago, that they came from Manchurian dialect. Today, there are only a handful of native speakers of Manchurian still living.

 

If you have ever studied Korea, you would find that 60 – 80% of the Korean language vocabulary comes from Manchurian, Chinese dialect, although the Korean and Chinese languages bear no similarity in structure or origin. The Vietnamese word “Dai hoc” is very close to the Korean “De Hak” because they both come from the same Manchurian root.

 

Occasionally, knowing Chinese does help. For example, the names of countries, particularly western countries, are often Vietnamese transliterations of Chinese names for those countries. A British friend, who is also studying in Hanoi, told me that he learned the Vietnamese word for Portugal is Bồ Đào Nha. He asked his teacher what the words literally meant. She couldn’t answer him, but I knew that the three syllables each represented a Chinese character, which, in Manchurian dialect, was the closest they could come up with to sound like “Portugal.”

 

My explanation of the origin of the word for “Portugal” may have been an interesting tidbit of linguistic trivia, but in practical terms, will it really help me learn Vietnamese faster or better? ALG says “NO.” ALG would also say, “don’t get hung up on words and phrases. Learn the communication.”

In short, having a few words and phrases of Vietnamese is completely useless. I see foreigners all of the time trying to “get close to the people” or “Be sensitive to another culture.” They mix Vietnamese phrases in with their English, thinking this somehow facilitates communication. When a foreigner says “xin loi” or “excuse me” without pronouncing the inflection and tone markers, there is a chance that a Vietnamese person would turn around or look at them. So, the foreigner thinks his communication was understood. Actually, the native speaker had no idea what the foreigner had said, only that he had said something. Other phrases or names of things that foreigners use in their regular shops or with their regular friend “appear” to be understood, but actually the native speaker may not even realize these foreigners are speaking Vietnamese. They just think, “My friend Francoise always says “café sua” when he wants coffee with milk.” But it doesn’t mean that Francoise is saying it correctly. Often when Francoise goes to a new coffee shop, where he has never been before, he comes back with a story. “The people in that shop are so stupid. I gave them my order in Vietnamese, as I do in my regular coffee shop. But they didn’t understand me.”

 

Across Asia I have seen couples completely inventing their own quasi-Asian language, where they understand each other, but no one else can understand them. Many foreigners are sadly encouraged by the ability of their spouse or significant other to understand them, and their estimation of their own linguistic ability is inflated.

 

An American engineer living in Taiwan once told me. “I have learned to speak Chinese well, but I can’t understand when a native speaker is speaking.” For me, coming from an ALG background, this is not possible. I don’t believe that you can learn production without learning passive skills first. Not only do I not believe it, but I am willing to get in a boxing ring with anyone who disagrees with me. You learn from listening, not speaking. If you can’t understand when people are speaking to you, then this means the language is not in your head in the first place.

 

This brings me back to Vietnamese and learning words and phrases. A foreigner living in Vietnam or Taiwan or Turkmenistan, who believes they can speak but not listen, has managed to memorize a large number of phrases. For most of what they do during the course of the day, they are covered. They know how to order food, get a hair cut…if they are really good, like one Australian I worked with in Cambodia, they even know how to get their car fixed. But they don’t SPEAK the language. They have memorized the vocabulary that they need for specific tasks. And the second that the conversation takes any kind of unexpected turn, the moment that here is a problem or a bump in the road, they are completely out.

 

The test that I gave the engineer, who believed he could speak but not listen, was “Tell me in Chinese that your company is cutting back on employees and your contract may end at the end of the year, and you aren’t sure what you will do at that point.”

 

Is this too much to ask of a language learner? This story about the contract was something he had told me in English. And it is the sort of thing Chinese speakers tell each other. If you believe that you speak a foreign language, then you should be able to talk about these types of concepts in the foreign language.

 

So, if learning words and phrases is not the same as learning a language, then why do so many people do it?

 

Selling languages, language lessons, learning materials, and courses is a huge business. In business, you want your customers to be satisfied. The easiest and fastest way for anyone to learn anything is rote memorization, rather than understanding. Rote learning is done through repetition and through a mix of sounds, pictures, and texts. The best way to fool someone into believing they have learned something is to put questions on the test, which match exactly what they have learned in class.

 

This is how 90% of the methods and commercially available language learning aids work. They teach you a set of phrases and vocabulary through repetition. Then they test your ability to remember them and spit them back out on the exam. In the end, even if you earn a mark of 100%, you still can’t speak the language.

 

So, how do we learn Vietnamese? How do we learn any Asian language? The answer is, listening, listening, listening, listening, and eventually, reading, reading, reading. But, with Asian languages, particularly Vietnamese, you need incredible numbers of hours of listening to get the sounds right. The NLSC (National Language Service Corps) has assigned Vietnamese a category of Three (out of four) for difficulty. The Foreign Service Institute has established that it requires 88 weeks, 2,200 hours of study for an English native speaker to learn a category three language. They also prefer that at least half of this time is spent studying in the country where the language is spoken.

 

You can’t learn a language in twenty minutes a day. One hour a week won’t get it. To truly learn a difficult language, such as Vietnamese, will take a dedicated student two years. The more listening you do, the better and faster you will learn. Try to find hours in your day to spend with your listening. Take your Vietnamese I-Pod lessons with you to work or on the motorcycle or at the gym. Attend your classes regularly and do as much homework as you can stand.

 

And most of all, listen, listen, listen. Be realistic, but don’t get discouraged. The Vietnamese learned it. So can you.

 

 

See Antonio Graceffo’s multipart video series for free, on youtube.

ALG Vietnamese Linguistics Part 1

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLuCBEn7b7s

 

Also see Antonio’s video

ALG Vietnamese Picture Story Le Loi

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNeUEzYRga4

In a recent round of interviews, networks and media sent Antonio the question via email and Antonio answered on camera. If you are interested in doing a similar interview, fire off the questions to Antonio. Antonio is looking for an opportunity to study for an MA/PHD in linguistics.

 

Antonio Graceffo is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn,” and is he host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts odyssey.”

Contact Antonio Graceffo on facebook.com

Send him email Antonio@speakingadvdenture.com

 

 

 

Vietnamese,VietnamAntonio,graceffo,Brooklyn,monk,martial,arts,

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Martial Arts Odyssey: Vo Co Truyen (Parts 1and 2)

In Uncategorized on November 17, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Hanoi, Vietnam, Antonio Graceffo seeks out the original Vietnamese martial arts form, Vo Co Truyen. Vietnamese martial arts competitor, Le Trung Linh invites Antonio to Quan Thanh Temple, where Teacher Bui Dang Vang teaches him the fighting applications of Nam Hong Son, a local style of Vo Co Truyen.

 

Join Antonio Graceffo on facebook.com

 

Watch it for free on youtube.

Martial Arts Odyssey: Vo Co Truyen Part 1

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brElCuZaqGg

 

Martial Arts Odyssey: Vo Co Truyen Part 2

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHk1Vd22OZU

 

 

In Part 2:

Martial Arts Odyssey: Vo Co Truyen Part 2

 

Antonio Graceffo learns more of the Vo Co Truyen fighting applications with Teacher Bui Dang Van. Side kicks, face slaps, and groin strikes, Vo Co Truyen is very different from Muay Thai. Antonio meets Teacher Bui Dang Van’s first teacher and knocks forearms with a guy hanging around the temple.

 

 

 

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

 

See all of Antonio’s videos on his youtube channel, brooklynmonk2, send him a friend request or subscribe.

http://www.youtube.com/user/brooklynmonk1

 

His books are available on amazon.com

Contact him: Antonio@speakingadventure.com

 

His website is www.speakingadventure.com

 

This episode was edited by Antonio Graceffo and features the official Martial Arts Odyssey intro and outro by Andy To.

 

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Listening Vs. Reading

In Uncategorized on November 17, 2009 at 2:18 pm

 

Which skill is more important for language learning?

By Antonio Graceffo

 

 

 

Someone who read my language acquisition articles recently wrote in to ask me if I believed reading was more important than speaking, and if I believed you could learn pronunciation from reading.

 

I don’t think I ever said that reading was more important than listening. And obviously, you could never learn pronunciation or sound recognition from reading. I work with ALG which is an exclusively listening based approach to language learning. I did a huge number of videos on ALG with different languages on youtube so you can check them out.

 

ALG and natural language acquisition, as well as Dr. Stephen Krashen,all agree that learning comes from input, not output. so, by far, I believe that listening and reading are the most important skills to practice.

 

I learned German through reading books and watching TV. This is called core novel method, which I have also published a great deal about. When I was learning European languages I put more importance on reading than listening. But with Asian languages you often can’t read, so you wind up with listening being the only method you can use.

 

I don’t believe that reading is more important than listening, for beginners. you must listen to get the sounds of the language. In fact, now that I am learning Vietnamese, which uses a modified version of the Latin alphabet, I am hesitant to do ANY reading until after I have had sufficient listening practice because I don’t want my internal monologue to wrong.

 

People ask if I believe that reading out loud is a good exercise. Reading out-loud could be a useful exercise, BUT it shouldn’t be done until after you have proper pronunciation. The whole concept behind ALG is that if you practice wrong, you get good at doing it wrong. This is why ALG doesn’t want you to speak till after you have had substantial listening. The same would be true of reading aloud. For European languages, the listening would be between 200 and 300 hours. For Asian languages (and category 3 languages) the listening requirement would be about 800 hours.

 

For asian langauges, the pronunciation is so different from englsih, you need nearly unlimited listeinnigg to pronounce the words coprrectly. Right now, I am learning Vietanemse. Not only is it tonal, like chiense, but it has a large number of sounds which englsih doesnt. My colleagues are amazed at my dedciation in taking one and a half hours of proivate instruction six days per week. But what they dont understand is that at that rate, I won’t be able to pronounce Vietnamese correctly for 

about 85 weeks. And with Vietnamese, if your pronunciation is not dead on, no one will understand you. There are too many words which sound similar to our ears but are worlds apart in meaning and in the ears and mouths of a native speaker.

 

Pronunciation can only be learned from listening. It definitely can’t be learned from reading. Many people believe that by speaking they will soemhow acquire good pronunciation. “Well, I can practice talking to my vietnamese friends.” They are practicing worng./ this will never, ever on an unlimmited timeline result in good pronunciation.

 

Where my personal language learning theories and strategies diverge from strict ALG is what happens once you have had sufficient listening to achieve native like pronunciation. I believe that once you are able to pronounce the words correctly, and once you are able to function and have normal conversations, the only thing that will take you to the next level is reading.

 

You learned your massive English vocabulary through years of school and reading. As a result, you are able to use words and talk about concepts which don’t come up in every day conversation. For example, if your doctor starts explaining to you what is wrong with you heart, he will use vocabulary which, although technical in nature, has been dumbed down to the level of a normal person. We would expect a person person of normal education and intelligence to know that cardio is heart, and we would expect that same person to know the terms blood pressure, stroke, paralysis, cholesterol, angina, cardiac arrest…

 

If you had a daily transcript of your conversations with friends and family, you would probably find that these words wouldn’t come up frequently enough for someone to learn them from hearing, of maybe if they did, it would take years and years. Most of this type of specialized or elevated vocabulary was probably learned from reading.

 

The problem with category three and Asian languages is that very few westerners, particularly English native speakers, every get far enough into the study to need this level of communication. So, they formulate self-defeating language learning theories based on attaining a very superficial command of the language.

 

Can you get up and give a one hour presentation about your job, handle client meetings and questions, attend conferences and give constructive and meaningful input to business meetings in the language you are studying? If not, then you haven’t finished learning.

 

Remember, if you say “Me want cookie” people will understand you, but it’s wrong.

 

Antonio Graceffo is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn” and the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey.” see his website www.speakingadventure.com

 

contact him antonio@speakingadventure.com

 

join him on facebook

 

see his language learning videos on youtube.

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=antonio+graceffo+linguistics&search_type=&aq=f

 

 

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Brooklyn Monk in Asia: Cham Muslims in Cambodia (Parts 1 and 2)

In Uncategorized on November 17, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Antonio Graceffo has been writing about the Cham ethnic minority in Southeast Asia for years. Once the Kingdom of Champa ruled the Mekong Delta area, from Vietnam to Cambodia, and sacked the Khmer capitol. Eventually, Cambodian King Jayavarman VII defeated the Cham, whose kingdom soon went into decline. The Cham people were scattered throughout Southeast Asia. Today, many still live in Cham communities, speaking their Cham language, practicing their culture and the Islamic religion. Antonio has personally explored Cham communities in Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as a small Cham enclave in the Philippines. Watch it fee on youtube Brooklyn Monk in Asia: Cham Muslims in Cambodia (Part 1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hhi0n3qMbeo Brooklyn Monk in Asia: Cham Muslims in Cambodia (Part 2) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3Obajcrjgs Brooklyn Monk in Asia: Cham Muslims in Cambodia (Part 2) Antonio Graceffo meets with the Mullah of the local Mosque to get a more personalized look into the lives of Cambodia’s Cham minority and their relationship to the religion of Islam, as well as their relation to the outside world. Antonio Graceffo is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn,” and is he host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts odyssey.” Contact Antonio Graceffo on facebook.com Send him email Antonio@speakingadvdenture.com Antonio,graceffo,Brooklyn,monk,martial,arts,linguistics,odyssey,language,Cambodia,khmer,cham,islam,Islamic,muslim,min