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


Also see Antonio’s video

ALG Vietnamese Picture Story Le Loi

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

Send him email




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