Archive for January, 2010|Monthly archive page

Art of Fighting: Hide-its the fight in the dog!

In Uncategorized on January 19, 2010 at 4:14 am


A Lesson in Perseverance, or Proof that Talent Means Nothing

By Antonio Graceffo

Robert M. Clyne, host of “The Art of Fighting,” made this incredible video about his friend and loosing fighter, Hide, who lives in Tokyo. Hearing what Robert has to say about Hide, I came off lucky in my appearances on The Art of Fighting.

“Hide is what most people consider a looser. He works as a dishwasher. He is not very handsome. The police don’t like him. He dropped out of school. He has almost never had a girlfriend. He doesn’t have cool clothes or tattoos. He’s not very athletic, and he’s actually a pretty skilless fighter.”

“But Hide has heart. That is something you can’t buy and you can’t fake.”

Robert Clyne on “The Art of Fighting”

Out of all the episodes of “Fight Japan” and “The Art of Fighting” I relate to the Hide character the most. For some reason, certain people are just dealt a lesser hand from the start. Things are always harder on these people. But whether you have innate talent or not, life is all about what you, yourself do with it.

Watch: The Art of Fighting: Hide-its the fight in the dog!

When the chips are down and the deck is stacked against you, when you have nothing left, remember that there is always a chance. There is always an “if”, the most powerful word on the planet.

Fail the first one hundred times but come back and win the hundred-and-first.

“If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;”

“If,” by Rudyard Kipling

Dream and push through, make your dreams a reality, and you have won.

The winnings are tallied at the end of the fight, not at beginning of round one.

Talent is the same as capacity. It means that all thing being equal, the talented person should find it easier to succeed. It doesn’t mean that he will. The white belt who never quits eventually becomes the black belt. And it has NOTHING to do with talent. Countless people write to me on the internet and tell me how they believe themselves to be talented language learners, or that they have this or that innate advantage for learning foreign language. And they may have a greater capacity or a more probable rate of success, and yet NONE of them speak eight languages. The vast majority haven’t mastered even a single second-language.

Talent should just make the trip easier and shorter, but you still have to complete it, which is the point that most people fail to see and the point which separates a looser from a winner.

There are countless people with lots of talent standing in bread lines.

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination are omnipotent. The slogan press on has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race. No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave.”

n      (John) Calvin Coolidge

And finally, no matter how badly you fail. No matter what advantages the other guy has, don’t let anyone take your dreams. Never stop dreaming. No one owns you, and no one has the right to dictate what happens in your head. You own your dreams.

Dream big, but then make your dreams a reality.

Dream a hundred dreams and complete two of them and you have doubled the success of the average person.

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.”

                        T. E. Lawrence (from Seven Pillars) (also known as Lawrence of Arabia)

The Art of Fighting: Brooklyn Monk Parts ( 1 – 8 )

Watch it free on youtube.

Robert Clyne, host and creator of “The Art of Fighting”, conducts an in depth interview with Antonio Graceffo, the Monk from Brooklyn. Beginning with his childhood in New York and tracing his family move to Tennessee. Antonio talks about his early years and how he first got into martial arts. In this extremely candid interview Antonio talks about his family and the events of his childhood which set the stage for his years of wandering and fighting in Asia.

Watch it free on youtube.

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.

His books are available on

Contact him:

His website is




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Empty Compliments and the Language Learner

In Uncategorized on January 14, 2010 at 5:03 pm

 By Antonio Graceffo

Meeting a new Thai person I simply said “Sawadis krap.” Without a second’s hesitation, he said, in English “You Speak Thai very well.” Was I supposed to feel encouraged? Should my head have swollen to monumental proportions because of this meaningful recognition of my linguistic prowess? I simply answered with a question. “How would you know?” In Taiwan, I walked into the staff room of my new job and said to a Chinese teacher, in Chinese, “I am teaching level Seven-A tonight. Where would I find the resources and course outline?” She answered, in English, “Wow! Cool, you speak Chinese.” And then she walked away, without answering my question. So much of learning a language is actually about learning the culture. In Asia, people seem to enjoy bestowing, and I assume, receiving completely empty compliments. I was actually told in a school in Korea that I should make it a point to tell my female students that they were very beautiful and their English was good. It sort of made me feel ooky because I don’t think it is appropriate for a teacher to tell a student that they are beautiful or handsome or sexy or cute. There are people who have said things like that to students in America, and now Megan’s Law prohibits them from coming within 1,000 feet of a school. Also, I would hate to have to wear one of those ankle bracelets that alerts the police every time I leave the house. On my list of pet-peeves, a list so large that it can be seen from space, is foreigners who buy into these compliments when they are learning an Asian language. A friend of mine in Vietnam is really doing everything right, as far as learning Vietnamese. So, I want to be supportive and encourage him. He has learned more in seven months than most people will learn in countless years, simply because he is attending classes and doing self-study. But, even this friend, call him C3-PO, bought into the false compliment game. C3-PO told me, “My pronunciation is nearly perfect.” “How do you know?” I asked, as it takes more than 1,000 hours of listening to achieve perfect pronunciation in Vietnamese. “Because everywhere I go and speak Vietnamese, people compliment me.” C3-PO answered. And so I asked C3-PO, “Have you ever heard a non-native speaker, speaking English?” “Of course I have. I am an English teacher. I have heard thousands of them.” He answered. “My parents aren’t even native speakers.” “Do you feel qualified to evaluate if someone speaks English well or not?” “Yes, of course, I am a placement tester at my school?” answered C3-PO. “Do you think the Vietnamese people who complimented your Vietnamese pronunciation were placement testers at schools?” As native speakers of English we have grown up listening to foreign accents. In my case, it is extreme because I come from New York City where nearly 100% of my classmates were first or second generation immigrants whose grandparents, and often their parents were not native speakers. But even if you are from a homogenous American neighborhood in Ohio, you grew up watching American movies and TV shows which took place in foreign countries or had foreign characters speaking English. I learned to do the Italian and Spanish accents at home, but I learned the German accent from watching “Hogan’s Heroes,” Japanese from “McHales Navy”, Swedish from “The Muppets”, and most of the others from Bugs Bunny. Asians generally haven’t had this experience. Nowadays, they get American movies in English with subtitles or dubbed into their native language, but they almost never have foreign characters in their movies speaking their language. Think of movies like “The Last Emperor” a movie about the history of China made by an American company for an American audience. Asian countries don’t make historical epics about famous western people. “Shogun” an American movie set in feudal Japan, about a European sailor. There is no analogous movie in Asia. Americans, particularly those who have traveled or are more global, would recognize from someone’s accent if they are French or Japanese. Most Asians haven’t heard enough foreigners speaking their language to be able to differentiate. Probably, in fairness, I would say the average American couldn’t tell from accent or appearance which Asian country someone came from. BUT we would be qualified to evaluate if their English was good or not. And most likely if we didn’t understand them at all, we wouldn’t think they spoke very well. I went on to ask C3-PO, how many non-native speakers of Vietnamese had the average Vietnamese person ever heard speaking Vietnamese? The answer is that we are still at a point that many Vietnamese have never had any significant contact with a foreigner of any kind. And the number of foreigners who speak Vietnamese is so small, relative to the number of foreigners who live in the country, the average person has no idea at all how to evaluate you. They are just so happy that you have made the attempt that they compliment you, EVEN IF they don’t understand a word that you say. And, this is where I get angry at my people and why I want to get in a boxing ring with 78% of foreigners learning Asian languages in Asia. I have witnessed, with my own eyes, literally hundreds of times that a foreigner wanted to show off how good his Thai, Khmer, Chinese, or Vietnamese was, so he spoke at length to a local. I saw the local’s face go from a fake smile, to worry, then fear, then back to worry, and finally a fake smile again. The local then said, cheerfully, “You speak so well.” And there was zero indication that they understood the foreigner at all. Often the foreigner was asking directions or some question which required an answer, or he was trying to buy something and the communication stalled the transaction. He didn’t get his answer, but he was so pleased with the complement that he happily went on his way without his insulin or whatever it was he had been trying to buy. “Wow! I must be great at this language. Everyone compliments me.” Another instance in Vietnam was a female co-worker who said, “I am gifted with languages.” This seems to be a really common belief. I receive emails and Facebook messages daily from people who believe themselves to be gifted language learners. The number of people who told me that they are gifted with languages is off the charts. And honestly, not one of these people spoke more than one foreign language well and many of them spoke zero foreign languages well. This particular girl, let’s call her Leia, went on to say, “I have been told that I have perfect pronunciation in Vietnamese.” Sadly, Leia was telling this to Vietnamese staff member, in English. And the Vietnamese staff member looked confused and surprised. Leia had only been in the country a few weeks, wasn’t attending classes, and didn’t actually speak Vietnamese at all. To me, this seems delusional. I don’t understand why these people aren’t locked up somewhere. Leia then proceeded to read the ingredients on the ketchup bottle, in Vietnamese, very badly, translating each word, wrong. Most people in Asia are very polite. Nearly all Asian cultures are confrontation avoiders and face is a huge issue. I have seen people go to ridiculous lengths of forcing themselves to see the Emperor’s New Clothes, rather than to admit that someone had made a mistake and thus cause that person to lose face. Most Asian people aren’t going to tell you to your face that your language skills suck. They won’t even admit that they don’t understand you. If you are living in Asia. Definitely study the language. Definitely make an effort to talk to people, to communicate with them. People do appreciate when you speak their language. However, only speak their language if it will facilitate communication. If the person you are talking to has excellent English, why torture them with your faulty foreign language? Less than one percent of people are gifted language learners. So, most likely, you are not one. Your native tongue doesn’t count. If you are born with five native tongues you still don’t know if you are a gifted learner or not until you actually try and learn a foreign language. If you actually speak more than three or four learned languages well, it is possible that you are gifted, but even that proves nothing. You may just be a gifted communicator. That’s what I am, a gifted communicator. I am gifted at using the small amount of language I have to communicate at a higher level. In a very fair evaluation of my Chinese, which is my best Asian language, I was told that I was lower intermediate in vocabulary, reading, writing, and grammar, but advanced in communication ability. Don’t be confused between good at communication and good at language. Many learners, when they reach a point that they can use their local language to function, they stop studying and learning. My old German professor used to call this syndrome “Me want cookie.” Everyone knows what you are saying, but you talk like a four year old. If you have a local girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, lesbian-life-partner, or friends, it still takes over 1,000 hours of listening to learn the language. But you may reach your 1,000 hours in six months instead of years. It takes extensive listening to learn pronunciation. Asian people will compliment your speaking, no matter what you say or whether they understand you or not. If you want to evaluate your Asian language skills, go to the nearest language school and take a free placement exam. They will tell you straight away what your actual academic level of fluency is. Most of your friends or people you meet on the street won’t evaluate your listening, but that is the key to the language. Your real level is the level at which you can understand, not talk. Can you sit in a café and pick up the thread of the conversation of two native speakers sitting at the next table. Can you actually, HONESTLY, participate in conversations with groups of native speakers? For example, your Chinese friends are debating the merits of pegging their currency to the dollar. In the middle of this heated debate, one of them turns to you and says in baby Chinese, “Where do you come from?” I got news for you, you are not participating in a conversation. A conversation is happening between native speakers, but they thought you looked board so they shot you a life line. Usually, you will answer and they will either return immediately to their previous conversation. Or, they may ask you two more banal questions, like “how old are you” and “do you have brothers and sisters?” No matter what you answer, they will simply return to their conversation. Either way, don’t kid yourself into believing you can hold your own in a conversation with native speakers. And of course, the final point, also the primary point, the compliment: “You speak Thai so well.” It means nothing, nothing at all. Just say “thank you” and keep studying. 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 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, loan,borrowed,words,vocabulary,chinese,kh,er,French,cognate,thai,Chinese,Taiwan,Thailand

Speaking Khmer in Thailand and Vietnam

In Uncategorized on January 14, 2010 at 3:09 am

By Antonio Graceffo

At my Muay Thai school in Bangkok, one of the trainers told me he could speak Khmer. He was having trouble understanding me in Thai, which I speak better than Khmer, but when I switched to Khmer, he understood everything. It turned out he was not a native speaker of Khmer. He had been a Thai soldier on the Cambodia border, for a period of years and thus learned Khmer.

So, why does he understand me, a non-native speaker of Khmer better in a language where he is also a non-native speaker? The answer I came up with was, Thai is a dominant language. Thai demands that foreigners speak Thai nearly perfectly or native-speakers won’t understand you.

(Thai is a linguistic dominant language. It doesn’t mean Thai people are not nice or that they demand perfection. It means the linguistic expectancy is that other people adapt their speaking to Thai ears as opposed to Thai ears adapting to foreign pronunciation.)

Because my trainer was not a native speaker of Khmer, he was more tolerant of my mistakes and faulty pronunciation. He was also excited about having the opportunity to practice his Khmer and particularly, to speak Khmer with a farang (foreigner, barang in Khmer), which was most likely a first time experience for him. Among the staff at the gym, his status went up because he could speak a foreign language other than English and speak it extremely well. Because he wanted to save face, he forced himself to understand me, while people were watching. If we had been speaking Thai, if he didn’t understand, or chose to not understand, then it would have been my fault for having bad pronunciation. If we are speaking Khmer and he doesn’t understand, a stander-by might think the trainer didn’t speak Khmer well. So, to save face, he forced himself to understand everything.

A few years ago, when I was working in Surin city, in Khmer Surin, a Khmer speaking province of Thailand, my Khmer was better than my Thai, and yet I found it impossible to talk to people in Khmer. I would get half way through the sentence and realize that I had switched to Thai. I attributed this difficulty to linguistic triggers caused by being in Thailand and surrounded by Thai sights and smells, which activated the Thai language in my brain and made me tongue tied when I tried to speak Khmer. 

A few months ago, I returned to Cambodia to work for two weeks. At this point, my Thai is much, much better than my Khmer because I have been attending school and working more in Thailand than in Cambodia. During those two weeks, I hired a translator and made no attempt to switch my brain to Khmer mode. Switching languages is actually painful and I didn’t see the point of going through a rocky and unpleasant shift, if at the end of two weeks I would be returning to Thailand anyway.

The last several months, I have been in Vietnam, studying Vietnamese languages, which, like Khmer, is a Mon-Khmer language. There are a lot of cognates between Khmer and Vietnamese and some of the language rhythms are the same. What I found very interesting was that while I was studying Vietnamese, my Khmer language was coming back to me, but it was interfering only minimally with my Vietnamese. Again, I thought about linguistic triggers. The culture, the sights and sounds of Vietnam are very different from Cambodia, so perhaps this prevented the language from coming out of my mouth when I was practicing Vietnamese. But, the linguistic similarities caused my long-dormant Khmer language to resurface in my brain.

Both David Long (of ALG, AUA Thai program) and I believe that cultural, rather than linguistic, similarities between languages are the most important determinates of what we learn, how we learn, and how easy it is to learn a new language. For example, Chinese native speakers, from Taiwan and China, find it easier to learn Thai than do westerners because of linguistic similarities. But Chinese native speakers from Singapore and Malaysia learn almost twice as fast because of similarities of culture.

My experience with remembering Khmer in Vietnam supports the theory that cultural, rather than linguistic similarities activate a language.

The exercise of learning Vietnamese re-awoke my Khmer language. Now I am speaking Khmer with one of my Thai coaches every day and finding it relatively easy to switch back to Thai. Soon I will be back in Cambodia for a linguistics project and I am hoping to find that Khmer language will come back to me much faster and less painfully than it did in the past, after long periods of living in Thailand.

So, what is my advice to you? If you have forgotten how to speak Khmer, but you already speak Thai, go learn Vietnamese.

Just one more piece of practical advice from a Brooklyn Monk in Asia.

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







Learning Vietnamese from North to South

In Uncategorized on January 13, 2010 at 5:37 am


y Antonio Graceffo

After three months in Hanoi I moved to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam. During my time in Hanoi I had a total of about 90 hours of one-on-one Vietnamese lessons and did approximately 50 hours of self-study listening outside of class. In the weeks before I left Hanoi I noticed that sitting in a café reading a book I was able to eavesdrop on Vietnamese conversations happening at the other tables and either, pick up the thread or at least pick-out vocabulary that I knew. Watching TV news, although I couldn’t follow the stories, it was no longer one big sound all running together. I was able to isolate and identify words that I knew and words that I didn’t, occasionally understanding full sentences.

When I moved to Saigon, I immediately noticed the differences in pronunciation and vocabulary. Eavesdropping I honestly couldn’t understand anything at all. Because I follow an ALG learning program I try not to talk outside of class, for fear of permanently damaging my pronunciation through early production. But the reality of living in a foreign country where no one speaks English is that you will need to speak. When I spoke to people in Saigon they understood me. And I often understood them, because they were trying to speak standard Vietnamese. But my communication was much more limited than it was in Hanoi. Even in simple communications, like buying food, food names were different, and the pronunciation of the numbers was different.

Many people say that it is best to first learn Vietnamese in Hanoi, because it is “standard” Vietnamese. Then, later, you can learn Saigon or southern dialect. Normally, I agree that learning standard language makes the most sense. For German, for example, I learned High-German. Then, later, working in different parts of Germany, I learned to understand some of the basic and consistent differences in dialects. I never actually learned to speak dialect, but I also didn’t need to, because educated people all made an effort to speak High-German. Spanish was the same way. It would make no sense to begin your study of Spanish by learning Puerto Rican dialect. You begin by learning standard Castilian Spanish and then adapt to and adopt the dialect of places where you work or study.

With Vietnamese, I think this method is even more important than with European languages because all of the standard textbooks and listening CDs for Vietnamese language are spoken in Hanoi dialect. So, if you were in Saigon taking lessons, you would learn to read a dialogue one way in class. But, when you went home to listen to the CD it would be pronounced completely differently. With Vietnamese, I believe you should learn Hanoi dialect in Hanoi first, but then when you move to Saigon you need to have formal lessons again, using the same books, but with a southern teacher. The two dialects are quite different and it would be much better to formally study both rather than try to just acquire the second dialect through contact with locals. And by using the same textbooks twice, the patterns of differences will become clear to you much more quickly. Use a digital audio recorder to record your lessons and your southern teacher’s pronunciation. Only use your recordings for your listening practice at night. Stop using the standard CDs because they will only reinforce your northern pronunciation.

One funny linguistic note: Before I began learning Vietnamese the only exposure I had ever had to the language was in Vietnam war movies. When I took my first lessons, I remember thinking that the teacher didn’t sound anything like the people wearing black pajamas in “Apocalypse Now.” So, I thought Hollywood had lied to us. The day I arrived in Saigon, I was eating with a Vietnamese friend when he received a phone call on his mobile. When I heard him talking on the phone, he sounded exactly like those moves. I kept expecting someone in the restaurant to yell “in-coming!”

Being a hobby linguist I tried to think of why my Saigon friend sounded like the Vietcong in the movies, but the real northerners didn’t. The answer I came up with was that the majority of Vietnamese in the United States are probably southerners who worked with the Americans or found some way to leave the country. Vietcong extras in US war movies are probably taken from local Vietnamese communities in California, which are composed almost exclusively of southern Vietnamese.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Hollywood hadn’t lied to us. I could still trust the lessons I learned from TV and movies. Sadly, though, they had mislead us.

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