Archive for November, 2010|Monthly archive page

Adults Learn Languages Faster than Children, Hands-Down

In Uncategorized on November 24, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Using intellect and discipline adults learn languages much faster than children

By Antonio Graceffo


In my Vietnamese class, one of the students asked the teacher how to tell time. The telling time lesson was meant for chapter ten, but because it came up, the teacher took about twenty minutes and taught us. It was really a quick lesson because she just had to tell us a phrase in Vietnamese and say, “This is what time is it? This is nine o’clock. Ten minutes after nine, ten minutes to nine and nine thirty.” That was it. Now we can all tell time. Yes, we need a bit of practice, but we can function after just a few minutes of linking a concept we had in our L1 (native tongue) and linking it, using our adult brains, to a concept in Vietnamese.


An ESL teacher keeps writing me, insisting that children under six learn languages faster than adults. Obviously, I don’t agree. It is a fact that kids never come in and ask for a lesson on a particular point of language which they feel they need. And teaching kids to tell time in English is impeded by the fact that they can’t tell time well in their own language. Once again, what is it that children do better? Or what makes them better learners?


This is the third article in a series which explores the notion that children allegedly learn languages faster than adults. In the two previous articles I cited examples of why I believe adults learn faster than children. So, before commenting, you may want to read the first two articles.


Since the second article was published, people from around the world have been commenting, and I would like to address some of the comments. An important observation I have made, however, is that people who support the unconventional theory that “adults learn faster than children” all quoted actual research, published theories or sound real-life experience. Many of them were adults who had studied a foreign language to a high degree of function in adulthood. The people who argued that children learn faster seemed to be drawing on emotion and belief. None of them quoted an actual study or published research. Many of them cited their own inability to learn a foreign language as the base for their argument.


My personal belief is that if these people can convince themselves that only children can learn languages well, then they could be alleviated of the guilt of their own laziness in learning a foreign language. The could tell themselves, “I didn’t quit after ten lessons, no, the deck was stacked against me. I’m too old. It’s not my fault.”




I have changed the names of the people who wrote comments. If I was able to follow up on them or if I already knew their personal language history, I have included it.


C3P0: “I’m 100% with you on this. For years, I’ve also been trying to fight the myth that children learn languages faster than adults. You’ve provided some good ammunition here, man.”


C3P0 is ESL qualified, raised bi-lingual and has a masters in education. He has been learning Vietnamese with private tutors, as well as through self-study and has achieved an extremely high level of academic fluency in a period of only 18 months. I challenge any detractor to find me a child under six who can read, write and speak a foreign language better than C3P0, or to even learn a language through self-study at all.


ALG Prof:  “For about the last ten years the myth has been well and truly busted by researchers who have shown that adults are better learners than children. it is probably the use of outdated ineffective methodologies that give teachers a reason to still believe the myth. Basically no matter what you do with a young child they will learn, that is there advantage, they don’t use their intellects. Adult intellects combined with poor approaches to teaching language are the reasons the myth is sustained.”


ALG Prof has an advanced degree and has been a university lecturer in Asia for years. He is also involved with ALG research and has an interest in studying analyzing languages. In other conversations and in our parallel research, we have agreed that modern teaching methodologies are terrible. One thing that the ESL teacher in Asia must remember when he is struggling with Chinese or Vietnamese but his students are excelling, remember that ESL students are taught through communicative, modern approaches using a variety of materials and mediums such as audio, visual, video, computers, listening, and meaningful interaction with a native speaker teacher who doesn’t speak the local language.


For Vietnamese class we have one textbook and no workbook. There are no videos, no listening exercises, and there are almost no supplemental materials available for purchase. And yes, we are learning faster than kids. If we had access to great videos and things that our students have, we would be doing even better.



Afrikaner: I agree with you, Antonio. I also used to think kids learn languages faster, until I started teaching in Taiwan. It’s interesting how little most kids learn in ten years from kindy to the end of elementary school as compared to adult learners learning Chinese in six months to a year at NCKU.


Afrikaner is was raised bilingually. He had been teaching ESL for many years in Taiwan and was originally discouraged about learning the language. He enrolled in an intensive course at the university and realized that he learned more in a month of school than he had in years of living in Taiwan. And of course, once he started studying, he learned faster than his students learned English.


A parallel point I would like to make here is about the myth of emersion. Most foreigners living in a foreign country get less than twenty meaningful minutes of language exposure each day, eighteen of which are the same as the previous day. in seminars, I have asked foreigners in Taiwan to keep a language journal and record all of their foreign language interactions on a daily basis. At the end of the week most of them said their only exchanges in the foreign language were in buying food, filling the motorcycle with petrol, and so forth, all things they knew how to say at the end of their first month.


The only way to learn a language is through study, full stop. If living in a foreign country produced results the all of the foreigners living in Taiwan or Vietnam would be fluent. After only a few weeks of studying at university I passed people who were living in the country for ten years.


The way this concept relates to the myth that children learn language faster is: A foreigner stops studying the local language. A year later, his students have learned more English than the amount of local language he has learned. The foreigner says, “I am living in the country. I am immersed, and yet this child learned faster than me. Ergo, children learn faster than adults.”


The reason the child passed them was because they stopped studying. As anecdotal evidence I knew a missionary family in Taiwan and one in Thailand where the kids attended the international school, while the father attended Thai or Chinese lessons. At the end a year, the father was fluent in the local language and the kids had picked up a few words or phrases, the same as any adult who doesn’t attend school.


Net Teacher: “A child’s brain – under 6 years old – is just different than an adult’s. It soaks up languages – and a whole lot more – in a different way, and faster, than an adult’s.”


“A child under 6 can learn 10 or 15 language as NATIVE languages, if some…one who is a native speaker interacts with the child in those languages. (Just listening is not enough; there has to be interaction.) Whereas an adult will never learn even a single language as a NATIVE language. Any language that an adult learns, no matter how long or how well they learn it, will ALWAYS be a second language. A native speaker will always be able to hear that it is a second language.”


“Children under 6 have this capability, adults and even older children do not. The developing brain is just a different thing. It’s not a myth, it’s a fact: children under six learn languages not only faster, but better than adults.”


Antonio Graceffo: This is preposterous! All students at Germerheim reach native speaker fluency in their first foreign language and academic fluency at the college level in their second, myself included. and we all learned it as adults. DLI, Monterey Institute, Middlbeurry, and Germersheim are all programs designed to get adults up to the level of academic fluency in six months to two years of study.



The one point I will concede is that children are able to lose their native accent in  a foreign language. BUT this only applies to children in an immersion situation. It will generally not happen in a language school. If we focus on the reality and not the theory, we have millions of Asian kids attending language schools, learning english a few hours per week. And we have adult foreigners who have the option of attending intensive course or not, or doing tons of study or not. If the adults chose to study, they would get better results than the kids.


Just in Chinese I know that my vocabulary is four thousand words. How many words does a Chinese child under six know? How many Chinese words does a non-Chinese child under six know?


Proof that I gave in my lat article was that I copied the final lesson the children were expected to do at the end of forty hours of classes. There was less than ten percent as much language as there was in the adult book. Advanced grammatical applications such as the comparative or tenses can be taught to adults in minutes, where as children need days or weeks.


This actually happened in my Vietnamese class. One of my classmates asked my teacher, “How do you make past tense?” And she told us. Then someone else asked, “As long as we are on the subject, how do you do future tense?” She showed us. We did two or three examples and that was it. It is understood that when we go home at night we do several hours of homework to help us remember, but the lesson took minutes. You can’t teach tenses to children in minutes.


The Commentator: “Some of this particular notion is based on the fact that babies and small children are somewhat passive in the sense that sounds surround them and they cannot prevent them…this means talking and language, etc. plus noise and other stimuli… via the senses, etc. A conscious, aware, alert and motivated learner, despite some or any handicaps can learn things…. Well, anyway, you are right in attacking this basic assumption since children are still learning motor skills and other things….that some and many adults have sort of ‘perfected



Marine LT: I think even way back in the 1980s Brown showed that except in the area of pronunciation, adults were far superior second language learners than children. Antonio, you are just plain right.


Marine LT holds a masters degree in TESOL. He learned Chinese as an adult and has a tested reading ability of three thousand characters. His pronunciation and tones are dead-on in Chinese. He teaches ESL at a university in Taiwan and has read extensively in the field of second language acquisition. He also refuses to teach children because they are too undisciplined.


Professor: Take Net Teacher to pieces. He has obviously never stepped outside of a celta inspired class that damages speakers pronunciation etc. People all over the world acquire natives speaker fluency through exposure. Most tribes people in Africa just spend one year following around the rest of tribe when they intermarry and end up with native speaker fluency. Suggest he is put on the phone with some of the grads from ALG I have thai professors listen to David and the only thing they can say to tell him apart if in the way he speaks not thinks.

Language teaching is full of entrenched individuals with the heads in the sand. If I get time I will dredge out a paper of examples Krashen did and post a link to it

Professor mentions David Long, the guru of the ALG method. David speaks Thai at the native speaker level. He learned it as an adult, by studying intensively for two years. He is admittedly a bad language learner and has never learned any other foreign language. But on the phone, a native speaker would not be able to tell that he was a foreigner. David Long also believes that adults learn faster than children.

MA Teacher: I have an additional perspective on it which is based on the master thesis Im currently researching. Its neither against of for either of your stances on the issue. Its a third perspective. I think the matter is not exactly whether or not children learn faster than adults, adults certainly can learn much faster than anyone has ever given the credit for and children’s supposed innate ability is overrated. To become somewhat of a myth. But the real cause of this myth is because of the nature of education and classes. Because you can’t teach a language, languages are learned- not taught. the orthodoxy of lessons doesn’t allow for the possibility that the lessons themselves are what is hindering adults. And what’s needed is learners making their own choices, since language is a personal journey that everyone must make individually, and no teacher student relationship can improve this unless the teacher allows the student to read and observe unimpeded without interference. So called immersion classes do not mimic real life. The problem is the ELT industry with imposed structure that doesn’t work.


Antonio Graceffo: I strongly agree with everything you have said. I don’t know if you are familiar with the years of work I did on ALG automatic language growth, but I have published widely on the subject. I am not a 100% ALG adherent but you, ALG and I all agree that one of the reasons that the myth survives is that teaching methodologies are extremely flawed.


If we take a traditional approach, then at some point the ESL learner should at some point transition into reading novels and plays and doing book reports or studying subjects taught in English. but this is not part of any ESL program I have heard of.


I studied applied linguistics and worked as a translator in Germany for four years and in our program we were expected to be educated at the same level in German and Spanish that we were in English, which means I have read probably a hundred and fifty novels and countless textbooks or research works in German. most ESL learners never get to that point. And I agree with you that it is because of the methodology.


And yes, mother tongue is learned not taught. Children learn their native tongue or the language of their host country because the entire world is dedicated to the teaching of children. Adults constantly teach words and songs and phrases to children, intentionally, let alone the passive learning which children do naturally.


since most Vietnamese adults are unwilling to follow me around all day teaching m words, the way they do with Vietnamese children, I need to go to school to learn Vietnamese. And as you said, the school model is flawed.


I invite you to comment.


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


Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)







Brooklyn Monk fan page


Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE


Brooklyn Monk in 3D

Order the download at


Warrior Odyssey Book Review Chuck Johnson

In Uncategorized on November 19, 2010 at 7:05 am


Chuck Johnson spent years in Japan, studying martial arts and writing books. He is the creator and editor of One of Japan’s leading foreigner websites. Chuck is also the author of the hip-hop English book, “Phat English.”


Here is his review of Warrior Odyssey, the new book by Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo


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


Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)







Brooklyn Monk fan page


Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE


Brooklyn Monk in 3D

Order the download at


Around the World and Back to Your Beginnings

In Uncategorized on November 17, 2010 at 6:16 am

Around the World and Back to Your Beginnings

The spoken word CD from Antonio Graceffo combines the wisdom of the Shaolin Monks with the teachings of an Italian grand mother. You can travel all of the way around the world only to discover the answers were right there all along. my spoken word CD available You are you. And you are beautiful the way you are. Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries. Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor) Twitter website facebook Brooklyn Monk fan page Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE Brooklyn Monk in 3D Order the download at

Children Learning Languages faster than Adults

In Uncategorized on November 14, 2010 at 4:15 pm

The argument Continues in Vietnam

By Antonio Graceffo


A student enters the University of Mainz, Germany, with no prior knowledge of two foreign languages. Six years later, he emerges, a fully qualified UN-level interpreter or translator.


The program doesn’t allow children.


The Defense language Institute and the Monterey Institute specialize in teaching category three languages, the most difficult, to complete beginner adults, raising them to fluency in one year.


Once again, children are not permitted in the courses.


A survey of people working as professional interpreters would show that 80% of them graduated from less than five universities in the world.


None of them were children.


For years I have been waging a lonely war against the belief that children learn foreign languages faster than adults. This is a commonly held belief, but in discussing it with language teachers none of them seem to be able to produce logical answers beyond the fact that “Everyone knows it’s true.”


My first argument is always this, “do you believe that children learn physics faster than adults?”


The answer is usually a joke, such as, “A child would definitely learn faster than me.” Or, a truthful answer, “No, obviously children don’t learn physics faster than adults.”


My next question is, if children don’t learn physics faster than adults, then why do you believe they learn languages faster?


Here are some of the recent answers I received from teachers in Saigon.


  1. Children learn languages faster because they are so immersed in the language.


A: My counter question to this is, “Why do you believe children are any more immersed than adults?” The person who said this is an English teacher at a language school where adults and children both attend the same number of classes per week, for the same number of hours. There is no immersion in this program. But, if it is true that children are magically more immersed in foreign languages than adults, then this is not a fair comparison. We would have to monitor a child and an adult or a group of children and a group of adults who are equally immersed to determine which group learns a language faster.


Myth busted.


  1. A Canadian teacher gave an example: My father had been trying to learn French on his own for years, studying with books and tapes, but he never became fluent. When the children in the family attended French classes at school, they became fluent in just a year or two.


A: My counter point: A fair comparison would be to monitor an adult and a child both attending school in Canada, and seeing which one learned faster. The other fair comparison would be to give books and tapes to a child and books and tapes to an adult and tell them to learn on their own. Without any doubt, the adult would learn faster, studying on his own than would a child.


Myth busted.


  1. Another Canadian teacher said: “Children don’t learn grammar faster but they learn vocabulary faster.”

A: My counter point: In the native tongue, medical school is one of the most vocabulary intensive courses of study that one could pursue. Obviously, we only allow adults to attend medical school. If we limit our discussion strictly to vocabulary, the course Anatomy and Physiology is one of the weeding out courses for pre-med and pre-RN studies. If children learn vocabulary faster then native speaker children should do better at this course than adults. Clearly, however, this is not the case.


Myth busted.


  1. A British teacher said: “I learned English as a child. And I learned it well, in only three years. I have been living in Vietnam for four years, but I don’t speak Vietnamese well.”

A: My counter point: Once again, he is not comparing like things. When he learned English, his mother tongue, he had people talking to him, non-stop every waking minute, teaching him words, grammar, phrases, and usage. He also observed people using English and learned by listening. Then, at age six he began attending school eight hours per day.


Since arriving in Vietnam this teacher completed a single Vietnamese course which counted for a total of 160 hours. A native speaker child will get that much exposure every few weeks. Over a period of years, the native speaker child will have tens of thousands of hours of exposure.


In order to prove that children learn faster, this teacher would need to attend tens of thousands of hours of Vietnamese classes and fail to learn. Obviously a student with 160 hours of classes can’t compare to one with tens of thousands of hours.


Myth busted.


I am attending intensive, beginner level Vietnamese classes at a university in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. If a new foreign student walks in and claims to have absolutely no prior knowledge of Vietnamese, he is probably telling the truth. With English classes, unless you were born and raised in a cave on a remote island in Kamchatkastan, there is no way you have absolutely zero knowledge of English. Even children, particularly city children from wealthy families, have had some exposure to English prior to starting school.


This would suggest that a beginner English student would be starting at a higher level than a beginning Vietnamese student. And yet, at the end of only eight days of Vietnamese classes, my adult classmates and I already know the entire alphabet. And when I say know, we not only know the sound values of the letters, but we are expected to read texts, write sentences and do grammar substitutions and translations of simple texts.


It takes children a year of formal education to reach that level in their native tongue. Clearly they would need more than eight days to learn to perform similar tasks in a foreign language.


In adult English classes there is an assumption that students can already read the Latin alphabet. As a result, from the first lesson they are already expected to be able to read any English word they encounter, such as “encyclopedia.” They may not know what an encyclopedia is. But they would be expected to read the word aloud. The same is true of my Vietnamese class. Our vocabulary is still quite small, but we would be expected to read any word we encountered.


In the children’s classes, on the other hand, their reading is limited to small three and four letter words and only words they have encountered before.


When I was studying Chinese in Taiwan, at the end of eight weeks, I was reading texts that my second grade students could not read. The children were Chinese native speakers, but hadn’t learned all of the Chinese characters I had at that point. To be fair, the students could also read things I couldn’t and were on the whole more fluid than I was in Chinese. But, a second or third grader would never have been able to pass the national Chinese exam required of foreigners wishing to enter university. A particular lesson I remember showing my students was my Chinese lesson entitled “At the Bank.” In their native tongue children don’t learn words such as ‘change money,’ ‘currency,’ ‘write a check,’ or ‘make a withdrawl.’


In my Vietnamese class, we are only on chapter two, but have already learned words for ‘changing money’ and the names of currencies. In the adult English class, chapter two is even more advanced.


As for counting, we can all count to a million after only eight days, 32 hours of Vietnamese classes. Child learners won’t encounter the word million in their first year or even two years of English classes.


Since I don’t have money or resources to actually hire adults and kids to put in the same class and monitor their progress, I decided to compare textbooks and see what adult beginners, versus child beginners were expected to do and learn.


This is ALL of the text from the final page of the children’s beginning English book. Children would be expected to reach this level after forty hours of classes.


1. meeting friends  
Hello hi
Good morning Good afternoon
2. getting to know you  
I’m Tom I’m a boy
I’m Tommy I’m a baby
I’m Peggy  
3. Playing in the classroom  
Stand, up, please. Sit down, please.
Line up please.  
4. My things  
My cup My book
My toys My bag
5. My first picnic  
Sorry Never mind.
It’s OK  
6 My feelings  
I’m cold I’m happy
I’m hot I’m sad


Here is a sample of what an adult beginner is expected to do at the end of 40 hours of  English classes.


6. Complete the sentences with the present continuous of the verb in brackets.


  1. She ________________ with her boyfriend (dance).
  2. They _______________ their dinner (not eat).
  3. The dog _____________ in the river (swim).
  4. I ________________a letter (write).
  5. He _______________ to me (not listen).


For our Vietnamese class, this is a chapter two dialogue, with English translation. This is at the end of eight days of classes. The textbook does not contain English translations. We are expected to translate for ourselves.


  1. Xin lổi, ông là James Baker, phải không a? (Excuse me, you’re James Baker aren’t you? ‘Formal’)
  2. Da, phải. Tôi là James Baker. (I’m James Baker.)
  3. Tên tôi là Thuy, nhân viên công ty du lịch Sài Gòn. (My name is Thuy, I am an employee of the Saigon tourist company.)
  4. Chào cô Thuy (Hello Miss Thuy).
  5. Tôi đến đón ông. Xe hơi đang chờ ông ở đằng kia. Ông có mệt không? (I came to pick you up. The car is waiting for you over there. Are you tired?)
  6. Không. Cảm ơn cô nhiều. (No. Thank you, much.)
  7. Mơi ông lên xe.(Please, get in the car.)
  8. Cảm ơn cô.(Thank you.)


Disclaimer: There are three Vietnamese spelling errors in my dialogue because I don’t have a Vietnamese keyboard and had to copy each of these letters from Vietnamese texts I found on line. Can you spot the errors?


If you compare the three textbook excerpts above, you will find that the child, at the end of 40 hours of English lessons is behind the adults after 28 hours of Vietnamese, and way behind the beginning point of adults in English.


Other factors that have to be considered are discipline, motivation, and focus. Adults don’t just study English because someone forces them to. They study because they need to get a better job, pass a college entrance exam or to create some other opportunity for themselves. Adults are also paying their own tuition and care if they waste their money or not.


As for discipline: When I am teaching young children I spend about twenty to thirty percent of my class time on classroom management, getting the kids back in their seats, and getting them on the right page in the book. They talk while I am talking. They run around the room. And they talk or play during listening exercises. None of my adult students or adult classmates do this. Next, the adults in my Vietnamese class all go home and do hours of homework and revision on their own. My child students don’t even do their homework. None of the children go home and do hours of studying on their own or sit for hours with a dictionary clarifying those parts of the lessons they didn’t understand.


In conclusion, my theory is if an adult and a child attend the same number of hours of classes, the adult will learn faster. In practice, however, adults have lives. They are busy people, and studying is a kind of luxury, which generally takes second place to work and earning money and taking care of their family.


However, given the same number of hours of classes, an adult would learn a language faster than a child. The proof is Monterey institute, Defense Language Institute, and Middlebury Language Program all of which can take an adult student from zero to passing a college entrance exam in a foreign language in just one to two years.


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


Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)







Brooklyn Monk fan page


Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE


Brooklyn Monk in 3D

Order the download at




Native Tongue and Learning Vietnamese Language

In Uncategorized on November 12, 2010 at 4:36 pm

By Antonio Graceffo


When I started my Vietnamese intensive course, a lot of non-linguistists I talked to said that the Chinese students would have an advantage because they already speak a tonal language.


It is true that some westerns could be completely stumped by tones, and just not get the language at all. But, a person who already speaks a tonal language does not have an advantage over a westerner or a Korean or Japanese who is intelligent, motivated and who is trying to learn tones. Remember the a Cantonese or mandarin speaker has mastered the tones of his or her language, not the tones of Vietnamese. Saying that someone from a tonal language would have an advantage is like saying people from languages with words, or sounds, or verbs or adjectives would have an advantage.


Mastery of a particular language is based EXCLUSIVELY on your mastery of THAT language, not other languages. If you know tones in one language, you still need to learn the specific tones for the new language you are studying.


Next, people who were more language-savvy suggested that both the Chinese and  Korean students would have a huge advantage because of all of the Chinese cognates between Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. But in my class, I have noticed the Chinese and Koreans don’t even hear or notice the cognates. I help Schwe Son translate his homework every single day and he never sees the cognates. The Koreans are the same.


In addition to not having a particular advantage, our Chinese classmate, Schwe Son (not his real name) seems to have a number of special problems because of his Chinese mother tongue. For example, we learned the words for “half a million.” But in Chinese, there is no word for a million. They count by ten-thousands. So, a million is 100-ten-thousands. Schwe Son pointed at the Vietnamese words for half a million, nửa triệu, and asked me to translate. I translated it into Chinese, literally, “Half of 100-ten-thousands.” The look on Schwe Son’s face was as if he had just seen me defecate in a frying pan. “Why don’t they just say 50-ten-thousands?” He asked. He had a point.


The old Vietnamese word for Burma is ‘Miến Điện’ the same as in Chinese. But now the Vietnamese have created a Vietnamese spelling for the countries new name of Myanmar. Most languages and most countries move toward not changing country or city names, but just spelling them in their own language. This is why Beijing is now Beijing in English, instead of Peking. But Chinese cannot move in that direction, as it is impossible to spell foreign words with Chinese characters. As a result, many Chinese place names are outdated. Or, they have to create a totally new word, which may or may not be recognizable as the place it relates to.


So, in class, when we encounter a country names that are instantly recognizable for western or Korean students, the Schwe Son needs a translation. Afterwards, the translation has no real meaning for him. He just has to memorize it, although it doesn’t relate to anything.


We have only had eight days of class so far, but have already encountered a lot of Chinese cognates. The word for ‘a shop’ which I learned in Hanoi was ‘cửa hàng’. But here in Saigon they say ‘tiệm.’ this is a cognate from the Chinese, ‘Diàn’.  And yet, when we came to this word, Schwe Son asked me to translate. I said, in Chinese, “tiệm means Diàn.” Schwe Son simply said, “OK.” And immediately wrote the Chinese character in his notebook. There was not even a flicker of recognition.


List of Chinese and Cognates from the first eight days of class (I have only listed modern Mandarim cognates. If I were to list ancient Chinese cognates (similar to Korean and Cantonese cognates) the list would be much, much longer.)



English Vietnamese Chinese Pronunciation




Please xin Qǐng
Shop (n) tiệm Diàn
South nam Nán
East đông Dōng
come đi lại Lái
Zero/Empty Không (zero) Kōng (empty)
zero linh Líng
prepare Zhǔnbèi chuẩn bị 準備
money tiền Qián
side bên biān
Café quán cà phê Kāfēi guǎn 咖啡館
wrap bao Bāo
pronunciation phát âm Fāyīn 發音
dictionary tự điển Zìdiǎn 字典
Burma Miến Điện Miǎndiàn 緬甸
Country Quốc gia Guójiā 國家
Germany Đức Déguó 德國



Vietnamese is a Mon-Khmer language, in spite of having so many Chinese cognates. Chinese is a single syllable language, with a lot of compound words. But Mon Khmer languages have multi-sylabic words. The Chinese student is having a lot of difficulty with the pronunciation of multi-sylabic words.


Possession in Khmer, Vietnamese, and English can me made, using the verb, “to belong to”, as in, ‘the book belongs to me.’ But most languages don’t have that construction. Neither Korean nor Chinese has it. (It exists in Korean, but no one uses it). So, they were all having a hard time understanding the concept of, “book belongs to me”, “sách của tôi”. The Chinese student kept pushing me for word-for-word translations. But obviously, there was no way to translate this word-for-word. I could only translate the meaning. In Chinese, “This is my book.” But then he would flip the book to the previous day’s lesson. “I thought this phrase meant ‘this book is mine’.” He said. “Yes,” I said. “The meaning is the same, but the wording is different.” “OK, so what is it in Chinese?” He asked again.


Schwe Son realizes he needs to improve his English in order to get through his study of Vietnamese language. So, every day, in addition to translating his homework into Chinese, he asks me to translate it into English for him. And this creates a whole other set of problems.


In Vietnamese there is a word for the noun, “a question.” ‘câu hỏi’ And the verb, “To ask” ‘hỏi’ is a related word. The noun, “answer” ‘câu trả lời’ is also related to the verb “to answer” ‘trả lời’. But in English, obviously, the verb, “To ask” is unrelated to the noun, “a question.”


“Open and close your book” in Vietnamese is exactly as it is in English. Meaning the same words “open and close” could be used for the door or a drawer or a crematorium. But in Chinese, the words for “open and close your book” are unrelated to “open and close the door.” I translated for him, and he understood what the phrase ‘open your book meant’ in Chinese, but it was a completely unrelated phrase, that had no meaning and no connection to anything else for him. For the rest of the classmates, once they learned ‘open and close’ they could apply it to anything. But for Schwe Son it was one isolated piece of linguistic noise.


There are so many aspects to learning a language: vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, usage, and many more. although an argument could be made that a student with a given native tongue may have an advantage in area, he or she may have other areas with particular difficulties.


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


Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)







Brooklyn Monk fan page


Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE


Brooklyn Monk in 3D

Order the download at



Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast: Season One CD

In Uncategorized on November 11, 2010 at 8:15 am


He’s lived in more than ten countries and speaks nine languages, and yet Antonio Graceffo doesn’t seem to get along anywhere.


But why should he? Other countries aren’t interesting, they are plain weird. Why can’t everyone live in the suburbs, eat hamburgers and watch monkey knife fights?


It’s anti-travel humor at its best, the Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast Season One CD


Have you ever blown up at an airline counter because they wanted to charge you for oversized luggage? Did you feel insulted, thinking they were calling you fat?


Have you ever tried to teach a monkey to climb, only to find out that he was lazy?


Has it ever bother you that: Refugees pile into tiny little boats, brave the oceans, run the risk of starvation, thirst, or death at the hands of pirates just to reach the safety of a developed country. But people from developed countries pay huge sums of money to fly to poor countries and live in tourist ghettos.


A lot of westerners abroad behave badly. And Antonio is there with compassion and understanding, to rip them apart publicly.


Order Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast: Season One CD at—season-1/13576372



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


Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)







Brooklyn Monk fan page


Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE


Brooklyn Monk in 3D

Order the download at

Radio interview: Brooklyn Monk on World Footprints

In Uncategorized on November 10, 2010 at 12:38 am

Radio interview: Tonya M. Fitzpatrick, interviews the Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo on World Footprints Network. They discus Antonio’s new book, Warrior Odyssey, the Brooklyn Monk in Asia podcast and a whole bunch of other exciting stuff about Asia, boxing, and languages.

Spelling Words with Words

In Uncategorized on November 9, 2010 at 4:18 pm

By Antonio Graceffo


Here is a linguistic exercise for you. Try to spell the name of a famous person, using English words, rather than letters.


For example Michael Huntington would be “my call hunt in ton”.


Now spell the name of under-appreciated author, Antonio Graceffo.


You will probably find that this is a cumbersome if not impossible task.


Here is a second, more difficult challenge. Translate an entire page of today’s newspaper, using words to spell words.


Impossible! But this is very similar to what we are doing when we learn a foreign language and try to pronounce it before we have had ample listening. But more on this later.


At the time of this writing, I am in Saigon, Vietnam, attending an intensive course in Vietnamese language. My class mates consist of two Americans, an Anglo-Canadian, a Cantonese-speaking Canadian, four Koreans and one Chinese. Over the next several months, my goal is to observe the differences in each of my classmates’ approach to learning this difficult language. My goal is first, to find out if and how their approaches differ. My other goal is to take lessons from my classmates’ learning difficulties and strengths and use them to better understand how English native speakers learn languages, and how we can improve.


When we learn a foreign language, obviously we will be faced with sounds and pronunciations which may or may not exist in our own language. If you are learning Chinese, Thai, or some language that uses an alphabet other than English, most students will use the Latin alphabet to approximate the sounds of the foreign language. So, when they learn the Chinese word (房子) house, they might write ‘fang ze’ to help them remember how to pronounce it. But the problem with this method is that while the Chinese words for house sounds similar to the English, ‘fang ze’, but it’s not identical. And, by ascribing this faulty English pronunciation to the words, at the beginning of your study, you will fossilize the mistake. For the rest of the time that you speak Chinese you will mispronounce the word for house, as ‘fang ze’. Similar words or compound words, using the same character will be equally mispronounced.


When you spell a foreign word using your own alphabet, you have to find the closest sound in your language and replicate the foreign sound. Obviously, since there will never be an exact match, you will always be off. When you learn speaking, independent of writing, you go through exactly the same exercise in your brain, matching the foreign sound to sounds that you already possess in your native tongue. Once again, you will not have an exact match. And you will mispronounce the words.

Many people believe that polyglots, people who speak more than one language, can learn to pronounce successive languages faster. They also believe that children raised bilingually, will find it easier to learn a foreign language, because they possess more sounds. Actually, neither of these beliefs is true. Polyglots and bilinguals contain more sounds in their brains, so they will have a higher probability of finding a closer match to a foreign word. But they are employing the same, faulty method of trying to match a new sound to one they already have.


Back to my Vietnamese class.


Vietnamese is a Mon-Khmer language, which has many sounds which we do not have in English. It is written with a Latin-based alphabet, called Quốc Ngữ (script of the national language).


As my class is taught using traditional teaching techniques, our first several lessons were spent learning to pronounce the alphabet. We were handed an alphabet chart with the Vietnamese letters on it, and we listened as the teacher went through, pronouncing them. She did this several times, and then asked us to do the same. When we mispronounced, which was often, the teacher corrected us. That night, our homework was to go home and practice saying the alphabet. But once I got home, the characters written on the paper meant nothing to me. I couldn’t remember how they were pronounced. So, there was no way to practice.


Both Korean and English are written with phonetic alphabets. (Side note: I am not suggesting that English is 100% phonetic, like Korean, but that English is written with letters, which have sound values and are used to spell words.) The Korean and western students used their own alphabet to approximate the sounds of the Vietnamese letters. Of course, as I said earlier, this method is flawed.


The Chinese student, let’s call him Pen Yo, didn’t have this option.


Chinese characters have ascribed meanings but no ascribed pronunciation. In theory, all languages could be written with Chinese characters. If you are having trouble envisioning what this means, think about the Phoenician numerals (Arabic numerals) 1, 2, 3, 4… They look identical, and have the same ascribed meanings everywhere in the world. No matter what language you speak, the numeral 1 means a single unit, 2 means a pair. Only the pronunciation of the numerals varies from language to language. A German says “ein” and a Spaniard says “uno” but the meaning is the same. And, the writing is the same 1.


A Chinese character that represents a house (房子)always has the meaning of a house, but it has a different pronunciation in Korean, Japanese, or Vietnamese. A friend of mine who did a PHD in Easter philosophy told me that he had been taught to read ancient Chinese texts using Chinese characters but pronouncing the words in English. Arguably, Chinese could be used as a universal writing system.


The downside of the Chinese writing system, however, is that you can’t write foreign words, or even names, in Chinese. For example, on movie posters, actress Nicole Kidman is called (尼科爾 雞  慢) Chinese characters whith the rough pronunciation of “ni ko gi man’. The pronunciation is pretty far off. The meanings of the words are actually laughable, as some of the individual characters mean  “nun… Chicken slow.”


In class, Pen Yo was unable to use the Chinese writing system to approximate the sounds of the Vietnamese alphabet or the sounds of the Vietnamese words. To do so, he would have to spell words with words. And that would be even further off than the spelling method employed by the other students.


Normally, I study language using a mostly-listening method. In that method, you listen for 800 hours, to learn all of the sounds of the language before you begin speaking. Writing comes much later. My current class uses traditional methods, however. So, here, we learn the alphabet, by looking at the letters while the teacher pronounces them. Next, we pronounce the letters. After that, we begin to read words, and then sentences. Hopefully, if we have mastered the alphabet, we will be able to pronounce Vietnamese correctly.


I am torn between the two methods. The listening-only method takes ages and ages but produces an excellent pronunciation. With traditional methods, we are already speaking, albeit badly, after only a week of classes. So far, the Koreans and the Westerners seem to be learning at about the same rate. The Chinese student is lagging behind. His inability to manipulate his own writing system to help him pronounce Vietnamese is holding him back. Also, I have to believe that the Koreans and westerners find the concept of spelling words and pronouncing words according to spelling is easier to grasp than it is for Chinese native speakers.


There are many aspects to a language and all of them have to be mastered to achieve fluency. People say Chinese is hard because of tones. But Chinese grammar is really easy. Korean is easy because of the writing system and the pronunciation, but Korean grammar is extremely difficult. English is difficult because many words aren’t pronounced exactly the way they are spelled. English has difficult grammar. And English has more words than any other language.


There are so many factors that make a language difficult or easy, it is hard to really say if one language is any more difficult than another. At the same time, we talk about advantages that certain native speakers have when learning certain languages. 60-80% of Vietnamese vocabulary is derived from old Chinese dialect. So, will the language be easier for Koreans and Chinese? Vietnamese grammar is not terribly difficult for the westerners in my class, all of whom have been exposed to French or Spanish where adjectives may come after nouns. But Pen Yo told me this was difficult for him because it differed from Chinese grammar.


When I was studying Thai in Bangkok, the program kept very accurate statistics on students learning performance, based on mother tongue. The data showed on average Koreans, Japanese and Chinese learned Thai slower than some other mother nationalities/tongues, but they would catch up in the end. In the ends, all of the Asians, regardless of mother tongue, had greater success than did westerners.


It will be interesting to see if Pen Yo suddenly passes us all, several weeks from now. The early stage of learning the sounds, and writing the alphabet may be the biggest difficulty he faces. After that, he may find it easier.


For all students, regardless of their native tongue, it is clear to me is that it is impossible to use words to write other words. So, we need to find some other method of learning pronunciation.




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


Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)







Brooklyn Monk fan page


Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE


Brooklyn Monk in 3D

Order the download at