Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

Linguistic Risk Taking Vs. Academic Study

In Uncategorized on December 20, 2010 at 3:34 pm

By Antonio Graceffo


When I was in China, I was admitted into the hospital, suffering from severe stomach issues and dehydration. The doctor asked me what was wrong. I didn’t know how to say diarrhea. So, instead, I said, “Last night, I went to the bathroom twenty five times. And now there is no water in my body.”


The doctor understood what I needed and he treated me. Then he called the police and tried to have me locked away. I had to rip an IV out of my arm and escape, but you can read that story in “The Monk from Brooklyn.”


The point is, what I said wasn’t academically correct, but the communication worked. This is called linguistic risk-taking.


Being a linguistic risk-taker can increase your functional fluency. Linguistic risk-takers are the people who, after only a few weeks of studying a foreign language are out talking to people, making friends and living in the language. These people function at a level much higher than their academic fluency. For example, my functional level of Mandarin is much higher than my academic fluency level. But the down side is, because I never finished my academic training, I can’t work as a Chinese translator.


Part of why risk-takers can function so well in the foreign language is because they are not afraid to make mistakes. And they don’t care if they say something completely wrong, as long as they are understood.


“Me want cookie” will be universally understood, but it isn’t right.



Linguistic risk taking and the ability to manipulate a small vocabulary to express advanced concepts are excellent survival tools. They increase your speaking, BUT they don’t increase your listening. The native speakers who you interact with will still be saying things correctly and using advanced grammar and concepts, but you won’t understand them. This is the issue with most Asians who have studied English to a high degree in Asia. They speak much better than they listen. They can explain, in detail how to do complicated tasks in their work, but they misunderstand even the simplest questions.


The westerner who is a linguistic-risk taker will generally be a happier person than someone striving for academic correctness. He is feels validated when people can understand him. He has a lot of friends and a lot of fun and can even count his bar-time as study-time because he is “practicing.”


The problems with this type of risk taking are: First, You fossilize your mistakes, by saying the same things wrong, over and over again.



In my case, I taught school in Taiwan for three years before I discovered that the word “open” as in “Students, open your books” was different from “Open the door.” I said it wrong for years, but my students just figured out what I wanted and responded by opening their books.


The second problem, of course, is the lack of listening or reading comprehension. In Europe, I would go in for translation jobs, and based on my speaking, they would hire me. When I went home and started working on the texts, I often found I was in way over my head.


Being able to speak and communicate in a languages, is not the same as being able to speak and communicate at the level demanded by your age and level of education. Your speaking level may have no influence on your listening level, whatsoever.


In Germany, I worked with a graduate of the Defense Language Institute (DLI). He had passed a rigorous, forty hour per week, year-long program for German, but he had an accent like an Alabaman who went to town once a month to buy gunpowder. He also didn’t know a lot of common words for small things around the house and words necessary for everyday interactions and conversations with German people. All of my German friends said I was the more fluent of the two of us. But, when it came to listening, he was light-years ahead of me.


DLI is heavy on listening training. And if you learn listening first, all of the other skills will come. If you don’t learn the listening first, you will never learn it. To truly train listening, you almost need to be in a synthetic, school environment rather than in real life because in real life, you don’t have the opportunity to put on headphones and listen for specific information. A typical DLI exercise might ask you to listen to a conversation between two native speakers, coming over a crackling radio, and you have to pick out very specific information. That type of intensity is hard to recreate outside of the classroom, unless you are already doing the job that DLI trains you for. You certainly won’t get that type of listening intensity from conversations with friends.


People who have read some of my previous articles know that I support a learning method called ALG (Automatic Language Growth) which requires students to listen for 800 hours before they start speaking. Most learners find this number extreme and will argue against it. The majority of people think the sooner they start talking to native speakers the better. So, they don’t want to sit in a classroom listening. They want to go out and speak.


I have found that selling people, including myself, on the 800 hours of listening only, is extremely difficult. So, let’s take another approach. I strongly believe that you have to have a solid foundation before you start speaking. The foundation includes both listening and academic training. Independent of ALG, most linguists say the longer you wait to start speaking, the better you will speak. There are various linguistic reasons why we need to have excellent listening and grammar before speaking. But there are psychological issues as well. Most people will reach a level of fluency, which they find acceptable, and then stop learning.


They don’t have to stop learning. And this is why I am now supporting a mix of ALG and speaking. But the reality is, most learners will chose to stop learning when they feel they are functional.


If we track immigrants or if we track Asians who are studying English in order to get a job, when they reach a level of functionality which they find acceptable, they stop learning. In Asia, the job is money. You get the job by getting the certificate. Whether you are good or bad at your job is not relevant, only that you have a certificate. If you have a paper which says you are fluent in English, then you are fluent in English.


If immersion and contact with the English speaking public was enough to learn the language, then every Korean hair cutter, Vietnamese nail tech, or South-Asian dry-cleaner who has already lived in New York for ten years would be fluent. But most of them are at best, marginally functional.


Four months ago, when I moved into my hotel, in Vietnam, the English speaking staff didn’t know what a “towel” was, when I asked for one. They also didn’t know what I meant when I asked them to empty the trash. I said empty the garbage, empty the rubbish, empty the bin, remove the trash, garbage, rubbish, waste…over a period of months, I have tried more and more phrases, but none of them have worked. And of course, four months later, they still don’t know “towel” or” trash.”


I am often the only guest in the hotel and don’t need too much attention. So the staff have about 23 hours of downtime per day. They watch TV, smoke, drink, gamble, and play video games. I have never once seen them studying English. You would think they would at least try to learn the words “trash” and “towel” since they come up all of the time.


This example is extreme, but it illustrates a point. People who are judging their fluency by their ability to function will stop learning earlier than people who are shooting for academic fluency. Nearly all people will reach a certain level, and then stop studying. Some stop sooner than others.


To be a translator, to be truly fluent in the language, at a level appropriate for your age and education, will take between two and four years of solid, academic study, depending on the language and a number of other factors. My theory is, no matter how well you function, no matter how good you are at manipulating the language, you don’t cut any time off of the amount of study needed for true fluency. If anything, by speaking and functioning better, you will be less focused on academic fluency and you will stop developing.


When I was studying at Germersheim, I broke off my formal studies early because I landed an excellent job as a translator. I continued to learn because I read constantly and worked as a researcher and translator for the university. I lived with Germans and attended corporate meetings held in German. I watched German TV and movies. I lived as much like a German as I could. But I didn’t develop as academically as I would have had I continued formal study. A friend of mine, call him Chicago, was not nearly as functionally fluent as I was. He also didn’t know small words for things in the house or for interactions between friends and family. But he studied constantly and finished his translator exam. In the end, he was a much better translator than me because he focused on academic fluency. Now, fifteen years later, he is headed back to Germany, to work as an instructor at a translator school.



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



Outdated Methods and Low-Expectations in Language Learning and Teaching

In Uncategorized on December 6, 2010 at 4:38 pm

By Antonio Graceffo


My entire Vietnamese course consists of a single textbook, THE textbook for Saigon, two teachers, and a whiteboard. There is nothing else. There are no videos, no significant listening exercises, no workbook, no supplemental reading, no newspaper articles, and no novels or stories.


I asked my teacher if there were other materials I could by to supplement our learning. She said, “No, this book is enough.”


My reply was, “Oh, this book is enough? I feel like an idiot. Here I was, thinking this book wasn’t enough, and now I find out that it is enough.”


Obviously the book is not nearly enough. I wound up having to order a course from the United States. According to one of my boxer friends who is a linguistic savant, the American Foreign Service Institute has the single most advanced Vietnamese program in the world.


I asked my teacher “Why is it that studying in Vietnam, I had to order learning materials from the United States?”


My teacher’s answer was, “We have only been teaching Vietnamese to foreigners for about ten years, so there aren’t any materials yet.”


I told her, “You may have only been teaching Vietnamese for ten years, but Vietnamese people have been sitting on this language for thousands of years. You would think, somewhere in that time, someone would have thought to write a supplementary exercise book or make a video.”


In the end, I had to admit that I could learn Vietnamese faster back home. Ok, here, I get about twenty minutes of real language practice on the streets, in normal everyday life, but you could compensate for that with an extra hour in the language lab every day, back in Vermont or New York or Alabama. Yes, you could learn Vietnamese better in Alabama.


One of my classmates, call him Koji Sazuki, studied Japanese in Japan. He said that he had studied Japanese in Japan. The program had a very structured approach: So many hours of listening, hours of reading newspaper articles, watching the news, speaking, and other skill. Obviously, they had materials and technology which aided the language acquisition process.


But it cost a fortune to study in Japan. Studying in Vietnam only costs two hundred dollars a month for a twenty-hour per week course.


One of our other classmates, call him Jung Ji-Hoon, talked about studying in an intensive program in Korea. He said that they used a similar, scientific approach to language acquisition, like in Japan, but without the real-life news and newspaper classes.


“After a year of studying Korean, we couldn’t read a newspaper because all we learned was conversation.”


This made sense. This is the same weakness in our Vietnamese program and in most of the ESL programs I have taught in. The main focus is always speaking. And by speaking, they mean conversation. In this way, you produce graduates who can’t listen to a native speaker, so their communication is bad. Next, they can’t read at native speaker level, so they can’t actually read a newspaper, let alone a novel. And of course, they couldn’t write a term-paper.


The final chapter in our Vietnamese book is “Where do you study Vietnamese?” Chapter three was entitled, “Where do you work?” It’s pretty much the same vocabulary. And neither chapter would help you read a novel.


In the book store at my university they have Lance Armstrong’s book, “It’s Not About the Bike”, written in Vietnamese. It is a bit ironic that my inspiration for studying Vietnamese is so that I can read an inspirational book, but that is my goal, to read Lance Armstrong’s book in Vietnamese.


And looking at our course, I can predict that on an unlimited time line, I will never get there.


After living and studying in Japan for ten years, Koji Sazuki spent a year studying in China. From what he describes, the program in China was little better than our program in Vietnam. He said that he asked the teachers why they didn’t create materials such as videos. The teachers told him there was no profit in producing Chinese language videos because they would immediately be pirated. So, they just didn’t do it. I assume Vietnam is the same way. The US can keep producing materials, because we enforce copyright laws, and because no school in the US would intentionally use pirated materials.


I really don’t care what materials my program does or doesn’t use. What I care about is how fluent we can get. So far, none of us are even functional.


The main thing that is preventing my classmates and me from being able to communicate in spoken Vietnamese is a lack of listening. My vocabulary now is quite large, but since no one can understand what I say, I am still pretty helpless. In our textbook, there are two listening exercises in each chapter, totaling less than three minutes of listening per chapter. With twelve chapters in the book, we will get less than a half hour of listening by the end of our course.


Vietnamese is a Category 3 language. The Foreign Service Institute and Defense Language Institute both rate Vietnamese as needing 800 hours of study to reach fluency.


David Long, the leading expert on Automatic Language Growth (ALG), a listening-based language acquisition method, said that one of the reasons listening isn’t taught in foreign language classrooms is that it can’t be measured. Education has become business. And if you can’t quantify something, you can’t sell it. Also, there is a perception, that if the teacher is playing CDs and listening exercises for the students, then the teacher isn’t working. And no one wants to pay the teacher for doing nothing.


So, listening gets reduced to less than ten minutes per chapter. This isn’t an opinion, this is a fact. Open any standard language textbook and count the number of minutes of listening per chapter. You would be shocked at just how little listening there in an entire book.


I support David and believe that listening is extremely important. However, my background is in translation which has a slightly different goal than ALG. In ALG the goal is to produce adults with native-like pronunciation and usage. The ultimate test would be, if a non-native speaker were on the phone, would a Thai person believe he was speaking to another Thai? In translation, on the other hand, at the level taught in Germersheim, Germany, students are expected to reach full, complete, 100% academic fluency in their main foreign language, at a level appropriate for an adult college graduate.


To this end, I attended university lectures and courses, taught only in German. For my Spanish, I went to a German translation school in Salamanca. Afterwards, I attended business school in Costa Rica, studying economics, finance, and accounting, obviously all of my courses were taught in Spanish and I was the only foreigner in the course.


My pronunciation is not native-like. So, an ALG student would rate better than me on that parameter. But, when I went to work in the financial industry in New York, I gave two to three financial planning seminars in Spanish or Italian (very occasionally also in German) each week, followed by question and answer sessions, with investors, which could go on for hours. From each of these seminars I would generally be asked by ten percent of the participants to attend their company or come to their home to give a personalized presentation, do a financial planning analysis and recommend an investment portfolio for them, all in the target language.


This required a native-like education in very specific areas of finance and investing, which a normal native speaker wouldn’t know.


Imagine explaining actuarial tables and mortality rates to someone in a foreign language.


Obviously, the Vietnamese program taught in the university in Vietnam will not get us to this level of fluency. And neither will ANY of the ESL programs I have seen in Asia because none of them ever have a shift from ESL textbooks to real books, designed for native speakers.


To achieve the specialized fluency demanded by my old job, in addition to working as a translator, I also read constantly.


How many books did you read cover to cover during four years of college? How many books have you read in your lifetime in your native tongue? That is the number you need to read in your target language to reach true academic fluency.


In most ESL programs, and nearly all foreign language programs in Asia, a student, completing the program will read between zero and three native-speaker books. In university programs in Asia, students majoring in English will generally read less than a handful of full-length English books. People I work with, who have a BA in English, tell me they can’t understand more than 10% of a CNN news-report.


If you open the average ESL book or the average foreign language textbook you will find very limited reading exercises. My current Vietnamese textbook has no reading exercises at all. There are dialogues and grammar substitution drills, but we don’t do actual reading of articles. In my Vietnamese textbook from when I studied in Hanoi, there was a total of six reading texts, each only half a page in length, for entire semester.


Popular ESL books, such as Headway, New English File, and Word Pass, usually have three reading texts of not more than half a page per chapter.


One of the reasons, I suspect, why intensive reading was cut from foreign language programs is, once again, because if the students sit at their desks, reading silently, there is a perception that the teacher isn’t working. So, the first step was probably to assign the readings as homework. This way, in class, the teacher would just go over the texts with the students. But, as most students don’t do their homework, teachers were faced with the choice of; having the students read the text in class, which is a no-no because that means the teacher isn’t working, or cut the reading from the curriculum entirely.


Whatever the reason, reading was mostly cut from programs and listening was all but eliminated.


My classmates and I can’t understand a Vietnamese news report., and neither can my best ESL students who have been studying English for years. Using the methodologies taught here, I don’t think we will never be able to.


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






Vietnamese Story Time Lesson 1

In Uncategorized on December 1, 2010 at 3:27 pm


Story Time: Câu Chuyện

Farm Boy Love story: Cậu Bé Nông Chuyện Tình

Part One: Phần một


Anh Tuấn là Con trai của một nông dân. Anh Tuấn yêu một thiếu nư tên là Chị Lin là con gái của một sĩ quan quân đội. Anh Tuấn muốn kết hôn với Chị Lin, nhưng ba của Chị ấy không thích Anh Tuấn vì Anh ấy không có tiền.


Một ngày Anh Tuấn đã đi nhà của Chị Lin để nói chuyện với ba của Chị ấy. Anh Tuấn nói lễ phép với ba của Chị Lin. “Ông ơi, con muốn kết hôn với Chị Lin.”


Ba của Chị Lin nói “Không thể. Ông muốn Lin kết hôn với một người đàn ông giàu, môi giới thị trường chứng khoán.”


Anh Tuấn nói “khi nào Lin sẽ kết hôn?”

“Chị ấy sẽ kết hôn vào năm tới.”

Nếu con có thể trở nên giàu có vào năm tới, con có thể cưới với Chị ấy dược không?”

Ba của Chị Lin cười, nhưng ông thấy người đàn ông trẻ này đã không nói đùa đâu. Ông nhớ khi ông là một người đàn ông trẻ trong tình yêu.  Khi ông còn trẻ ông cũng nghèo. “Nếu con có thể trở nên giàu có, con có thể kết hôn với con gái của tôi.”


End part 1 Phần một

Vocabulary: từ vựng



Câu Chuyện story 故事 Gùshì
nông dân farmer 農民 Nóngmín
thiếu nư Girl/female 女子 Nǚzǐ
sĩ quan officer 軍官 Jūnguān
quân đội army 軍隊 Jūnduì
kết hôn marry 結婚 Jiéhūn
nói chuyện với Speak with 與他說話 Yǔ tā shuōhuà
lễ phép Respectfully 尊敬 Zūnjìng
Không thể cannot 不能 Bùnéng
đàn ông Man/male 男子 Nánzǐ
giàu rich 豐富 Fēngfù
giới thị broker 經紀人 jīngjì rén
thị trường chứng khoán Stock market 股市 Gǔshì
khi nào when 什麼時候 shénme shíhou
sẽ Going to/future 將 (將來時) Jiàng (Jiānglái shi
vào In (for time: January, the morning, next year)    
năm tới Next year 明年 Míngnián
Nếu if 如果 Rúguǒ
có thể Can/be able to huì
trở nên giàu có Become rich 變得富有 biàn de fùyǒu
cưới marry 結婚 Jiéhūn
dược không Can (question) 能不能 Néng bù Néng
cười smile 微笑 Wéixiào
thấy see kàn
không nói đùa đâu Not joking 不是開玩笑 Bùshì kāiwánxiào
nhớ khi Remember when 記得…的時候 jìde … de shíhou
người đàn ông trẻ Young man 年輕的男子 Niánqīng de Nánzǐ
trong tình yêu In love Ài
Khi ông còn trẻ ông cũng nghèo When he was also poor 當他也窮的  







Exercises: bài tập 練習 (liànxí)


  1. Anh Tuấn là ai?


  1. Anh ấy muốn làm gì?


  1. Tại sao ba của chị Lin không thích Anh Tuấn?


  1. Tuấn hỏi ba của chị Lin là gì?


  1. Ba của chị Lin muốn chị Lin kết hôn với ai?


  1. Khi nào chị Lin sẽ kết hôn?


  1. Trước khi anh Tuấn có thể kết hôn chị Lin, Anh ấy phải làm gì?


  X       X   13   3.       X
  2. c       5.               4. t
1. N


ó i X c   u y n X 8. v i
X           X   X       n
t                       h
X 9. h     X   X         X   X
      X           X 10 y
X       6.     X X       ê
              11l         u
  X 7.     X 12     X     X
        X     X          



  1. Sinh viên đi đến văn phòng để____ ______________________________ giáo viên.
  2. Tôi _________________________________________đi đến ngôi nhà của bạn.
  3. Chị Lin là thiếu nư. Chị ấy không phải là ________________
  4. Anh thích Chị ấy rất nhiều. trong ________________________
  5. Anh là một người đàn ông nghiêm trọng (serious 嚴重 Yánzhòng ) Anh __________ đùa đâu.
  6. Remember (記得Jìde) ____________________________
  7. When ____________________
  8. Tôi ăn sáng _______________ buổi sáng.
  9. Anh ___________ câu hỏi
  10. Anh _________ đi làm lúc mấy giờ?
  11. Chị Tên___________ gì
  12. (Down) if___________(Across) Anh là người nước ______________?
  13. Bạn uống Trà ____ cafe?

About Story Time Vietnamese Language Learning Project

In Uncategorized on December 1, 2010 at 3:15 pm

By Antonio Graceffo

As a reaction to the horribly boring and outdated materials used to teach Vietnamese to foreigners, I am starting a free, open source learning platform for Vietnamese. If the format works well, I will expand to include Chinese, Khmer, Cham and Bahasa.

ESL teaching is light-years ahead of the teaching methods and resources used for most Asian languages (except Japanese and sometimes Mandarin). In my Vietnamese course we only have one book, which is one of two books that exist in Vietnam. There is no workbook, no video, no significant audio, and no additional resources of any kind. Each chapter begins with two short dialogues, followed by grammar exercises. There are no significant readings, no stories, and no articles. If you studied a million years, you would never reach a level that would allow you to read a newspaper, because educated, adult vocabulary just isn’t covered. The final chapter in book one is entitled “How many brothers and sister do you have?”

And of course, without listening, you will never get Vietnamese pronunciation right.

“Story Time Language Learning” is my new project. I am writing a long story, in Vietnamese, about a poor farm boy, named Tuan who is in love with a rich girl, named Lin. Lin’s father is so impressed with Tuan’s motivation that he gives Tuan one year to make something of himself, so he can marry Lin. He leaves the farm and heads to Ho Chi Minh City, where he has many vocabulary-filled adventures.

The stories provide a context. All of the learning, vocabulary, grammar, and usage will be contextualized. This will help promote understanding and hopefully it will make the learning more interesting. Each unit will have a short excerpt from the story, followed by a list of new vocabulary (translated into English and Chinese). After the reading, the learner completes the comprehension questions. Next, there is a word puzzle or game type activity of some type to reinforce new vocabulary. Finally, there is an intensive listening exercise.

I will post units as I write them. They are not intended to be primary textbook for language learning, instead, they are meant to provide the learning with additional, meaningful practice. Once the first twelve units are done, I plan to compile the lessons in a book and make it available to the public.

For the time being I need help from my online friends. First, I need some illustrations. If you could help, please send them to me as JPEGS, so I can post them easily online. Later, when we have chosen the illustrations, I need someone to help me format the text and illustrations for better posting and for printing.

  1. I need someone to draw the boy, Anh Tuan
  2. The girl, Chi Lin
  3. Lin’s father, a military general
  4. Lin’s house, a rich villa with a large garden.
  5. Tuan’s house, a small Vietnamese farm house with a rice field behind.
  6. Chi Lin’s family: Very old grand mother, a younger sister 8 years old, older sisters 20 and 21 years old.

If you are a Vietnamese native speaker, please feel free to correct my grammar and spelling

If you are learning Vietnamese, please give me feedback on the exercises. I will post a sample lesson on facebook, but the vocabulary list is graph form and the formatting is lost on facebook. So, I will put a link to my wordpress blog where you can easily use the glossary to find the meanings of the new words.

Please let me know if you can help or if you are interested in trying some of the lessons.

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