Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

Warrior Odyssey moving up the Rankings

In Uncategorized on February 27, 2011 at 8:47 am


Warrior Odyssey, Antonio Graceffo’s book chronicling his first seven years in Asia, traveling from country to country, studying martial arts is creeping up the charts



If you haven’t read Warrior Odyssey, you may want to now. The book contains the first ever book chapters on the Cambodia martial art of Bokator and the Shan martial art of Lai Tai. Entire chapters are dedicated to the exotic martial arts of Cambodia and to the war in Burma.


Checkout these review from amazon readers.


This review is from: Warrior Odyssey: The Travels of a Martial Artist in Asia (Paperback)

To those who have thoughts on Southeast Asia or have seen the Human Weapon, I would recommend that the people of the world should read this book. It has been the best I have ever read in years it only took me 6 to 7 days to read. When I was younger it was hard to read books then as I got older and more understanding, I read more and then after I had finished the Human Weapon, this book caught my eye. So I began reading it, and as I read the more I learn of what to expect if you are planing to travel anywhere around Southeast Asia. The way how he travelled around the countries of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Korea, the Philipines, and Burma, was just amazing of how someone from New York could go to places no one could ever try to go and train in arts nearly lost to history and meet with important people in history. Mr. Graceffo is a great author who tells his stories so well with great detail. The Book gave me inspiration about martial arts just as the Human Weapon did and taught me many things in the countries. For I have learned one thing “books are always a way to show us the world, itself.” If you give it a chance like I have you could encourage and help education your family and friends in the history and the ways of martial arts. Also he continues to learn many old martial arts and always preserve them as any fellow martial arts master, athlete or instructor should. If he could travel and learn so can we and be united than divided be one unified world and never have any difficulties in what we look like. For it’s not in appearance it’s what’s in the heart of how a person feels.


5.0 out of 5 stars A different kind of journey… and a different kind of book, November 25, 2010


Charles W. Johnson (Tokyo, Japan) – See all my reviews

This review is from: Warrior Odyssey: The Travels of a Martial Artist in Asia (Paperback)

Antonio Graceffo’s latest literary endeavour, Warrior Odyssey, chronicles his amazing quest to master himself through martial arts training in different countries. As a former successful stock broker in New York, Graceffo left it all behind after the events of 9/11 to follow his dream of training at the Shaolin Temple in China. Though the book is not a complete journal of his quest (it only discusses 10 of the countries he went to) it does give you a glimpse into both the world that he came from (and so daringly left behind) in contrast to the world that he was in at the time of his writing. Graceffo writes in a straight-forward kind of style that gives you a good sense of not just what he was going through physically, but how he was taking it all in, and processing it as he worked through unsual and uncanny situations one right after the other.

For those who like a lot of eloquent wordplay, this book is probably not for you. In reading it, it feels as though you are reading Antonio’s journals just as he had written them, and the vivid imagery that it envokes is more a function of the incredible amount of details he includes than it is of any clever writing techniques. For those who are interested in seeing, feeling (and at times tasting) just what life is life is like for the average person in Asia, and Southeast Asia however this book is a winner, as everywhere he went, he seems to have spent his time more or less completely immersed. Additionally, as he his time was chiefly dedicated to seeking out martial arts training, seasoned martial artists will enjoy the read as not just interesting, but informative. A great read for anyone interested in going to Asia, and/or seeking out martial arts training out there.


4.0 out of 5 stars Point of veiw, November 19, 2010


yangbanSee all my reviews

Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)

This review is from: Warrior Odyssey: The Travels of a Martial Artist in Asia (Paperback)

Great book, Antonio’s experience is well shared with the readers, a lot of cultural differences and different martial arts insights along the book. Very informative about the asian and southeast asian culture.

Hmong Searchig for a Home (Part 1)

In Uncategorized on February 24, 2011 at 10:01 am

By Antonio Graceffo

More than thirty-five years after 
the end of
America’s War in Indochina,
America’s greatest allies are 
hunted like animals.
About my Hmong project

I made it public that I 
was on the Burma border,
work on a project, 
documenting Shan/Burmese
refugees from the 
war in Burma. This was 
and is
true, but I wasn’t 
able to speak, till today,
about my other project. 

A leader of the Hmong tribe 
from Lao came to meet
me in Saigon, asking me to 
help him find a home
for 300 Hmong families 
still hiding in the jungle.
Most people thing the 
American war in Indochina
ended in 1975, but for 
these 300 families, the war
is still going on. 

The Hmong have asked me to 
help get their story
out to the world. 

Here is part 1:
I was recently approached by a 
Hmong representative,
asking me to get the word out 
to the world. There are
over 300 Hmong families, 
hiding in the jungle of Laos,
 hunted by the Lao and 
Vietnamese armies. For more than
35 years, they have been 
constantly on the move,
unable to plant rice or 
to raise their families 
with any
reasonable degree of 
peace or safety. They 
have very little
food or weapons, no 
medicine and no outside 

The Hmong from the jungle 
need a place to call home.

Of the hundreds of Hmong 
who have surrendered to 
the Lao
government forces over 
the last decade, none 
were ever
seen or heard from again. 
The recent policy of the 
government has been to 
remove Hmong from the 
camps in Thailand and 
send them back to Lao.

Almost none of the Hmong 
refugees returned to
Lao were ever heard 
from again.

These people are not 
just the soldiers of 
General Vang
Pao’s Hmong army who 
fought for the CIA in 
the Secret War
in Lao. Now, they are 
the children and Grandchildren, 
long after the conflict, 
but born into a continuing state
of war.

If they remain in the jungle, 
the Hmong will die of starvation,
slow disease, and eventual execution 
by the Lao military. If
they surrender, they fear they 
will be killed. If they flee
to Thailand, they know they 
will be sent back.

Where can the Hmong go? 
How can they find a place 
to call home?

Hmong Searchig for a Home (Part 2) 
coming soon from Antonio Graceffo.
Also, please see these excellent 
documentaries on the current
state of the Hmong hiding in 
the jungles of Lao.

Video: Still a Secret War

The Lost Tribe (Hmong) Al Jazeera documentary

Antonio Graceffo is a volunteer 
freelance journalist,
funded through private donations. 
To support his writing
and filming you can donate through 
the paypal link on
his website,  
or by
direct transfer into his bank account.

Bank Name: Bangkok Bank
Name on Account: Scott Antonio Graceffo
Swift Code: BKKBTHBK
Acct Number 251-4-58189-7
Bangkok Bank
Thaphae Branch Chiang Mai
 53-59 Thapae Road
Tambon Changklan
A. Muang Chiang Mai 50100
Tel: (053)-282100-2

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

What Makes a Polyglot? (Part 3)

In Uncategorized on February 19, 2011 at 5:48 am

And What do Polyglots think

By Antonio Graceffo


This month, in the Polyglot Interviews, we are featuring Mike Campbell, from Glossika. Mike lives in Taiwan and has done significant study in Chinese and Taiwanese languages, among others.


  1. Are most polyglots made or born?
    I think everybody is born equally but with their own interests, so given the same environment two children grow up to be completely different people. However, I believe that environment creates the potential for a polyglot, for example access or exposure to different languages. Interest then drives the child to discover more.
    2. Did most polyglots learn their languages as adults?
    I believe that typically a child may learn as many as three or four languages to fluency based on his interaction with people. But there will be a tendency to only use one or two at most. True polyglots are of a different nature, those people who search after and discover more languages out of their own interest. This drive helps them achieve a lot over a lifetime. Most polyglots are not able to pursue these interests until they reach adulthood anyway.
    3. Do children actually learn languages faster? And if so, where are these child-polyglots?
    It takes a lot of exposure and interaction for a child to learn a language. There is also peer pressure and the embarrassment of sounding different that can intimidate a child’s use of another, especially minority, language.

    1. Were you born into a multilingual family? Were you raised bilingual?
    I was born into a family that had only studied foreign languages formally. My mother attempted to raise me bilingually in English and Spanish but failed probably because the one person – two languages approach doesn’t work with children.
    2. When did you start studying languages seriously?
    I was exposed to my foreign languages early as a child, but my first foreign language classes (French and Latin) came in first grade. I was fascinated by all the rules of Latin and by the age of 8 or 9 I was spending a lot of times in libraries looking at the grammars of various languages. I managed to learn a lot about grammar while still in elementary school.
    3. Did you do any of your language study in a formal setting? If so, where and which languages?
    I had formal language study of French, Latin, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian, and Japanese up through high school. In university I focused on Russian, but also did classes in Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Malay and Kazakh.
    4. How much of your knowledge is the result of self-study?
    Of course these classes gave me a foundation and groundwork for building more fluency in these languages. However, it was through my own self-study and drive to become fluent in any of them. Of those mentioned, my Chinese is strongest.
    5. How many hours do you study per week?
    Now I’ve been out of school a long time and I’m working. But even now I spend 4-6 hours every day devoted to training (not studying) foreign languages.
    6. How many hours do you believe one needs to master a language?
    I believe there is no true mastery, but to become good at a language at least a thousand hours of speaking needs to be devoted. To gain true mastery, I would say ten thousand hours. I’ve put in more than 25,000 hours of speaking Chinese.
    7. Do you have any goal in learning languages? Are you training to be a professor, teacher, translator, or do you just study for love.
    I have only the goal that someday I can use these languages when I travel and if not open new opportunities. To be able to interact with people in their countries in their native languages is respectful to them and very eye-opening to me.
    8. What is your occupation?
    I run an online business, I make videos, I write and I teach.
    9. Do you learn more than one language at a time?
    Yes, as a polyglot I have to continuously use my strong languages and maybe even use them to learn new ones. During any given month, I’m using a dozen strong languages, learning two new ones and reviewing two other from the previous month.
    10. Have you studied overseas? Where? How long?
    I spent most of my childhood living overseas primarily in Italy, Germany and Russia. I traveled Europe, the Middle East, and Africa extensively with my parents during that time.
    11. Do you believe children learn languages faster than adults?
    As a child I learned to speak some languages naturally, but these languages are completely different than the ability I have gained as an adult. For example, I learned to speak German like a child and then moved away later, but I could not function as an adult with the German I had. Primarily because as a child I didn’t understand a lot of concepts, or even if I could say them I didn’t really have any use for them; concepts like taxes, bank accounts, loans, bills, interviews, marketing reports, financial plans, etc. But these are terms that I learn with my languages as an adult. My adult language capability is much stronger and much more expressive than any child, and my skills at persuasion cannot be beat by a child.


12. Do you feel that polyglots are qualified to work as translators and interpreters or must one do formal studies first?
I was hired to work as a translator of Chinese to English, then I opened a small agency that I ran for four years. Through constant translation work and practice, you build up a vast amount of skills in working between languages, both orally and in writing. I would not say polyglots are qualified to work as translators or interpreters, especially if they only use one language in certain environments. But those who are most qualified have been working between two languages at the same time and have a lot of experience doing so.
16. Why do the vast majority of people who begin a language fail to learn it?
Learning a foreign language is like anything else. The same can be said of those who sign up for martial arts classes, or dancing classes, or gym membership, or music lessons, or train to run a marathon. Few actually follow all the way through. It’s a long process and requires a lot of work and determination. But the results are rewarding.
17. Any comments on language learning or polyglot life you would like to share with the world would be great.
Languages are like puzzles and they’re great mental stimulation, but more rewarding because of the social interaction. I’m constantly sharing my thoughts on language learning and polyglot life through my youtube channel and welcome everybody to come interact.

19. I need your name and if you want me to include your website, please send me the URL
My name is Mike Campbell, my online name is Glossika, and the website is


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



Shan Refugee Documentary Project

In Uncategorized on February 16, 2011 at 4:50 am


Hsai Tai Yai Shan Refugee Project


I am back near the Burma border, to report on the Shan/Burma situation. I have plans to visit a number of aid organizations, migrants, civilians, refugees,

and military, to do a documentary series similar to the one I did in 2007

and 2008.


As always, I am self-funded and I really need financial help to complete


this project. Donations can be made through the paypal on my website , or through my bank account, which I have pasted below. And, as always, I will share all of the stories, photos, and videos with you.
A few years ago, I did a video about a young Shan soldier whose family was murdered by the Burmese government. I did a video and article on him when he was a Shan soldier. Then I did a second video and article when he became a monk again, when he went to Thailand to follow up on a rumor his mother was alive. He appeared as a character in my book Warrior Odyssey. The last news I had, he was working as a volunteer at a Shan orphanage in Thailand. My new project is to do a third video and article about him, following his progress. Through the consistency of focusing on a particular person, I am putting a face on the war in Burma. The struggle he faces now, as an undocumented refugee in Thailand, is one that effects millions of Burmese ethnics. His life is at times brutal, but he hasn’t given up hope for a bright future for himself, returning to help develop a free and democratic Burma.


Unfortunately, for security reasons, I have had to change his name. The project and videos will now be called Hsai Tai Yai.
In 2007, a glass sculptor, named Oben Abright, asked me to take him into Burma, into the war zone. He took photos of several of the Shan and later turned them into large glass sculptures which are being shown in New York next month. Hsai Tai Yai is one of the featured pieces and stories.


Oben’s book, about the Burma related art show, will be published soon. It includes a foreword written by me. Below is the short paragraph about Hsai Tai Yai.


I have also attached a much longer article that I wrote about the Hsai Tai Yai video project.


“One of the most moving stories was that of a 20 year old Shan soldier, named Hsai Tai Yai. He was about ten years old when the SPDC soldiers burned his village and killed his family. He escaped to the jungle and was rescued by Shan monks who hid him in a monastery in Thailand, till he was old enough to shed his monk’s robes and join the Shan army. After several years of military service, fighting against the Burmese junta, he heard a rumor his mother was still alive. He cast off his military uniform, shaved his head, and became a monk again, so he could sneak back into Thailand and look for his mother. In Thailand, he became a volunteer at Shan orphanage, giving love to children whose families were murdered by the SPDC. Monk, soldier, monk, orphan, aid worker, tortured soul, survivor, Hsai Tai Yai is an inspiration.”


When I finish this current Burma project, I will head to Cambodia.


Project 2: Undocumented Vietnamese in Cambodia


Recently, I met a faith-based aid worker who iwas studying Vietnamese with me, at the university in Saigon, so that she can go and help a group of undocumented Vietnamese in Cambodia.


I actually did a story about the Vietnamese community on Tonle Sap Lake, in Siem Reap, four years ago. But I didn’t understand, at that time, how dire the situation was for this massive Vietnamese community, numbering in the thousands of families. These people were denied citizenship by both Cambodia and Vietnam. In Cambodia they are abused and robbed by local officials, and they have almost no future. Their children are not even allowed to attend government schools. If they tried to return to Vietnam they would be arrested.


It is a terrible situation, people caught in limbo. They just live on their boats, on the lake, in abject poverty, waiting, and hopeless. I want to go there and do a story and possibly a video about them. Unlike the Shan, in Burma, these people are accessible to UN or other aid workers who would care to go there and help them or to help them resettle in another country.


My plan is to fly from Saigon to Siem Reap and spend about a week gathering my story about the Vietnamese refugees. I will be on the boats, doing interviews, also meeting with the aid workers who have a good handle on the situation. Most of these Vietnamese are Catholic, so I will also be interviewing the Priest and learning everything I can.


I will post the articles on the internet and give them, free of charge, to a number of magazines and website, and offer them, free of charge to any website or organization that wants them. (I may also offer a single story to the South East Asia Globe, but I am confident that I will be able to place the story in at least twenty or more media.)


From Siem Reap, I will fly back to Phnom Penh, follow up on a story there, and then fly to Bangkok. From Bangkok, I will proceed to Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand, to start gathering information on my Burma stories. I will be doing as many Burma stories as I can, and also following up on other aid projects, to help get the word out. I will meet Hsai Tai Yai in Chiang Mai and he will accompany me to other points on the Burma border, to follow up on Shan orphans he has been working on.


The whole trip will probably take about a month. I need financial support for the project because, as I said I will be giving most of the stories away for free, in order to insure that they get published immediately.



To support the project you can donate through the paypal link on my

website, or by direct transfer into my bank




Bank Name: Bangkok Bank

Name on Account: Scott Antonio Graceffo


Swift Code: BKKBTHBK

Acct Number 251-4-58189-7


Bangkok Bank

Thaphae Branch Chiang Mai


53-59 Thapae Road

Tambon Changklan


A. Muang Chiang Mai 50100

Tel: (053)-282100-2



Vietnamese Translation Practice

In Uncategorized on February 8, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Vs. Chatting in Bars

By Antonio Graceffo


I was sitting in a café in Saigon with a Khmer friend. The waitress came over, and I began speaking to her in Vietnamese. She looked right past me, as if I didn’t exist, and spoke to my Khmer friend in Vietnamese. This scene has been repeated, over and over and is something I have had to struggle with during all of my years in Asia, and all of my languages. They just put me on the “Pay-No-Mind” list.”


But somehow, they never look right past the white guy, when the bill comes.


I interrupted, and told the waitress that my friend doesn’t speak Vietnamese, but I do, so she would need to speak to me. She just nodded and kept talking to my friend. I interrupted again, and repeated that my friend doesn’t speak Vietnamese, but she continued talking to him, although he didn’t understand. Finally, in spite of my rising anger, and in spite of the language and cultural barrier, I managed to order our food. The waitress walked away, but I decided I wasn’t done with her. I called her back to the table and asked her, rather sternly, in Vietnamese.


“I told you twice my friend can’t speak Vietnamese, but I do. But you kept talking to him in Vietnamese. Why? And why wouldn’t you talk to me?”


She looked slightly confused. She took out her order pad and a pen and asked, in English, “You want the Vietnamese cheesecake?”


This café didn’t even sell Vietnamese cheese cake.


I am at a point now that I can read, write and translate at a relatively high level in Vietnamese. I read long, complicated texts with my teachers, and then discuss them, in Vietnamese. Today, we had a text about the history of transportation. I learned the words for: prehistoric, combustion engine, breaking the sound barrier,  about eight words for transportation, five for ship, what’s more, I can express useful concepts like “Prehistoric man dragged objects from place to place on animal hides.”


But I still can’t order off a menu.


Part of me is frustrated and wants to hit something with a cinderblock. Part of me knows that it’s irrelevant if I talk to people or not. If you don’t know the words, you can’t say them. The longer I study in the books, the more grammar and vocabulary I will have for speaking when that happens.


Chatting in a bar, I probably wouldn’t have learned the words for “prehistoric” and “breaking” the sound barrier. Maybe I would still have learned the part about “dragging things on animal skins,” but that’s debatable.


This evening, I was in the staff room at the school where I teach, working on a difficult translation. A Vietnamese woman who teaches English said, “You study so hard Vietnamese.” Of course she said it in English. So, I answered in Vietnamese, “The reading and writing are easy but pronunciation is difficult. Vietnamese people don’t understand me when I speak.”


When I finished, she said in English, “Maybe it’s because of the tones.”


Maybe it is. But it’s also because Vietnamese people absolutely refuse to speak Vietnamese with us. How are we ever to practice?


Trying to put a positive spin on things, I look at the complete refusal of Vietnamese people to meet us half way, as an imposed silent period. With children learning their first language, and with anyone studying Thai through ALG method, there is a silent period of months or even years, where you just listen and learn, but don’t speak. So, I’m in my silent period in Vietnamese.


Most linguists agree that a longer silent period doesn’t hurt your language development. A student who starts speaking after a month and one who starts speaking after eight months may be at the same level of speaking after one year.


The other reason why I am not pushing myself too much to talk to people is that I truly utilize every waking minute to study. Chit chatting would cut into my study time.


Studying to a high level, the probability is that you could, at some point, learn to speak at the same level. But if you have good speaking and communication skills, but don’t study, you will never reach academic fluency.


My goal in learning Vietnamese is to eventually pass a translation exam. My secondary goal is to reach academic fluency, to be able to read, write and speak at native speaker level, appropriate for my age and level education.


This may sound like big talk from someone who accidentally orders Vietnamese cheese cake. The nice thing about having a lofty goal is that if you only get half way there, you’re still doing pretty well.


During the Tet Holiday, when school and nearly all businesses were closed for two weeks, I stayed in and worked diligently on my studies. I did translation exercises, listening, oral drilling, grammar, and vocabulary. I also squeezed in as many tutorials as could, when my tutors weren’t busy celebrating the holiday with their family.


In the two weeks, working up to fourteen hours per day, I jumped up two full levels in my academic studies. Now, I am pushing to do the final exam for level five, the highest level currently available at the university, in about four months time, rather than two years, which is what the program calls for.


Am I frustrated that I can’t talk to anyone outside of my classroom? Yes, of course. But at the end of the day, I must convince myself that it just doesn’t matter. It will come later. And I’ll be speaking at a higher level because my academic level will be higher.


A number of people who read my articles about the difficulties I have encountered in studying Vietnamese have written in with the same advice: “You should hang out with native speakers.” Believe it or not, living in Vietnam, it has occurred to me that talking to native speakers might be a good way to practice Vietnamese. But Vietnam is by far the most hostile learning environment that I have ever encountered. No one is willing to understand you when you speak. And, as I said above, I am really focused on finishing this academic program.


Here’s an email I received today from a stranger. I’m fairly certain he’s an overseas Vietnamese. But this is the typical advice I get from people.


“I suggest you hang out more w/ Viet kieu, or Vietnamese Americans who came back to Vietnam, they should have a pretty decent understanding of both languages and therefore can translate the language in a way that actually made sense to you in English. Plus, go sing karaoke w/ the locals, in Viet of course. U’ll get more exposure to the language that u don’t get from the course.”

My response: “That’s preposterous advice. I don’t need anyone to translate for me. How would I learn if people were translating for me? Next, I need to learn advanced vocabulary and grammar necessary to pass a translation exam. That will never happen from “hanging out” with people or singing karaoke. Most overseas Vietnamese can’t read at the level I can now. And they certainly won’t be able to read at the level I will a few months from now. Yesterday, I did a translation about the economic crisis in Australia. It took me eight hours. Do you honestly believe I would have just absorbed that much language by “hanging out” with people or singing karaoke?


My next set of translations is about immigration policy. Which karaoke songs would you suggest I sing in order to understand those texts?”


I sought out and purchased as many Vietnamese textbooks as I could, and will probably finish all of them in a few weeks. Then I’ll move on to working with Wikipedia Vietnam. This way I can read interesting articles, which I enjoy, and which I am already familiar with in English. By reading a variety of articles, I can learn a wide-breadth of vocabulary. I will have my teachers read them in advance. Then we can discuss them and translate them together. I ‘m also writing essays several times per week, which forces me to produce language.


Currently, I am looking on the internet for Vietnamese language videos which may parallel local newspapers or articles that I can find in print form. That way, I can work with written texts, as well as native speaker-level original language videos, such as news reports and talk shows. Living in Vietnam, obviously, I can use the TV for listening practice, but the internet is better, because I can watch the same video over and over again, until I get it. My listening is not yet ready to just tune into the TV news. It would sound like white noise to me. Another idea I had was to do long-distance lessons with one of my favorite teachers in Hanoi. I can email him the links for the videos, then we can skype and discuss them. I could even write essays, based on the videos, and email them to him.


Yes, you need speaking practice, but it can come in the middle or at the end of your studies and you’ll still learn. Speaking with people is a way of activating your language. But the longer you study before you start speaking, the more language you’ll have to activate.



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


Dictionary Culture and Anti-Fluency

In Uncategorized on February 7, 2011 at 9:51 am

Dictionary Culture and Anti-Fluency

By Antonio Graceffo

Doing my translation homework, I looked up the Vietnamese word, “buc,” and found it had three meanings: picture, face, or sultry.

That’s not confusing.

While face and picture could sort of be related, sultry was definitely the odd man out. What’s worse, I tried substituting each of these words into the sentence, but none of them made sense. Which means that there is at least a fourth definition for this word, one which was not in my dictionary.

In translation school, back in Germany, a long time ago, we were taught that dictionaries were a necessary evil. While they are a necessity for understanding words you do not recognize, they can also lead you down the false path. The way they dealt with this issue in Germany was to wean students off of bilingual dictionaries as soon as possible. This means, when  I don’t understand a word in my text, I should look it up in a mono-lingual Vietnamese dictionary, rather than a Vietnamese-English dictionary.

This method solves two problems; first of all, the monolingual dictionaries will usually have a much broader vocabulary, a larger total number of words. Next, the definitions are generally assumed to be correct, whereas the bilingual dictionaries often make no or little sense.

For example, translating a weather report, I looked up a Vietnamese word and found that it meant both ‘scattered’ and ‘isolated.’ In the context of a weather report, scattered showers and isolated showers would have meant pretty much the same thing. But what if it was a text about a prisoner being locked up in a scattered cell? While scattered and isolated sometimes have nearly the same meaning, they can also be dramatically different. A farmer doesn’t walk through the fields, isolating seeds. He scatters them.

If you look up the same word in a monolingual dictionary, then you would read the definition and truly understand the word. Next, you would decide, for yourself, which English word would best convey that meaning, given the context of the specific text at hand.

A primary rule of language learning is that language is communication, first and foremost. If you are not communicating the ideas, or if they are not understood by the listener, then the communication has failed.

The primary rule of translation is that the translated text must have the same meaning in the target language as it did in the source language. When I get really stuck in class, I ask my teachers to translate. Sometimes, the translations make no sense at all in English. Inevitably, the excuse the teacher gives is, “Well, Vietnamese is different than English.”

Clearly I knew that Vietnamese and English were different. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be investing so much money and time in learning it. I would already know it. So, given that we already know the languages are different, if you can’t give me an accurate translation, then I can’t understand the meaning of the sentence.

Example: My teacher once translated a sentence as, “We are already almost late.” And, an accompanying sentence was translated as, “We are not yet almost late.”

In English, neither of these sentences means anything to me. What I had to figure out for myself, and it took some thinking and some looking up, there is a Vietnamese verb, ‘sap’ used for predicting the very near future. By placing this verb before the main verb, you can convey the meaning of something happening soon. “Are we leaving soon? Or “Will he arrive soon?”  By this logic, you can ask the question, “Are we almost late?”

It’s a nice verb and very handy for everyday use. But the teacher didn’t translate it accurately. I would probably translate the question as “Are we late yet?” This conveys nearly the same meaning as the Vietnamese original, and it sounds like English.

My Vietnamese tutors are both college students. Each has told me that they have studied English for about ten years, although neither is particularly good at communicating in English. When I am reading a difficult text, and hit a word I don’t know, I ask the tutor. Seventy percent of the time, an English translation for the individual word pops out of the tutor’s mouth, almost instantly. This would suggest to me that my tutors, like most students in Asia, were made to memorize long lists of English vocabulary. I estimate that each of them possess a vocabulary of at least 3,000 words. And yet, neither of them can translate the texts I am translating now, only 20 weeks into my study of Vietnamese language.

They have the definitions, but not the communication. Similarly, my Vietnamese vocabulary is now much larger than my Chinese vocabulary, and yet I am 100% functional in Chinese but only barely functional, outside of translating texts, in Vietnamese. Once again, it is not the dictionary or the definitions that are paramount to mastering a language. It is communication. And I am still a long way off in Vietnamese.

The primary rule of translating Vietnamese: Vietnamese translations must make sense in English.

I looked up a Vietnamese word “thuot tha”. The dictionary said it meant, “lissome.” I have no idea what that word means. But any of my Vietnamese students, in my English class, or any of my Vietnamese teachers, in my Vietnamese class, would be happy to use that word, in spite of not knowing what it means. Both teachers and students here seem to take the first dictionary definition as Gospel and use it, regardless of the sentence having no meaning in English. If I challenge them, and point out that their sentence makes no sense, they use the standard excuses: “Vietnamese and English are different.” Or, “Some things can’t be translated.

Using a monolingual dictionary, I discovered that “lissome” means “easily bent; supple.” If the students or teachers had used a monolingual dictionary, they could have substituted either of these options and the sentence would have made sense in English.

Neither students nor teachers in Asia seem to be taught to use monolingual dictionaries. Neither are they taught to substitute a potential definition into the sentence to see if it makes sense.

In my English class, the English text said, “Johnny came home late one night, so mother was cross.”

I asked the class, “What is cross?” The first student said, “It means go through, like cross the street.”

“Yes, normally that’s what it means, but does that make sense in this story? Johnny was late so mother went through across the street?” I asked.

“Yes, teacher.” Answered the student.

“No, actually that doesn’t make any sense.” I contradicted. Then, I explained to the class. “Here, ’cross’ has another meaning. Can anyone guess what it is?”

“Cross the street teacher?” Two or three students asked.

“No.” I said, beginning to lose my patience.

I was clearly fighting against a thousand years of Confucian culture, whereby there is one correct answer for every question, and that answer is given to you by the teacher. And the teacher is always right, unless the teacher is a native speaker. Ten years ago, when these students first started learning English, they learned that ‘cross’ meant ‘cross the street.’ And now, no amount of logic was going to convince them otherwise.

Finally, one student asked, “Does it mean angry, teacher?”

“Good guess.” I said. I have a rule that I don’t like to give students answers, but instead, I lead them to discovering the answer. So, I offered a way to find the solution. “Let’s try two substitutions and see which word works better.”

Substitution one: Johnny came home late, so his mother went through, across the street.

“Does that make sense?” I asked. And, to my frustration, at least half the students said that it did.

Substitution two: Johnny came home late, so mother was angry.

“Doesn’t the second one more sense?” I asked. Only about two students even voiced an opinion. They simply aren’t trained that way. In their minds, asking them their opinion was an unfair question, because I hadn’t told them yet what their opinion should be.

Once in Cambodia the text said “Cricket never became popular in America because you could play a game for three days and end in a tie score.”

I checked to make sure they knew “tie score” and they did. So, I asked, “What does cricket mean?” The first student said, “A small animal.”

“Yes, normally. But in this instance it doesn’t mean that. Cricket is a game they play in England. It’s a little like baseball, but it’s really slow. And they have low scores, and tie games.” In Cambodia, my experience taught me that I actually did have to give answers to the students.

To check comprehension, I asked. “So, who can tell me what cricket is?”

“A small animal.” Several students blurted out.

I was angry that they were not only, not listening, but also not thinking.

“Let’s substitute.” I suggested. “A small animal never became popular in America because it ended in a tie score.”

“Does that make sense?”

“Yes teacher.” The students maintained.

In Cambodia, I have the decided advantage that I understand the language well enough to use translation checks with my students.

“Ok, let’s translate it into Khmer.  A small animal never became popular in America because it ended in a tie score.”

We translated, and of course, it made no sense. Then I asked, “Does it make sense in Khmer?”

“Yes, teacher.”

“Well what does it mean, then?” I asked, meaning that the student should restate or explain.

“A small animal.”

I could go on and on with examples of similar frustrations. But, here are two significant points to be made here. First of all, students should be taught to use monolingual dictionaries. For westerners learning Asian languages, this is very difficult, because your reading level needs to be pretty high before you can understand the definitions in the monolingual dictionary. But, you can make this your goal in learning.

If you are teaching English, take some time each week, doing dictionary practice with your students. Slowly teach them how to choose the right word or meaning, based on context.

Next, whether studying an Asian language or teaching English in Asia, you will often find yourself butting heads with Confucianism and other cultural forces which impede your students ability to learn or your teachers ability to teach. This is a culture where students don’t ask a lot of questions. So, teachers aren’t trained at answering questions. Students are not taught to make evaluations of textbooks, methodologies, or in this case, dictionaries, so they just go with the first definition, or, what is most common, they always fall back on what they have been taught before.

As for your teachers, when you tell them that their translation or explanations makes no sense, they will often not even understand what you’re talking about. They may think you’re changing the subject or just making conversation. They learned this definition when they were students, and didn’t ask questions. Now that they are teachers, they believe their duty is to pass the definition on to you. And your duty is to not ask questions about it.

Obviously, people are individuals, not isms. Your experience from person to person will vary, but these cultural issues do exist. So, be aware of them.

Oh yeah, and get out and by a one language dictionary.

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.

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