Using a Foreign Language

In Uncategorized on March 18, 2011 at 3:39 pm



A marriage to dictionary definitions will prevent you from learning to use a language.

By Antonio Graceffo


Back in Vietnamese classes again and meeting the age old problems. The Asian teachers and students seem to be mired in a single dictionary-definition for each English word, and they can’t seem to accept that, in this situation the translation is one thing, but in another situation, the same word needs to be translated differently.


Today, we had the question, “What kind of movies do you like?” To answer the question, we learned categories off movies: drama, horror, comedy, and so on. There was one type of movie whose type I didn’t recognize. When I looked it up in the dictionary, it said, “violent.” So, I said to me teacher, “The dictionary definition of this word is ‘violent.’ But, there isn’t a movie category called ‘violent.’ Is it possible that in this instance, we should translate this word as ‘action?”


The teacher just shook her head. “No, it means violent.”


If we were learning adjectives to describe movies then we would have learned funny, scary and violent. But we weren’t learning adjectives. We were categories. It is possible that my teacher was right, and that the Vietnamese actually have a category called ‘violent.’. But what bothers me is how quickly she said, “No, it means violent.” There was no consideration, at all, that given the circumstances, the meaning of the word might change.


One of the other movie categories translated into English as, “love film.” Now, to me, this sounds like a porno. We don’t have a category called ‘love film.’ We say, “Love story.” But, when I translated it as “love story,” the teacher corrected me.


“This is not a story. It is a film.”


This short proclamation said so much about her perception of language. First off, because the dictionary definition for the two words came out, “love film,” this is automatically the correct answer. Also, the dictionary definition of ‘story’ has to do with something that is written. So, a movie cannot be a story.


The examples that find their way into my linguistic articles are not one-of. Generally, when I encounter this type of difficulty with one of my teachers, I ask one of my other teachers, and often, my English students as well. I would say that 70% of the time, I will get the identical, wrong, answer from each of them. This reinforces my belief that in Vietnam, and in Asia in general, language is not taught as a living, breathing entity, which you must approach with flexibility and cultural understanding. Instead, language is taught as an unflinching science. It is math with words. And two plus two must always equal four.


In one translation exercise, I translated a Vietnamese word as “skinny.” My teacher marked it as wrong. “No, this word means ‘thin.’” She said.

“But ‘thin’ and ‘skinny’ mean the same thing in English.” I protested.

“In Vietnamese they are different.” Argued my teacher.


The meanings of English words are not determined by aspects of some foreign language. When the first English dictionary was written, English scholars were most likely unaware of the existence of the Vietnamese language. Ergo, they mistakenly thought that ‘skinny’ and ‘thin’ were synonyms.


To strengthen her argument, my teacher showed me in the dictionary that ‘skinny’ had a certain Vietnamese translation, whereas ‘thin’ had a different corresponding Vietnamese word.


Wow! I better get on the phone with those British people who write dictionaries and inform them of their error. Apparently, I have been misusing these words my whole life.



The last few weeks, I have been in Thailand, helping a Thai woman write her book about the way Thais think, and why westerners often find it difficult to communicate with Asians. One of the problems she brought up was that most Asians have no way of predicting what a westerner wants to say or what he needs or what he might be asking.


In your native tongue, you listen to less than 20% of the words people say to you. But, you understand most of the time. To understand people, you rely on a thousand non-linguistic clues, most of which are unique to your own language and culture. Also, your intuition, or your past experience helps you predict what someone might be saying in a given situation.


Often, when I am sitting in a café for several hours, studying, I will get hungry again and ask the waiter to bring me the menu a second time. Nine times out of ten, in Asia, the waiter will bring me the bill, not the menu. This is not a linguistic issue. This is an issue of expectations.


In the west, particularly in America, waiters depend on tips to earn a living. They want you to order more, so the bill goes up and their percentage is higher. Also, they want you to be happy, so you tip better. The last thing a waiter wants is for you to feel that he rushed you out of the restaurant. Also, people in the west, particularly in fat-America, tend to eat more. It is not unheard of for someone, half way through a meal, to order more food.


But, Asian people eat a lot less than we do. The average Vietnamese male weighs roughly half of what I do. Therefore, the waiter is not expecting me to order more food, in the middle of the meal. In the café where I study, in Saigon, a cup of coffee costs about the same as half-day’s wages for a waiter. Once again, he isn’t expecting me to order multiple coffees and additional food. So, when I signal the waiter, that I want something, he just assumes I want the bill, no matter what I say.


Lack of predictive ability goes both ways, when we speak an Asian language. Even when I understand the words coming out of an Asian person’s mouth, I don’t always understand what they are asking. For example, I was walking into a public restroom in Thailand, and the attendant stopped me and asked, in Thai, “Does your stomach hurt?” I understood the words, but the context was missing. Why was this stranger asking me if my stomach hurt? I just said “no,” and walked into the restroom. I stood, waiting in front of the locked stall door, for about twenty minutes, but no one came out. Finally, I realized that the stall was not occupied and that I would need to ask the attendant to unlock it for me. Then the pieces fell into place. In Thai, I surmised, “does your stomach hurt?” is a euphemism for “do you need to poop? Because, if so, I will come in and unlock the door for you.”


In this case, I lacked the ability to predict what the Asian person wanted to say. Of course the joke was on me, because by this time, I was dancing around like a Korean pop star, trying to hold it in.


This lack of predictive ability carries through into the manufacture of dictionaries and textbooks. Often, it seems that the people who write textbooks don’t or can’t anticipate the sorts of things foreigners would actually need or want to learn in a foreign language. In both, my Vietnamese and in my Chinese textbooks, there were entire chapters dedicated to “What country do you come from?” This is the one phrase a foreigner in Asia will never actually need to use. If we meet a Vietnamese person, we know he is Vietnamese, and don’t need to ask what country he is from. If we meet anyone else, we will speak to them in English, not Vietnamese. Why would a westerner speak Vietnamese to a Japanese or Korean tourist in Saigon?


Once again, we don’t need to ask “what country do you come from?” Interesting, however, these same books don’t teach us how to ask, “What province do you come from?” which is a question we could use every time we meet a Vietnamese person.


My Vietnamese dictionary is often the source of much mirth, or it would be funny, if it didn’t adversely affect my everyday life. I was writing an essay in Vietnamese and needed to say “I took a shower.” When I looked up the word ‘shower’, the definition meaning, ‘to bath,’ was about the eighth in a list of twenty. Of course there was no explanation of what these twenty translations of the word ‘shower’ meant or how they should be used. But why was the one meaning ‘to take a shower’ in the middle and not first? I don’t know how many uses of the word ‘shower’ there are, but this would suggest that ‘baby shower’ or ‘rain shower’ or ‘shower you with kisses’ might be higher on the list than ‘take a shower.’ I would have to believe, however that ‘take a shower’ is the single most common use of that word. So, why wasn’t it first?


Relating to what we already know.


Parallel to this predictive ability which we use to interpret, even our own mother tongue, westerners are taught, from an early age, to relate the new thing you’re learning, to something you already know. I do this institutively, but for Asian students, it seams every single piece of information is learned in isolation


In Taiwan, I remember an intermediate-level student reading a text out loud. Suddenly, he just stopped dead. “Teacher, I don’t know this word.” The word was ‘driver.’ Obviously, they had known the word ‘drive’ since kindergarten. But they didn’t know ‘driver’, neither could they guess what the meaning of the word was. They also couldn’t guess at the pronunciation, but that is a problem unique to young Chinese native speakers. Many Chinese learners will never get their heads around the fact that words are composed of letter with sound values. In phonetic based languages, almost every language except Chinese, you can read and pronounce a word, even if you are unfamiliar with it. Chinese words aren’t made that way.


Just as some westerners never manage to learn tones, some Chinese students will never master the concept of sounding out words. They will get all of the way through university, just by memorizing words.


While the pronunciation issue is almost unique to Chinese native speakers, across Asia I see a lack of teaching concepts and relating to what a student already knows. They know ‘drive.’ Now, just teach them the concept, when you put an ‘r’ or ‘er’ on the end of a word it means the person who does the action, such as “writer” or “driver.”


Where they are not taught this type of learning method, they also do not utilize this type of logic in teaching. Once again, this is a huge source of frustration for me, in learning Vietnamese. There are tens of thousands of words in the language. Rather than trying to memorize all of them, I try to discover patterns.


A lot of Vietnamese vocabulary is based on the old Chinese characters. Many words are composed of one or two syllable words. In Chinese, when you have learned about 3,000 syllables, then most of the rest of the language is just reshuffling and recombining them. In Vietnamese, I try employ the same type of reasoning.


The other day, in class, we hit a word I didn’t know. The teacher said, “It means create.”  I noticed that part of the word was the same as one of the sylables in the Vietnamese word for “manufacture.” That made sense. “Create” and “manufacture” are sort of related to making something new. So I asked, “Is this the same syllable as in manufacture?” The teacher got slightly annoyed at how stupid I was. “No, it means create.” She repeated. Then she opened the dictionary and pointed at the definition, “You see, it means create.”


She was right. The dictionary did say that this word meant “create.”


How silly of me to try and manipulate and use the language, rather than memorizing it blindly.


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.


Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army.







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