Posts Tagged ‘ESL’

Make up Your Own Linguistic Rules

In Uncategorized on October 18, 2015 at 11:26 am

By Antonio Graceffo

I love when people make up their own little linguistic rules, not based on any sort of research or significant experience, such as: a detractor on the internet claimed that native speakers of Spanish learned Vietnamese faster than English natives “because of the similarities in the languages.” The ONLY similarity that he was referring to was putting adjectives after nouns. Apart from that, a Spanish speaker would have no advantages at all. And at this point in the world’s history, the bulk of loan words in almost any language are from English. So, English would be better than Spanish as a basis for any non-Latinate language. Another point is that when you start talking about Asian languages there isn’t a lot of data on non-native English speakers as learners. For Vietnamese, there is undoubtedly data on French speakers, but beyond the US and France, which western countries has Vietnam had a lot of involvement with? Apart from US soldiers of Latin extraction how many Spanish speakers have ever studied Vietnamese?
Another one I have heard repeatedly is that Koreans learn Chinese faster because of similarities in vocabulary and because of the Korean government’s Chinese character exam, which a significant percentage of young people have passed. In practice, I have found that Koreans and Vietnamese are the absolute least fluent students at the Sports University. Even students preparing for their graduation speak Chinese at an incredibly basic level. Much of the reason why Koreans fail to learn Chinese, but many Africans succeed, is probably cultural, rather than linguistic. But that is a central theme in my linguistics writing. I believe that with very few language combinations, the bulk of the difficulties or advantages people have in learning a foreign language are cultural, rather than linguistic. Another anecdotal proof would be that 60% of the vocabulary of the Vietnamese language could be traced to China. And yet, Vietnamese are among the worst Chinese learners at the university.
Today sitting in my hotel room, in Phnom Penh, hearing the Indians across the hall talking way too loudly, with their door open, I could catch about every tenth word, because of the shared origin of some of the Khmer, Thai, Bahasa, and Filipino vocabulary. And yet, these guys couldn’t speak Khmer. And when they tried to communicate with the hotel staff, they did so in absolutely atrocious English, rather than broken Khmer. My point, once again, is that people put too much emphasis on words, when it comes to language learning. Since Indians would already have 10-20% of the Khmer vocabulary, you would think they would find it easier to learn the language. And yet, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Language learning is much more about culture than linguistics.

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a lecturer at Shanghai University. He is also a PhD candidate at Shanghai University of sport, writing his dissertation on comparative forms of Chinese wrestling. He is expected to graduate his China MBA, from Shanghai Jiaotong University, and his PhD in Spring, 2016. Antonio is also a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia, 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.
The Monk from Brooklyn, the book which gave Antonio his name, and all of his other books, the book available at His book, Warrior Odyssey, chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia, including stories about Khmer and Vietnamese martial arts as well as the war in Burma and the Shan State Army, is available at
See Antonio’s Destinations video series and find out about his column on
Brooklyn Monk fan page
Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE
Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)

Misdaventures in ESL: Married to a Dictionary

In Uncategorized on May 18, 2014 at 3:00 am



By Antonio Graceffo

Language learners can be intelligent and even have a fairly large vocabulary, but cultural barriers may still prevent them from learning. In Asia, for example, because students have been forced, since childhood, to memorize long lists of vocabulary, it is very common for them to be married to the concept that each English word has exactly one meaning, regardless of context, and exactly one translation into their mother tongue. And this belief is often so ingrained, trained over a period of decades, that in spite of my education and being a native speaker I cannot dissuade them of it.
Here is an example from a high level group of adult students in China. We read a text about the threat of a pandemic wiping out most of Europe. They knew the word “epidemic”. So, I explained that the “demic” in “pandemic” was similarly related to a disease. And they were fine with that. Next, I asked if they knew the word “pan.” Instantly, they all said “frying pan.” I commended them on knowing ‘frying pan,’ but pointed out that in this context, pan had a different meaning. To which, they responded, “frying pan.” So, I told them that ‘pan’ meant ‘across.’ And that a ‘pandemic’ was an epidemic that went across national borders.
“Yes, because the frying pans are dirty.” explained one of the more intelligent students. In fact, he even rethought “dirty” and said “un-san-i-tary.” Once again, I was very supportive. “Nice word.” But I went on to explain that ‘pandemic’ had nothing to do with a frying pan. In the end, I had to simply move on. Not only did they not learn the meaning of “pan”, but they think I was lying to them, and they will never trust me again.
In another class, with an intermediate level, private Japanese student in her fifties, the article said “After seeing the film in the cinema, the star felt it was a real work of art.” So, I asked my student, “What does it mean when they say “a real work of art?” The student didn’t know. So, I explained, “It means the actress didn’t think this was just a movie for entertainment. It was something special.” So, the student asked “Art mean special?” I tried several more times to explain, in vain. “She meant the movie was beautiful.”
“Art mean beautiful?” she asked.
An interesting point about older Japanese students is that they often speak in very broken English, well below their level. But their reading comprehension is exactly on level. Apart from this one hang up, the student understood the complex text about the making of a short film which won awards.
“The movie was meaningful.” I tried again.
“Art mean meaningful?”
It was one more example of students looking for, even needing, each English word to have exactly one meaning and one translation. “Yes, it means special, beautiful, and meaningful all at once.” I conceded. And we moved on.
Another example was a text that said someone had accused someone else of murder. The student didn’t know “accuse.” So, I simplified by saying, “It means you say someone did something wrong.” She responded “accuse mean say?”
“Not exactly, it means to say someone did something wrong.”
I went through several examples of accusing someone of murder or bank robbery or rigging the votes in Florida. After going through a number of examples, the student said “Understand now. Accuse mean tell.”
The absolute worst example of this phenomenon I have ever encountered was in Cambodia. In an intermediate class, mostly full of college students and young professionals, We read an article which began something like this “If you think baseball is boring, you should try cricket. A cricket match can last three days and end in a tie score of zero-zero.” I confirmed if the students knew what baseball was. And they did. Next, I asked if they knew what cricket was. One girl quickly said, “A small animal that makes music.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “That is the common use of the word cricket. But here, it has a different meaning.” We reread the opening sentence. Then I asked “Can anyone guess what cricket refers to here?” I wasn’t expecting them to know it was a British game, or have a picture of the game in their heads. They had obviously never heard of it. But since cricket involved a match and could end in a tie score, and it was being compared to baseball, I just wanted to see if they would guess that it was some kind of a game or sport.
I went around the room, asking, “In this text, IN THIS TEXT, specifically in this text, can anyone guess what cricket means?” The first three students all said, “A small animal…”
I tried to use logic. “Let’s test your theory that ‘cricket,’ in this text, refers to a small animal.” I read the text aloud, using a substitution. “If you think baseball is boring, you should try a small-animal-that-makes-music. A small-animal-that-makes-music match can last three days and end in a tie score of zero-zero.”
After I finished reading, I asked “Does that make sense?” To which, the whole class dutifully replied, “Yes, teacher.” I just decided to scrap the text and move on. This wasn’t a class on insectology. Entomology maybe, but insectology, NEVER!
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a PhD candidate at Shanghai University of sport, writing his dissertation on comparative forms of Chinese wrestling. He is martial arts and adventure author living in Asia, 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. The book is available at
See Antonio’s Destinations video series and find out about his column on
Brooklyn Monk fan page
Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE
Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)


And They Still offered me the Job

In Uncategorized on February 20, 2014 at 12:36 pm

ESL Teacher Blues

By Antonio Graceffo

Shanghai University offered me my old job back and even offered to work my teaching hours in such a way that I could continue with my studies, but the problem is that the two universities are just too far apart and it would be impossible to study and teach at the same time. The university where I study, Shanghai University of Sport, is also trying to put together a job for me, but until that happens, I decided to go take a job at a language school, very part time, just to have a little income in the mean time.

Two days ago, I answered a bunch of want ads, and sent them my cover letter, CV, and copies of my diplomas. Yesterday, I began receiving calls to set up interviews. Today, I had two interviews, and I remembered why I hate language school jobs and why I am willing to put in the time and effort to earn my PhD and hopefully, NEVER have to teach at a language school again.

At the first school, I sat down for the interview and the woman asked me, “Can I please have your passport?” This is so typical of job interviews in China. By showing up for the interview, they believe you have agreed to accept the job. I think, for them, it would be unimaginable that you would sit through the interview, but decide not to work for the company. I told her I would bring my passport next time.

“What year did you complete your BA?” Believe it or not, I was stymied. In all the years I have been working, no one ever asked me that question. In fact, when I hire people, I would only ask that question of people in their twenties, just to get a handle on how many years they have been working. With older people, you normally ask how many years of experience they have, or maybe if their degree was in a subject relevant to the job. You certainly don’t waste time asking about a BA if the applicant has a Masters or PhD. I thought back and I came up with the answer, “Nineteen ninety-four.” I wondered if she was even alive then. I also wondered if that was the wrong answer. Maybe they only hired people who graduated in odd numbered years.

The next question was, “Do you have teaching experience?” Now I was just stumped. If there was any possibility I was going to say “no” why would they even call me in for an interview? I was applying for a senior teaching position, not a trainee or just out of college job.

“You know, this information is all on the CV I sent you.” I told her. She looked a little uncomfortable. “I never received it.” She answered. As I really didn’t want the job anymore, I decided to be honest. “That’s impossible. It was attached to the very email that you responded to when you invited me to this interview. Also, wouldn’t the CV have been the reason you called me in?”

Part of my frustration wasn’t her fault, it was simply the frustration of being back at the bottom of the ESl world where I was when I first arrived in Asia, after having had great jobs in Europe. I wanted to believe that they had seen my CV, were impressed, and called me in. But now, I realize they simply called me in for no reason and were probably going to offer me the job.

“You sent your CV to Emma. I am Mary.” She explained. What the hell does that mean? “I sent the CV to the one and only email address on the job advert. What happened to it once it got here is none of my business.” She agreed, humbly. Then we sat in awkward silence, till I suggested. “Maybe you could go get my CV from Emma, and we could continue?”

The rest of the interview went reasonably well, until, as I was leaving she asked me what I planned to do after I finished my PhD. I told her I would probably teach at the British and American College. She asked, “Oh, do you have a degree that would allow you to do that?” first off, she knew I am getting a PhD in education and was asking what I planned to do after the PhD in education. So, isn’t it clear that I would be qualified? Next, she was holding my resume, but had obviously not read it. “I have a graduate degree in TESOL.” I told her. Suddenly, she seemed very interested, “Oh, you do? Wow, that is great.”

Believe it or not, they still wanted me to work there, as soon as we figure out which center is closest to my house.

The next interview was the all-time winner. I walked in and although they had spoken to me in Chinese on the phone, they insisted on speaking to me in English during the interview, but their English was so bad that I didn’t always understand the questions and they NEVER understood my answers. They led me to a small meeting room where they gave me a form to fill out. All of the information on the form was on my CV. Nowadays most professional schools have you copy and paste from your CV on line. Then they print out the form as a talking-point during the interview. I didn’t understand why they needed me to hand write the same information again, but I filled in the form. About half way down the page was a single block which read “Teaching Experience”. What did they want me to write in this block? I have been teaching on and off since 1988. There wasn’t room to write names and dates of schools. So, I just wrote “Fifteen years of experience, see CV for details.”

Believe it or not, that wasn’t the worst form I ever saw in the ESL world. Once, the block next to “experience” was the same size as the one next to “name.” I simply wrote the number “10”.

Another question asked how long I planned to be in Shanghai, so I wrote “Until I graduate in 2016.” Another asked how well I could speak Chinese, and I wrote “HSK 4”. The interviewer came in and the first thing she asked was “Can you introduce yourself to me?” This is exactly what we ask kids when we are evaluating their English. I have never had anyone begin a job interview like this, but I complied. Next, she asked, “When will you go back to your hometown?” My hometown? What does that even mean? I was born on Long Island, grew up in Queens, went to school in Brooklyn, lived in Tennessee…Where is my hometown, and why does she need to know when I plan to visit it?

Again, I knew what she meant, and why she asked. But it annoyed me that someone who runs an English school, which employs foreigners, would have so little concept of how to talk to foreigners or how our culture worked. The question about a hometown is significant for Chinese people. For westerners, we generally think of our hometown as where we reside. But for Chinese, the hometown is where you were born. The legal rights of Chinese citizens depend largely on where their legal hometown is. And because it is the city you were born, regardless of where you live, the official hometown can almost never be legally changed. If you are from a third tier hometown, you would have to apply for a visa to visit Hong Kong or Macau. Depending on your hometown, you may never be permitted to visit Taiwan. What’s more, you would need a permit to move to a large city like Shanghai or Beijing. No matter where you live, you would be required to return to your hometown of record, from time to time, to file certain paperwork or comply with government requirements.

I know this about their culture. But why don’t they know that this is not true of our culture? They say the average American moves house more than 5 times, and that 85% of Americans wouldn’t recognize the house they were born in.

“Do you mean how long will I remain in Shanghai?” I asked. She nodded. “Until I graduate in 2016” I said, pointing at where it was written on the form she was holding. She asked several other questions, all of which were on my CV and the form she was holding. When she asked about teaching experience, I told her I had been teaching for years and there was a detailed list on my CV. “Oh, well, have you taught in China?” Go check the CV! I wanted to shout. But I answered calmly, “Yes, I taught at Shanghai University.” She nodded and asked, “So, did you only teach children in China or have you also taught adults?”

What? “Neither, I taught at the university.” I repeated. She nodded, “And were the students adults or children?”

“They were university students.” I explained, losing patience. “I was a university teacher, teaching university students.” Now, I was starting to get a bit annoyed.

Her next question was hilarious, “Can you say some simple Chinese words?” To which I answered, “Yes, I can.” And we sat there silently for several minutes. Even if I wanted to give her a better answer, I didn’t know what she wanted. Did she actually want me to rattle of a list of simple Chinese words? Chair, table, stomach ache, tea spoon…I pointed at the form she was holding and said, “It says right here, HSK 4. If you need me to speak Chinese, I can.” She didn’t answer, so I switched to Chinese, but she sort of tuned me out.

Next, she asked how much money I wanted for a 100 minute class. I had never heard of a 100 minute class, so I wasn’t prepared for that question. Normally, you state a price per hour, and the classes can be as many hours as is customary at that school. An hour is usually only 50 minutes, but you get paid for the full hour. So, I thought for a minute, 100 minutes is a bit more than an hour and a half, so I told her my rate for a bit more than an hour and a half.

“So sorry, that is more than we can pay.” She told me. “I can only offer you our maximum.” The maximum was 10% less than what I had asked for. It wasn’t ideal, but I really should start working, and 10% isn’t that much to give up. Plus, it was probably going to be a very temporary job. So, I agreed.

“We would like to hire you, and you can begin teaching today at 5:30.” She announced. With that, she handed me an employment form to fill out, which had the same information as the previous form. There were also terms and conditions of employment, one of which said that if I agreed to teach a student, but quit before that student’s course ended, I owed the company $2,000. There was no scenario in the contract where the company might owe me $2,000.

“We have an adult student who wants to learn some information about Canada. Do you have information about Canada?” she asked.

“With me? No, I do not have information about Canada with me. But, if you have course books or materials about Canada, I would be happy to teach them.”

“Yes, we have many books.” She said, proudly.

“Books about Canada?” I asked.


“I see.”

The interviewer excused herself, and another woman came in. I took her to be the boss, the one who had called me on the phone, speaking Chinese. She told me, “The student wants to learn oral English.” She told me.

“I thought she wanted to learn about Canada.” I said.

“She wants oral English about Canada.”

“I have no idea what that means.” I said, honestly.

“It’s OK. You can speak Chinese very well. She doesn’t speak any English, so you can explain to her in Chinese. Or her daughter can translate.”

“Her daughter? I thought this was a private lesson.”

“Yes, well, her daughter will also be in the class. She is eleven and speaks some English. She and her mother are moving to Canada and they both want to learn oral English.”

And the best way for them to learn oral English, apparently, is for me to talk to them in Chinese, or to have the daughter translate.

They took me to the book shelf and told me I could choose any book I wanted for the lesson. “I have no idea about the student or the books. Please tell me which one to use.” I said, thinking how far this was from university teaching and how much I hated doing this. They selected a business book which would have been way too difficult for someone who doesn’t speak English, and which had nothing to do with Canada, and which would have been completely inappropriate for an eleven year-old, who wouldn’t know those words and concepts in Chinese.

It was still two hours till the lesson was meant to start, so I said I would go down to the café and prepare. I noticed the book had listening and speaking lessons which required a CD. So I asked, “Do you have CD players in the classroom?”

The first interviewer told me, “I don’t think the CD will work.”

You don’t think? You mean you aren’t sure? Has this never come up before? “Why not?”  I asked.

“Because we do not have a CD player.” She answered, smartly. And yes, she was right, I also think if you don’t have a CD player, the CD will not work.

I took the book and was headed out the door when I realized I didn’t have paper. “Could I have some paper?” I asked. The boss lady asked, “Do you need a book or paper?” I don’t know why she asked that. But I answered, “I need some paper to prepare my lesson.” The other woman asked, “How many pieces, one?” Yes, I need exactly one piece of paper to prepare a lesson. God forbid you should hand me “some” paper. She gave me one piece of paper. As I headed to the elevator I was thinking, OK, I am going to do this one lesson, collect the fee, and then quit. But while I was waiting for the elevator, I thought, this is the dumbest job, at the dumbest company, and I am going to hate teaching these kinds of disorganized, unprofessional lessons. Also, something finally hit me about the money. At any other teaching job, fifty minutes is one hour. So a two hour class is 100 minutes. That means I should be getting two hours of pay. But they were only offering me one and a half hours worth.

I walked back into the office, and said, “I am really sorry, but I don’t want to work here.” I handed back the book, but I kept the single piece of paper. Ha, ha, I won.

“Why don’t you want to work here?” Asked the boss lady.

“Because you are too disorganized. You don’t even have a CD player. And the pay is too low.” Another issue was that it was more than an hour from my house, by subway. And there was no way I could justify a two hour roundtrip to teach 100 minutes and get paid a fraction of what I normally make.

I had said it. “You’re too disorganized. You don’t even have a CD player.” I said exactly what I was thinking. It is amazing that only when we want nothing do we receive everything. It was one of the most liberating moments of my life, not only because I was saying “no” to that job. I was saying “no” to every unprofessional language school for the rest of my life.

I will hold out for a university or corporate job. Life is too short to waste teaching “oral English about Canada.”


Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a PhD candidate at Shanghai University of sport, writing his dissertation on comparative forms of Chinese wrestling. He is martial arts and adventure author living in Asia, 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. The book is available at

See Antonio’s Destinations video series and find out about his column on



Brooklyn Monk fan page

Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE

Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)