Posts Tagged ‘Learn’

Children Vs. Adults, Language Learning vs. Acquisition

In Uncategorized on June 29, 2015 at 3:15 am

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By Antonio Graceffo

I largely reject the notion that children learn languages more easily or that if they do, or that this somehow gives them an advantage when learning a foreign language. David Long, the director of AUA Bangkok and the world’s leading proponent of Automatic Language Growth Theory (ALG) said, “We don’t believe children learn physics faster. So, why do we believe they learn language faster?”

All over the world people begin learning English as a child. Across Asia and Europe, English is a core requirement of the school curriculum. And yet all of the professional translators, linguists and people who speak English at a level appropriate to their age and education learned THAT level of English as adults and through study.

My belief is that culturally, our society, all societies, are set up in such a fashion that you teach things to children. I watch a mother playing with her child and she holds up an object and says “ball, ball” a million times. then maybe she says “This is a red ball.” I wish I could pay someone to do that for me. But even with this constant input, it takes years for children to acquire their native tongue. And, acquiring a language is very different from learning a language. Acquiring language generally only happens for the first language is learned in this manner. Here, I am using a loose definition of “first language,” to include all languages widely spoken in the child’s home country. For example, a Swiss person who speaks high German, Swiss German, and French is simply speaking the languages he or she is exposed to and which he or she acquired. Statistically, Swiss are terrible language learners.

At the ALG school in Bangkok, we tracked people by nationality and evaluated who learned Thai the fastest. Swiss were among the lowest scorers. Acquiring language and learning language are very different concepts. I actually had a person who was a PhD in anthropology telling me that he believed Africans learned languages faster. He said, “Africans are such great linguists. I have been in villages where everyone spoke six languages.” First off, a linguist is one who studies language, not languages. Secondly, these people acquired these languages. The test on whether or not an African can learn a language faster than say a Singaporean would be to send them both to school in Latvia.

As an adult, you can use your intellect, discipline, self-control and knowledge of what a language is, to learn a second language faster than any child.

In both Taiwan and Thailand I had friends who were missionary families. The parents went to language classes, while the children attended the international school. A year later, the parents poke the local language, but the kids didn’t. To a thinking man, it should be a no brainer that the one who attended classes learned, but the ones who didn’t classes didn’t. But there is a magical belief that children simply acquire language out of the air. This is clearly untrue.

As for adult discipline, in Taiwan, back in 2002, Chinese textbooks are generally only available in English medium, or occasionally in Japanese. Two Italian priests, who spoke no English, were attending Chinese classes. So they could neither understand the explanations or translations in the book, nor could the teacher help them very much. Where I was able to complete a chapter per day, they could only do one page per day because it took them about 8 hours each evening, to go through the following day’s page, using a paper dictionary, translating each and every word into Italian. Most children couldn’t do that. Had you put 2 ten year-olds in that class, they would simply have failed.

I have had a standing offer, which no one has taken me up on, but I challenge anyone in the world to send me and a 10 year old to a country chosen at random, where neither of us speaks the language, and test which of us learns the language faster.

Brooklyn Monk: Pro Wrestling: The toughest martial art (Parts 1 and 2)

In Uncategorized on April 13, 2015 at 4:45 am

For their PhD dissertation, other people do research and statistical analysis, but the Brooklyn Monk gets body-slammed! “At this rate, I’ll be able to defend my dissertation with my fists.” Says, Antonio “Brooklyn Monk” Graceffo

Fake? There is nothing fake about pro wrestling, that’s what Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo discovers when he attends pro wrestling school at New York Wrestling Connection (NYWC) and gets schooled by a pro wrestler named Stockade. Pro fighters fight 3 -4 times per year. Professional wrestlers are out there, night after night, getting body slammed, taking bumps and taking the heat. Pro-wrestlers are huge, incredibly strong and skilled men and women who engage in sports entertainment. Yes, the outcomes are pre-prescribed, so you probably wouldn’t want to bet on a pro wrestling match, but what happens during the fight, a spectacle that can last up to 40 minutes, is only loosely scripted and largely dependent on the strength, agility, timing and creativity of the wrestlers.
Pro-wrestling is just the next step in Antonio’s PhD dissertation research on comparative forms of wrestling.
Watch Pro Wrestling: The toughest martial art (Part 1 ) on youtube:

Watch Pro Wrestling: The toughest martial art (Part 2 ) on youtube:

Watch Pro Wrestling: The toughest martial art (Part 3 ) on youtube:

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. The book is available at
See Antonio’s Destinations video series and find out about his column on
Email Antonio
Brooklyn Monk fan page
Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE

Brooklyn Monk in 3D
Order the download at
Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)

When up is down, Perceptions in Linguistics

In Uncategorized on January 18, 2015 at 4:31 am

By Antonio Graceffo

On a map up, we have all accepted that up is North (Actually, as a map is 2D, we have accepted that forward is both up and consequently North. Up would take you into a third dimension and off the map.).There is no reason for that. We just all agreed on it. But, when you go to a culture that isn’t familiar with maps, not only will they not know this, but they will ask you “why?”. And you will be unable to explain it, because you simply take it for granted.

Once, when I was teaching class in Germany, I went to point something out on a world map and was very embarrassed because I was having trouble orientating myself. This, of course, confirmed for my students, the prejudice that Americans are ignorant of world geography. The issue, I eventually figured out, was that in the US, America is at the center of a world map, and all other countries orient off that center. When I explained this to my German students, they attributed this fact to American nationalism, as everyone knows Germany is meant to be at the center of a world map.

Linguistically, we can see how our place in the world effects our perception and how that, in turn effects our language. On an American map, the Middle East is far away. In fact, it’s half-way to China, which is why we call it “The Middle East.” On a German map, the Middle East doesn’t seem all that far away. And thus, in German, the Middle East is called “The Near East.”

If the Middle East were nearer, would we have a different relationship with the policies we make?

Eventually, after having taught in so many countries, I realized that each country places itself at the center of its world map. Now that I know this, it makes perfect sense. Since, you would generally be looking at the world from your own country, facing out, the world is oriented off of your starting point. But knowing this still made it difficult to use maps when I later lived in Asia. Picture a world map where East Asia is the center, Europe is on the extreme left and America is on the far right. The first time I saw that, I asked “America is East of Taiwan?” But, the globe is a circle. I guess we could argue that any point is East of any other point.

There is one more perception for you. Where does East end and West begin on a circular object? And why? Let’s add to this that the Earth is not actually a circle, we have just decided it was convenient to draw it that way.


In the truest sense, the way a country makes a map demonstrates how that country perceives the world.

In the West, we read left to right, top to bottom. In other cultures they read right to left. And the front cover of the book is the back cover. But even in the west, the left to right across the page rule doesn’t always hold. A newspaper, for example, is read in vertical columns. I once had a class in Cambodia whose reading level was quite high, but the whole class failed a reading comprehension exam which was based on a newspaper text. They didn’t know to read a newspaper in columns, rather than straight across the page, left to right.

On the highway in America, arrows telling you to continue straight ahead, are actually pointing up into the sky. “Next rest stop, this way.” Does America have flying cars?

In Chinese, the word for “up” is “shàng” and it’s represented by a character that looks like an arrow pointing up into the sky 上. The word for “down” is “xià” and it’s represented by a character that looks like an arrow pointing “down”, into the Earth 下. And that all makes sense to my Western brain. But the Chinese word for next week is “Xià zhōu” 下周. In my mind, next week should be “up”, not down. But I guess, just like “North” being “up” there is no reason for me to feel that way. And yet, it seems counter intuitive that in Chinese next week, next time, and next month are all represented by a “down” character. The one logic I came up with for this might be because on a calendar, whether Chinese or Western, next week is down the page, and next month is down the page. In which case, the West is “wrong?”

Obviously, there is no wrong or right. But these types of perceptions, these prejudices that we have are so deeply instilled that we aren’t even aware of them. And, when we encounter a culture which sees the world differently, we either can’t understand or can’t imagine that people perceive the world in other ways.

An endless collection of these types of perceptions compose our relationship to and understanding of our native tongue, and to language in general. We carry these perceptions with us into foreign cultures, and then wonder why we have difficulty understanding our foreign friends or learning a foreign language.

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.

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)


They make the best students but the worst teachers

In Uncategorized on January 16, 2015 at 4:41 am

By Antonio Graceffo

The latest in the sad saga of my replacement Chinese teacher:

My regular Chinese teacher, who I like, went home for the holidays and said his friend Huang Hainan would teach me. Sadly, Hainan and I started off on a bad foot. When Hainan wrote to introduce himself, he did so in English. When I called him on it, he said, “We Chinese believe foreigners like to speak English.” If you want to see me fly into a rage, use the explanation “We Chinese people…” as if he was appointed to represent all 1.3 Billion of them. And, since I am usually the first foreigner any of these people meet, where would this belief come from?

Most people know, with me, you get one strike. And he had just used his up. Next, when he came to teach me, he kept telling me the answers to the questions in my Chinese book. If I took more than two seconds to think something over, he blurted out the answer. Once again, I had to chastise him, “Who’s taking this exam? Me, or you?”. Out of respect for my other teacher, who I like, I didn’t slap him. Yesterday, he blurted out the answer several times. The first few times I made a half joke, like, “I bet you could do really well on this exam.” Or, “Are you going to take this exam for me?” The final time he did it, I just started swearing in English, unable to stop, shouting, “You’re the worst teacher I have ever met.”

All this while, I was cutting him slack because he is an English major at a sports university. This tells me he is probably not on the cutting edge of intelligencia There are a percentage of non-sports majors at our sports university, and I have always wanted to meet these people that the athletes know exist and have many legends about, but no one has ever seen. To get into university in China, kids have to pass a national exam, called the gaokao. A high gaokao gets you into a better university….a low gaokao gets you into a sports university.

Can you imagine being an English major at a sports university? Not only does everyone think you must be an idiot, or you would be at a real college somewhere, but also, you are surrounded by people who are bigger, stronger, tougher, better looking, and who, in a way, represent the top echelon of their world. There are 6 million kids studying in sports schools in China, but only about 20,000 spots at sports universities. So, the athletes here are proud to be here. The English majors must feel like complete failures, not to mention that everyone from the administration, to the staff, to the athletes have no idea what to do with them.

Anyway, I didn’t want to judge Huang Hainan too harshly. And I still needed a Chinese teacher. As most people have already gone home for the holidays, there weren’t many choices left for me on campus. Largely, the only people left on campus were the professional sports teams. As bad as Huang Hainan was, I figured he was still a better Chinese teacher than most of the athletes.

This week, the university began to operate on holiday schedule, meaning the training halls close early, at 5:45 immediately after the pro teams fnished their training. I normally have wrestling at 5:45, but now my wrestling training has been moved to mornings, which meant changing my Chinese class to the afternoon. This schedule is les than optimal for me, because I hate having Chinese class AFTER training. I am usually just too tired to pay attention.

While I was busy at work, I sent a quick text to Huang Hianan to tell him we would change the class time to 2 O’clock. He wrote back, and asked, “2 o’clock in the afternoon?” For a guy who I already hated, this was a bold step toward oblivion. I wanted to answer, “No, 2 o’clock in the morning.” But instead, I wrote back, “Yes, in the afternoon.” He sent a text saying “OK, see you then.” An hour later, my phone rang, but because I was teaching, I rejected the call. A quick glance at the phone told me it was Huang Hainan. Five minutes later, he called again, and I rejected the call again. The third time he called I shut off my phone. Later, during the class time, I turned the phone back on, and saw that in addition to three phone calls from him, I had received several text messages, saying things like, “I am waiting for you, where are you?”

What a moron! He knew we didn’t have class that day because of my work. And he already agreed to change the time for the class the next day. And all of this was in writing, in Chinese, so there is no way he didn’t understand or could be confused. So I wrote back. “No, tomorrow. We have class tomorrow.”

He wrote me about five more times to confirm the class for the next day.

The next day, when I finished wrestling, I was just too tired to think of having Chinese class, especially with Huang Hainan. So, I cancelled. He sent a text asking if we would have class the following day So, I cancelled that one too. Next, he texted and asked if there was a problem. I didn’t answer. An hour later, he sent texts with little emodicons of smiley faces and pictures and asked if there was a problem. But I didn’t answer.

That night I received this insane, and incredibly lengthy, SMS message from him on my phone. And he wrote in English, which makes me want to find him and as Mickey said in Rocky III, “Hurt him permanent.” Here is the message, including all of his crazy punctuation: “hi Antonio! Sorry for disturbing you, again. Having learned Chinese with you for three times. generally, I feel not bad. You know, I am English major, but you are the first foreigner I teach Chinese to! I value it, Truly. However, you may feel not good. I know it, and im most responsible for it. Because im a little awkward when in work. Im sorry for that. But I must confess that im not easy in work, because we are not familiar with each other, just you asked and I told, and even sometimes directly told you the answer…before the first time I came, I hoped that we may could talk like friends, tell you what a Chinese think about china is its politics, culture, or national characters. you may share about your storys, talk about something in America. I notices that your desk is filled with “Super heroes” I know you like it,many of my classmates and I also like it, and watching the movies. But maybe you are busy. Buy in playing roles in a teacher as well as a student. Maybe spend one and half hour learning Chinese is luxury, no time t waste whatever, I understand it. Last, whenever you want to learn Chinese, one message and I’ll come. If you want to choose another one to learn Chinese, I still hope you learn it well and have a good time in china!”

I wrote a short reply, “You’re an idiot.” But I didn’t have the balls to send it. I have no idea where to even begin to respond to this, and don’t know if will. I find that Chinese students, in general, have very low emotional intelligence and are extremely socially awkward. I have a theory that the reason prostitution is so common in China is because none of them are charming enough to get a woman to sleep with them. Having said that, I find the athletes to be relatively normal. I think the years of hardship, living away from their families, training six hours per day, since age 12, has hardened them. They are less fussy. Also, they are much happier and alert than the average Chinese student.

Huang Hainan is a product of this insane system of study only, and study to the exclusion of every other experience in life. I still might beat him up, though.


Shuai Jiao Realist

In Uncategorized on May 9, 2014 at 10:39 am

By Antonio Graceffo
On deciding not to wrestle in the Chinese national shuai jiao championships:

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I originally wrote this on May 10, 2014, after long, painful deliberation on whether or not to pull out of the Chinese national wrestling championships. Today, May 14, 2014 the assistant coach told me the team has been pulled out of the competition for the same reasons I explain in detail below, namely, that while we can take opponents down and get point, we aren’t really using traditional techniques. So, the team is now focused on improving their traditional wrestling skills for the remaining 4 weeks of the semester. And we will hopefully compete, as a team, in the Fall of 2014. I personally will be going to wrestling camp for the whole summer in another country.

My eighth month-aversary is coming up now, eight months that I have been on the Chinese traditional wrestling (Shuai jiao) team at Shanghai University of Sport. Before joining the team, I had spent one year training and fighting MMA fulltime, in Malaysia. The final half of that year, I actually lived in the MMA gym. So, I had picked up some grappling, but I had never truly studied wrestling or Brazilian jujitsu. In fact, the only, actual wrestling training I had before becoming the first foreigner on the universityteam was a three week traditional wrestling camp in Beijing.
Most of my teammates at the university grew up in sports schools in China. My best friend on the team, Zheng Tong, for example, lived in a sports school, from age 9, learning Greco Roman wrestling. The other guys on the team have similar stories. The ones with the least training spent 5 years learning Greco, before coming to train at the university. One of the guys actually grew up in a sports school where he majored in Chinese traditional wrestling. So, he has the best traditional wrestling on the team.
During my first seven months on the team, while we were supposed to be doing Chinese traditional wrestling, the coach would often give us a choice of what to work on. And we all inevitably chose freestyle or Greco Roman wrestling. While I tried to learn as much of the Chinese wrestling as I could, I simply liked freestyle better. Freestyle just seemed to focus on effectiveness, rather than tradition. Because we have three codes of wrestling on our team, four if you count MMA wrestling, we are constantly exchanging techniques, and mixing and matching them when we wrestle. And this is exactly what happens in MMA gyms. So, I felt very much at home with my team.
The difference between Shuai jiao and freestyle wrestling, to me, is analogous to the difference between, say karate and MMA kick boxing. In Karate, you do a movement or us a kick simply because it is karate, and not because you have evaluated it and determined it to be the best way to move or kick. In an MMA gym, on the other hand, fighters take from all disciplines, based on effectiveness. When we practice kick boxing, although most gyms will tend to have a Muay Thai base, they will add in EVERYTHING; kyokushin, 70’s style kick boxing, taekwondo…whatever techniques the MMA guys see and like, they simply add to their arsenal. Here in China, we all cross train in san da, Chinese kick boxing, but, we don’t throw away the muay Thai. Some of my MMA training partners have kung fu or wing chun backgrounds. One was even a savat competitor. And we simply take the best of everything, add it together, and call it kick boxing or striking for MMA.
The university wrestling team is like this too. The guys are really good at upper body control because of the Chinese wrestling training. But they can also do upper body strength throws from Greco. They add in leg grabs and shoots from freestyle. They all have good leg hooking, sweeping, and tripping from Chinese wrestling. Next, I came along with my MMA grappling and a number of the guys have adopted the BJJ sit through takedown and a few others that I have shown them. Some of us have had san da training, so we bring the san da throws to the wrestling room.
But true Shuai jiao is different. It’s not just about taking your opponent down. It’s about mastering the real, Chinese traditional techniques. And that takes practice. It starts with ji ben gong, basic kung fu style exercise, and evolves into drills and throws. Until about a month ago, in our sparring, and even in a huge tournament that we competed in, we all just used whatever techniques we wanted, as long as they didn’t break the rules. My teammates always joke with me that I am the king of the one point throws, for example, because I always go down with my opponent, resulting in a one point penalty, reducing my two-point throw to a one-point throw. While going down with the opponent is frowned upon in Shuai jiao, it’s a good habit in both MMA and freestyle wrestling.
Looking at the photos and videos from the tournament, I see my teammates doing body slams and body locks, saltos, a lot of lag grabs and high crotch throws… all sorts of freestyle wrestling techniques that are legal in Chinese wrestling but that are not real Chinese techniques. On the same videos, I see the kids from the sports high school utilizing the traditional Chinese throws.
Do to my age, 47, and the accumulation of injuries which severely limit my range of motion, when the team is doing Chinese drills or acrobatics, the coach excuses me from regular training. Instead, he chooses one of my teammates to free spar with me, until the team is ready to change into their Shuai jiao jackets. Then I rejoin the team for Shuai jiao sparring.
The other day at practice, while my team worked on techniques for the national championships, I did free wrestling with Chen Zengxin, who has been training and competing in Greco Roman wrestling since age 4. He is 22 now and has just retired from national and international level Greco competition. He has just started studying at the university and has only been on our team for a few weeks. When we trained together that day, we didn’t wear jackets, because he doesn’t know Chinese wrestling yet. We just trained freestyle. Or, more accurately, he told me I could do freestyle and he would do Greco. It didn’t matter. I never managed to take him down or even take his leg. I learned a lot from him. And obviously, he took me down at will. I did manage to pull him down with me once or twice, but as a rule, he could have literally killed me with his Greco skill at any moment.
I was so grateful to have a chance to work with a championship level wrestler like Chen Zengxin. And I felt that experience had more impact on my life and development as a wrestler/fighter than would one more session of Shuai jiao.
This realization was like a wakeup call. I don’t seem to be learning Shuai jiao anymore. I am just learning more and better wrestling, which is fine for my personal goal of being a better wrestler and fight. But I need to be realistic about my involvement in Shuai jiao.
Over the last two weeks, as my team has been concentrating on the national Shuai jiao championships, they have been training in traditional wrestling with ferocity. And, I realized I have no place in the national championships. I almost never do traditional wrestling. Every session that I am given a choice of what to work on, I opt for freestyle. My freestyle is really coming along. And even freestyle wrestling I learn for the purpose of being a better MMA fighter, not to really compete in freestyle wrestling. So, I think none of my styles is pure.
After free that day, we sparred 8 rounds of match sparring in Chinese traditional wrestling, and this confirmed for me that I have no idea what I am doing in that sport.
Looking back over photos and videos of training and sparring, I see that it is incredibly rare that I even grab my opponent’s jacket, which is the whole point of Chinese wrestling. Instead, all of my throws are from body locks and taking a leg. Until a few weeks ago, my teammates were fighting that way too, using a combination of Greco and freestyle. So, it just seemed to be the normal culture of our team. But now that the nationals are just weeks away, the guys are all strictly adhering to traditional rules. In fact, when we were choosing partners today, Wang YeChao, the team captain and one of my best friends, actually refused to partner with me. He said, “I want to train for nationals.”
That sort of hurt.
The coach doesn’t want Chen Zengxin to wrestle in nationals because he has only been with our team a few weeks and has literally zero Chinese wrestling skill, although he can still win, using Greco. We had a guest trainer that day, and he kept scolding Chen Zengxin because his techniques all came from Greco. The trainer kept yelling, “Grab the jacket! That’s what it’s there for.
As for my personal development as a wrestler, even now that my teammates are ratcheting up their skills and that I am no longer allowed to break the rules at will, I get some points from reversals. The thing I am proud of is that even though they are fighting with real intensity, I still manage to turn most of their two-point throws into one-point throws by pulling them down with me. All except Chen Zengxin, that is. He probably threw me about 25 times that day. About 70% of those throws, I managed to hook an ankle or a leg and throw him over my head as I fell, and YET, he would simply land on his feet. He is really amazing.
As for Shuai jiao, I am writing my doctoral dissertation on the differences and similarities between Chinese Shuai jiao and modern freestyle wrestling. I think today was one of those “Ah, ha!” moments, where I just discovered a new aspect of wrestling culture to explore. Different from freestyle wresting, traditional wrestling means “traditional wrestling.” It can’t change. It can’t be added to or taken away from. And no matter how many matches you win, you are either doing traditional wrestling or you aren’t.
Backing out of nationals changes very little about my training. I will continue to train hard with the team, and learn as much as I can. I simply won’t go to nationals. I think in proper Chinese traditional wrestling competition with rules that say you can only clinch for 3 seconds before taking someone down, or can only hold a leg for 3 seconds, or where they may penalize me for throwing from body lock or from sacrifice throws, I think it would just be a terrible experience of getting both beat up and demoralized to wrestle in a code where I am powerless against the best guys in the country. After all, it’s their sport. This decision may even be mute as the nationals seem to be right around the same time as my dissertation proposal defense. When I get the official dates, it may turn out I couldn’t have done both anyway.
I have about 5 weeks of school left. After my proposal defense I plan to shoot off to Cambodia and Singapore to train in freestyle wrestling and MMA for most of the summer. At some point I want to learn judo. Also, if I had a chance to study Greco, that would be awesome. So much to learn…
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)

Antonio and His Languages

In Uncategorized on May 4, 2014 at 11:28 am

By Antonio Graceffo, (The Brooklyn Monk)


A lot of people have asked about my languages, which ones I speak, which ones I speak well, and so forth. I have seen interviews or heard myself being introduced on radio shows and things where the claims were blown a bit out of proportion. So, to set the record straight, here is the truth, along with links for scrutiny.
Languages: English, Chinese, German, Spanish, Thai, Khmer, Italian, French, Vietnamese, and Korean
English: Speaks, reads and writes English at native speaker level
Link to video of Antonio Speaking English:
Chinese: Chinese at HSK level 4 level reading, HSK level 5 listening and speaking. Exam results available on request. Admitted to PhD program where all courses, papers, and research are in Chinese. Has distinguished himself as a presenter in Chinese and a diligent researcher (letters available upon request)
PhD presentation in Chinese at Shanghai University of Sport

German: Speaks German at high level of fluency, Attended School of Translation and Interpreting , the University of Mainz, GErmersheim, Germany, 1993-1996 conducted research on second language acquisition theory, under Dr. Kiraly, worked as a freelance and contract translator, and worked in the foreign language department of Deutsche Telekom
Antonio Speaking German, telling the story of his many year martial arts odyssey in Asia

Spanish: Speaks Spanish at advanced level, studied at Universidad Latina, Costa Rica, and Spanish/German translation school in Salamanca. Antonio has spoken Spanish since childhood.
Conducting martial arts interview in Spanish

Thai: Speaks Thai at upper intermediate level. Has conducted extended field research on Automatic Language Growth, using Thai for a base, under the direction of David Long of AUA Bangkok.
Conducting a martial arts interview in Thai

Khmer: Intermediate level. Antonio spoke Khmer better when he lived in Cambodia, but of all languages, Khmer is the one he uses the least outside of Cambodia, so his ability has regressed quite a bit. Recently, Antonio has been returning to Cambodia to train with the national wrestling team and he was forced to begin listening, if not speaking, Khmer again for communication.
Antonio conducting martial arts interviews in Khmer

Antonio Conducting martial arts interviews in Khmer

Italian: Speaks Italian at upper intermediate level of communication but with poor grammar. Antonio was raised non-strict bilingual, with Italian and English.
Conducting martial arts interview in Italian

French: Speaks French at upper intermediate level. Can communicate well, but with poor grammar and pronunciation.
Conducting martial arts interview in French

Vietnamese: Studied Vietnamese and passed upper intermediate exam, however, pronunciation is still extremely difficult, making communication difficult
Antonio Graceffo speaking Vietnamese

Korean: While living in Busan, Korea, Antonio took private Korean lessons at Dong A University. He passed the intermediate exam in Korean but cannot speak Korean, however, Antonio has used Korean to help him understand and explore Chinese as well as the relationship between Chinese and Korean and Vietnamese and Chinese.
Has also studied Russian, but only to lower intermediate level and now cannot speak Russian, but can still read Cyrillic alphabet which has proved useful for research in Mongolian wrestling.
Linguistic Publishing: Published approximately 200 articles in the field of second language acquisition as well as language specific articles. Antonio has done a lot of field research on ALG Automatic Language Growth theory. In the field of second language acquisition he focuses on the area of listening. His articles have appeared in Asian Geographic magazine and even the journal for UN interpreters.
Link to language articles:
Linguistics videos: Produced over 70 Youtube videos dealing with linguistics and language acquisition
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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
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Learning Thai in Bangkok

In Linguistics and Language Learning on October 16, 2007 at 5:32 am

 Automatic Language Growth, a new approach to absorbing a hard language.

By Antonio Graceffo


“The way we found out that our mother had diabetes was that ants would appear every time she peed.” 

The teachers had been standing at the front of the room talking about bodily functions and toilet humor for nearly an hour. The next story was a Thai legend about a half woman and half snake spirit monster, which fed on human waste. I would have been appalled, except that it was all in Thai, and yet, after only a few weeks of study, I understood what they were saying. Maybe it would have been better if I didn’t understand. I could have tuned out. But I had paid money to learn the Thai language through this innovative approach, and apparently it had paid off.


The shocking humor of the subject matter forced me to remember the new language.


The lessons weren’t always so unappetizing. Sometimes they were down right fun or silly. The teacher would say the Thai word for ambulance and the students would have to make ambulance noises. Or, she would say the Thai word for train and we would all make choo-choo noises. We were alowed to shout, laugh, get up, and act out. The one thing we were not allowed to do was to speak Thai.


If a student answered a question in Thai, he would immediately get told off by the teacher.


Sometimes it was difficult, Thais have less of a sense of political correctness than we do. More than once a Thai teacher, named Hom, would pull his slacks up to his nipples, squint his eyes nearly shut, stick out his buck teeth and pretend to play golf. “Look, I am Japanese.” He would say.


The first week of class I thought everyone associated with the program was insane.


“If I wanted to listen to two hours of racist banter, and get yelled at for speaking my mind, I would just go have dinner with my father.”


After I understood the concepts behind the program, it began to make sense. Soon, it was like joining a cult. People who believed in the program couldn’t believe there was any other way to learn Thai. And now I think they are right.


The program, called ALG (Automatic Language Growth), was developed by an innovative American linguist, named Dr. J. Marvin Brown. ALG was based on a much earlier theory, dating back to the 1920s, called the Silent Way and later called the Natural Way. Basically the commonality between these theories is that they were listening based, and that they started by observing the way children learn language.


Chinese, Arabic, Thai, Korean, and Japanese are considered some of the hardest languages to learn, and yet small children in these countries speak them fluently. What is more, the children never sat in classes, learning their mother tongue. So, how did they learn it?


Children learn through listening. Children hear their mother and other adults speaking for months on end before they start speaking themselves. Obviously, you can’t be expected to do something correctly until you have seen it done several times. The same is true with learning a language. If someone tells you a Thai word once, you won’t remember it. If they tell you fifty times, you may remember it, but you will mispronounce it or misuse it. The only way to correctly learn a Thai word, or anything for that matter, is to hear it used, correctly, in context, repeatedly.


If you call someone, but they are already talking on the phone, you say the line is busy. If you are staying in a hotel and you don’t want the maid to enter, you hang a sign which reads, “Do not disturb.” If someone is using the toilet on the airplane, the sign reads, “Occupied.” If you want to sit at the movies, but someone is holding the place for a friend, he says “This seat is taken.”


Busy, do not disturb, occupied, taken all have similar meanings, but it would seem strange to us if you called someone and “the line is taken” or if the seat at the movie theater was “do not disturb.” You make linguistic choices everyday, when to use which of many similar words. If you think back, there was probably never a time in your past when you wrote out these four examples and memorized them.


You never wrote the phrase, “Always use occupied for the bathroom,” fifty times in your notebook. And if you did, it wouldn’t strictly be true. If you are in the bathroom in your house, as opposed to a public toilet, when someone knocks, you say “I’m in here.” Not, “occupied.”


When you tried to learn French or Spanish in school you probably did write out lists of when to use certain phrases and words. And, you probably got them wrong most of the time. Moreover, you would get frustrated when you discovered that every rule had fifty variations and twenty-seven exceptions.


Language existed for thousands of years. Rules have only existed for hundreds. Language is organic. It grows as we need it. Rules are static. And they are only amended long after they are out of date. Have you texted someone recently? The spell check on your computer tells you that word doesn’t exist. But we use this word every day. It may be years until the rule matches the reality.


So, how did you learn these intricacies of the English language?


“Experience is the best teacher.” Says David Long, head of the Thai language program at AUA, Ratchadamri. David came to Thailand nearly twenty years ago to study under Dr. Brown. Since Dr. Brown’s death, David has been continuing his work.

“To learn something, we have to have a meaningful, transportable experience.”


In other words, you learned “Occupied” because you flew on an airplane twenty times and needed to use the toilet. This was a real experience, and it was meaningful. You never forgot the experience of dancing around, waiting for the bathroom to be unoccupied.


“Something taught through experience is infinitely better remembered than something taught through school.” Says Long.


Homework, tests, and dialogues are all school concepts, not life concepts, so they are absent from the ALG program. ALG creates experience through teacher student interactions. The teachers stand at the front of the classroom, acting out stories. One  hour of sitting in class is exactly one hour of listening, because the teachers talk constantly. More importantly, the teachers speak perfect Thai. So, the students are exposed to a perfect model. Is students were permitted to speak Thai, then the other students would be hearing an improper model.


In lower level classes, the students interact, but not by speaking Thai. The interaction may be that they are asked to perform tasks or make noises. The concept here is that we can have meaningful interaction without speaking.


“Words are overrated.” Says David Long. “We use them so much, they have no meaning.”

According to David, studies show that we only hear one of five words spoken in our native tongue. This suggests that 80% of our communication is non-verbal.


If we communicate in our native tongue non-verbally, why then would we expect to communicate in a foreign language using words? That is the first question ALG asks of language learners. Until your level of Thai approaches your level of English, you shouldn’t expect to be able to communicate effectively in Thai.


“Most Thai people have had several years of English at school. It is not logical that you would be able to communicate better than them after only a few weeks or months of Thai lessons.”


A major key to ALG is, we don’t want to start speaking too early.


If we ask the average westerner to imitate a Chinese person speaking English, he will inevitably reverse his Ls and Rs. “Oh, me so solly.” The belief is that Chinese people can’t say the letter R. But Chinese babies adopted by western parents have no difficulty saying the letter R. So, it is not genetic. It is a question of learning, of modeling, hearing, and observing. Once again, Chinese babies adopted by western parents will listen for at least a year and a half before they start talking.


Thai is a tonal language, which means, changing the tone of a word completely changes the meaning. I asked a taxi driver to park the car, and instead, he kissed me. I felt flattered till I found out the difference between the word kiss and the word park was just a matter of tone. The next problem with learning Thai is that Thai has at least three times as many vowels, both long and short, as English. Once again, a small mistake in vowel choice can be disastrous. It can mean the difference between riding a horse and stepping in dog pooh.


Hearing a word once or twice won’t help you to pronounce it correctly. You need to hear it in context and in some memorable and meaningful way, many times before you can remember it.


When I was a young lad in school, we had to make sentences with vocabulary words and memorize them. This was completely meaningless. As a result, of thousands of big words we were forced to “learn” at school very few of them became part of our English vocabulary.


Children learn the words they need, when they are ready to learn them. If you have a two or three year old at home, you have no way of predicting what they will learn on a given day. The child will decide. ALG allows adults to learn the same way. What one students learns on a given day may vary dramatically from what another student learns. But they are both learning.


The ALG Thai program lasts about 2,000 hours. Classes begin early in the morning and continue till late in the evening. Students can come and listen as many or as few hours as they like. Some students try to do two hours per day, others do six or seven. The program is perfect for busy people. As a travel writer I am constantly leaving Bangkok for periods of weeks or even months. When I come back, I simply walk back into the classroom and start learning again. Students are even encouraged to take breaks of several weeks to give their brain time to process what they have learned. Often, after a break of several weeks, a student finds his listening ability has improved.


Why are skeptics so resistant to a method that requires them to listen, without speaking?


“There are pride issues involved.” Explains David Long. “People want to speak and get positive reinforcement. If you say anything at all in Thai, Thai people will say to you, oh, your Thai is so good. Even if they have no idea what you said.”


Another common criticism of ALG is that it is 100% teacher centered. But looked at from another way, having a leaner centered classroom is also the wrong model because we are focusing on the ones who don’t know the language instead of focusing on the experts, the teachers.


David Long feels ALG is learner centered. “Our way is learner centered because students decide what they will learn on a given day.”


A professor of mine, at University of Mainz, told me, “I can’t sit down with my four year old and say, ok today honey we will learn the third conditional.” The child will just pick up the language, because the child has a constant perfect model.


My sister took her four year old to the Bronx Zoo to see the lion. While the tour guide was explaining about the eating and sleeping habits of the massive cats, my niece turned to my sister and asked, “Mommy, how do they make a web like that?”


“Lions don’t make webs.” My sister answered, a bit perplexed.


“Not the lion!” exclaimed my niece. “I mean the spider.”


My sister looked where the little girl was pointing, and sure enough, there was a spider, building a web in the corner of the lion’s cage. The adults had planned a lesson about lions, but the child chose to learn about spiders.


Should this be called a failed lesson? In a traditional classroom, this would be considered a failure, because the daily learning objective was not met. In an ALG classroom, the day would be considered a success, because the student had learned something useful, even if it wasn’t the intended lesson. At the end of the day, a teacher’s intent is not important. The purpose of education is for a student to learn. If the student learns, the education is successful.


David expanded on Dr. Brown’s work and created a concept called Cross Talk. In the cross talk seminars, two people, who do not share a common language, are paired up and taught to communicate with one another. By the end of the first session, they usually come away knowing each other’s life story.


“In Crosstalk, you can have genuinely interesting conversations with native speakers because you are concentrating on the content and meaning rather than the language. The communication becomes the focus not the language. We need to do the same in language teaching.”


If you do your homework while you are watching a movie and cooking diner your grades will be lower and your comprehension of the movie will be lower. If we divide our attention, we under perform. The same is true of a language learner trying to have a conversation in a new language. If he concentrates on language as well as content, syntax, pronunciation, and meaning…the outcome will be poor communication, and enjoyment will be zero.


Enjoyment, meaningful, experience, fun, freedom these all sound like appealing aspects of the ALG program. From hard linguistic standpoint, the idea of listening, not speaking, being the key to learning definitely makes sense. Anyone who has tried to learn an Asian language, especially Thai, knows the frustration of saying all of the words, but no one seems to understand you. Listening more and speaking less may make the difference.


Contact David Long:


Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” The Pilot episode, shot in the Philippines, is running on youtube, click here.  The Monk From Brooklyn – Kuntaw in the Phillipines Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him see his website