In this exclusive interview with Antonio Graceffo, he “pulls no punches” (pun intended) when sharing his views on how to learn a foreign language effectively. His language learning wisdom stems from formal training as an interpreter and translator at Germany’s prestigious University of Mainz, coupled with over a decade of living, learning, and working in South and East Asia.
Antonio speaks numerous languages (French, German, Italian, Khmer, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Thai and Vietnamese), and has used his language skills to good ends. On top of a stunning trail of articles and books, Antonio continues to fight the human rights atrocities in Burma.
If you read any of Antonio’s books, you will quickly realize that Antonio’s passions are cut into two equal parts: language learning and training in the martial arts. In fact, many people know him not as Antonio, but rather “The Monk From Brooklyn”. This nickname, and his first book, sprout from his experience training at the Shaolin Temple in Mainland China. He then went on to learn Muay Thai in Thailand, Bokator in Cambodia, Lai Tai in Burma, and Silat Kalam in Malaysia.
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John Fotheringham: [0:16] This is the Foreign Language Mastery Podcast. I’m your host, John Fotheringham. In today’s show, I interview adventure writer, linguist, and martial artist Antonio Graceffo. [0:38] Antonio is the author of several books, including ‘The Monk from Brooklyn’, ‘Adventures in Formosa’, and ‘Rediscovering the Khmers’. He has also been featured in Black Belt Magazine, and is the creator of the Web TV show ‑ Martial Arts Odyssey. For a transcript and show notes, please go to www.languagemastery.com.
Antonio Graceffo: [1:03] One of the first questions people always ask me is ‑ “Antonio, are there any tricks in learning foreign languages?” The trick to learn foreign languages is the same as the trick to learning martial art ‑ you have to just train really, really, really hard all the time; work hard; and study all the time. When I’m doing Chinese, I do five hours a day of sitting and writing characters. [1:26] When I did German, I did literally 18 hours a day of reading novels. I used the Core Novel Method. I read novels in German, but they were ones that I had already read in English, or I already knew the story in English. I remember one of my first ones were ‑ Der mit dem Wolf tanzt, Dances with Wolves, Dracula, The Bodyguard ‑ the Kevin Costner movie.
[1:39] I read that in German, because I already know the story. You don’t use a dictionary; you just plow through. Whatever you don’t understand, you just let it go and you’ll understand it next time it comes around, or the time after that, or the time after that.
[1:57] The Core Novel Method is brilliant for building your ability to communicate and function in a foreign language. It doesn’t necessarily build a good translator, the problem being that you reach a point where you completely understood what was said. But you can’t translate it because those synapses were never developed in your brain.
[2:13] That jump from a foreign language to your native tongue… didn’t happen. Instead, you developed two native tongues. Of course, you’ll never reach native speaker fluency in your foreign language, but basically it functions like a native tongue and you will actually have trouble relating it back to your native tongue.
[2:29] I also watched movies constantly in German; I watched all my favorite TV shows. I loved Star Trek, I loved Simpsons. I watched it in German and that helped me learn German. [music]
[2:42] A lot of people think, they’ll go hang out with their Chinese friends and they’re somehow learning Chinese by osmosis. You know, an hour spending time with your friends is equal to about three minutes of study. You sit down with your book; you’re studying very specific vocabulary.
[3:04] That vocabulary is then reflected in your grammar exercises, it’s reflected in your speaking exercises, it’s reflected in your listening exercises and by the time you get through the chapter that you’ve used each word 25,000 times. When you go hang out with your friends; they’re talking about a million things. They may not come to the same topic twice, may not come to it quickly enough and you’ll lose it before they come back to it.
[3:18] You’re just not learning as fast. There are so many people that are proud of the fact that, “I am among the people, I go out and hang out with Chinese people I have Chinese friends.” OK, you do that for a year, I’m going to study for a year and we’ll compare at the end of the year.
[3:41] There’s actually a linguistic theory which is called “Listening to Chinese Radio.” The theory says that if you were locked in a jail cell for 20 years in isolation with a Chinese radio going 20 to 24 hours a day for 20 years and you’re listening to the radio; and when you came out of the cell you still wouldn’t be able to speak Chinese. It’s because, you would have no reference for what any of those words meant.
[4:01] You couldn’t even begin to learn them and your brain would very quickly ‑ in two to three minutes ‑ would learn just to tune it out. I see it with myself; my whole life growing up in New York I was exposed to Chinese characters. There are so many Chinese characters on any given street in New York City and you just learn to block them out.
[4:10] If you ask a New Yorker if there are Chinese characters on the street they were from; they would say ‑ “no, of course not, this is America, we don’t write in Chinese.” Then you walk down the street… oh, there’re Chinese characters.
[4:25] You’ve blocked them out. I find myself doing that here. Someone will hand me a menu and, in Chinese, I’ll say, “Oh I’m sorry, can you just read the menu to me please? I can’t read Chinese.” And then I’m like, “I know how to read Chinese, gimme that!” You read it and you understand it but you’ve just blocked it out your whole life.
[4:40] We want to avoid blocking out behaviors; and we want to avoid study methods that create blocking out behaviors. One of the fastest ways to create blocking out behaviors is to hang out with big groups of Chinese people singing karaoke and drinking beer.
[4:58] They’re talking a mile a minute; you listen intently for a second and then your brain gets tired and you tune them out and then you just get used to tuning them out. And then even when they say something that you know or that you understand, you’ve already tuned them out. You don’t hear it. [music]
[5:20] The other thing that people ask me about is tones. I am completely unaware of tones. Even though I am using them, I am unaware of it. I can’t hear them, I can’t identify them. People tend to understand me when I’m talking; so I have to guess that I am using tones subconsciously, but I’m unaware of it and I don’t hear it.
[5:45] So a defense strategy is growing up as a multilingual kid, you never had a full set of vocabulary in a foreign language. For example, I was in a hospital in China and I wanted to tell the doctor I was dehydrated, and I didn’t know the Chinese word so I said, “Last night, I went to the toilet 20 times and now there’s no water in my body.” All right; so I described it.
[6:09] And you’ve learned to just describe things as a defense mechanism. When I use a word that I know could easily be confused because of my lack of tones, I contextualize the full sentence where the answer would be appropriate to just a single word. I want to make sure they understand it, and that’s a defense mechanism.
[6:27] That’s a good strategy for survival; but it’s not a good strategy for learning. Remember! With learning you want to keep growing and doing it correctly. The problem is, if you’re constantly around Chinese people speaking and conversing and surviving, you’re never going to be developing the appropriate vocabulary and appropriate skills.
[6:32] Then you go home and congratulate yourself and say, “Wow, I talked to Chinese people for three hours tonight! I must be great!”
[6:53] They know you’re not great; you tuned out 70 percent of what they said. For everything you said; you controlled and you described instead of using the appropriate vocabulary. For people who don’t have a lot of Chinese friends, who do this infrequently, there’s the added thing that they had the same conversation 27 times.
[7:07] It’s not a conversation, it’s ‑ “where do you come from, how many brothers and sisters do you have, where do you work, what color is your pencil.” It’s a set of questions that they always ask you and you know how to answer it in Chinese. That’s not a conversation.
[7:24] My German professor used to call that “Me Want Cookie Syndrome,” which is ‑ if you say, “me want cookie,” people know what you want and they’ll give you a cookie, but it doesn’t mean you’re saying it correctly. [music]
[7:44] If you’re familiar with ESL language teaching, the study of linguistics, the study of learning, you’ll know that there are a lot of factors going toward whether or not a student learns. One of the most powerful forces, if not THE most powerful force is ‑ volition! Motivation!
[8:02] Does the student want to learn? People ask me, “Well, I don’t want to spend five hours a day. What can I do?” Let’s say, a baby is awake eight hours a day and they’re getting all this constant input because you’re interacting with the baby; constantly talking to the baby because you don’t generally leave a baby alone.
[8:21] Eight hours a day for two years! That works out to 2000 hours of listening or whatever it is. That’s what it takes to learn your native tongue. How are you going to learn Chinese? How are you going to learn German? It’s a hard language. How are you going to learn that if you don’t put in eight hours a day every day for two years?
[8:40] My goal was ‑ I’ll put in five hours a day every day for four years, and that will also work. Two hours a week, well you can figure that out… You’re putting in two hours a week, three or four hours a week. You’re doing that less than a week and I do it in a day, so times seven it’s going to be four years. It’s going to take you 28.
[8:59] Except it doesn’t really work that way because one of the things about input is not only do we have to have the input, the right amount of input, it has to have timing. In other words, if we have input today and we don’t have input again for another week, there’s a high probability you’re starting from zero again. It takes maybe, just a week to forget everything.
[9:09] It has to be reinforced every day. The secret again is that you have to put in the hours, you have to do it, and you have to be constant every minute.
[9:26] One of the big things I know about my martial arts and one of the things I know about my business when I worked on Wall Street… also with my language, is that I’m constantly rehearsing and listening in my head. My writing, too! People say, “How do you sit down and write a book?”
[9:39] I once wrote a whole book in a weekend. On a Thursday a publisher contacted me and said, “Do you have a book about blah, blah, blah?” I said “yes, I do.” It was a lie. I sat down and I wrote it. It was over Easter weekend last year in the Philippines.
[10:02] It was Thursday when I got the assignment. By Monday or Tuesday I had finished the book, sent them the book. For eight years, I’m writing this book in my head, and I sat down and put it on paper. That’s what you need to do with your language. You’re rehearsing it, practicing it, and reviewing it in your head. [music]
[10:22] People ask about losing motivation. Yeah, in the first couple of weeks I really enjoy learning, and then my interest petered off or you know how do I keep that going? With me, with weight loss, I say to myself, “Look, I want to eat a big cake right now.”
[10:52] I would love to eat a big cake right now. I would enjoy eat a big cake right now… but I’d also hate being fat. I would hate being called fat, and I hate having to feel that I can’t take my shirt off or be in front of people, so that motivates me. The pain of being fat is worse than the pain of not eating that cake. I hate being exposed to Chinese people when they’re speaking and I can’t understand them and they ask me something or tell me something and I don’t understand, or when I want to express myself and I can’t do it. I hate that feeling.
[11:22] That feeling burns, and that hurts. Studying for the extra hour and the extra five hours doesn’t hurt anywhere nearly as badly as that. You just have to remind yourself what the negative consequences are going to be, if you don’t learn it. When you come to Asia to teach and you’ve been here two or three years, you reach a point where you know you have to go home and try and find a job in the States. What are you qualified to do?
[11:40] You’ve been teaching kids at a bushiban. You’re not going to be teaching kids in a bushiban in the States. Most people go home because they don’t want to teach anymore anyway. So what are you going to do when you get there? In any job you apply for; the first thing that’s going to come out of their mouth will be, “you spent seven years in China; do you speak Chinese?”
[11:59] That could be the only viable skill that you’re going to acquire here, that you’re going to take home with you. Otherwise, you’re just going to be a really interesting guy that works at Starbucks; or you’re going to be a really disgruntled temp at a company somewhere making copies. “Yeah, I used to live in China,” you know, and you’re making photocopies!
[12:16] That’s another reason to learn Chinese. Think about the pain of not being able to pay your rent or think about the pain of not being able to pay your car insurance when you go home. If you’re a Chinese translator and you’re qualified, you can earn 100 dollars an hour.
[12:28] 100 dollars an hour is pretty good. That’s a pretty decent salary. Right now we’re working for less than 100 dollars a day, most of us. You can earn in one hour as a Chinese translator in the States what you earn here for a whole day as a teacher. That could motivate you.
[12:45] For the rest of your life, no matter what happens, you go home and you get a wonderful job. You become Senator of Michigan. You’re going to be the guy who lived in Taiwan and the first question people ask you will be “Do you speak Chinese?”
[12:59] You’re going to give them that crap answer that everybody gives “Well you know, when I was there I spoke it and yeah, I could get around.” I’m like… you don’t speak Chinese, you never spoke Chinese, and you don’t know how to speak Chinese.
[13:08] So, why don’t you learn Chinese? Don’t accept from yourself, “me want cookie” [music]
John: [13:13] For more foreign language learning tips, tools, and techniques, go to www.languagemastery.com…More Series for You: