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The International Writers Magazine: Learning Languages

Learning Languages in Your Pajamas, Eating Captain Crunch
The Core Novel Method
Antonio Graceffo

It was a Saturday morning, and I did what I had done every Saturdays since I could remember. I got up early, put on my favorite sweatpants, I had outgrown my Batman pajamas, made myself a huge bowl of Captain Crunch, which I had bought at the PX of the nearby US Army base. I went into the TV room of our dormitory, and I spent the next several hours watching cartoons: “Die Retter Der Erde”, “Die Simpsons”, and “Die Familie Feuerstein.”

Around twelve o’clock, I ran back to my room, during a commercial, and made a stack of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, with the crusts cut off. Accompanied by a glass of chocolate milk I ate my sandwiches while watching shows for big people, like “Raumschiff Enterprise”, “Ein Käfig voller Helden”, and “Unbekannte Dimensionen.”
I watched till I thought my retinas would burnout. It was a struggle, but I knew this was the price I would have to pay if I wanted to learn German.
After only nine months of German language study in the US, I had earned a place as an exchange student at the Department of Applied Linguistics, University of Mainz, located in Germersheim, Germany.
Of the roughly 2,300 students, about 20% were foreign, that is non-German. We all had to chose a three language combination and majored in either translation or interpretation. To even be admitted to the program, Germans had to demonstrate competence in English and French, as well as German, regardless of which language combination they planned to study. So, in some cases, students passed the French and English entrance requirements but then studied Russian and Dutch, giving them five languages. Foreign students had to pass the PNDS, which is the German equivalent of the TOEFL or IELTS, a difficult exam which proves a foreign speaker’s competence in German.
In short, my classmates were the absolute cream of the crop. As a rule, the poorer the country they came from, the more competent they were, because they were required to jump through more hoops to get there. Many of the Africans and Eastern Europeans had already graduated, in some cases they already possessed a PHD in their home country, but came to Germany to obtain a degree which would be accepted everywhere.
In my case, as an exchange student, I skipped all of those entrance requirements. At the end of my exchange semester, when it came to time to register for the next semesters classes, I was already in, so, I registered as a regular student. By exploiting this loophole, I stayed at the university for nearly four years without ever having passed a single entrance requirement.
Needless to say, with only nine months of German, I was way behind my classmates. The first day of classes, my head felt like it was splitting. By the third day of attending lectures, I thought I would die. I was doing well to pick out the odd word here and there. There was no way I was going to learn anything by going to more classes. Giving up on school, and consequently on myself, I limped back to the dorm, grabbed some comfort food, and flipped on the TV.
I was watching “Feivel, der Mauswanderer,” a Disney film with the original title of, “An American Tail.” Feivel was the mouse’s name in English. Maus was mouse, but why wanderer? Then it hit me, the German word for immigrant is Auswanderer. So, mouse wander was a cute play on words, meaning the” mouse immigrant.”
I thought that was pretty cute, so I kept watching. Before I knew it, night had come, and I was still glued to the TV. I wasn’t understanding everything, in fact, I probably understood less than 20%, but I knew that I was learning. So, the next morning, instead of going back to the university, the site of my defeat, I stayed home and watched TV. I set up a rigid schedule for myself of watching TV and working out (to burn off the Captain Crunch) and I stuck to it. Over the next several weeks, I saw my listening and speaking grow by leaps and bounds.
Occasionally German students would come in the TV room and criticized me for watching so much TV.
 “Be quiet!” I yelled. “I am studying.”
One day, taking a break from my dedicated TV viewing, I walked into a bookstore. Germans are prodigious readers, and they have some of the best bookstores in the world. I stood in the center of the shop, looking at all of those wonderful books on the shelves, thinking, someday, I will be able to walk into this shop, take any book of the shelf, and read it. At the moment, however, it seemed an impossible dream. While I was standing there, one book caught my eye, “Der mit dem Wolf tanzt,” (Dances with Wolves). I don’t know why I was so drawn to the book, but I used some of my food money to buy it.
I took it back to the dorm and it took me a whole day to read about three pages, using a dictionary. This really ate into my TV time, so I abandoned the dictionary and just made a new schedule of reading for so many hours, without looking anything up, and watching TV for so many hours.
Once again, the same Germans who had seen me limp out of the university with my tail between my legs asked, “Do you understand everything in that book?”
 “No,” I answered, without hesitation, “But I will the fifth time I read it.”
 “That book is not so serious.” Said one of the countless German girls named Sabina. “Don’t you think you should be reading technical texts about linguistics?”
 “If I can’t understand a book with a picture of Indians fighting on the cover, how am I going to understand a technical book?” I countered.
 “Don’t you think you should read German literature, by German authors?”
 “I don’t even understand German literature when it has been translated into English. I will stick with my novelized movie book.”
 “But that was written for housewives!” shouted Sabina.
 “GERMAN housewives? ” I pointed out. And at that point, I would have been satisfied with being able to read as well as a German housewife.
Reading “Dances With Wolves,” instead of a “real” German novel made sense to me. I knew the story, the context, the history, it was all tangible for me. Only the language was new. And that was what I sought to learn. It made perfect sense to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but my TV viewing and my novel reading, without a dictionary were part of a language acquisition method called “The Core Novel method.” Developed by a brilliant Hungarian polyglot, named Kato Lombo.
 Lomb Kato (her personal name) was considered, by Hungarians, to be the greatest living polyglot implemented the “core Novel method. Basically she chose a novel she loved to read, found a copy in the foreign language she wanted to learn, and worked through it. Dr. Lombo said that when she set out to chose a language and a novel, she asked these questions: “How much am I interested in it? What do I want with it? What does it mean for me? What good is it for me?”
It just seems so incredibly sensible to me that Dr. Lombo was essentially saying, allow the learner to chose a language and study materials that have meaning for him or her. And to chose those stories that he was interested in. I liked the story of “Dances with Wolves.” I related to the main character, who is living in another culture, so different from his own. Quite often, in Germany, I considered writing a book, entitled “Dances with Translators.”  
I cared what happened on the next page and I wanted to learn the language, simply because I wanted to read faster.
Interestingly, Dr. Lombo also suggested not using a dictionary while reading this foreign book. If there was a word or phrase, which repeated and was clearly pivotal to understanding the book, but you haven’t figured it out by the fourth or fifth viewing, then you could reach for a dictionary. But, from my own experience, using the dictionary, the story had no joy, no relevance, and no flow. I could neither follow nor remember the story. Once I abandoned the dictionary I found the story flowed. I just read and read. Where I understood, great, where I didn’t understand, also great. Words and phrases that made no sense on page twenty came to life on page eighty.
My next book was “The Body Guard, then “Dracula.” Next, I was in France at a street market and saw a very compelling book about a kid growing up in war time Germany. My French reading level was quite bad, but so strong was my desire to read the book that I bought it anyway. Upon returning to Germany I brought the book to a book shop where they helped me find the German language version. It was the fourth book I read in German and the first where I had no idea of the story before reading. 
In addition to reading, I kept up with my TV watching. In Germany, TV is dubbed. Unlike terrible dubbing employed in the old Russia, where a single guy reads all of the parts, they have excellent, professional-quality dubbing in Germany. Famous American stars, such as Robert Deniro or Arnold Schwarzeneger, had their own official dubber. So, from movie to movie, their voices remained the same. I would watch “The God Father,” “Simpsons,” “Star Trek,” anything I enjoyed watching I watched again in German. German students would come in the TV room and ask me “Did you understand all of that.”
“You shouldn’t watch that.”
‘Why, are you going to ship me off to a camp?’ Sometimes I actually said things like this as a way of getting Germans to leave me alone. Sometimes, I felt like practicing my speaking, so I continued the argument. It was like a free German conversation lesson, the cost of which was a little anger.
“Aren’t you worried that you don’t understand everything?” asked the German.
“Why? Do we have a test?”
“You shouldn’t be watching TV and reading things you don’t understand.”
“But if I only read things I understand, I won’t learn anything. Besides, it would be really boring because I would only be reading children’s books.”
“But “The Simpsons” is a cartoon. Cartoons are for children.”
“Don’t say, that!” Like all delusional people, I became aggressive when my delusions were challenged. “The Simpsons” is more than a cartoon. It is a way of life.”
A huge advantage of reading novels or watching TV is that you get relatively real dialogue. Yes, we don’t all speak exactly like Clint Eastwood in “'Ein Mann Sieht Rot”, but none of us speak the way people do in dialogue 23 of the average language textbook. Why do all language textbooks have dialogues about renting hotel rooms or going to market and buying vegetables? These aren’t discussions I would ever have with a native speaker. These are things I just don’t do all of that often. But watching “The Godfather” I learned all of the vocabulary necessary to live as a Mafia don. This is something I have aspired to for years anyway. And now, I am qualified to do the job in two languages.
Fast forward more years than I care to count, and I am in Taiwan, studying Chinese. My Taiwanese friends, the ones who are dedicated students of English constantly read books about English language: books on idioms or gender biases in grammar exercises…. They never just sit down and read a book. As a native speaker, you have most likely never sat down and read an entire book about the English language. But you have probably read, enjoyed and learned from literature written in english.
In school curriculums, language learners, if they read literature at all, are subjected to Mark Twain, “Charlotte’s Web,” and often Shakespeare. These are terrible choices for people who want to learn language. Mark Twain is brilliant, but the dialect makes it hard for low-level learners to read. Do we really want a bunch of Taiwanese kids talking like Riverboat Jim? Shakespeare is the least logical thing to have kids read in a first language classroom. Why on earth would we make them read it in an English learning environment? Kids in Taiwan love baseball. Why not have them read a biography of Babe Ruth?
In my English language classroom I show the kids videos, such as “Mulan” and “Kung Fu Panda.” The context is Chinese, and the stories are familiar. Mulan, for example is an ancient Chinese legend, which the kids had all read in Chinese, before seeing the Disney movie. For myself, I use these and other Disney cartoons to practice Chinese listening. Disney DVD are equipped with a language switch, so you can choose English or Chinese, complete with same language subtitles.
Reading real German books or watching real German TV would require knowledge of the culture, history, and geography. By using American movies and books, I knew who the bad guy was without anyone telling me. In German I wouldn’y have a clue. For example when I was in Spain, parents were telling me they didn’t let their kids watch the Bill Cosby show because the children were disrespectful toward their parents. This was amazing because in the States, Cosby was considered a family show, which parents encouraged kids to watch.
When Germans saw “Rocky One” they said things like, “But he did not win. So he is not good.” They missed the point entirely. As I imagined I would miss the point entirely in a German movie I stuck with what I knew.
I once tried watching a Chinese movie, and when I asked who the bad guy was, the Chinese all looked at me like I was nuts. “Didn’t you see the opening scene? General Tsao walked in backwards. Clearly he was in defeat.”
 Of course! How could I have failed to pick up on that culturally universal reference?
Eventually, to truly know a language, you will also need to master the culture. So I would eventually have to start watching German, or now, Chinese movies, but one thing at a time.
Now that I am in Taiwan, learning Chinese, there is absolutely no way that I foresee myself changing my tastes and desires to a point that I would enjoy or even understand Taiwanese TV shows. The culture is just so vastly different. For this reason, to do my listening practice I watch Disney movies such as “Mulan” or “The Incredibles,” which have been dubbed into Chinese. This type of viewing, and the corresponding reading, is a good way to get started, but obviously it has its pitfalls as well.
An American guy in Taiwan, call him Richard, chose not to learn Chinese characters. Instead, he mastered the reading of Bu Pu Mu Fu, a phonetic script used for teaching reading to Chinese children. We all learn it, as we are learning Chinese. The thought is, however, that you would eventually transition into learning real Chinese characters. Richard, like many foreigners, decided characters were just too hard. So, he reads books in Bu Pu Mu Fu as a way of improving his general Chinese fluency. The problem, however is that only children’s books are written in this alphabet.
 “Now, I am as fluent as a five year old.” Richard told me. “I don’t know how to move forward.”
The answer seems to be that no what language you wish to be fluent at, you will eventually need to learn the writing system and read original literature targeted at college educated adults, if you wish to be as clever in your foreign language as a college educated adult. And that means a lot of work, no matter what language you are dealing with.
 Fortunately for me, I am not at that point yet in Chinese. So, I can just watch Cartoon Network, and let the learning seep in.
Proceed to Part Two

The Trials of Learning a Dominant Language Or, The Trials of the Dominant Language Learner
Antonio Graceffo

Why is it that foreigners (non-native English speakers) can speak the worst (or most creative) English imaginable, and we, native-speakers, understand them, but although you’ve studied French or Thai for fifty years, only people who really love you understand what you are saying?
Linguists define dominant languages as: a set of very unforgiving languages, which demand that learners speak perfectly. With dominant languages, it’s my way or the highway.
In this sense, French and Thai are dominant languages. English and Italian are not. You are free to speak English as badly as you desire. And as for Italian, if you speak any at all, Italians are happy to chat with you.
Sociologists would definition a dominant language as, a majority language which pushes out or drives minority languages to extinction. The example would be the way English replaced Native American or Hawaiian languages in the US, or the way Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer, or any number of other official languages stomped out the local tribal languages. In some countries, the “dominant” or official language was imported, such as in Taiwan, or it was an artificial language, such as Filipino, which was constructed for the purpose of standardizing communication between the many language groups in the country. In countries such as Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, and Philippines, nearly all classes at university are taught in English. So, these countries would appear on the second list, as countries of “high English use,” regardless of the political choice to list or not list English as an official language.
By this second definition, English would probably qualify as the most dominant language on the planet. According to Wikipedia, there are 25 countries which use English as their official language. But, when we extend the definition to include countries where English is the second official language, or is widely spoken, such as Philippines or Singapore, the list grows to over 100 countries. Disclaimer: I am using the word “country” very loosely. Some of these “countries” may only qualify as nations or territories. Puerto Rico and American Samoa were counted separately from the USA. Hong Kong was count ed separately from China.
The second list also becomes more problematic because it is arguable if Creole and pigeon count as English.
However you count countries and English usage, more than one hundred countries is a lot. Most bodies who give recognition to countries agree that there are less than 200 countries in the world. The UN recognizes 192 and the US recognizes 194. So, nearly half the countries have English as either a first, second or official language for business or education.
Does this evidence prove that English is a linguistically dominant language? No. In fact, the wide use of English and the large number of dialects, for example Singapore, Scotland, Nigeria and Arkansas: demonstrates how non-dominant English is. English, while being one of the more complex languages in the world, is also one of the most malleable and most forgiving to learners or non-traditional native speakers.
Take any kid growing up in London or New York and ask him to imitate a French guy speaking English or a Chinese, German, or Indian accent, and he could do it. Being an urban, native speaker of English you have grown up hearing recent immigrants speaking your language your whole life, and yet you understand them.
Ask a Chinese teacher to tell you which problems a French native speaker has vs. a German native speaker, and they couldn’t tell you. If they did give you an answer, it would be based on a sampling of one, instead of a sampling of hundreds. Ask an ESL teacher in a summer ESL intensive program in England or Australia, what problems Japanese learners face vs. Germans, and they could talk all day. Even if they hadn’t made the observations themselves, the information would be readily available on the internet.
The countries which are considered as the major English speaking countries, those countries who nationals are granted teaching visas by most Asian governments, include: England, USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. (Most of the legislation doesn’t specifically cite the Republic of Ireland, but Irish national are also granted native-speaker visas and considered by all to be standard native speakers.)
In addition to being countries whose native tongue is English, one more similarity between these countries is that they are countries of high immigration. According to The Ellis Island Foundation, who compile current and historic data on immigration, 60% of New Yorkers are themselves immigrants or the children of immigrants.
What this means, in terms of English language usage is, most of us grew up hearing non-native speakers speaking English our whole lives. From my personal experience, when my family moved to Tennessee, one of the first things I noticed was that all of my new school friends had parents and grandparents who spoke English. In New York, we just sort of accepted that we couldn’t talk to our friends’ grandparents, because they all spoke another language.
How does the concept of linguistic dominance effect the language learner?
First off, it has been said that English is one of the hardest languages to learn. On some easily measured parameters, this is true. English has an extremely difficult grammar and the single largest vocabulary of any language on the planet. Fifteen years ago, a statistic came out which said that American English had hit the million word mark. Today, it must be even larger.
These two facts would suggest that English is hard to learn. Chinese, for example, has very little grammar, and a vocabulary of composed syllables, meaning once learn all of the base root words, the rest are more or less just combinations. But, because of the social dominance of English, there are very few people on the planet who aren’t exposed to some English, everyday of their lives.
Every computer user, every movie goer, every business or technology student, and most pop music enthusiasts, world wide, are exposed to English.
Before moving to Taiwan and studying Chinese, how much Chinese was the average westerner exposed to? For most of us the answer is zero. You can ask a Korean, a Chinese, a Russian…about Harrison Ford, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Schrek and they would know who that was.
And nearly every educated person in the world can read the Latin alphabet. Even in China, one of the largest countries in the world which uses a different writing system, the Latin alphabet is used to teach Chinese children how to pronounce Chinese characters. The Latin alphabet is also used for alphabetical order, since Chinese lacks the concept of alphabetical order. In reading a history of China, I discovered that the reason librarians were monks, was not only because they could read, but also because librarians to be people who would never marry, and just remain inside of the library their whole lives. This was necessary because the librarians committed to memory the location of every book in the library.
Do speakers of dominant languages find it more difficult to learn new languages?
In the case of English native speakers, the constant availability of English language movies, TV, newspaper and books, takes away the impetus to learn a foreign language. In my own case, I find that during periods of heavy foreign language study, I fall behind in my knowledge of world affairs, because I stop watching CNN. In Germany, I knew that learning German would make German books and libraries open to me, and I could gain all sorts of additional knowledge, apart from the language. In countries such as Thailand or Cambodia, the quantity and quality of the information available, the information waiting for me once I master the language, is extremely poor.
You could live a lifetime, watching Deutsche Welle TV news, and stay on top of world affairs. But watching Khmer or Thai news, wouldn’t be particularly enlightening.
Another issue with speaking, THE dominant language, is that everyone, in everyone country wants to practice English with you, robbing you of any opportunity or necessity to learn the local language.
Perhaps worse than English native speakers, French and Thai speakers seem to be terrible language learners, on the whole. When I lived in Cambodia, however, I found that among the foreign community, the French tended to be better Khmer speakers. Khmers and French attributed this to the shared history between the two countries, Cambodia used to be a French colony. Some French attributed this to the fact that Americans are stupid.
One night, at a party, I noticed that the Germans, Russians, Spanish, Malaysians, Indonesians, Americans, Australians and every other nationality of foreigners huddled in small groups, speaking English to one another. The French sat apart, speaking French. An Italian friend of mine, had been taking English lessons in Phnom Penh and was struggling to communicate with the other foreigners. What I later surmised was that, like my Italian friend, upon arriving in Cambodia, a Frenchman, whose English was notoriously poor, was hit with a choice, improve his English, or learn Khmer. A higher percentage of the French chose to learn Khmer. It made sense. We were, after all in Cambodia, so it made sense to learn Khmer in order to talk to Khmers. English was less important to them, since they would mainly socialize with other French.
With the one exception of French in Cambodia, in general, my experience has been that French and Thais are terrible language learners.
If you talk to international ESL teachers, or the Thai teachers in Bangkok, where I studied, they would all agree that Koreans and Japanese are also terrible language learners. But with Koreans and Japanese, the problem may be more cultural than linguistic.
The Chinese culture countries: China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea are countries whose culture does not promote individuality, and where making a mistake, even in a foreign language, is unforgivable. Loosing face is the single most motivating factor in their behavior. These are cultural issues which could hamper one’s ability to learn a foreign language.
Interestingly, the major English speaking countries are countries where risk taking and individuality are encouraged. This is a major aid in learning a foreign language. What may prevent some English native speakers from moving from interpersonal fluency to actual academic fluency is a belief that “good enough, is good enough.” We grew up hearing people speak “bad” English. So, we don’t understand why it’s not Ok for us to speak “bad” Thai or Chinese.
So many English native speakers approach Asian languages saying, “don’t bog me down with grammar and details. Just give me nouns and verbs, and I can communicate.”
David Long, head of the Thai program at AUA Bangkok had this to say about the cultural vs. linguistic challenges to language learning.
“To me this is a very interesting question. As we know we can't really separate culture from language, perhaps language with culture makes it easier. Would this suggest that it would be more difficult for speakers of dominant cultures to learn foreign cultures because of...'  I think that the two examples of this that come to my mind may help provide an answer.”
“ The US and Japan: In the US and Japan we find the general populace with some of the worst second language ability (I don't have any research on this so perhaps my impressions are not correct here?) of any people on earth! Why? Is it not that because for so long they've been on the 'top' as it were, they felt that they were the best - so there has been no real incentive for them to learn a second language.”
“Though we might look for linguistic reasons, my gut tells me that it's a social mechanism at work here.’
In his ALG writing and lecturing, David Long often states that culture, rather than linguistics is at the core of language acquisition.
The conclusion I can draw is that cultural dominance is perhaps a more important factor in language learning than is linguistic dominance. Yes, it’s hard for English native speakers to master Thai or French, but it is also hard for them to master Chinese, which is not nearly as demanding. It is hard for Thai to learn English, possibly because they are coming from a linguistically dominant background, but Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese have difficulty learning English simply because they are afraid to make mistakes.
And as for the French? I don’t know what I can say about the French, which they haven’t already said about themselves. But If the Japanese hadn’t bombed Pearl Harbor, the French would possibly be speaking German, and thus easier to communicate with and to teach.

© Antonio Graceffo November 2008 

Antonio Garceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, is available at See his videos on youtube.
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