International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Learning a Language
Your Foreign Language
You Gotta Learn it to Say It
that I am a teacher, I understand what the nuns were saying back
in grade school. They were saying, Children learn by listening,
not by speaking. But I couldnt here them, because I
was too busy talking. Actually, I was imitating The Fonz from the
Happy Days, TV show. While I was saying his catch phrases,
Ayyyy! and Woaaaaa, the other kids were
learning useful tidbits of Americana like, what year was Benjamin
Franklin elected president? because I wasnt listening,
I thought the answer was 1789. But actually, the answer was, never.
You see, I should have been listening.
one the world leading linguists, proposed the comprehension hypothesis
(or "input hypothesis") which is a smart-guy way of saying,
you learn by listening and reading, not by speaking and writing.
Speaking is the cream. Its the icing on the cake. In fact, you
dont even need to ever do it, to learn a foreign language. The
learning comes through listening and reading. If you start talking too
early, the danger is that you will speak incorrectly. You will have
grammatical and pronunciation errors which will become fossilized over
a period of time.
Another issue is that many learners use speaking as a defense mechanism.
To try and avoid having a native speaker say something to them that
they dont understand, they dominate the conversation.
Teaching in Taiwan, I see this behavior with many of my Chinese counterpart
English teachers. They are so terrified that I will say something which
makes it obvious that their English is lacking, that they dominate the
conversation. Sometimes I cant even get a word in edgewise, which
could be very frustrating when you are trying to coordinate your teaching
syllabus or explain to someone that they are on fire and need to drop
Another annoying thing that learners will do is laugh at everything
you say. The strategy here is that, if they arent sure what you
said, it may be a joke. And if they were told a joke, but they didnt
laugh, then people would find out that they didnt understand.
So, they just laugh at everything.
Sometimes, to amuse myself, I will sharp-shoot my co-workers by telling
them something tragic, but using vocabulary they couldnt possibly
know. For example, I will say, My mother is demised. She was engulfed
in a raging inferno and had to be euthanized.
That one really breaks them up around the office. Actually, in addition
to the comic value of saying something like this to a co-worker, it
also becomes a sort of honesty test. If they laugh, I know they are
full of rice droppings. But if they say, Sorry, I dont know
several of those words, please restate. Then I know they are honest
and willing to learn.
But this is the smallest number of cases. Normally they just chuckle
and say something like, Yes, paper is sometimes made of rice in
All playful xenophobia aside, the point is, we learn by listening or
reading, input. These learners have demonstrated to me that they have
stopped listening. Someone who chuckles at your comment and walks away,
or quickly changes the subject, has already reached the pinnacle of
their English. They have stopped learning. No matter how many more years
they spend listening, their English will not get any better.
Just in the interest of fairness, I see foreigners do this in Chinese
too. Just today, I saw a café owner ask a foreign customer, Do
you want soy milk or whole milk in your coffee. The foreigner
just smiled, said yes, yes. and then checked his cell phone
We cant reject the input or we stop learning.
As children we listened for years before we started speaking. And yet
when we started speaking, we didnt have a foreign accent. We had
exactly the same accent as the people around us. For better or worse,
I was surrounded by a lot of Italians who spoke English as an eighth
language, although they only spoke two languages. So, my model was imperfect,
but what are you going to do?
Why do our students have imperfect accents in English and why do we
have such terrible accents in Chinese? Obviously because we have spent
very little time listening.
If you think of when you were a child learning to speak, there were
probably times when your mother made you repeat after her to correct
your pronunciation. But, this way of teaching was done for the smallest
minority of words in your mother tongue. Most of your language learning
happened passively, again, from listening and reading. As a child you
were learning without even being aware of it. When you started speaking,
those passive words became active. But you were only able to say them
because they were already in you brain.
The Thai program I attended in Bangkok didnt allow us to speak
at all. We had to listen for ages, learning passively. The theory was
that when we were ready to speak, we would do so, and do so correctly,
without having been taught any words or even grammar. Believe it or
not, the program worked. Now that I am back to studying Chinese in Taiwan,
I am using a similar approach.
I spend hours and hours reading and writing Chinese characters. Everyone
keeps saying to me, Being in Taiwan is a great opportunity to
speak Chinese. Yes, it is. But, we dont learn by speaking.
We learn by listening and reading. So, I study, and study, and study.
The variety of words that I get from study would never be matched by
hanging out with people in a bar. In fact, if you hung out with people
long enough, you would develop a certain vocabulary and then block everything
I know several foreigners who have been here for ten, fifteen, or even
twenty years. Some of them are married to Taiwanese. And yet, after
only a few months of study, I see my Chinese level passing theirs. One
simple, mathematical reason for this is the hours spent. If you hang
out with someone, or even live with your spouse, how many hours per
day are you actually speaking? In a Chinese lesson, one on one, we spend
a solid two hours talking and listening. That is a lot more than many
couples talk to each other each day.
Then, when I sit down to do my homework, I have another three solid
hours of input. No matter who you are living with, they wont be
giving you three hours of input. The input I get from my books is perfect
in that the new words introduced in the vocabulary section are repeated
in the reading and again in the grammar exercises. Slowly, methodically,
my vocabulary, grammar, and usage are growing through repetition. Living
with someone you would also get repetition. And in the short run you
would see your language improve dramatically. But after the initial
spike, you would level off. There are certain phrases or certain topics
that would make up the bulk of domestic conversation. Once you had mastered
those, most of your learning would be done. That is why the foreigner
living in Taiwan for three years maybe be at the same level after five
years or ten years.
But this is not true of people who study.
For the above mentioned reasons, I believe that reading is more important
than listening. But, of course, if you dont practice listening,
you will never have good pronunciation. Whether through listening or
reading, however, if a word is not in your brain, you simply cannot
An American friend of mine, who speaks excellent Chinese, was asked
to give a lecture, in English to the other teachers at his university.
Afterwards, a Chinese co-worker approached him and said, in Chinese,
I didnt understand your lecture. The American said
that this was understandable, and began explaining the lecture in Chinese.
But the Chinese coworker stopped him and asked, Why is it Taiwanese
people miss certain keywords when they are listening to Americans speak?
My American friend was laughing when he told me this story. Its
not that he missed keywords, he missed EVERYTHING. And, rather than
attribute his lack of understanding to his lack of knowledge of English,
he attributed it to his race.
It goes both ways. A Canadian friend told me, I have trouble understanding
the Chinese news on TV, so I need to work on my listening. This
Canadian only has about 500 words of Chinese. His problem is he just
doesnt know enough Chinese to understand. If the problem were
truly listening, then it would mean he could read a transcript of the
news and understand it, but he cant. If the structures arent
there, we just cant hear them.
We put them there by reading and listening.
When I studied in Germersheim, Germany, I met many Eastern Europeans,
Hungarians, Romanians, and Poles, who had never met an English native
speaker or seen an American movie. They had learned everything from
books, and their English was nearly flawless. Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac,
and Ernest Hemingway are by far better models of English than foreign
friends in a bar.
A significant point about those Eastern Europeans vs. the Asians we
encounter living here is that Asians who are dedicated students of English
tend to read a lot of books about English, such as A Million and
One American Idioms, Or An English Learners Guide to Gender
Bias in British Syntax. The European students tended to read literature
and books IN, rather than ABOUT English.
Native speakers dont learn idioms by reading books about idioms.
They learn them by reading books about gardening, hunting, baking, stock
investing, and how-to make hats out of old tires. You also learned idioms
by watching movies about car chases, wars in space, searches for lost
relics, Kazak journalists touring America, and severed hands that crept
along the ground and strangled people.
When I hear the CNN journalist say: The tale of how this woman
overcame every manner of adversity to build her small business into
one of Africas leading corporations is a real Rocky Story.
I understand what he means by Rocky Story, not because I
read it in an idiom book, but because I saw Rocky 29 times.
Reading and listening your whole life put English sounds, vocabulary,
and grammar in your head. When you first started speaking, all you did
was activate them. Again, my own experiment with learning Chinese mirrors
When I do speak Chinese now, I find myself using advanced vocabulary
and grammar that I learned in my books. I had a PTA meeting at school,
and while I was talking to the parents of one of my students, I heard
dialogue 37 come out of my mouth.
One side of me is saying, I have been studying really hard from
books for several months now, I should go into an immersion situation
in China to activate all that I have learned. But the other side
of me, the side I think is correct, is saying, Whether you activate
it now or ten years from now, those structures and that vocabulary will
still be there. But if you keep studying, the longer you wait to activate
it, the more you will have to activate, and the better you will be.
So, my best advice to people who want to learn a foreign language is,
Shut UP and LISTEN or read a book. The choice is up to you.
© Antonio Graceffo February 2009
Contact Antonio: firstname.lastname@example.org
Martial Arts Odyssey: Muay Lao Part 2
Still in Lao, Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo, continues his training
at the national boxing stdium in Vientiane. The coach works with Antonio,
teaching him stand up grappling, kicking, and knees. We also see some
of the leading professional boxers in Lao, and Antonio is amazed at
how hard they can kick, given how small they are.Watch it for free on
Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia.
He is the host Martial Arts Odyssey, a web TV show which
traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various
This episode was edited by Taiwans own, Ohio Jon Dickerson
and features the official Martial Arts Odyssey intro and outro by Andy
A G is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia.
His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, and all of his books, are available
at amazon.com. See his videos on youtube. http://ca.youtube.com/results?search_query=antonio+graceffo&search_type=&aq=f
Please buy many books by Antonio Graceffo, so he can afford to attend
His website is speakingadventure.com
Join him on facebook.com
Lao, the forgotten art of kickboxing
You can gain extra power on your kicks by throwing your kicking
arm down, but you need to protect your face with a cross arm defense.
Explained Adjarn Ngern, at the national kick boxing stadium in Vientiane,
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