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Many people wish to learn a foreign language. Unfortunately, like weight loss, playing the guitar, and earning a black belt in martial arts, mastering a foreign language is one of those dreams that people spend a lot of money on, but somehow never achieve. While the average person struggles to master a single foreign language, polyglots are those insane people who seek to master three or more foreign languages.
Natural talent? Gifted with languages? Ask anyone who ever gave up on learning a foreign language and they will tell you, “I guess I don’t have any natural talent for it.” Most experts will agree that there are people who possess a special talent for languages, just as there are people who are musically gifted. But these people represent less than 1% of the population.
My personal belief is, any person of average intelligence, who is literate in their native tongue, can learn a foreign language. And if you can learn one language, you can learn a hundred.
To find out what makes polyglots tick and learn more about their relationship to languages, I searched YouTube and Facebook for polyglots. I sent them a a questionnaire and received responses from 14 of them. This article is clearly not a scientific analysis of a large sampling of polyglots. But, in communicating with the YouTube polyglots, we are able to get a look inside the heads of polyglots who “put themselves out there.” These are people who are confident enough in themselves that they regularly publish or produce videos on language learning and other aspects of language acquisition.
Nearly all of the polyglots agreed that polyglots were made, not born. They also believed that one needed specialized training to be a translator, rather than a simple polyglot. Nearly all of them agreed that adults learn languages faster than children. Children have advantages in “acquiring” language and in loosing their native accent. But adults are better at “learning”. Although nearly all of the polyglots had attended some formal classes in their languages, nearly all of the polyglots learned the bulk of their languages through self-study. Many of them cited the ineffectiveness of modern language teaching techniques as both a reason why people often find it impossible to learn languages and a reason why they went off on their own to study.
Alexander: I believe there is an important distinction between being multilingual (knowing multiple languages as a result of growing up in their environments) and being a polyglot (knowing multiple languages as a result of consciously studying them). While adolescents can study languages consciously in the same fashion as adults, adolescence only lasts a few years, and while some polyglots may get their start in this time, particularly with languages that they are being taught well in school, I think most people lack the discipline and the know-how to study intensively and effectively on their own when they are this young.
To be technical here, children don’t “learn,” languages at all, they acquire them. They may do this to the childish level that is appropriate for them in a seemingly effortless and swift fashion, but, accent aside, an adult studying seriously and consciously could certainly “learn” more in the same time frame.
Almost all of it. Not only using, maintaining, and taking the languages I began learning in formal settings to a higher level by myself, but learning the majority of the others entirely on my own.
The excel study sheet chart upon which I log my hours computes my current daily average at 9.77 hours per day, so that would be just under 70 hours per week. These days, “studying” means using (mainly reading and listening) and maintaining (transcribing and otherwise revising) rather than actually “learning” new information. I am now essentially “retired,” or well past my prime. About 10-15 years ago, when “studying” meant actually learning new information and new languages, it was more like 12-16 hours a day, or 84-112 hours per week.
Fundamentally, I see no reason to question the basic figures put out by the FSI, namely a range of a few thousand for a relatively easy language to 10,000+ for a really hard language. Of course, this answer really depends not only upon what you mean by “master,” but also upon your skill and experience as a language learner. If you memorize 25 words a day, within 100 days or just over 3 months you will have 2,500 words or the vocabulary adequate for “basic fluency” in any language, and if you do concomitant grammatical study, speaking practice, etc., in an intensive fashion for, say, 5 hours a day or a total of 500 hours, anyone studying intelligently on his own or under knowledgeable tutelage should be able to attain this overall level. If you are already a polyglot and you have already learned many or most of the other languages in a language family, you may even be able to attain this same level in something that is generally considered a different, non-intelligible language but which to you is only a variant-upon-a-theme-dialect, almost upon contact, in a matter of weeks or even mere days of intensive immersion, that is to say, in under 100 hours. On the other hand, to go beyond “basic fluency” to true near-native mastery is another story altogether. How long does it take to become a highly educated native speaker? I used primarily English until I earned my Ph.D. at the age of 30. Is that 30 years x 365 days/year x 16 waking hours/day? Then it took me 175,200 hours to develop my English abilities.
I have made language learning the focus of my life because I find language learning more interesting than anything else I know.
I am a career academic, a university professor, and in my current post-graduate institute incarnation, my actual job title is “language specialist,” which I have to say I rather like.
Unfortunately, I do have to say that I, as a relatively “prominent” polyglot, am contacted by an inordinate number of other self-identifying polyglots who do seem to be more-or-less “unbalanced.” Objectively speaking, it is “normal” to be either monolingual or multilingual to the extent of perhaps quadri- or quintilingual at the most. Thus, to aspire to know 10+ languages or so is, by definition, “eccentric,” although I do not understand why it makes so many people as strange as it does seem to make them. That said, I do fundamentally object to the current pigeonholing of psychological types.
Most are simply enthusiastic if not actually scholarly language lovers. It is just that the percentage of crazies among them does seem to be higher than it is in the general population.
Arthur: Ha, ha, probably 20 hours per week plus homework/immersion. Anything less is less than mastery.
Polyglot Christophe Clugston has studied countless languages on an academic level. He has studied at the Defense Language Institute and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in linguistics in Thailand. Christophe has an extensive background in professional fighting and often draws parallels between sports, fight-training, and language acquisition.
Christophe: As a linguist I have looked at about a hundred languages (their particular features) like Bru, Pwo Krin, Papua New Guinea languages, Crow, on and on I have found interference when doing 4 or 5 languages at a time (learning/studying).
I told Chirstophe that a lot of people on the internet had already lumped us together, as we both had fought professionally and also learned languages. Some people didn’t realize that Christophe and I both train under the same Khmer boxing coach, Paddy Carson, in Phnom Penh. I also shot an episode of my web TV show, Martial Arts Odyssey with Christophe at the only Savat training gym in Bangkok (Martial Arts Odyssey: The Boxing Linguist).
Chrisophe: They lumped us together probably because we get pissed off. And why not?
I’ve studied, acquired 32 languages (more as experts state some dialects are different languages). I can understand 6 languages at living. I understand 2 as whatever you want to talk about. And there are 2 or 3 others if I am back around them that I will be back up and functional. I’ve dreamed in 5 languages even interpreting two or 3 back and forth that are not my L 1.
Not for study (not Left Hemisphere)—through acquisition they do. Also they have better control over phonemic inventory.
It takes far more than hackneyed learning and speech skills; specific and technical lexicon is needed. Text analysis is crucial. Ability to understand that Farsi, for example, is not English: not English using different words.
Monolingualism is actually rare in the World (USA people just don’t grasp diglossia). There is a cure to monolingualism. The W.L.s (World Languages) should be learned.
I have wasted my time on non essential languages in the past instead of learning how to talk NASA, Kant and physics in W.L.s. For this reason, I only care about the W.L.s. Languages are equivalent to physical performance: You must work at it, practice it and maintain it. Geo Locked languages are like working out and doing wrist curls instead of dead lifts. Wrist curls won’t take you as far as dead lifts. Too many people use some sort of “I’ve got the rest of my life to learn this language” This is very untrue. In fact, those that have the opposite mind set will actually learn. To use a Joseph Campbell quote about the need for urgency: “You must seek it like a man whose hair is on fire seeks a bucket of water.”
I only learn global languages, not geolocked languages.
Claude Cartaginese is the creator and editor of The Polyglot Project, a book written entirely by YouTube polyglots, hyper-polyglots, linguists, language learners and language lovers in their own words. The Polyglot Project is available as a free download on Claude’s YouTube channel, his blog (syzygyonlanguages.wordpress.com), or you may purchase a hard copy at Amazon.com. Claude Learned English in school after his family moved from Italy to the United States.
Claude: My Parents never learned. I studied French in high school, but didn’t like it. It was entirely grammar-based, and I found that approach to be tedious. We spent most of our time conjugating verbs and memorizing vocabulary lists. It was a very inefficient way of learning a language. Interestingly, 30 years later my children, who attended the same schools, had similar experiences. Nothing at all has changed when it comes to teaching foreign languages in the school system. In college, it took a completely random event to get me really interested in learning foreign languages: I met a polyglot. Not only could this individual speak over 20 languages, but he was completely self-taught. I did not know such a thing was possible. And yet, it was still many more years before I began to study languages myself in earnest.
There is a story I like about Oliver Wendell Holmes, who needed to go to the hospital for a minor procedure when he was in his late 80s. A visitor found him lying in bed one day reading a book on Ancient Greek. When asked why he was studying such a complicated subject, he is reported to have replied: “to improve my mind.” I think that’s primarily what motivates me as well. I don’t need to study languages, I just like to. It keeps my faculties sharp.
No, not really. In the first place, a child has all the time in the world to focus on language learning. Even so, it takes years before that child can express itself using compound sentences and complex ideas. An adult could accomplish what a child accomplishes in much less time. As for learning multiple languages, adults retain their advantage. How many six-year-olds have you seen who can speak 10 languages or more? I haven’t seen any, and believe me, I’ve looked. The notion that children learn languages faster and easier than adults is, I believe, a myth.
I have come across some polyglots who have the types of disorders you’re asking about. Some of them are in my book. I know of some exceptional cases where a mental condition or disorder facilitates the language learning process. Daniel Tammet comes to mind. I think that these may be the exceptions, and the vast majority of language learners may not have any of those disorders; but obviously I can’t be certain.
Well, I guess this would be a good point to make a plug for my book, The Polyglot Project. The 43 authors contained within its over 500 pages explain the polyglot lifestyle much better than I can in a few sentences. I think it’s important to keep things fun and interesting, and to have a high level of motivation. If you can keep those three things in the forefront, everything else follows.]]>
When I started my Vietnamese intensive course, a lot of non-linguistists I talked to said that the Chinese students would have an advantage because they already speak a tonal language.
It is true that some Westerners could be completely stumped by tones, and just not get the language at all. But, a person who already speaks a tonal language does not have an advantage over a Westerner or a Korean or Japanese who is intelligent, motivated and who is trying to learn tones. Remember that a Cantonese or Mandarin speaker has mastered the tones of his or her language, not the tones of Vietnamese. Saying that someone from a tonal language would have an advantage is like saying people from languages with words, or sounds, or verbs or adjectives would have an advantage.
Mastery of a particular language is based EXCLUSIVELY on your mastery of THAT language, not other languages. If you know tones in one language, you still need to learn the specific tones for the new language you are studying.
Next, people who were more language-savvy suggested that both the Chinese and Korean students would have a huge advantage because of all of the Chinese cognates between Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. But in my class, I have noticed the Chinese and Koreans don’t even hear or notice the cognates. I help Schwe Son translate his homework every single day and he never sees the cognates. The Koreans are the same.
In addition to not having a particular advantage, our Chinese classmate, Schwe Son (not his real name) seems to have a number of special problems because of his Chinese mother tongue. For example, we learned the words for “half a million.” But in Chinese, there is no word for a million. They count by ten-thousands. So, a million is 100-ten-thousands. Schwe Son pointed at the Vietnamese words for half a million, nửa triệu, and asked me to translate. I translated it into Chinese, literally, “Half of 100-ten-thousands.” The look on Schwe Son’s face was as if he had just seen me defecate in a frying pan. “Why don’t they just say 50-ten-thousands?” He asked. He had a point.
The old Vietnamese word for Burma is ‘Miến Điện’ the same as in Chinese. But now the Vietnamese have created a Vietnamese spelling for the countries new name of Myanmar. Most languages and most countries move toward not changing country or city names, but just spelling them in their own language. This is why Beijing is now Beijing in English, instead of Peking. But Chinese cannot move in that direction, as it is impossible to spell foreign words with Chinese characters. As a result, many Chinese place names are outdated. Or, they have to create a totally new word, which may or may not be recognizable as the place it relates to.
So, in class, when we encounter country names that are instantly recognizable for Western or Korean students, but for which Schwe Son needs a translation. Afterwards, the translation has no real meaning for him. He just has to memorize it, although it doesn’t relate to anything.
We have only had eight days of class so far, but have already encountered a lot of Chinese cognates. The word for ‘a shop’ which I learned in Hanoi was ‘cửa hàng’. But here in Saigon they say ‘tiệm.’ this is a cognate from the Chinese, ‘Diàn’. And yet, when we came to this word, Schwe Son asked me to translate. I said, in Chinese, “tiệm means Diàn.” Schwe Son simply said, “OK.” And immediately wrote the Chinese character in his notebook. There was not even a flicker of recognition.
Here is a list of Chinese cognates from the first eight days of class (I have only listed modern Mandarim cognates. If I were to list ancient Chinese cognates (similar to Korean and Cantonese cognates) the list would be much, much longer.)
|English||Vietnamese Pronunciation||Chinese Pronunciation||Chinese Character|
|Zero/Empty||Không (zero)||Kōng (empty)||空|
|Café||quán cà phê||Kāfēi guǎn||咖啡館|
Vietnamese is a Mon-Khmer language, in spite of having so many Chinese cognates. Chinese is a single syllable language, with a lot of compound words. But Mon Khmer languages have multi-sylabic words. The Chinese student is having a lot of difficulty with the pronunciation of multi-sylabic words.
Possession in Khmer, Vietnamese, and English can me made, using the verb, “to belong to”, as in, ‘the book belongs to me.’ But most languages don’t have that construction. Neither Korean nor Chinese has it. (It exists in Korean, but no one uses it). So, they were all having a hard time understanding the concept of, “book belongs to me”, “sách của tôi”. The Chinese student kept pushing me for word-for-word translations. But obviously, there was no way to translate this word-for-word. I could only translate the meaning. In Chinese, “This is my book.” But then he would flip the book to the previous day’s lesson. “I thought this phrase meant ‘this book is mine’.” He said. “Yes,” I said. “The meaning is the same, but the wording is different.” “OK, so what is it in Chinese?” he asked again.
Schwe Son realizes he needs to improve his English in order to get through his study of Vietnamese language. So, every day, in addition to translating his homework into Chinese, he asks me to translate it into English for him. And this creates a whole other set of problems.
In Vietnamese there is a word for the noun, “a question” (câu hỏi), and the verb “to ask” (hỏi) is a related word. The noun, “answer” (câu trả lời) is also related to the verb “to answer” (trả lời). But in English, obviously, the verb “to ask” is unrelated to the noun “a question.”
“Open and close your book” in Vietnamese is exactly as it is in English. Meaning the same words “open and close” could be used for the door or a drawer or a crematorium. But in Chinese, the words for “open and close your book” are unrelated to “open and close the door.” I translated for him, and he understood what the phrase ‘open your book meant’ in Chinese, but it was a completely unrelated phrase, that had no meaning and no connection to anything else for him. For the rest of the classmates, once they learned ‘open and close’ they could apply it to anything. But for Schwe Son it was one isolated piece of linguistic noise.
There are so many aspects to learning a language: vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, usage, and many more. Though an argument could be made that a student with a given native tongue may have an advantage in one area, he or she may have other areas with particular difficulties.]]>
Justin Halpern made a move from Twitter to network television, when his rants, entitled “Shit My Dad Says”, was picked up as a TV series.
According to a recent report out of Japan, five out of the top ten Japanese best sellers in 2007 were novels written by texting on a cell phone.
“The Last Messages”, a hit novel in Finland, is composed exclusively of roughly 1,000 text messages.
Tila Tequila, a Vietnamese-French from Singapore, has a MySpace page with a quarter of a billion hits. She moved from MySpace to magazines, reality TV shows, to video games and finally landed on an MTV reality show called “A shot at Love with Tila Tequila”.
Michael Buckley from the web TV show, “What’s the Buck,” is one of very few examples of someone who moved from broadcast TV, to the internet, and then to financial success and stardom.
The original plan of many bloggers, website administrators, and YouTube channel owners was: to start out producing lots of free content, writing stories and making videos online, build up an online following and then cash in on it.
Five years into YouTube and a bit longer into first, My Space, and now Facebook, a lot of people have invested countless hours, and often a lot of money, on their blog, or space or channel. And now they want to know, “Where’s the money?”
To list the people who are stuck in the nearly-famous category of “Dude, you’re practically a celebrity” would be too long. So, first, let’s take a look at some success stories.
The first success that I ever heard of was a TV show, called, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, which started on Myspace. When the boys finally got a call from a TV network, who was interested in the show, the network asked them what it cost to produce an episode. The hosts had to make up a number on the spot because they had shot it with their mom’s video camera and a budget of zero. The network gave them more money than they had ever seen before and asked them to produce a full season of the show.
James Rolfe, AKA “The Angry Video Game Nerd”, started producing short videos doing comical reviews of old video games. Like “Always Sunny”, James started in 2004, before youtube even came into existence. He originally posted on another sharing site and later moved to youtube in 2006. Some of his earliest money-making products were DVDs of his previously released episodes. Other products included hats and I think even T-shirts. According to Wikipedia, “After his fourth online review on YouTube, ScrewAttack invited him to have his own section on their website. He has since been employed by MTV Networks’ GameTrailers.com.’
“On August 8, 2007, James was featured on the nationally syndicated radio show Opie and Anthony. Since then, additional videos have been played occasionally on the show. Rolfe went on to host a show on Opie and Anthony’s XM Satellite Radio (now Sirius/XM) channel for their Saturday Night Virus block of shows.” (Paraphrased from Wikipedia).
The Angry Video Game Nerd has appeared on various TV shows on Spike TVand he has been employed by Spike TV, doing reviews and location spots for his Cinemassacre website.’ Wikipedia.
The first examples, “Tila Tequila”, “Always Sunny” and “Angry Video Game Nerd” followed the path exactly, moving from free media to paid media. But the next two examples, Kevjumba and Ryan Higa are true Generation Y success stories, who followed a path no one had anticipated in 2006, when youtube started.
Ryan Higa, known as Nigahiga, has the single most-subscribed youtube channel of all time. He has over 2,000,000 subscribers, for his channel, where he does funny skits and song parodies. He was 16 when he started, and is 19 now. A couple of years ago, Youtube asked Ryan to become an ad partner, and he collects money from Adsense and other pay per click advertising. No one knows, at this point, how much he is actually earning, in total. But an independent researcher estimated that from simple pay-per-click advertising, he is earning $15,000 per month. In addition to this money, Ryan sells products. He also gets direct advertising revenue and has signed a three-movie deal with movie producer Derek Zemrak. He has also been invited to appear on “The Tyra Banks Show”.
Kevin Wu, aka Kev Jumba, is just 20 years old. His youtube channel has over a million subscribers and he is the number one in his category of comedy. It is estimated that just his pay-per-click advertising alone yields him well over 10,000 USD per month. He recently made the move from the tiny screen to the TV screen, when he was granted a place on “The Amazing Race.” He has also appeared on other TV shows: The CW Television Network’s Online Nation and Hooking Up from HBOLabs (the online arm of HBO)
As someone who is trying to make it in new media, and who is trying to make the jump from new media to the big screen and TV, the income numbers and the success of people like Kevjumba and Ryan Higa are depressing. My most popular video only has 55,000 hits. And my youtube channel only has a bit over 1,400 subscribers. I subscribe to Ryan Higa’s twitter. I have 72 followers. Ryan has over a quarter million.
These are examples of the leading E-lebrities. Let’s put their numbers in perspective, compared to “real” celebrities.
The Final episode of Seinfeld had 76 million viewers, which is a site more than the two million that Ryan has. “The Friends” were each being paid a million dollars an episode for their final several seasons. The money that Kev and Ryan earn for a year from all sources is probably less than what a Friend earned per episode. And remember “Friends” did 234 episodes. That means a minimum of 234 pay checks, per Friend, not counting any residuals or merchandising rights that they may have negotiated.
Before I started doing my youtube show, Martial Arts Odyssey, I approached every TV company I worked with to see if they would produce it or make a deal with me where we would share revenues. Every time I was on a TV show, I would pitch Martial Arts Odyssey to the highest person I could find. And none of them were interested. At the time, I though they were nuts. I figured that with a budget of $5,000 an episode we could probably generate $10,000 a month, for years. The numbers made sense to me. But then I began to understand real TV. Some of the shows I worked on had budgets of $60,000 an episode, but they generated millions in revenues. And of course, there were reruns, syndication, residuals, and merchandizing. The reason big TV didn’t get too involved with the internet, in the beginning, was because the money just wasn’t there.
If you read between the lines with James Rolf, Kev Jumba or Ryan Higa, it seems that TV networks are forward thinking enough to get into internet TV, but they are smart enough not to spend millions on it. They are making deals for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars and are generous with giving away percentages of future income in lieu of upfront cash.
Next, the fame factor of the internet.
Ryan and Kevin are E-lebrities. At a convention for new media, people ask for their autogrpahs, but they could probably walk down most streets and not be recognized. Ryan Higa attends college in Las Vegas, where he majors in film. In a recent interview, he said that none of the students in his film class had heard of him. That’s not the case with Jerry Seinfeld. Even Joey, the Friend who has had the worst career after the show ended, probably gets mauled every time he steps out of the house.
For myself, in the last year or so, I have noticed a huge increase in people recognizing me. Nearly all of the gyms I have shot Martial Arts Odyssey in, people recognized me when I showed up. Or, when I was pitching them, asking if I could film, they stopped me and said, “We know who you are.”
I walked into a gym in the Philippines, where the manager was reading a Black Belt Magazine, with my picture in it. In Thailand I had a Russian guy come up to me, who couldn’t speak more than ten words of English. “You…video…Odyssey…good.” I had people from Sweden and from Iran ask for my autograph. And I got recognized on the alley next to my house in Saigon. BUT, with very few exceptions, I was only recognized in context. I was generally in a gym or talking to a gym about filming. In the incident on my street, we were talking about martial arts and suddenly, a Polish guy said, “You are the guy from youtube.” Once in Phnom Penh, an Italian Rastafarian, who I didn’t know, approached me, speaking Italian, asking about Kru Bah, the monk I learned Muay Thai from in Thailand. When I asked how he knew who I was, he said he had read about me in an in-flight magazine. When I asked how he knew I spoke Italian, he said it was in my bio info.
But these events happen to me once in a while. I’m sure it happens to Kevin and Ryan a hundred times more often, but the point is, being an E-lebrity is almost a niche market. You are known by young people who spend a lot of time on line.
As for me, or you, making it financially from being an E-lebrity, here are some thoughts.
First off, it may already be too late. All of the people mentioned in this story, joined youtube almost as soon as it was launched, when there was a lot less competition for viewership.
Next, Ryan Higa and Kevjumba and about 8 of the 10 highest earning internet people are Asian-Americans, who started in high school. There have been a lot of articles recently saying that new media is driven by or favored by Asian-Americans. They are even saying that Asian-American’s success online is revenge for Hollywood passing them over for so many years.
Another point, if you are in high school when you start, you automatically get your whole high school. Then those kids tell other kids at other schools. High school kids probably spend more time on line than anyone else and are probably more actively engaged in social networking with kids from other schools, sharing videos and other entertainment with each other.
When I worked on Wall Street, back when the internet was new, we were told that we shouldn’t target high school kids for marketing because they didn’t have money. And hitting them on line was problematic because they didn’t have credit cards, so they couldn’t buy anything. But neither Ryan nor Kevjumba were trying to make the bulk of their money from selling anything to their fan base. They earned their initial money from pay-per-click advertising. That advertising paid, whether the person who clicked actually had money to buy anything or not. So, they didn’t actually need to earn money from their fan base.
My latest project has been a 3D martial arts TV show, called Brooklyn Monk in 3D. It is a pay per download show, on http://3dguy.tv/brooklyn-monk-in-3d/ It would be nice if the show got wildly popular and had five million views. But another rule of the internet seems to be, as soon as you charge money, even if it is a dollar, you loose more than ninety-nine percent of your fan base. So, the money still seems to be in pay-per-click advertising, but you need millions of hits to make any real money.
Perhaps the unwitting youtube success of Jack Rebney, “The Angriest Man in the World” is more indicative of the wealth and fame that E-lebrity can bring you. Long before youtube even existed, Jack Rebney was hired as an actor, in an industrial video, demonstrating the benefits and features of a new style RV. While shooting the commercial, Jack encountered every imaginable problem, from broken equipment, to a swarm of bees. He lost his cool to such a point that he was cursing and screaming up a storm. The film crew saved all of these “bloopers” and circulated them around to their fiends. Eventually, youtube came along and the video appeared on youtube, quickly becoming one of the funniest and most watched videos of all time. Jack knew nothing of the cult celebrity status he had achieved. Recently, an independent filmmaker, named Ben Steinbauer’s tracked Jakc down and told him that he was famous. Mr. Steinbauer then made the full length documentary film, “Winnebago Man.” About Jack Rebney.
Ben and Jack appeared on Jay Leno to talk about the movie and the story behind it. Jay Leno asked Jack if he got rich off of the video and he said, words to the effect of, (paraphrase) ‘It doesn’t work like that anymore. You just get famous. But there is no money.’
I guess what I am saying is, I hope someday, even if I don’t make money from the internet, I can achieve the goal of being the Angriest Man in the World.]]>
An ESL teacher in Saigon wrote me: “As you may have worked out already, the pronunciation of Vietnamese ESL learners is not great. I am looking at ways to try and improve the pronunciation of the learners at my school.”
”As a linguist, do you have any insights into spoken English and the difficulties that syllable-timed L1s (Vietnamese people) might have learning a stressed-timed L2 language?”
Pronunciation is always a problem for Asian students, but in my experience, having taught in a number of Asian countries, the Thais and Vietnamese seem to have the most problems with pronunciation. Chinese, Korean, or Khmer students have some consistent pronunciation problems, but they can make themselves understood. With Vietnamese, the pronunciation is often so far off that you have no idea what they are even trying to say.
When it comes to language learning, the Vietnamese are faced with several problems. At least two of which are unique to Vietnam, but the others seem to be consistent across Asia.
Let’s get the Asian consistent problems out of the way first.
I am a proponent of ALG Automatic language Growth, a listening-only method of language acquisition (you can watch some of my ALG Videos here).
Without going 100% into ALG or applying it exclusively to an ESL classroom in Vietnam, I believe, beyond any doubt, that a significant factor contributing to Vietnamese students having pronunciation issues is that they simply don’t listen enough. If you haven’t heard the sounds, you can’t reproduce them. In the commercial ESL marketplace, across Asia, parents are told that their children will be speaking English from their first day. The focus of the entire program is on speaking, rather than listening. Good foreign ESL teachers do model the target language, before asking students to produce it. But it’s not enough. When you learned English, you heard phrases hundreds or even thousands of times before you spoke them. But in Asian ESL, students are asked to produce after one or two hearings.
If you look on an ESL syllabus, obviously there are always listening exercises built into the curriculum, but they generally account for less than ten percent of class time. Production counts for the bulk of class time. This needs to be reversed, fifty minutes of listening and ten minutes of production would be a better ratio.
Along with the lack of listening in the programs, there is a cultural problem with listening. For whatever reason, it just seems that across Asia, listening skills, even in the mother tongue, are horrendous. It is particularly bad in Southeast Asia where, during a listening exercise, a student would think nothing of having a conversation with his neighbor or making a call on a cell phone.
Once again, if they don’t listen, they can’t learn the target language and won’t be able to reproduce it.
Culturally there are a number of factors which adversely effect the Asian learner:
Face: Students don’t want to make any mistakes because they could lose face. Not wanting to stand out – in most of the cultures across the region, the culture calls for conformity and for people to fit into prescribed roles in the society or in the group. No one wants to stand out or innovate, even if it means giving the answer to a question. Students will generally wait until a number of brave souls have answered before they will answer. This is true of all societies to varying degrees. But in Asia, the goals in a group activity are consensus and harmony, not standing out or being exceptional, as say an American would try to do.
Rote Learning: The Confucian education system, which is prevalent in Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam is based on rote learning. If we take Kung Fu as an example of the ultimate expression of confusion learning; all of the Kung Fu movements which will ever exist, already exist. There will be no innovations and no additions. The best student is the one who most accurately copies his teacher and reproduces what the teacher does. In the days when people still fought with kung Fu or used it for self-defense, the logic in the training was that the teacher would think of every possible attack situation the student would face. Actually, the teacher didn’t think of it, he learned it from his teacher, who learned it from his teacher. Then the student was taught one prescribed reaction to each situation he would face. So, the best fighter was the one who memorized the largest number of attacks and counters, because he had the highest probability of winning, no matter what attack came.
This type of logic is applied to all forms of pedagogy in Asia. Students are rewarded for copying their teacher. On an essay exam, the teacher expects to see the students reproduce, verbatim, his or her words, from the lecture. In America, a students would normally receive a very low grade if he dutifully repeated the teacher’s words, rather than thinking of an answer himself or herself.
In language learning, this method is also applied, but doesn’t work. Students are conditioned to react to very specific stimuli. And if you don’t ask the question, exactly as it is written in the book, their would be cultural barriers preventing the student from answering.
One day, my schedule called for my class to watch a DVD. I had the DVD, but I needed the player. I explained this to my Vietnamese co-teacher and asked her to “go get the DVD machine.” She had no idea what I was talking about. “The DVD machine. We need the DVD machine to watch the movie.” I told her. She left, and returned with a DVD. “NO, we have the DVD already. We need the machine.” I said. Then I stopped and remembered the exact verbiage, “I need the DVD player.” I said, and then everything was fine.
Obviously, language is a living breathing thing which will not follow rules established in a classroom. Also, there are over 400 million English native speakers from countless countries, on ALL of the continents. They won’t all speak the same way. But the Vietnamese education system only prepares the students to deal with people who just stepped out of a textbook.
Now, getting to the specific issues of pronunciation for Vietnamese students: Vietnamese is a Mon Khmer language. There are only two major Mon Khmer languages (“major” meaning used as a national language). They are Vietnamese and Khmer. Vietnamese is tonal, whereas Khmer is not. But apart from the tones, the linguistic rhythms are quite similar. As for pronunciation, Mon Khmer languages have a very limited number of terminal sounds. In Khmer, I think there are only 8 possible sounds that can come at the end of a word. In Vietnamese, the number is a bit higher, but still much lower than English. This is significant because if the students mother tongue does not contain a certain sound, they can’t hear it in another language. Or, the sound may even exist in the mother tongue, but never as a terminal sound. So, once again, if that sound is used as a terminal sound in English, they don’t hear it.
When you hear the student speaking with tortured pronunciation, keep in mind that he is hearing something very similar to what is coming out of his mouth, which would explain why the students often don’t understand you.
I haven’t studied Vietnamese as deeply as I have Chinese. So, I may be off here, but in Chinese, Chinese native speakers are not taught to recognize words by phonemes. They are taught to recognize words by tones. The tone is more important for conveying meaning than is the phoneme. I would have to believe that to some degree this is the case in Vietnamese. It won’t be as severe as in Chinese because Mon Khmer languages have multi-syllabic words. Chinese is composed of single syllables, so the tones are probably more important to tell them apart. With Vietnamese, because of my personal approach to study, I see that 80% of Vietnamese vocabulary is composed of single syllable compound words, derived from Chinese. But I am not certain if the Vietnamese interpret or hear their own language this way.
I think we can say that the lack of tones in English becomes a factor in listening comprehension and sound reproduction. But I am not sure to what degree this is a problem for Vietnamese students.
When you begin to learn the Vietnamese language, you see the Vietnamese alphabet, Quốc-ngữ, and think, “Oh this is easy. It looks like the Roman alphabet.” But then when you read aloud, no Vietnamese person can understand you. The reason, of course, is that although the characters used in Quốc-ngữ are derived from the Roman or Latin alphabet, Quốc-ngữ is not the Roman or Latin alphabet. The pronunciation of the letters is quite different. The pronunciation of combinations of letters differs from the pronunciation of the same letters pronounced separately. The pronunciation of letters occurring at the ends of words is often different than when those same letters appear at the beginning or in the middle of a word.
When a westerner learns Chinese or Thai, he has no presupposed notions of how any of the strange characters should be pronounced. So, he simply listens to the teacher (hopefully) and repeats, with no bias. But when a westerner learns Vietnamese, he has to unlearn his suppositions about the Vietnamese writing system. It takes a long time for most people to do this, and very few will do it 100%.
Obviously, for Vietnamese learning English, the same must be true. If, in his mind, he is applying Vietnamese sound values to the Roman alphabet, his reading will be unintelligible.
Generally, when I write a piece about a language, I send it to my teacher, David Long, the world’s leading expert on ALG. He will read an article like this and say words to the effect of, “Interesting article. You brought up some good points. But none of this matters.” The short answer is, if you want students to have native like pronunciation, they need to listen for 800 hours. The more the students listen, the better their pronunciation will be. It is that simple.]]>
It’s not an award exactly, it was a congratulatory email from Podomatic, the host of Brooklyn Monk in Asia podcast.
“I am overcome with emotion.” Said Antonio, “It was almost as exciting as the previous email, telling me that I had won the Spanish lottery.”
According to the prestigious email from Podomatic Brooklyn Mon in Asia Podcast has climbed more than 700 positions in a single day, earning it the designation of Movers and Shakers.
The BMA podcast is only in its third week, but has already climbed to the top 500 podcasts on podomatic. BMA podcast has now been submitted to iTunes, and will hopefully be viewed by an even wider audience.
BMA was the first podcast Antonio ever listened to. In fact, he only barely knew what a podcast was, but when he found out he wouldn’t have to watch his weight anymore, like he did on TV, he knew that he had found his medium of choice.
In his own words, Antonio says, “Podcasting is as much fun as writing, but my bad spelling is not an issue.”
The podcast is the work of Antonio Graceffo, an over-forty, over-educated, underpaid, cranky New Yorker, who has been living in Asia for too long. Antonio is more well-known for writing books, most recently, Warrior Odyssey, and magazine articles about Asia, which is serious, informative writing. He is also known for his web TV show, Martial Arts Odyssey, which often has a humorous slant to it. But in Brooklyn Monk in Asia podcast, Antonio cuts completely loose, making fun of himself, the Asian
world around him, and the western world that he left behind.
According to Antonio, the show was meant to be a joke, a bit of comedy to lighten the lives of people faced with a global economic depression and fear of the year 2012, when many believe the world will simply burst into flames and we will all die a horribly painful death, and life, as we know it, will come to end.
To keep people from dwelling on those facts, Antonio created his podcast. He did it especially for people worried about cancer or obesity or dying of Ebola or rabies, people who lose sleep thinking about anthrax and credit crunch, or being maimed in a freak microwave popcorn accident.
“Hopefully the show speaks to that segment of the population who isn’t as rich, as beautiful, or as famous at 30 or 40 or 50 as they thought they would be when they were 19.”
For everyone who never became a cowboy, an astronaut, a failed poet skulking around cafes in Paris, a fire engine, a failed painter skulking around the cafes of Paris, a sailor, or Miss Universe, you can tune in, and laugh at other people’s misfortunes.
A central theme to all of Antonio’s writing and filming is that we should be non-conformists. “Don’t be what THEY want you to be.”
At the end of every episode of Brooklyn Monk in Asia, Antonio reminds you to “Go out and do something stupid.”]]>
Learning to fight in the movies! In Bangkok, Thailand, Antonio Graceffo finds John Ledalski, a veteran of more than 50 films. Sifu Ledalski is a martial arts master, an experienced stuntman, and a respected stuntman trainer. Antonio asks John to help him prepare for his upcoming work in TV and films.
This episode of Martial Arts Odyssey is a parallel filming with Al Caudullo of both 3DGuy.tv and Al Caudullo Productions. Hopefully you will be watching the Al Caudullo production in 3D on American TV. The 3D show was professionally shot and edited, Antonio’s YouTube video wasn’t.
Throwing punches and kicks with big swings and missing is not Antonio’s forte. Sifu Ledalski tries his best to teach Antonio the necessary skills for movie fighting. Caudullo has to reign Antonio in and tell him how to act, like he is acting.
John walks Antonio through his first, short stunt fighting sequence. He says Antonio only needs 997.5 more hours of training and he could almost be ready to begin…
By Antonio Graceffo
In an interview recently, someone asked me how I got my start in TV and video work. The funny story is that my first film work was in 1989, when I was an extra in Delta Force Part II, with my idol, Chuck Norris. At the time, I was so excited, I thought it was the beginning of huge things for me. I really thought I was going to be a major star before I reached my mid twenties.
By my late twenties, I had not only given up on that dream, but had forgotten all about it. When I started working on TV, in my mid thirties, I hadn’t done any kind of acting or film work in years.
Now, in my forties, I am getting more frequent TV work, but of course, I am still not a star.
Looking back, it is hilarious to me, how certain I was that I was going to be a big star, or that Chuck Norris was going to take me with him at the end of the movie, and I would just work on all of his subsequent films.
I think 21 year-old Antonio wouldn’t like 43 year old Antonio, but the feeling would probably be mutual.
This story “Chuck Norris Doesn’t Know my Name” is about working on a Chuck Norris movie, but it is also a story of youthful arrogance and getting swept up in a dream so much that you lose sight of reality.
The story is dedicated to everyone over forty who never became a cowboy, a fireman, a super model, a race car driver, or an astronaut…
For those who are too lazy to read… ; ):Chuck
If you’d like to listen to some juicy tid-bits from the story…:Episode
Description: Click the PDF icon below to get Part 1 of the story.
Description: If you liked Part 1, there is much more Chuck Norris goodness to come! Click “Buy Now” to get the complete complete PDF with parts 1 through 5.
Download Instructions: Once you have confirmed your payment in PayPal, you will receive an email with a download link. If you do not receive the email, first check your junk mail folder. If it doesn’t show up their either, please contact us.
A Khmer student wrote to me on youtube and asked me to produce videos about how to read English language newspapers.
“I’d like to ask you to make videos how to read newspaper and translate it from English to Khmer. I Khmer and I having a problem to understand English phrases.” Wrote the student.
Language learners often write telling me about some area of learning or area of their lives where they are experiencing difficulties of comprehension and ask me for a trick or a guide to help them learn.
As I have said in numerous other language learning articles, there are no tricks and no hints. The more hours you invest, the better you will get. And if your goal is to read at a native speaker level, then you need to read things a native speaker reads. If you are a 22 year-old university graduate, then you need to be reading at that level in the foreign language. And you won’t get there by reading textbooks ABOUT the language. You will get there by reading books, articles, and textbooks IN rather than ABOUT the language.
If we analyze this latest email, the student says he has trouble reading, and he specifically singled out newspapers.
Obviously, reading is reading. On some level, reading a newspaper is no different than reading a novel or reading a short story.
If you are reading novels and short stories, you should be able to read newspapers. If I asked this student, however, he is probably is not reading one novel per month in English. If he were, newspaper reading would just come.
Therefore, the problem is not the reading or the newspapers, per se. The problem is the lack of practice.
I never took a course called “Newspaper Reading” in English. I just started reading newspapers. And at first, I had to learn to deal with the language, structure and organization of newspaper writing, but no one taught me, or you. It just came to us. The same was true for German or Spanish newspapers which I can read almost as well as English. No one taught me, or taught Gunther or Pablo, it just came through practice.
A point, that I have made many times in articles, is that when you begin learning a foreign language, you are not an idiot. You are not starting with an empty brain. One reason it takes babies three years to learn their native tongue is because they are also learning what a language is and how language works. You know all of that, and much more. Babies don’t know that there is such a thing as grammar. Every single piece of vocabulary has to be learned. A seven year old may not know the words “population, economy, government, referendum, currency” in his native tongue. So, reading a foreign newspaper would be difficult for him, because reading a newspaper in his mother tongue is difficult for him.
If you are an adult, coming from a developed country, with at least a high school or university level of education, you should already be able to read newspapers in your native tongue. At that point, reading a newspaper in a foreign tongue is simply a matter of vocabulary.
True there are different uses of language, and styles of writing. And newspapers do have style which differs from other kinds of writing. But you just read, and read and figure them out.
The problem with most learners, however, is that they aren’t reading novels and short stories. Most learners need to just accept that they need practice. They need to read, and read, and stumble, and fall, and read again, until they get it.
I didn’t develop a taste for reading the newspaper in English untill I was in my late twenties. But, by that time I had read countless books in English, and completed 16 years of education. I only began reading newspapers because I had to read foreign newspapers at college. Then I learned to read the newspapers in English first, to help me understand the foreign newspaper.
One of the problems, specifically with Khmer learners is that there is so little written material available in Khmer. American students have had exposure to newspapers, magazines, novels, reference books, poetry, plays, encyclopedias, diaries, biographies, textbooks, comic books… Most Khmers haven’t had this exposure.
If they haven’t read it in their native tongue, how could they read it in a foreign language?
And, I am not just picking on Khmers. True these styles of writing are not available in Khmer language, but even in Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese education, where these many styles of writing exist, students may not have had exposure to them. For example, Taiwanese college students said that during 12 years of primary school they never wrote a single research paper.
But then they were asked to do that in English, in their ESL classes.
Currently, I have a Thai friend, named Em, who is studying in USA. He has been there for three years, studying English full time, and still can’t score high enough on his TOEFL exam to enter an American community college. In Thailand he is a college graduate, but education in Thailand is way behind western education. And in the developed world, American community colleges are about the single easiest schools of higher learning to enter.
If Em finally passes the TOEFL and gets into community college, in the first two years of core requirements for an American Bachelor’s Degree, he will be given assignments such as “Read George Orwell’s 1984, and explain how it is an allegory for communism, and how it applies to the Homeland Security Act in the US.”
When foreign students stumble on an assignment like this, they always blame their English level. But I am confident that the average graduate from most Asian countries couldn’t do this assignment in his native tongue. Their curriculum just doesn’t include these types of analytical book reports.
When I was teaching in Korea, there was a famous story circulating around the sober ESL community. A Korean girl, from a wealthy family, had won a national English contest. She had been tutored by an expensive home teacher, almost since birth, and her English level was exceptional. The prize was a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school in the Unites States, graduation from which almost guaranteed admission to an Ivy League school.
Apparently, one of the first assignments she was given at her new school in America was to read a poem and write an original analysis of it, and then give a presentation in class. When it came time for her presentation, the student stood up and dutifully recited the poem, word for word, she also regurgitated, exactly, what the lecturer had said about the poem in class. And she failed.
In Korea, her incredible memory and ability to accurately repeat what the teacher had said, had kept her at the top of her class. But in America, she was being asked to do much more than that; think, and analyze, create, present, and defend.
The majority of learners believe that their difficulty in dealing with foreign education, books, newspapers, or conversations lies in their lack of vocabulary or failings of language. But once they posses a relatively large vocabulary, the real problem is some combination of culture and practice.
Getting back to the Khmer student and his problem reading English newspapers: To understand English newspapers you also have to know all of the news and concepts in the newspaper. The best way to deal with foreign newspapers, at the beginning, is to first read a news story in your own language. Then read the same news story in the foreign language newspaper. Also you can watch the news in your own language and then in whatever language you are studying, and compare.
Translation isn’t just about knowing words. You have to know concepts. The first rule of translation is that the written text must convey the same meaning in the target language as it did in the source language. Even if the wording, in the end, is not even remotely like the original. No matter how good your foreign language skills are, you cannot convey meaning which you don’t know in your native tongue.
Recently, newspapers in Asia were running stories about the Taiwan Y2K crisis.
To understand the newspaper stories, you would first need to understand the original, global Y2K crisis. The global Y2K issue was something that Cambodia wasn’t very involved in because there were so few computers in Cambodia in the year 1999. There were probably less than one hundred or so internet connections in Cambodia at that time. Next, you would have to know and understand that Taiwan has its own calendar, based on the founding of the Republic of China in 1911. Government offices and banks in Taiwan record events according to the Republic of China calendar, which means if you take money out of an ATM machine today, the year will show as 99.
Once you know and understand these facts, then you would know that Taiwan is about to reach its first century, in the year 2011, and is facing a mini-Y2K crisis, because the year portion of the date in the computer only has two digits.
The bulk of my readers do not live in Asia, and may not have known anything about the history of Taiwan, or the Taiwan date. But, any person with a normal reading level should have understood my explanation. It is not necessarily a requirement that you posses prior knowledge of the exact situation you are reading about, but you can relate it to other things you know about, for example, other calendars and otherY2K problems.
If you look at the above explanation, the vocabulary is fairly simple. There are probably only a small handful of words, perhaps five or six, which an intermediate language learner wouldn’t know. So, those words could be looked up in a dictionary. And for a European student, with a broad base of education and experience, that would be all of the help he would need. But for students coming from the education systems of Asia, particularly form Cambodia which is just now participating in global events such as the Olympic Games for the first time, it would be difficult, even impossible, to understand this or similar newspaper stories.
The key lies in general education, not English lessons. Students need to read constantly and simply build their general education, in their own language first, then in English, or else they will never understand English newspapers or TV shows.]]>
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo has been in Asia studying martial arts, languages and religion for nearly nine years. This video was made in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where Antonio was attending classes about Islam. He grabbed two Chinese cameramen, one protestant and one Buddhist, and headed out to explore many of the religions of Southeast Asia, focusing on Thai Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Bahai, Islam, and Cao Dai. Parts of this video were shot in Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Lao and Taiwan.]]>
The punches came right off the screen and someone all the way back in the cheap seats got a nose bleed from a kick in the face.
The only thing more exciting than a martial arts fight is a martial arts fight in 3D.
Al Caudullo, of 3DGuy.tv and Exploreworldtv, and Ric Lawes, of Location Thailand, teamed up with Black Belt columnist and Martial Arts Odyssey host, Antonio Graceffo, to produce one of the first ever 3D martial arts shorts. It was shot in a playground in Bangkok, where Antonio gets pounded by Taiwanese Muay Thai fighter, Ulysses Chang. The two ran past the see-saws and duked it out on the slide. Perhaps Antonio was trying to steal the kid’s lunch money.
The one-minute clip is meant to be a pilot for an upcoming series of 3D martial arts videos shot across Asia. It was also part of a two-shoot screen-test for Antonio on Wealth TV, one of the first American networks to broadcast 3D content. Al Caudullo is in the development stage of a 3D adventure travel TV show, for Wealth TV, featuring Antonio Graceffo.
“Following my life in Asia is weird enough.” Claims Antonio. “Doing it in 3D puts a tiny holographic image of myself right in your living room.” The would-be TV host went on to say, “And if you fall asleep with the TV on, I might go in your kitchen and eat all your pasta and gapagul.”
With movies such as Avitar and Toy Story coming out in 3D, it is obvious that the technology has come of age and that it is here to stay. Nearly every television manufacturer in USA is producing a 3D model this year. But there is still a shortage of content.
It was Al Caudullo (3DGuy himself), one of the world’s leading experts in 3D filming, who came up with the idea of shooting martial arts in 3D. When you see the end product, it just makes sense. 3D takes something exciting and makes it even better. Al also had the genius stroke of calling fellow Brooklynite (and fellow Italian-American) Antonio Graceffo to appear in the clip.
“Al knows a lot about 3D.” Says Antonio. “He also made the right choice by calling me for the shoot. If more people did that, I’d be rich.”
Spoken like a man dedicated to his art.
“Seriously, it is amazing how much more a producer or director has to know to shoot in 3D. For example, Al carries some kind of a laser calculator in his pocket, so he can measure the distances between objects and fighters in a scene. If you measure wrong or get the lighting wrong, the image goes flat.” Explained Antonio. “If we take this modern 3D like Al uses, or like Toy Story, and compare it to the old 1950s Creature of the Black Lagoon in 3D, the big difference is that the modern movies are written, scripted, choreographed and planned in 3D before they even start shooting.”
Since shooting the first 3D short with Al Caudullo, Antonio has appeared in an another Al Caudullo production, an episode of Wow Bangkok, a 3D travel show, starring host, Kelly B. Jones, which appears on Wealth TV in America.
Doing a full-length TV show, rather than a short, required a lot more brain work. The shots had to first be planned on a digital 3D mockup of the sets and locations they were planning to use.
“With reality TV shows, which are the only kinds of shows I have worked on, it is really hard to plan every shot in advance, and get the distance and lighting and all right.” Said Antonio, “But this is one of the challenges you have to overcome when shooting in 3D.
In the Wow Bangkok segment, for example, Al wanted to shoot footage of Antonio sparring, but it wasn’t possible to put the massive 3D camera in the boxing ring. The rig was too big and the canvas flooring would not have been stable enough.
“Shooting 3D creates a whole new set of problems, but the end results are so spectacular that it is worth it.” Said Antonio.
Since the 3D martial arts clip was posted on youtube, Al and Antonio have been receiving all sorts of offers to do 3D film and TV projects.
“It’s nice to be the first person, or almost the first, to do something.” Smiles Antonio.]]>