Three Cups of Language
By Antonio Graceffo
At a popular bar in Tainan, Taiwan, a Polish-Canadian girl was celebrating
her graduation from the International MBA program. She spoke English at
near-native-speaker level, with only the occasional hint of her Polish
origin. Two new IMBA students were invited to the party. They just arrived
from Poland and were happy to have found one of the few people on the
island, who spoke their language. The Polish-Canadian girl switched easily
from Polish to English, speaking to her various friends and well-wishers.
At one point, she turned to say something to a Chinese colleague, and I
was shocked at how unbelievably bad her Chinese was, after two years of
living and studying in Taiwan.
The syntax was wrong. The Grammar was wrong. The pronunciation was so
flawed, I barely understood her. The Chinese native speaker didn’t even
realize she was speaking Chinese.
How could this be? This girl was obviously multi-lingual. She had just
completed two years of studies in Taiwan. Why was her Chinese so bad?
To understand the dynamics at work here, we need to first dispel a
commonly believed myth. Many people think that Bilingual people are
exceptional language learners. But this is not the case, more on this in
just a moment.
A Canadian friend who was also at the party, asked, “But isn’t it true
that your first language is hard. Then the second one is easier. And that
the more languages you know, the easier they are to learn?”
My friend’s question was a good one. Is learning a third language easier
than learning a second? And would that mean that learning a fourth
language is easier still?
The short answer is, yes, but this only applies to LEARNED languages. Your
native tongue, no matter how many native tongues you have, does not count
as a learned language. Every person, in every culture, everywhere in the
world acquires his native tongue. And if he lives in a culture with two or
three official languages, he simply acquires two or three languages,
regardless of intelligence or language learning ability.
In China, even small children can speak Chinese. Does this mean that they
are more intelligent than you because you cannot?
Nearly 70% of Taiwanese people grow up speaking both Mandarin and
Taiwanese. Many also speak Haka or some tribal language. Since they are
growing up with two or three languages, one would assume that they were
good language learners. But after years and years, and countless hours of
English classes, they generally score on lowest levels of English fluency
on competitive exams, against other non-English speaking countries.
I had a Chinese-Canadian girl studying with me in Costa Rica, she was
absolutely incapable of stringing a decent Spanish sentence together,
after a year of studying in the country. Before arriving in Costa Rica,
she completed two years of Spanish studies at university and achieved
One night, in San Jose, we were in a Chinese restaurant. The
Chinese-Canadian girl found that the waiter couldn’t understand her
English. She asked me to translate into Spanish, when we discovered that
the waiter’s Spanish was less than basic. This was long before I spoke
“Couldn’t you just talk to him in Chinese?” I asked.
“Oh, no, I could never do that.” She told me. “Chinese is a home language.
I can only speak it with my family.”
Your native tongue, or tongues, doesn’t count as a learned language,
because you neither studied it, nor, learned it, in an academic sense.
Your mother didn’t force you to memorize list of irregular verbs and
tenses. She never had you diagram sentences, or do dictionary exercises.
But, when you study a language, in a traditional program, you will be
asked to do all of this and more.
When I studied Applied Linguistics, at the University of Main, in Germany,
we had any number of bilingual, trilingual, multilingual people among the
classes of entering freshmen. At the beginning of the studies, the other
students envied these “linguistic geniuses.” We marveled at the ease with
which they switched from French to German or Russian to German.
When exam time came, however, we discovered that bilingual students were
no better at doing homework, completing assignments or memorizing grammar
and vocabulary. In fact, in many instances, they were worse off. They had
spoken the language for so long, incorrectly, with their family, that
their mistakes and shortcomings were cemented, made permanent through
I remember a Mexican-American student telling our Spanish teacher a story
about what happened to him while walking along the train tracks. But when
he told the story, he referred to the train tracks as, “las cosas para el
tren,” the things for the train. The word had actually been on our recent
exam, but he continued to talk the way he had when he was five years old
and didn’t necessarily possess the correct vocabulary to fully express
This brings up another point about bilingual people. Although many claim
to be bilingual, it doesn’t mean that they are 100% fluent or equally
fluent in both of their languages. We acquire our mother tongue from our
mother, hence the name. Most of this acquisition occurs before we attend
school. For monolingual children, attending school reinforces what they
have already begun to acquire at home with their mother. But for bilingual
children, going off to school may signal the end of the development of
their “home language.” The vocabulary and usage may become frozen at the
state of development of a five or six year old. The Mexican-American kid
will go on to take course in biology, chemistry, history, and literature,
all taught in English. If he is clever, he will eventually go on to
university. Maybe he will become a lawyer or an engineer. Will he know all
of this specialized vocabulary in Spanish? Monolingual kids acquire this
specialized vocabulary in school. Bilingual children usually don’t acquire
it at all.
Before I’m accused of being antibilingual, let me say that I have also
known brilliant linguists and translators who were raised bilingually.
But, they became brilliant by attending school. The only advantage they
had over a non-native speaker, or their monolingual classmates, was that
their pronunciation and accent were usually better, than an acquired
accent or pronunciation.
In my case, I grew up constantly exposed to Spanish and Italian. But I
didn’t actually learn the languages till I went off to college and
studied. When I worked in the financial industry in New York, I knew
Spanish vocabulary for accounting and finance only because I had attended
business school in Costa Rica.
Said another way, when I was five, my grandmother never taught me the
words for exotic options, hedge strategies, or tax avoidance. Grandma and
I never discussed the merits of covering a stock position with puts and
So, whether you agree or not, it is clear at this point where I stand on
the subject of bilingual people acquiring a third language. Now, let’s
deal with the other part of the theory. If you learned two languages,
through study, is the third language easier? I say yes, but….We need to
understand how language is acquired, and even experts are torn on this
David Long, head of the Thai language program where I studied in Bangkok,
explained how he viewed the way we learn languages. He said to picture an
empty cup in your brain. You fill the cup by listing to language. When you
have listened to enough language, the cup will run over. The overflow is
speech. In other words, first you listen, then you speak. But, correct
speech cannot come until you have had sufficient listening.
David’s cup illustration was drawn from a language acquisition theory
called ALG (Automatic Language Growth). The theory requires students to
listen for an incredibly long time before allowing them to speak. Other
theories, such as The Silent Way, also require months of listening before
speaking, but ALG is one of the only theories which quantifies how much
listening it takes to fill the cup. The number of hours varies depending
on the language you want to learn and what your native tongue is, but for
most people, we need to listen for 1,000 – 2,000 hours, before we start
ALG, and many other theories, look at the way a native tongue is acquired.
We have already established that the native tongue is acquired by first
listening, mostly to your mother. How long do babies listen before they
speak? Most children don’t start speaking till somewhere between two and
three years old. Some children may possess a vocabulary of between five
and twenty words by age two. Babies listen for a long, long time before
they start speaking.
The reason why most people find learning a language difficult is because
they don’t get enough input before they try to produce output. While
listening is the best way to acquire language, the second best way is
reading and studying. Whatever the means of input, you need to hit your
thousand hours mark if you hope to speak.
An American friend of mine, also in the IMBA program in Taiwan, told me
recently. “After nearly four years in Taiwan I am finally ready to admit
that I am not going to learn the language by osmosis. I just went down and
signed up for classes yesterday.”
The IMBA program, like most IMBA programs, is taught in English. So,
foreign students are not exposed to Chinese in the classroom. They are
also not exposed to Chinese while they are studying or doing homework,
which is all obviously in English. Most students support their studies by
working as English teachers, where they are also not exposed to Chinese
David Long is really big on writing out time charts of daily routines to
demonstrate just how little foreign language exposure the average expat
7:00 – 8:00 Wake up, shower, eat breakfast in the room, while watching CNN
9:00 – 12:00 IMBA classes, in English
12:00 – 3:00 lunch, nap, homework, studying, meet with English-speaking
friends to complain about Taiwan
3:00 – 7:30 Teach English
7:30 Eat dinner in the room, watching illegally-downloaded episodes of
American TV shows
8:30 – 12:00 Studying, homework, gym, drinking beer, complaining about
living in Taiwan
It is possible for the average foreigner to get through a whole day
without uttering a single word in Chinese, with the exception of ordering
food. We could be generous and say that people with similar schedules are
exposed to 20 minutes of language per day. But honestly, it’s not new
language. It’s the same 20 minutes of language as yesterday: “What would
you like to eat? Is that for here or to go? Would you like to take
advantage of our new buy-five, get-three-free promotion?”
That twenty-minutes of language is probably worth about five minutes in
terms of learning. At five minutes per day, how many days do we need to
reach the necessary 1,000 hours?
In actuality, at this rate you could never learn a language. At five
minutes per day, the rate at which we loose language would exceed the rate
you would learn it. In fact, if your exposure is less than a solid hour
per day, you will probably never learn it.
If you think about a language lesson you attended, you learned a number of
words and phrases. Maybe you even completed the exercises in class. Ten
minutes after class let out, you forgot fifty percent of the new
vocabulary. By the time you sat down to do your homework, it was almost
like seeing a brand new list of words, you had never heard before. That’s
why exposure, significant exposure, repeated exposure, and review is
necessary. If you didn’t sit down and do homework at the end of each day,
that day’s lesson would be completely lost.
A good example of language loss would be all of the Americans who suffered
through four years of high school Spanish, but when they went on holiday
in Puerto Vallarta, they discovered they couldn’t speak beyond, “Donde
esta la biblioteca?” With their Spanish being so bad, finding the library
wouldn’t do them a lot of good anyway?
Let’s say that you have successfully acquired a foreign language, after
two thousand hours of exposure. Could you acquire the next language in
ALG says that when you start to acquire a second language you simply
establish a second cup in your brain. The portion of your first cup was
simple language mechanics, that babies are unaware of. Those mechanics
have to be mastered first, before any language can be learned. But, if you
have already learned them once, you don’t need to learn them again. In
simple terms, your second cup would be about 15% smaller than the first
one. So, you would need 15% less exposure to learn the second language.
The third language might be marginally easier, but for the most part the
third, fourth and 87th languages would all be equally as difficult to
Keep in mind, we are talking language acquisition, in general, not about
the difficulties in learning specific language combinations. Related
languages, of course, would be easier to learn. For example, if your
second language is Khmer, you will acquire Thai faster than someone whose
second language is German. Learning Spanish is easier of you already speak
Although David Long and I would both agree that this is true, we vary
slightly in why we believe the second, related language is easier to
learn. We both agree that there are such concepts as linguistic triggers.
In other words, the smell of Thai food triggers Thai language in my brain.
David says that the reason why a Khmer speaker learns Thai faster is
because cultural understanding is one of the most important aspects in
language learning. I agree with him that the cultural understanding is
important. But I still can’t get away from the nuts and bolts. I am, on
some level, a language mechanic. I say the second and third languages may
be easier, also, because of similarities in grammar and vocabulary. ALG,
on the other hand, says don’t get hung up on words. Language is about
communication. I agree, but I still like to see my students copying
It’s a minute point, which language geeks, like myself, enjoy debating.
But, the practical point we both agree on is, the second or third related
language is slightly easier to learn.
In my personal language ethos, I picture boxes in my head, labeled with
the names of languages I speak. There are boxes for English, Chinese,
Thai, Khmer….I studied some Filipino and learned a bit of the language
when I was at school there, but not enough that Filipino has its own
separate box in my brain.
So, what happened to the Polish girl?
Here is my theory, and it goes along with my boxes in your brain theory.
The Antonio Theory of Language Acquisition:
We all have a box in our brain, marked for our native tongue, for example,
“English.” Nearly everyone has had at least some foreign language classes
in their life. But, most people don’t learn their studied languages to any
level of fluency. So, a box marked “French” never gets built in your
brain. Instead, you have a box marked “Foreign language.” And in that box
are the remnants of your high school French and college Spanish and that
six week Berliz course you did in Japanese.
The languages won’t break out and form their own boxes till you study them
At school in Thailand, I often had people tell me, “Every time I try to
speak Thai, my high school Spanish comes out of my mouth. And I don’t even
My theory is that the new Thai words these students are learning simply
get piled into the box marked “Foreign Language.” When someone approaches
them and asks a question in Thai, like “what’s your name?” The student
reaches into the box marked “Foreign Language,” and grabs the answer
closest to the top, the one that he practiced the most, the one that has
been in there the longest. He responds, “Me llamo Pablo.”
After 500 hours of study, Thai will have its own box, and this type of
interference won’t occur anymore.
In the case of the Polish girl, I believe that she was born with the
native tongue of Polish. She moved to Canada before she finished
elementary school. At first, English went into a box, marked “Foreign
Language.” And, she probably sometimes responded in Russian or German,
when someone asked her, “what’s your name?” Eventually, because she was
attending school every day, English got its own box. Once that happened,
the only interference came from Polish, her mother tongue.
After a number of years of school in Canada, the young lady reached a
point where her total exposure to English exceeded her hours of exposure
to Polish. In fact, she didn’t even possess Polish vocabulary for half of
what she was learning in school. At that point, English jumped up a notch,
and became the defacto mother tongue. Polish became a second, extremely
fluid, foreign language. Along the way, her high school French lessons
were shoved into a box with the German and Russian she had learned in
school in Poland.
She was probably no better, and possibly worse at learning French than
were her mono or bilingual Canadian classmates.
When she came to Taiwan to take her IMBA, she also took Chinese classes,
because she had an interest in learning languages. The Chinese lessons
went, not into her English language box, but into the highest priority
foreign language box in her brain, namely, Polish.
I noted that when she spoke Chinese, her accent was 100% Polish and not
English. If she spoke at length, and if we had a Polish native speaker
helping us to analyze her syntax and grammar, I bet we would find that
most of her mistakes were mistakes made by a Polish native speaker and not
a native speaker of English.
Amazingly, she no longer makes mistakes in English. This would support my
thesis that English has become her native tongue. But, it is her original
native tongue, now her strongest foreign language which interferes with
her acquisition of Chinese.
In theory, no matter what your native tongue is or what language is giving
you interference, you should be able to learn Chinese after 2,000 hours of
listening. But, being in the IMBA program, and not a Chinese language
program, she had probably had less than a few hundred hours of Chinese
input. Most of the IMBA students who take Chinese classes on the side,
don’t concentrate too much on them because they are not part of the degree
program. And they often drop out of their Chinese lessons, in order to
devote more time to their IMBA studies. At that point, their level of
exposure to Chinese is the same as any other foreigner in Taiwan, nearly
On a psycholinguistic level, I wondered if she may even have an emotional
attachment to the language she spoke as a young girl and on some,
subconscious level didn’t not want to let go of it. Could she be so
emotionally attached to Polish that she will never learn Chinese?
I don’t know. I write, and throw my ideas out there in the hopes that
readers will write back and give me some in put.
Antonio Garceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia.
His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, is available at amazon.com. See his
vieos on youtub.
His website is speakingadventure.com
Join him on facebook.com
Contact Antonio: email@example.com