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P O LY G L O THow I Learn Languages


TESL-EJ http://tesl-ej.org Berkeley Kyoto

Acknowledgments Thank you to Elizabeth Collison Elena Smolinska Sylvia Rucker Professor Thom Huebner for their help with this project. The review comments of Dr. Larissa Chiriaeva, Maria omsa, MA, and Dr. Stefan Frazier were invaluable in the preparation of the manuscript. Scott Alkire Translated by dm Szegi The first two Forewords, Introduction, and Chapter 20 translated by Kornelia DeKornePublishers Cataloging-in-Publication Data Lomb, Kat , 19092003. Polyglot : how I learn languages / Kat Lomb. 1st English ed. p. cm. Library of Congress Control Number: [forthcoming] ISBN 978-1-60643-706-3 1. Language learning. I. Title Copyright 2008 by Scott Alkire. All rights reserved. Cover: The Tower of Babel Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563) TESL-EJ http://tesl-ej.org Berkeley Kyoto

ContentsPreface Foreword to the First Edition Foreword to the Second Edition Foreword to the Fourth Edition Introduction What Is Language? Why Do We and Why Should We Study Languages? The Type of Language to Study Easy and Difficult Languages How to Study Languages Who This Book Is and Isnt For Lets Read! Why and What We Should Read How We Should Read Reading and Pronunciation What Sort of Languages Do People Study? vii xvii xix xxi 23 35 37 39 41 49 51 67 73 85 89 97

Language and Vocabulary Vocabulary and Context How to Learn Words Age and Language Learning Dictionaries: Crutches or Helpful Tools? Textbooks How We Converse in a Foreign Language How We Should Converse in a Foreign Language How I Learn Languages Grading Our Linguistic Mastery The Linguistic Gift Language Careers The Interpreting Career Reminiscences from My Travels Whats Around the Linguistic Corner? Epilogue

103 107 113 121 127 131 133 139 147 165 173 183 187 199 209 215

PrefaceIF multilingualism is indeed one of the great achievements of the human mind, as Vildomec (1963, p. 240) asserts, it is regrettable that few linguists have studied polyglots1 and what it is they know about language learning. For their part, polyglots have not provided us with much information either; in the 20th century, texts by polyglots on language learning, in particular texts that relate how they actually learned their languages, are rare. One text that relates personal language-learning experience is Dr. Kat Lombs Polyglot: How I Learn Languages (2008; Hungarian: gy tanulok nyelveket [1995, 4th ed.]). A collection of anecdotes and reflections on languages and language learning, it belongs to a select group of similar texts by polyglot linguists such as Bloomfield (Outline Guide for the Practical Study of Foreign Languages, 1942), Pei (How to Learn Languages and What Languages to Learn, 1973), Pimsleur (How to Learn a Foreign Language, 1980), and Stevick (Success with Foreign Languages, 1989). The text is further distinguished by the fact that it is the document of a learner who acquired most of her languages (16 in all) as an adult. But the most remarkable aspect of Polyglot: How I Learn Languages may be that few other books relate as authentically the experience of learning and using a foreign language in the real world.1. Linguistic definitions of multilingualism/polyglot vary. Nation, in a study of good language learners, defines a multilingual person as being fluent in four or more languages (1983, p. 1).


v i i i / P OLYG L O T: HOW I L E A R N L A NGUAG E S

The most multilingual woman Dr. Kat Lomb (19092003) has been called possibly the most accomplished polyglot in the world (Krashen, 1997, p. 15) and the most multilingual woman (Parkvall, 2006, p. 119). Unlike most polyglots, Lomb came to language learning relatively late. Indifferent to foreign languages in secondary school and university (her PhD was in chemistry), she began to acquire English on her own in 1933 for economic reasons: to find work as a teacher. She learned Russian in 1941, and by 1945 was interpreting and translating for the Budapest City Hall. She continued to learn languages, and at her peak was interpreting and/ or translating 16 different languages for state and business concerns. In the 1950s she became one of the first simultaneous interpreters in the world, and her international reputation became such that, according to an interview in Hetek newspaper (14 November 1998), she and her colleagues in the Hungarian interpreting delegation were known as the Lomb team (p. 16). Lomb wrote gy tanulok nyelveket in 1970. Subsequent editions were published in 1972, 1990, and 1995, and translations were published in Japan, Latvia, and Russia. As her fame grew, Lomb wrote additional books on languages, interpreting, and polyglots, and continued learning languages into her eighties. In 1995 she was interviewed by Stephen Krashen, who brought her achievements to the attention of the West. Her accomplishments did not alter her essential modesty. ...it is not possible [to know 16 languages]at least not at the same level of ability, she wrote in the foreword to the first edition of gy tanulok nyelveket. I only have one mother tongue: Hungarian. Russian, English, French, and German live inside me simultaneously with Hungarian. I can switch between any of these languages with great ease, from one word to the next. Translating texts in Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese,

Preface / ix

and Polish generally requires me to spend about half a day brushing up on my language skills and perusing the material to be translated. The other six languages [Bulgarian, Danish, Latin, Romanian, Czech, Ukrainian] I know only through translating literature and technical material. Pastiche of styles Perhaps because language and language learning are subjects that can be approached and understood in different ways, Lomb does not confine herself to a particular prose style. Rather, she tends to employ one of three genres memoir/narrative, functional/expository, and figurative/ literaryas it suits her content. For instance she uses memoir/narrative to relate most of her experiences learning languages, from how she acquired English, Russian, Romanian, Czech, and Spanish by reading novels to how she got into language classes. She also uses it, naturally enough, for anecdotes that emphasize the importance of contextlinguistic, social, culturalin effective communication. Lomb relies on functional/expository prose to outline her principles of language learning. This is appropriate because of her unconventional views, which demand clear exposition to avoid misinterpretation. About reading she writes, We should read because it is books that provide knowledge in the most interesting way, and it is a fundamental truth of human nature to seek the pleasant and avoid the unpleasant. She goes on to endorse any reading in the target language that fits the learners interest. Regarding the study of grammar as a means to learn a language, Lomb is similarly unambiguous: The traditional way of learning a language (cramming 2030 words a day and digesting the grammar supplied by a teacher or a course book) may satisfy at most ones sense of duty, but it can hardly serve as a source of joy. Nor will it likely be successful. She feels that this approach is in fact backwards. She


paraphrases Toussaint and Langenscheidt, the mid-19th century publishers: Man lernt Grammatik aus der Sprache, nicht Sprache aus der Grammatik. (One learns grammar from language, not language from grammar.) On the topic of textbooks she makes an obvious but rarely made point: ...a student whose native language is Hungarian should study from a book prepared by a Hungarian. This is not owing to chauvinism but because every nation has to cope with its own specific difficulties when learning a foreign language. Jespersen, the eminent Danish philologist, knew this: he classified the errors committed in the English language by nationality. How Lomb uses figurative language to explain the process of language learning is compelling and is perhaps the most distinctive stylistic element of the book. She writes, ...consider language a building and language learning its construction. The Russian language is a complicated, massive cathedral harmoniously fashioned in every arch and corner. The learner must accept this in order to have sufficient motivation to build it. Also: Knowledgelike a nail is made load-bearing by being driven in. If its not driven deep enough, it will break when any weight is put upon it. Elsewhere Lomb uses her building metaphor differently: A foreign language is a castle. It is advisable to besiege it from all directions: newspapers, radio, motion pictures which are not dubbed, technical or scientific papers, textbooks, and the visitor at your neighbors. Lombs sense of irony is another creative feature of her text. In critiquing teacher-guided learning, she plays off a wry Hungarian joke: There is an old joke about coffees in Budapest that applies here:Coffees in Budapest have an advantage they have no coffee substitute They have a disadvantage

Preface / xi

they have no coffee bean And they have a mystery what makes them black?

You can discover these elements in teacher-guided learning as well. Its unquestioned advantage: the reliability of the linguistic information and the regularity of the lessons. Its disadvantage: inconvenience, an often-slow pace, and less opportunity for selective learning.... In the end...the classic, teacher-guided method has its own mystery. The question is how to supplement it with personal methods. Factors in language learning Throughout her book Lomb expresses her belief that a language learners success is primarily determined by motivation, pe