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Insights of a Master Language Learner
By Scott Alkire
Kató Lomb (1909–2003) was one of
the great polyglots of the 20th century. A translator and one of the
first simultaneous interpreters in the world, Lomb worked in 16 languages for
state and business concerns in her native
Dr. Kató Lomb 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 as a way to find
work as a teacher. She learned Russian in 1941 and by 1945 was interpreting and
translating for the
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 writes in the foreword to the first Hungarian edition of her memoir. “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 another.
“Translating texts in Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, and Polish generally requires me to spend half a day brushing up on my language skills and perusing the material.
“The other six languages [Bulgarian, Danish, Latin, Romanian, Czech, Ukrainian] I know only through translating literature and technical material.”
Lomb’s memoir was published in
1970. Subsequent editions were published in 1972, 1990, and 1995. In addition,
translations were published in
Lomb challenges many of the conventions of language learning, including the grammar-translation method and generic textbooks: “The traditional way of learning a language (cramming 20–30 words a day and digesting the grammar supplied by a teacher or a course book) may satisfy at most one’s 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 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 Lomb 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. Jesperson, the eminent Danish philologist, knew this: he classified the errors committed in the English language by nationality.”
Lomb also challenges the idea of innate ability in language learning. Throughout her book she expresses her belief that a language learner’s success is primarily determined not by talent but by motivation, perseverance, and diligence. “I don’t believe there is [an innate ability for learning languages],” she writes in the foreword to the second edition. “I want to demystify language learning, and to remove the heroic status associated with learning another language.”
Although linguists tend to subscribe to the notion of the “good” language learner, Lomb recognizes that the matter is usually more complicated than that. For example, educated and uneducated language learners are different, as are male and female learners. Lomb speculates that educated learners may be less successful learners because of the gap between their intellectual achievements and their status as beginning learners. She notes that “a man usually feels this tension more acutely than a woman,” and that women, in general, have a stronger desire to communicate than men, giving them more learning opportunities.
Despite her own high level of achievement, Lomb claims that she is not a perfectionist in language learning. “I like to say that we should study languages because languages are the only thing worth knowing even poorly,” she writes.
“If someone knows how to play the violin only a little, he will find that the painful minutes he causes are not in proportion to the possible joy he gains from his playing. The amateur chemist spares himself ridicule only as long as he doesn’t aspire for professional laurels. The man somewhat skilled in medicine will not go far, and if he tries to trade on his knowledge without certification, he will be locked up as a quack doctor.
“Solely in the world of languages
is the amateur of value. Well-intentioned sentences full of mistakes can still
build bridges between people. Asking in broken Italian which train we are
supposed to board at the
In Chapter 20 of her book Lomb writes “My thoughts on language learning are organized into the little compendium below. Heaven forbid that we should call them Ten Commandments of Language Learning—let us perhaps call them Ten Suggestions for Successful Language Learning.
1. Spend time tinkering with the language every day. If time is short, try at least to produce a 10-minute monologue. Morning hours are especially valuable in this respect: the early bird catches the word!
2. If your enthusiasm for studying flags too quickly, don’t force the issue but don’t stop altogether either. Move to some other form of studying, e.g., instead of reading, listen to the radio; instead of writing a composition, poke about in the dictionary, etc.
3. Never learn isolated units of speech; rather, learn them in context.
4. Write phrases in the margins of your text and use them as “prefabricated elements” in your conversations.
5. Even a tired brain finds rest and relaxation in quick, impromptu translations of billboard advertisements flashing by, of numbers over doorways, of snippets of overheard conversations, etc., just for its own amusement.
6. Memorize only that which has been corrected by a teacher. Do not keep studying texts you have written that have not been proofread and corrected so mistakes don’t take root in your mind. If you study on your own, each text you memorize should be kept to a size that precludes the possibility of errors.
7. Always memorize idiomatic expressions in the first person singular. For example, “I am only pulling your leg.”
8. A foreign language is a castle. It is advisable to besiege it from all directions: newspapers, radio, movies that are not dubbed, technical or scientific papers, textbooks, and the visitor at your neighbor’s.
9. Do not let the fear of making mistakes keep you from speaking, but do ask your conversation partner to correct you. Most importantly, don’t get peeved if he or she actually obliges you—a remote possibility, anyway.
10. Be firmly convinced that you are a linguistic genius. If the facts demonstrate otherwise, heap blame on the pesky language you aim to master, your dictionaries, or this book—but not on yourself.”
Lomb expands upon many of these ideas in her book, and writes at length on reading, pronunciation, vocabulary, and dictionaries, among other topics. The sum is a unique, somewhat rambling, but always informed discussion on language and language learning based on personal experience. This gives the text a veracity that is rare among books on language learning.
Krashen and other linguists have
offered arguments as to why the experiences of Lomb and other successful
learners are important to second language acquisition (
1. “[Lomb] demonstrates, quite
spectacularly, that high levels of second language proficiency can be attained
by adults; much of her language acquisition was done in her 30s and 40s…”
(Krashen and Kiss, 1996, p. 210). Stevick (1989), Chang (1990), Gethin and
Gunnemark (1996), and Parkvall (2006) report similar cases of outstanding adult
learners. These cases are important exceptions to prevailing
2. Pavlenko argues that texts such as Lomb’s allow for a “complex, theoretically and socio-historically informed, investigation of social contexts of language learning and of individual learners’ trajectories, as well as an insight into which learners’ stories are not yet being told” (2001, p. 213).
3. Krashen and Kiss point out that Lomb was a relatively unsuccessful student of languages in high school and learned them primarily later, through self-study (1996). The implications of this for prescribed methods in language teaching are worthy of investigation.
4. In an article on Lomb’s strategies for language learning and SLA theory, Alkire notes that Lomb’s text “has strategies for, and conclusions about, language learning that closely correlate with those of successful learners documented in major SLA studies of the past 25 years” (2005, p. 17).
5. Inspired by Carroll (1967), Naiman,
Fröhlich, Stern, and Todesco conducted a study to see if “biographies of
individuals speaking more than one language might contain clues to the
conditions of successful language acquisition” (1978, p. 1). Their findings
substantiated their thesis and have been widely influential in
6. Scovel writes that, in our
efforts to understand successful language learning, “…the evidence can be
either experimental or experiential. Given the complexity of
This article has presented just a sampling of Dr. Lomb’s ideas on language learning. In its entirety, Polyglot: How I Learn Languages is a wide-ranging treatise on successful language learning. ESL and EFL instructors would do well to take Lomb’s experience into account, if for no other reason than to gain insight into how an average high school student became one of the great polyglots of the 20th century.
Alkire, S. 2005. Kató Lomb’s
strategies for language learning and
Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, Fall.
Brumfit, C. 1996. Introduction to the new edition. In Naiman et al., The good language learner (pp.
vii–x). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Krashen, S. D. and Kiss, N. 1996. Notes on a polyglot. System 24 (2):207–210.
Krashen, S. D. 1997. Foreign language education the easy way.
Lomb, K. 1995. Így tanulok nyelveket.
Lomb, K. 2008. Polyglot: How I learn languages.
and Kornelia DeKorne.
Naiman, N., Fröhlich, M., Stern, H. H., and Todesco, A. 1996. The good language learner.
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Nation, R. J. 1983. The good language learner: A comparison of learning strategies of monolinguals,
multilinguals. PhD diss.
Parkvall, M. 2006. Limits of language.
Pavlenko, A. 2001. Language learning memoirs as a gendered genre. Applied Linguistics 22
Scovel, T. 2001. Learning new languages.
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