Thursday, February 11, 2016

Learning languages by reading II

Kato Lomb: How I Learn Languages

I  chose  a  career  for  myself  quickly:  I  would  make  my living teaching languages.
The next decision was a bit more difficult: which language would I teach? Latin was not a very sought-after commodity, and there were more French teachers than students in Budapest. English was the only sure and steady breadwinner. But I had to learn it first.
Spurred on by the two incentives of necessity and thirst for knowledge, I worked out a method for language learning that I use to this day. Will  this  method  work  for  others?  My conviction is that anybody would have reached the same results had they hit their books with the same curiosity and stick-to-it-ness that I did in the spring of 1933, crouched at the end of my living room couch.
I started by intensively studying a novel by Galsworthy.
Within a week, I was intuiting the text; after a month, I understood it; and after two months, I was having fun with it.


Browsing in a secondhand bookshop downtown, I came across a two-volume Russian-English dictionary. I made a beeline for the cashier’s counter with my treasure. It didn’t require much of a sacrifice: I paid pennies  for  the  two  musty,  ragged  volumes  that  had  been published in 1860.
I never put them down after that.
In the early 1940s it was suspicious to study Russian in Hungary, which was becoming more and more fascist. Thus it  was  downright  lucky  that  I  had  worked  out  a  method for  language  learning  based  on  texts.  Although  there  was Russian instruction going on at the university (I believe), for me to get into that program was about as likely as getting a scholarship to study in Russia.
I found a few classic Russian novels in someone’s private collection; these I could not tackle. Chance came to my aid once again.
A lot of White Russian émigrés lived in Berlin then. One of these families happened to take a vacation for a few weeks in  Balatonszárszó,  a  small  resort  on  our  Lake  Balaton.  My husband and I happened to take their room at the inn the very day they left, and the maid was just about to dump the stuff they had left behind. In the clutter I discovered, with mounting  excitement,  a  thick  book  with  large  Cyrillic  lettering: it was a silly, sentimental romance novel from 1910.
I set to it without a moment’s hesitation. I spent so much time tinkering with it, trying to understand the text, that to this day I still remember certain pages of it word for word.
By the time I was able to move on to more quality reading,  it  was  1943  and  carpet  bombings  were  upon  us.  As a  result  of  hours  spent  in  the  bomb  shelter,  I  was  able  to progress faster. All I had to do was camouflage my book. I purchased a thick Hungarian encyclopedia and had a bookbinder acquaintance sew the pages of Gogol’s Dead Souls in place of every second sheet. During air raids, I would wade through entire chapters of it. This was the time I worked out my technique of boldly skipping over unfamiliar words, for it would have been dangerous to consult a Russian dictionary in the bomb shelter.
With  the  siege  raging,  I  tried  to  pass  the  time  in  the dark  cellar  by  constantly  working  on  the  conversation  I would  have  with  the  first  Russian  soldier  who  set  foot  in it. I decided to embellish each sentence with a few adjectival  and  adverbial  participles  (my  mastery  of  these  was  the shakiest). Moreover, I would dazzle him not only with the ease and elegance of my command of his language, but with my  literary  accomplishments  as  well:  I  would  draw  parallels between the poetry of Pushkin and Lermontov; I would sing the praises of Sholokhov’s epic style; and so on and so forth.
That was the dream. The reality, in contrast, was that in the sudden quiet of the dawning New Year’s Day, I stole up into the bleak and barren garden surrounding the building. Barely had I filled my lungs with a few fresh breaths when a rather young soldier jumped over the fence into the garden. He was clutching a milk jug, making it obvious what he was doing there. But he did utter a few words: “Korova est?” he asked.
I, on the other hand, was so discombobulated with excitement  that  I  didn’t  even  recognize  the  word  for  “cow.”
The young man tried to help.
“Korova! You know? Moo...oo...oo!”
As  I  just  kept  staring  at  him  agape,  he  shrugged  and jumped over the other fence.


In one of his short stories Dezső Kosztolányi beautifully describes the learning of a language from a book. Some excerpts are worth inserting here:

That summer, my only thought was having a rest, playing ball, and swimming. Therefore, I didn’t bring along anything to work with. At the last minute, I threw a Portuguese book into my baggage. the open, by necessity, I resigned myself to the book, and in the prison of my solitude, formed by dolomite rocks on one side and vast
forests on the other, between the sky and the water, I started to make the text out. At first, it was difficult. Then I got the hang of it. I resolved I would still get to the bottom of it, without a master or a dictionary. To spur my instinct and creativity, I imagined I would be hit by some great trouble were I not to understand it exactly, or maybe an unknown tyrant would even condemn me to death.
It was a strange game. The first week, I sweated blood. The second, I intuited what it was about. The third week, I greeted the birds in Portuguese, who then chatted with me...
...I very much doubt if I could ever use it in my life or if I would be able to read any other Portuguese books. But it is not important. I did not regret this summer’s steeplechase. I wonder about those who learn a language for practical reasons rather than for itself. It is boring to know. The only thing of interest is learning.
...An exciting game, a coquettish hide-and-seek, a magnificent flirt with the spirit of humanity. Never do we read so fluently and with such keen eyes as in a hardly known, new language.
We grow young by it, we become children, babbling babies and we seem to start a new life. This is the elixir of my life.
...Sometimes I think of it with a certain joy that I can even learn Chinese at my ancient age and that I can recall the bygone pleasure of childhood when I first uttered in the superstitious, old language “mother,” and I fall asleep with this word: “milk.”

Excerpts from the short story “Portugálul olvasok” [I read in Portuguese], in Erős várunk, a nyelv [Our strong fortress, language].

After this testimony of lyrical beauty, let me say that although more efficient means of learning exist, more accessible and obliging ones do not. In order to have an hour’s dialogue with a book, the most you need to do is amble as far as the nearest library. If it were so easy to get hold of an intelligent, cordial, and patient partner, I would recommend that instead.

I mention the library only as a last resort. I recommend buying your own books for language learning. They can be spiced with underlines, question marks, and exclamation points; they can be thumbed and dog-eared, plucked to their essential core, and annotated so that they become a mirror of yourself.
What shall you write in the margins? Only the forms and phrases you have understood and figured out from the context.

Ignore what you can’t immediately understand. If a word is important, it will occur several times and explain itself anyway. Base your progress on the known, not the unknown. The more you read, the more phrases you will write in the margins. The relationship that develops between you and the knowledge you obtain will be much deeper than if you had consulted the dictionary automatically. The sense of achievement provides you with an emotional-affective charge: You have sprung open a lock; you have solved a little puzzle.

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. The traditional way of learning a language (cramming 20–30 words a day and digesting the grammar supplied by a teacher or 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.

Man lernt Grammatik aus der Sprache, nicht Sprache aus der Grammatik
(One learns grammar from language, not language from grammar)

this truth was stated at the end of the 19th century. Coming at the time when dead languages were studied via grammar translation, this slogan by Toussaint and Langenscheidt was received as revolutionary. It is, however, clear today that the most reliable carriers of language—ordinary books—are at the same time course books as well. The only thing to be added to the above slogan is that books don’t only teach grammar but also provide the most painless means of obtaining vocabulary.

There is a separate chapter on vocabulary in this book, but the importance of the question deserves touching on here. The automatic-mechanical memory of our childhood is gone, and the logic of our adult mind is of little help. But in order to be able to express our thoughts and understand others’, we need thousands of phrases.
How many?
Without delving into the extensive literature on what an average vocabulary is, I propose one approximate number here. Our Hungarian pocket dictionaries usually contain 20–30,000 basic terms (entries). At the level that I call B in a later chapter, we use approximately 50–60% of this vocabulary.
Let me ask whoever has reached this stage a question: what percentage of this respectable vocabulary did you obtain “legally,” that is, by looking up their meanings in a dictionary or having their meanings explained? I suspect not many. You came by the bulk of your understanding without lifting a finger, by a more comfortable means than dictionaries, course books, or teachers: books.

Learning grammar doesn’t try the adult mind as much as vocabulary acquisition. Aversion to grammar is still a universal feature of the technologically minded youth of our time, however. Yet without knowledge of grammar, one cannot fully learn to write.

The human mind is characterized by the fact that the question of “why?” pops up immediately in connection with any new kind of phenomenon. In languages, it is rules that give the reason. Ignoring them would be such a sin as ignoring the laws of chemistry, genetics, or crystallography.

A book can be pocketed and discarded, scrawled and torn into pages, lost and bought again. It can be dragged out from a suitcase, opened in front of you when having a snack, revived at the moment of waking, and skimmed through once again before falling asleep. It needs no notice by phone if you can’t attend the appointment fixed in the timetable. It won’t get mad if awakened from its slumber during your sleepless nights. Its message can be swallowed whole or chewed into tiny pieces. Its content lures you for intellectual adventures and it satisfies your spirit of adventure. You can get bored of it — but it won’t ever get bored of you. Books are eternal companions. When you grow out of one you simply discard it for another.

what shall we read? Answer: A text that is of interest to you. Interesse ist stärker als Liebe as they put it in German. (Interest[edness] is stronger than love.) And interest beats the fiercest enemy: boredom.

We must admit that in a foreign language in which we have a deficient vocabulary, reading can be boring. After five, 10, or 20 minutes, we may get the feeling of coming to a linguistic deadlock if we’re not motivated to continue. We need something more to help us get through it.
That something is the pull of a truly interesting text.
What someone finds interesting is a matter of age, intellectual level, trade, and hobby. I took the trouble of asking 10 people I knew who had followed my method and asked them what had helped them through their linguistic deadlocks (if any). I include their answers here in the order and form I received them.

Ö. M., high school student, reader of sports pages:
“It’s uncool when you don’t know what matches foreign soccer teams are preparing for.”

B. N., typewriter repairman, reader of technical manuals:
“You know, I invent technical devices; that’s what I need it for.”

P. F., grandmother:
“Well, I never, how much they dare to write down in today’s romance novels!”

A. M., department head, Federal Ministry:
“I love detective stories. I can’t stop before I learn who the murderer was!”

J. L., printer:
“I wanted to learn the lyrics of the tunes I was whistling.”

I. M., haberdashery assistant:
“It began with Princess Diana. I actually specialized in her...”

S. W., first-year medic, reader of medical texts:
“I’d like to do neurophysiology.”

The more our curiosity is satisfied by reading, the less we need discipline to get through our deadlocks.
You didn’t put your bicycle back against the wall after your first fall, nor did you chop up your skis when you fell into the snow — despite the fact that these memories were long preserved by painful bruises. You held on because you knew that your trials would be less and less and the joys provided by the new skill would be greater and greater. (Even though these were not even about a new world, whose gates are opened by a little persistence.)

Speaking skill is developed most by reading today’s plays and  colorful  modern  short  stories  and  novels  that  have  a good  pace. “Situational elements,” as they call them, are built into the background of the story so they steal into your memory along with the background. This will be the context with which they will emerge when you get into the same situation as described. The advantage of “situational” texts is that they provide usable vocabulary and sentence patterns. Their disadvantage is that they are fairly difficult to understand.

For a valuable “dictionary” of spoken language, you can use today’s plays or the dialogues of novels. Classical works are not suitable for this purpose. I asked my young German friend who was raised on Jókai (Mór Jókai: prolific Hungarian writer of the 19th century.) how she liked her new roommate.
“Délceg, de kevély,” (“Stately but haughty,” expressed in a lofty and old-fashioned way. ) she replied.

Course books and even today’s popular phrase books are often written in stilted language and are thus not reliable sources of live speech compared to a modern literary work. I leafed through a travel dictionary recently (it wasn’t published in Hungary) and I couldn’t help laughing when I imagined the dialogue recommended for learning in the context of today’s life: “I would like to get acquainted with the places of historical interest and the important agricultural products of your country.”

It is much more likely that the conversation will sound something like this:
“Hey, how ’bout getting a cup of joe around here?”
“Oh, slower please, I don’t understand. Getting what?”
“A cup of joe!”
“What is it? A cup of coffee?”
“Of course!”
“Sorry, I can’t, I have to go back to the...uh, what do you call it?”
“To the hotel? Well, see you!”

I admit that a course book cannot teach and an instructor cannot recommend using the words “hey,” “oh,” “well,” “y’know,” “huh,” “kind of ” and the like. However, they occur much more frequently in everyday chats than well-bred “dictionary words.” So I return to my soapbox: until you naturally begin to acquire such words through usage, you can learn such colloquialisms from today’s prose in the most painless way.

How We Should Read

AT FIRST, we should read with a blitheness practically bordering on superficiality; later on, with a conscientiousness close to distrust. It is especially my male and technically minded fellow students whom I would like to persuade to do this. I frequently see men reading the easiest pulp fiction, armed with heavy dictionaries. They will read one word in the book and then look it up in the dictionary. No wonder they soon get bored of reading and end up sighing with relief when it is time for the news so they can turn on the TV. Conscientiousness is a nice virtue, but at the beginning of language learning, it is more of a brake than an engine.
It is not worth looking up every word in the dictionary. It is much more of a problem if a book becomes flavorless in your hands because of interruptions rather than not knowing whether the inspector watches the murderer from behind a blackthorn or a hawthorn.
If a word is important, it will come up again and its meaning will become apparent from the context. This kind of vocabulary acquisition, which requires some thinking, leaves a much more lasting impression than reaching for the dictionary automatically and acknowledging the meaning of the word absent-mindedly. If you reach understanding at the expense of brainwork, it was you who contributed to creating the connection and you who found the solution. This joy is like the one felt completing a crossword puzzle.
The sense of achievement sweetens the joy of work and makes up for the boredom of effort. It incorporates the most interesting thing in the world even into an indifferent text.
You wonder what it is?
Our own selves.
It was me myself who gleaned the word and me myself who deciphered the meaning of the sentence. It deserves some subconscious self-recognition, a secret little self-congratulation. You are compensated for your invested work, and you have the motivation for further activity right away.

It is proven by experience that initial dynamism is a good way to start reading in a foreign language, since a habit can be made of it like every other human activity. The main thing is to not get discouraged by the unfriendly medium of the foreign language text.

To my knowledge, aside from Kosztolányi’s story “I Read in Portuguese,” there is only one other work in Hungarian literature that deals with language learning: a charming tale by Mikszáth called “Aussi Brebis.” The main character in the story hires a French tutor for his sons. The teenagers want to evade this girl (and learning) at all costs, so they invent the excuse that she doesn’t speak French. They have their father promise to let them stop learning once they manage to catch her ignorant. In order to expose her, they keep browsing the dictionary and the grammar book until they acquire the language themselves without noticing it.

Let’s be sly and suspicious ourselves, too, in this second stage. Let’s regard words and sentences as touchstones to see if the writer breaks any rules.
I can predict the result in advance. It will turn out that André Maurois speaks better French than you, Vera Panova better Russian, and Taylor Caldwell better English. In this fight, you cannot prevail but you can win. Your knowledge develops and becomes consolidated. By the way, I didn’t mention these three specific authors by chance. Their fluent, natural style makes them very suitable for warming up.

To those who don’t dare to embark on original, unabridged literary works immediately, I can recommend adapted texts with all my heart. The classics of world literature have been rewritten, for language-learning purposes, into simpler sentences with a reduced vocabulary. They are available in every bookstore, and they can be borrowed from libraries for free, but I don’t recommend the latter. Course books are for scrawling. When they have come apart by too much use, they can be bought again.

Language is present in a piece of writing like the sea in a single drop. If you have the patience to turn the text up and down and inside out; break it into pieces and put it together again; shake it up and let it settle again—then you can learn remarkably much from it.

Lajos Kossuth, whose orations are given as models in 20th-century English rhetoric books, learned English in an Austrian prison. He used 16 lines of a Shakespeare play as a starting point. “I literally had to surmise English grammar from them. And once I had and perfectly understood the 16 lines, I knew enough English so that I only had to enrich my vocabulary.”

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