Monday, July 4, 2016

Kató Lomb's Polyglot: How I Learn Languages - Excerpt

I have removed quite a lot, and it is interesting, so get your hands on this book and read it. It is full of anecdotes of Kató's life as a language lover and interpreter/translator.

Excerpt from Chapter 20: How I Learn Languages from Kató Lomb's Polyglot: How I Learn Languages


Let’s say that I wish to learn Azilian. There is no such language, of course. I have made it up to emphasize the general approach I use to learn any language.

First of all, I try to get my hands on a thick Azilian dictionary. Owing to my optimistic outlook I never buy small dictionaries; I go on the assumption that they are a waste of money because I would fathom them too quickly.

If an Azilian-Hungarian dictionary is not available, then I try to get hold of an Azilian-English, Azilian-Russian, etc., dictionary.

In the beginning, I use this dictionary as my textbook.

I learn the rules of reading from it. Every language — and consequently every dictionary — contains a lot of international expressions. The bigger the dictionary, the more such expressions there are in it.

The words for nations and cities (that is, places that do not have language-dependent names) and scientific terms that transcend specific languages reveal to me the relationships between letter-characters and phonemes in Azilian. I remember that the first thing I looked up in the Russian - English dictionary I bought in 1941 was my own name: Eкатерина.

I do not memorize words from the dictionary; I just scan and study them as though they were some crossword puzzle to be solved. By the time I glean the rules of reading from the above-cited international words, the dictionary will have revealed a lot of other things about Azilian. For example, I can see how it morphs the parts of speech: how it nominalizes verbs, how it forms adjectives from nouns, and how it forms adverbs from adjectives.

This is just a first taste of the language. I am sampling it, making friends with it.

Following this first assay, I buy a textbook and some works of Azilian literature. Regarding textbooks, I always buy one with the answers provided for the exercises, as I am an average language learner: i.e., I mostly have to teach myself.

I go through the lessons and complete all the exercises in sequence, as they come in the book. I write breezily, leaving ample room for corrections. Then I look up the answers in the key and write them beside/above my own incorrect responses. In this way I get a visual representation of “the history of my folly.”

I scold myself for the errors made and then promptly forgive myself. (This is very important; see the 10th Commandment on page 160.)

I always leave enough space in my notebook to write five–six correct words or sentences for the ones I got wrong. This is very helpful in imprinting the correct formulas.

As all this is a bit tedious, right from the outset I start reading Azilian plays or short stories. If I get lucky, there will be adapted texts available. If not, I just start on any literature published before 1950. (I can have trouble understanding the style of modern novels, even in Hungarian.) I always buy books in pairs: this increases the chance that at least one will be comprehensible. I start on the comprehensible novel immediately.

To go from incomprehension to half-understanding to complete understanding is an exciting and inspiring journey of discovery worthy of the spirit of a mature person. By the time I finish the journey, I part with the book feeling that this has been a profitable and fun enterprise.

On my first reading of the book, I write words I understand into my notebook, that is, words whose meaning I have been able to figure out from the context. Naturally,
I do not write them out in isolation, but in sentences. It is only after a second or third reading that I look up words I don’t know. Even then, I do not look up each and every one.

For those that I record in my notebook, I include the context from the book or from a contemporary dictionary worthy of the name.

All this, however, does not teach one of the most important of the four aspects of language learning: verbal comprehension.
What’s more, I have not gotten an accurate picture of Azilian pronunciation, because the phonetic transcriptions of the textbook are always of somewhat dubious value.

For this reason, at the very beginning of my language study I set aside some time for scanning the Azilian airwaves. I figure out when and at what frequency I can hear Azilian speech on the radio. Somewhere, sometime, I am sure to catch it from the ether.

News bulletins generally present the most important international events of the day. Therefore, even if the news items are selected according to the probable interests of Azilians, they will likely be the same on different stations, in different languages. So I always listen to the news in some other, familiar language as well. Thus I am given a key — almost a dictionary — to what I can expect, in advance.

If an unknown word crops up along the way, I write it down. After the broadcast, I look it up immediately in my big dictionary. The reason for this is that right after the broadcast, the word is still resounding in my ear with its entire context. If I misheard it (which happens many times), the context, still fresh in my memory, helps me correct the error.

If I find the word in the dictionary, a little self-congratulation is in order again, and this makes learning a pleasant pastime instead of a burdensome task.

Then, not immediately, but after a day or two, I record in my glossary the knowledge acquired off the air. I recommend this temporally staggered approach because one is forced to revisit fading memories—unfortunately, quite often not for the last time.

Once a week, I tape the broadcast. I keep the recording for a while and play it back several times. On these occasions, I always concentrate on pronunciation. Alas, I must admit that based on the announcer’s native pronunciation, sometimes I have to reacquaint myself with words that I thought I already knew from books.

Of course, I try to find a teacher who speaks Azilian.
If I find a professional educator, I’ve got it made.
If there isn’t a bona fide teacher available, I try to at least find an Azilian who is in Hungary on a scholarship. Gender I confess that I prefer being taught by a woman. Perhaps this is because it is easier to chat with women.


Filler expressions, such as “well,” “of course,” “still,” “yet,” “only,” “also,” “on the contrary,” or “I tell you” get greater play. I cannot recommend learning these so-called diluting agents too highly to students of any language. These are “non-negligible negligibles” because they provide a little space to catch one’s breath and to recall the more important elements in the sentence. My recommendation applies not only to filler words but also to frame expressions: collect them and use them!


To return to my method of language study, what I expect from my Azilian teacher is what I cannot get from either books or the radio. Firstly, I ask the teacher to speak at a slower than average speed so that I can catch as many words as possible from the context; secondly, I expect him or her to correct my Azilian, mainly on the basis of written assignments that I diligently prepare for each class.

At first, I write free compositions because it’s easier. Often these are disjointed texts, made up of elements not connected with each other, just loose sentences that I use to hang new, just seen/just heard words and grammatical phrases on. From the teacher’s corrections I verify whether I grasped their meanings and functions properly.
When I reach a higher level of knowledge I begin to translate. At this stage, an already given text compels me to give up using well-practiced formulas and rely on my translator’s discipline, which involves strategies I am not so certain of.

Uncorrected mistakes are very perilous! If one keeps repeating wrong formulas, they take root in the mind and one will be inclined to accept them as authentic. Written translations pinpoint one’s errors ruthlessly, while a listening ear might be prone to just glossing over them. I know this from my own translations being “corrected.”


If I succeed in getting permission to travel to Azilville, then the trip’s effect on my Azilian may depend on two factors. One is the extent to which I am able to observe and record the natives’ speech. The other factor is the extent of my knowledge of Azilian prior to my journey.

It is a grave delusion that merely staying in a foreign country will allow you to absorb its language. I think people have been misled by the Latin proverb Saxa loquuntur, or “Stones talk.” Houses, walls, and buildings do not undertake the task of teaching. It may be that they talk, but their speech, alas, is in stone language.
It is quite possible to pick up a few colloquial, idiomatic expressions or clever turns of phrase from the locals, but these generally do not amount to any more than what one would have acquired anyway by diligently studying at home during the same time period.
Neither reminiscing in your native tongue with your émigré compatriots who may now live in Azilia (“Do you remember Alex from sixth grade?”), nor comparative window shopping (or Schaufensterlecken in German, meaning “shop window licking”) will do anything for your Azilian.

Frequent listening to spoken Azilian, however, will.

Local papers usually publish information on what museums or galleries offer guided tours.
Also, there should be an Azilian branch of the Society for Popular Science Education (or whatever organization you’re interested in); they usually offer free lectures to educate the public. Whenever I am abroad, I frequent all these types of events and take copious notes every time.
Going to the movies can help you learn a language.
The ideal solution, of course, is to maintain active relationships with native speakers of one’s ilk and interests, with lots of shared activities—especially if these natives are willing to correct your mistakes, and if one is resolved not to get mad at them when they do.

The other factor that decides the impact of a trip on one’s knowledge of a language is one’s level of mastery at the time of departure. “A” and “F” students will benefit the least from trips. Those who know nothing at the outset will probably return with virgin minds. For those at a very advanced level, improvement will be difficult to detect. The best results will show - given the ideal conditions listed above — at the intermediate level.

* * *

My thoughts on language learning are organized into the little compendium below.

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!

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 aboutin the dictionary, etc.

Never learn isolated units of speech; rather, learn them in context.

Write phrases in the margins of your text and use them as “prefabricated elements” in your conversations. 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.

Memorize only that which has been corrected by a teacher. Do not keep studying sentences 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 sentence you memorize should be kept to a size that precludes the possibility of errors.

Always memorize idiomatic expressions in the first person singular. For example, “I am only pulling your leg.”

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.

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.

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.

As seven of the biblical Ten Commandments are in the negative, let me now list what not to do if you aim to achieve an acceptable level of linguistic mastery within an acceptable time frame.

Do not postpone embarking on learning a new language — or restarting such a study — until the time of a prospective trip abroad. Rather, try to gain access to native speakers of your target language who are on a visit to your country and who do not speak your language. They could be relatives or friends. If you accompany them and show them around, they will help you solidify your knowledge of their language out of gratitude; they will enrich your vocabulary and excuse the mistakes you make.

Do not expect the same behavior from your compatriots. Do not practice with them because they will be prone to giving prime time to your errors — or at the very least, they will be inclined to employ meaningful facial gesturens— to demonstrate how much better they are at the language than you.

Do not believe that a teacher’s instruction, no matter how intense and in-depth it may be, gives you an excuse not to delve into the language on your own. For this reason you should, from the outset, start browsing through illustrated magazines, listening to radio programs and/or prerecorded cassettes, watching movies, etc.

In your browsing, do not get obsessed with words you don’t know or structures you don’t understand. Build comprehension on what you already know. Do not automatically reach for the dictionary if you encounter a word or two you don’t recognize. If the expression is important, it will reappear and explain itself; if it is not so important, it is no big loss to gloss over it.

Do not miss writing down your thoughts in the foreign language. Write in simple sentences. For foreign words you can’t think of, use one from your own language for the time being.

Do not be deterred from speaking by the fear of making mistakes. The flow of speech creates a chain reaction: the context will lead you to the correct forms.

Do not forget a large number of filler expressions and sentence-launching phrases. It is great when you can break the ice with a few formulas that are always on hand and can help you over the initial embarrassment of beginning a conversation, for example “My French is kind of shaky” or “It’s been a while since I spoke Russian,” etc.

Do not memorize any linguistic element (expression) outside of its context, partly because a word may have several different meanings: e.g., the English word comforter may refer to someone who is consoling another, or it can mean a knitted shawl, a quilt or eiderdown, or yet again a baby’s pacifier. In addition, it is good, right off the bat, to get used to the practice of leaving the vortex of meanings around the word in your own language alone and reaching out to its kin words in the new language (or to the context you have most frequently encountered it in).

Do not leave newly learned structures or expressions hanging in the air. Fix them in your memory by fitting them into different, new settings: into your sphere of interest, into the reality of your own life.

Do not be shy of learning poems or songs by heart. Good diction is more than the mere articulation of individual sounds. Verses and melodies impose certain constraints; they set which sounds must be long and which must be short. The rhythm inherent in them helps the learner avoid the intonation traps of his native language.

Kató Lomb (Pécs, February 8, 1909 – Budapest, June 9, 2003) was a Hungarian interpreter, translator and one of the first simultaneous interpreters in the world. Originally she graduated in physics and chemistry, but her interest soon led her to languages. Native in Hungarian, she was able to interpret fluently in nine or ten languages (in four of them even without preparation), and she translated technical literature and read belles-lettres in six languages. She was able to understand journalism in further eleven languages. As she put it, altogether she earned money with sixteen languages (Bulgarian, Chinese, Danish, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, Ukrainian). She learned these languages mostly by self-effort, as an autodidact. Her aims to acquire these languages were most of all practical, to satisfy her interest.

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