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TitleHow I Learn Languages
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Table of Contents
                            Preface
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 Isn’t For
Let’s Read!
Why and What We Should Read
How We Should Read
Reading and Pronunciation
What Sort of Languages Do People Study?
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
What’s Around the Linguistic Corner?
Epilogue
                        
Document Text Contents
Page 1

POLYGLOT
H O W I L E A R N L A N G U A G E S

KATÓ LOMB

Page 108

10 8 / POLYGLOT: HOW I L E A R N L A NGUAGE S

native language. Rather, they are from another foreign lan-
guage you have studied. You are annoyed and surprised, and
after 10�20 minutes the words and forms from the �right�
language start to fall into place. Your partner wonders and
you think to yourself with a silent rapture that you may
still seem to be a language genius�although it was but the
power of words recalling each other that pulled the context
into place.

I�ve racked my brains for a long time about why name
memory is the weakest point of one�s memory. Commonplace
or technical terms crop up in your mind at �rst call even if
you don�t use them for years, while sometimes you can�t recall
the names (especially the �rst names) of your acquaintances,
friends, or even your relatives in spite of great e�ort.

I bring this all up because my advice for preventing such
memory lapses is the same as my method for memorizing
words. I mean mnemonics, which is the art of putting terms
into arti�cial contexts. �e word or name to be memorized
should never be left �oating in the void but should be as-
sociated with another, already-known term or concept. �is
can be done lexically, semantically, or phonetically, among
other ways. For example, I will never forget how a poor man
is expressed in Japanese, or a little boy in Italian: both of
them sound like �bimbo.�76

Of course, formal associations are not completely with-
out danger. Richard Katz notes in one of his books that he
remembered the Japanese equivalent of �thank you� (arri-
gato) by thinking of the alligator. �is must be why he once
said to a kind little geisha who helped him with his coat,
�Crocodile!�

Not only can elements of speech serve as context, but
everything that accompanies it can too, such as facial ex-
pressions, intonations, and gestures. �at is why we can
understand a live, gesticulating speaker more easily than an

76. Bimbó means �bud� in Hungarian.

Page 109

Vocabulary and Context / 109

invisible radio announcer, no matter how perfect his or her
pronunciation may be.

Once, in a critical moment, an unusual concomitant�
a man�s skin color�served as a life-saving context for me.

I took part in an important international conference
as a simultaneous interpreter. Like most simultaneous in-
terpreters, I usually work at such conferences with my eyes
closed so that I exclude all visual impressions and can con-
centrate entirely on the spoken text. One of the delegates
came up with an economic policy proposal that I felt was ra-
cially discriminatory. Someone replied in clear, �ne French,
but I didn�t catch the decisive word in his short comment; I
didn�t understand if he considered the proposal �acceptable�
or �inacceptable.� I opened my eyes, frightened, and was
rescued: the speaker�s pitch-black African face removed all
doubt.

I will discuss vocabulary again because it is the most
concrete and most tangible part of knowledge.

I heard from a proud father recently that his daughter
was studying German and that �she was around halfway at
the moment.� �What do you mean by halfway?� I asked.
�Well, now she knows around 1500 words and when she
learns 1500 more, she will speak German perfectly.�

I only heard a more naïve remark�also in connection
with German�from a fellow ALL himself. Let it serve as his
excuse that he must have been only 7�8 years old. He was
talking to his mother on the tram:

�Mom, I imagine we�ll have German class tomorrow.�
Mom, obviously absorbed in her other problems, ac-

knowledged the big event only with an absent-minded nod.
�e young lad, however, seemed to be very excited about it
since he started to speak again after a couple of minutes:

�And tell me, mom, when the class ends, will I then
speak German?�

No, little boy, unfortunately you won�t. Not even after
weeks, months, or perhaps years. And not even when you

Page 215

215

Epilogue

I CANNOT thank those who patiently roamed with
me in the realm of languages with more beautiful words
than those of Cicero in “Pro Archia Poeta” (7.16):

…haec studia adulescentiam alunt, senectutem
oblectant, res secundas ornant, adversis perfugium
ac solacium praebent, delectant domi, non impe-
diunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur,
rusticantur.

…this study nurtures our youth, delights our old
age, brightens the good times, and provides a ref-
uge and comfort in bad times; literature brings
us pleasure at home, does not hamper us at work,
and is the companion of our nights, our travels,
our country retreats.

Page 216

P O L Y G L O T
H O W I L E A R N L A N G U A G E S

KATÓ LOMB (1909–2003) was one of the great poly-
glots 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
Hungary. She achieved further fame by writing books on
languages, interpreting, and polyglots.

Polyglot: How I Learn Languages was first published in
1970. A collection of anecdotes and reflections on language
learning, it belongs to a select group of similar texts by
polyglot linguists such as Bloomfield, Pei, and Stevick.

“[Many]…Eastern European language learning autobiogra-
phies aim at instructing foreign language learners…[Lomb’s
memoir] has lively and detailed descriptions of the author’s
learning strategies.”

Aneta Pavlenko, Applied Linguistics 22 (2)

“It is remarkable, and reassuring, that Dr. Lomb’s conclu-
sions agree so well with current language acquisition theory:
comprehensible input is central, grammar is peripheral,
and negative affect can disturb performance. She also dem-
onstrates, 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…”

Stephen Krashen and Natalie Kiss, System 24 (2)

http://tesl-ej.org
Berkeley Kyoto

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