In a previous post I made some recommendations from among the established commercial language learning methods such as Berlitz, Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, and a few course books. Over the past year I have branched out to experiment with the methods of various on-line linguaphile gurus, the likes of Piotr Wozniak, Tim Ferris, Mike Campbell, Prof Arguelles, and Katzumoto — all of whom are worth checking out. But just today I stumbled across the method of polyglot and simultaneous interpreter Kató Lomb, as explained in her book “This is How I Learn Languages”. I found Lomb’s book absolutely captivating. She makes a number of excellent points. Although her book is by no means a one-stop-shop for polyglottery, it is definitely worth a read for those aspiring to learn one or a few L2s.
I will give a few highlights of her book here.
Lomb’s method revolves around extensive reading. Yet, she seems to encourage extensive reading even when one is well under the 98% lexical comprehension threshold recommended by Arguelles. She advices:
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.
Later on, she explains how you can get through a book even when you have reached a “linguistic deadlock”, caused no doubt by jumping into a text far above one’s level. She evokes the wonderful “push-pull” concept:
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.
She later quotes a fellow Hungarian by the name of Dezső Kosztolányi who used a similar method to hers. He waxes poetic when reminiscing on his experience learning Portuguese from scratch by reading a single novel:
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.
Her love for books is certainly endearing:
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.
A book is the simplest and most easily accessible—even if not necessarily the most efficient—means of creating a personal linguistic microclimate.
Other than her emphasis on reading, she also suggests autologue, or, having conversations with oneself. I can say that I often apply this technique while walking outdoors. It is highly effective at finding holes in one’s vocabulary in a foreign language. My problem lately has been that I need to decide at the beginning of a walk what language my autologue will be in, as I have numerous salivating L2s begging me to walk them. (The autologue principle can be applied effectively to other subjects as well, particularly philosophy. It is entertaining to record oneself speaking aloud during an autologue and then listen to it later while at a keyboard. Some of my favorite ideas I’ve formulated in this way.)
I don’t entirely agree with Lomb when she stresses the importance of traditional teacher-pupil relationship for L2 learning. I believe that smart application of technology can remove much of the need for language teachers. One particularly important feature of language teachers is that they can slow down their speech to give students a chance to catch all the phonemes and time for the words to ring in their minds. As Lomb puts it:
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.
This effect can be easily obtained with the “change tempo” feature of HiFi audio software, which is now easily accessible to anyone with a smartphone. (For this purpose I currently recommend “Amazing Slow Downer” for iPhone and Windows Media Player 10 for Windows. There are change tempo features built into Audacity and Apple’s iTunes, but the sound quality is abysmal.) I will dedicate a whole post to this at some point.
Lomb also makes some general psychological observations relevant to L2 acquisition. She points out a phenomenon that I’m sure some psychologists have a name for:
A certain sedimentation does no harm to language knowledge, just as with wine. I’ve heard that famous conductors will practice a piece inside out nearly every minute. Then they will put it aside and not touch it before the con- cert one or two weeks later. They notice that it helps the performance. In language learning, the amount of a language learned while abroad will often not show up until well after arriving home.
One thing that’s still fuzzy after finishing her book is the difference between “interpolation” and her “extrapolation” while reading. We can’t ask Lomb, because sadly she is no longer with us. But what we can do is, try to apply her methods and find out for ourselves!
That said, I’m off to read a story in a collection of 格林童话 (Grimm’s Fairytales) that I picked up in Chinatown a while back. I’ll keep Lomb’s advice in mind and see how it goes.