The Ten Commandments of Language-Learning: The Genius of Kató Lomb

The Ten Commandments of Language-Learning: The Genius of Kató Lomb

The Ten Commandments of Language-Learning: The Genius of Kató Lomb

Can you imagine learning not just another language, but 27 more?

Kató Lomb did just that. She learned 10 languages fluently, was proficient in six more, and could understand a further 11 — so that’s 27 languages in total in which she could communicate with some degree of comfort. As an interpreter, she could switch between many of them with ease. In this first part of a two-part blog, we list her advice for learning languages taken from her book, Polyglot, How I learn languages.

Maybe you think learning one language is challenging enough, and have no need to learn more. However, this advice applies equally to whether you're learning your first foreign language or your tenth.

Let's dive in with an overview of what she believes are the most important aspects to learning a language and finish with her Ten Commandments:

1.  Attitude

No question, when you have the right motivations for learning a language, it gets far easier. I know in my classes, when a student answers the question, "Why do you want to learn English?" with "Because I really like/love English", they are going to learn English fast. When I hear, "Because my Mom wants me to" or "I have to for my job", then I know we are in for a long uphill battle.

Do it because you want to, not because someone/something else is pushing you.

2.  Confidence

For my Spanish students who complain that English is hard, I just remind them that the article "the" is far easier to learn then the 1,000s of words with their respective gender! English is gender neutral, using just "the" for the noun.

Find ways to build confidence with a language and then tell yourself that the language is not so difficult to learn. To paraphrase (to express her quote in different words), Lomb says, "there are no difficult languages to learn, only languages that are easy to learn poorly."

3.  Explore

"Houses, walls, and buildings do not undertake the task of teaching."

What a powerful statement. Lomb is telling us that she learned best from getting outside the house, outside the school and looking for speakers, teachers and other students. Although Langu is certainly an excellent source for outside communication while having the luxury of being at home!

4.  Tools

In her day, Lomb only had access to printed materials, so a big dictionary and workbook were her tools to getting started with a language. Nowadays, we have the power of the Internet. When learning a new language, I immediately download a dictionary, thesaurus and training aids. Get to know how to use GoldenDict , Artha Thesaurus and Rosetta Stone. Another great free online and easy resource is Duolingo. These are great practice resources to reinforce your live conversations. 

5.  Media

Lomb didn't have the Internet - she had to go out and scavenge the local libraries and bookstores, which still isn't a bad strategy. When I was learning German, my first choice was a parallel short story like Faust. One side was English, the other German. Parallel/Dual Language books are an excellent aid to reference the words in context. Movies with subtitles where you can hear the spoken words in your native language and see the text in the target language (or vice versa, the other way around) are also excellent tools. And of course the Internet offers abundant resources. Free podcasts and audio books abound — check out, for example,

6.  Culture

“I make an effort to familiarize myself with the history, geography, social, political, and economic conditions of [a language] as thoroughly as possible.” If you're learning English, use Wikipedia to read about the kings and queens of Britain, or about traditional pub food; or if you're learning Spanish, read about tapas and afternoon siestas. Language and culture go hand in hand, and this way you can learn both at the same time.

Now, let's list Lomb's Ten Commandments of learning any language:

I.  Take time

Dedicate time to spend with the language every day, especially in the morning when your mind is fresh. It's just like practicing an instrument - the brain requires frequent exposure and repetition to commit new words and phrases to memory.

II.  Foster enthusiasm 

If your enthusiasm starts to drop, move to some other form of studying. For example, instead of reading, listen to the radio or watch a movie.

III.  Grammar in context

Learn grammar in context instead of as isolated units of speech. Don't just study a list of verb conjugations - read sentences where these verbs are used in a natural way.

IV.  Write phrases

Write phrases in a notebook and use them in your conversations.

V.  Translate everything

Translate billboards, advertisements, and snippets of conversations. I actually learned a lot of German from beer labels!

VI.  Memorize properly

Repetition is key and memorize only what has been corrected by a teacher.

VII.  Memorize expressions

Memorize idiomatic expressions in the first person singular. For example: “I am only pulling your leg.”

VIII.  Use media

A foreign language is a castle. Besiege it from all directions: newspapers, radio, movies, papers, textbooks, Internet, etc.

IX.  No fear

Do not let the fear of making mistakes keep you from speaking. No one will laugh at your mistakes - they'll be impressed at how much you've already learned!

X.  Be confident

Be firmly convinced that you are a linguistic genius. And if you're learning English and you've already made it this far, you might well be!

I hope you enjoyed this list of Lomb's methods for learning a new language. Look for Part II of this article where we explore her book further and dispense the the 10 commandments in the negative. That is, what NOT to do when learning a new language.

Categories: Language Learning Life, Learning English, Learning Spanish, Posts in English