I see another difficulty in practicing a language with others. An uninteresting partner is uninteresting in a foreign language as well.
I have written about how much I suffered in Japan because everyone wanted to practice their English with me and I couldn’t attain with the greatest effort to get answers in Japanese to my questions asked in Japanese. In the end, someone took pity on me and recommended a certain Mr. Matsumoto, who understood my sorrow and showed willingness to converse with me in Japanese in the afternoons.
Mr. Matsumoto proved to be a Buddhist monk. He was indeed ready to talk in Japanese, but unfortunately his only topic was Buddhism; specifically, that 11 of its 12 branches held completely false views. Only the branch that he followed was the true one. While he was explaining to me what the sole correct interpretation of the Lotus Sutra was for the third hour, I slipped away.
—Kató Lomb, Polyglot: How I Learn Languages [Download PDF]
Through the wonders of Twitter, YouTube and Wikipedia, I just discovered Kató Lomb (1909-2003), a Hungarian translator and interpreter who worked in 16 (sixteen) languages. Though her training was in chemistry, the Depression forced her to seek alternative employment, and she decided to try teaching English. (80 years later that is still a viable alternative for unemployed graduates!) Then came Russian (which was handy when the Soviets took over Hungary), French, and so on, and so forth. Each time she had some immediate incentive to learn a language (usually economic), and so she racked up language after language. She denied having any particular gift for languages, and in fact did poorly in language classes as a child. What she did have was motivation, and a method that made learning interesting. Her key to learning was to seek out texts that were interesting enough to stick with through the rough patches. She did most of her learning by reading novels. Wanting to know what happened in the end was a great spur to keep slogging through unknown words. Though she did make some use of grammars and dictionaries, and even formal classes, the bulk of her learning came from reading books. It’s the only way she was able to learn so many languages so quickly and so fluently. She felt that traditional teaching methods that focus on grammar, vocabulary lists, and boring exercises were ineffective and slow. It’s hard to argue with that given her results!
Though I am only part way through Polyglot, I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in languages. As if to illustrate her point, she also tells some very funny stories, so it is quite an entertaining read as well. Bonne lecture!