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120 TOPIK #17 – Hyperpolyglot Kato Lomb’s 10 Do’s and 10 Don’ts of Language Learning


After watching Tim Ferriss explain language learning shortcuts that people like he and Cardinal Mezzofanti (supposedly able to converse convincingly in up to 39 different languages) used to learn languages quickly, I started browsing for other language learning tips from “professionals.”

I happened to stumble upon some biographical information of a Hungarian woman named Kató Lomb who was the world’s first “simultaneous interpreter” and translated books into 16 different languages herself. Though her first language was Hungarian, she became so fluent in the others that she needed only a half day to brush up on many of them in order to begin her translation work. Here are some of her “stats”:

  1. Earned money in (16 languages): English, Bulgarian, Danish, French, Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese, Latin, Polish, German, Italian, Russian, Romanian, Spanish, Slovak, Ukrainian
  2. Absolute fluency (5 languages): Hungarian (mother tongue), Russian, English, French, German
  3. Practical fluency (5 languages): (requiring a half day to brush up on before interpreting or translating): Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Polish
  4. Enjoyable fluency (7 languages): (able to translate technical documents, enjoy fiction, and understand journalism): Swedish, Norwegian, Romanian, Portuguese, Dutch, Bulgarian, Czech

One of the many books she wrote (translated into English in 2003) called “Polyglot: How I Learn Languages” is available all over the place online as a FREE Download (here). In it, she details “10 Suggestions” and “10 No’s” of Language Learning. I’ve paraphrased each below (reference):

10 Suggestions for Language Learning

  1. Spend time – at least 10 minutes, morning is especially valuable – tinkering with the language every day
  2. If your enthusiasm wanes, don’t force it, but don’t quit entirely – find something to enjoy (music, movies, books, comics, radio, people, food, culture, etc)
  3. **Learn everything IN CONTEXT – not as isolated units of speech
  4. Write phrases in your text and use them in conversations
  5. Even when tired, your brain will be amused and relax with quick impromptu translations of billboards or snippets of conversations
  6. **Memorize ONLY what’s been corrected by a teacher
  7. Always memorize idiomatic expressions in the first person singular – “I’m only pulling your leg”
  8. Attack the language from all fronts (like a castle) – newspapers, radio, movies, friends, books, comics, music, etc
  9. **Do let fear prevent your speaking; ask your conversation partner to correct you; don’t get upset when they do
  10. Be firmly convinced that you are a language GENIUS – blame the materials if you feel anything less than that (but not yourself)

10 No’s for Language Learning

  1. Do not postpone starting (or continuing) a language study
  2. Do not expect everyone else to be like you or understand your interest in the language
  3. Do not believe that having a teacher relieves you of your own responsibility to delve deeply into the language on your own
  4. Do not get obsessed with words or structures you don’t know – build comprehension on what you already know
  5. Do not miss writing out your own impressions with familiar words and expressions – use your native language for words you can’t think of
  6. **Do not let fear keep you from speaking
  7. Do not forget to fill your mind with filler expressions like “My English is kind of shaky” or “could you repeat that” or “can you speak more slowly”
  8. **Do not memorize anything out of context
  9. **Do not leave newly learned words and structures hanging in the air – immediately put them to use in the reality of your own life
  10. Do not be shy to learn poems and songs by heart – good dictation plays a SIGNIFICANT role in speech performance


Pick out a handful of the above suggestions that you struggle with (or hadn’t thought about before) and put them into action. For me:

  1. Fear prevents speaking – I want to speak more and welcome failure
  2. I need to memorize filler phrases, phrases corrected by my teacher, and idiomatic expressions
  3. I need to read more things I enjoy and write a Korean diary more often
  4. I need to really ENJOY Korean music again and learn some songs (verse and chorus) by heart

Language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly. – Kató Lomb

Over to you:

What do you still need to work on in Korean? How are you going to approach it? Remember to do at least ONE THING everyday in your new language. Share with me in the Comments below or on social media with #120TOPIK.

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2 thoughts

  1. I relate most with #6 from the don’t category. I know that I CAN speak Korean and can understand Korean, but whenever I’m introduced to a Korean person who speaks English better than I can Korean…. I freeze up. My Korean friends always introduce me to their friends by saying “He can speak Korean really well” which makes me feel like I can’t meet their expectations.

    1. I feel the same way and my wife says one of my biggest problems is that I try too hard to string together long, complex grammar perfectly. My sister (who’s only lived in Korea 2 years vs. my almost 10 years), on the other hand, speaks better than me because she JUST SPEAKS. Yes, my pronunciation may be better and I may know more grammar and vocab, but her speaking is better simply because she JUST DOES IT. I usually clam up in a speaking Korean situation for the same reason you do. Time to attack #6 then and JUST SPEAK and embrace failure – which will ultimately help us learn more and gain confidence.

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