The methods of two amazing polyglots

guest2   Wed Jun 04, 2008 6:13 pm GMT
I would like to get feedback on the methods of two incredible polyglots, both of whom have been mentioned in the past in this forum: Kato Lomb and Alexander Arguelles.

Lomb's method is summarized here:

Arguelles' story can be found in (scroll down to where 'ProfArguelles' starts his response), and on his website at

The amazing thing about both is not only their multlingual achievements, but that they both grew up monolingual (and Arguelles is American, supposedly a handicap), both did most of their studying starting in their 30s, and both did it mostly by self-study.
Xie   Thu Jun 05, 2008 4:00 am GMT
Huh? I think our professor's English is fairly sophisticated. I've rarely seen highly educated people who share my language that write such sophisticated language. At least that's his starting point towards sophisticated hyper-polyglottery.

I think you'd get the most by creating your own method through studying theirs. Prof. learned through language guides in most cases (I think used some too to learn my native language), and then used native materials. Lomb seemed (as wikipedia says) to have relied a bit less on guides and read detective stories to guess meanings.

I think what is most worthwhile isn't what they used. They were monolingual kids and they were still "babies" as novices. It's their THEORIES and practice that made the books work. Even if you have the idea of getting comprehensible input properly even without being a student of linguistics, it seems imperative to know what they did, which I'd term as sophisticated cultural immersion. That's not what most adults would bother to do without their sort of motivation.
K. T.   Tue Jun 10, 2008 3:42 pm GMT
I could be wrong, but I believe that AA's father was also a polyglot and that the young Alexander spent some time in Europe. I think several things can contribute to multilingualism and passive exposure to languages may very well be one these factors.

I don't mean that every child will become a polyglot, but the interest may be sparked and a fire can start later in life, lol.
Xie   Tue Jun 10, 2008 4:48 pm GMT
Well, I learned from history lessons and life experiences that "heros create eras/times/epochs, eras/times/epochs create heros" (please correct me, I can't decide on which). My parents are monolingual and never offer me any language books (I haven't allowed to do e-shopping owing to financial problems and concern about security), languages, and the money for languages. Many of the Chinese learners know even more about Chinese food and cities than me. I've never even left my province, though I've been to some neighboring towns and two remote foreign countries.

You'd understand perfectly that everyone is unique and cannot live the life of others easily, with all the constraints. But as I see it, I'm afraid that most of the audience here won't even know how hard it is to live. Yes, I don't understand you, but I can infer from individual language courses that, in an entirely different socio-economic environment, the language learning business has started in the West long ago - at least since 1900s (Linguaphone). You can't expect any polyglots who specialize in Asian, or native African, languages, without having to be at least slightly educated in the Western way. Linguistic diversity aside, in real terms it's 10 times difficult to learn many such languages, when you have few good materials, and if you won't even learn English, and maybe some other Western ones, to get better access to them thru using superb materials.

Although I do admire professors who are well-versed in their subjects - to become some of the few great people I can term as speakers for high culture - that bit of sophisticated life is achieved with a hefty price. Indeed, AA did attribute that to the best kind of (higher) education of his time. English is now the gold standard for polyglottery. It's some kind of too-high culture that people won't care for - I'm not them, but I know what I would think, when I consider myself a mere mortal. And indeed, the kind of worries of such scholars, at times, may sound too lofty and therefore quite pointless for the brain-washed (see: the dumbing down theory), the half-brain-washed (like me), and those who are never brain-washed (some being illiterate).

It might sound like an irony for me, and I've learned that 1) English is modern Latin and 2) the monolinguals can be the greatest polyglots. Poor countries and cultures can't speak of culture (and language), so what defines polyglottery can seem quite vague in that sense. When I was brain-washed, I had thought that polyglots must be supermen. So, I was deluded, and now I think I'd still be ordinary. YET, I know better the fact that, to put it simply, it's really l'art pour l'art and does nothing more than satisfying personal ambitions (polyglottery in aboriginal languages wouldn't help much; I'm very utilitarian about this). Those who deluded me knew nothing more than the fact that Assimil, or wordlists, or any other methods from the West, if they like, would work for them. So, my values have been fossilized. I couldn't erase the socio-economic consciousness in me. Even though I know the chocolate and sweets of learning western (and essentially economically significant, and hence with "worthwhile" cultures) languages, I still think this business is pointless in most aspects... except, of coz, in that it's l'art pour l'art.

Inevitably, the world has been defined by "pointless" tongues, and now, almost English only. The fact that polyglottery has no equivalent (as suggested by some Chinese folks here) in my native language may actually be a cultural phenomenon - that it doesn't define it at all.

(Again, the question of how to make learning effective reminds me of how to use the right western methods and avoid using the bad western ones - yes, most of the methods are western, since the West has defined everything language - accusative, character, diglossia, register, dialect, and all that)
K. T.   Tue Jun 10, 2008 4:51 pm GMT
One very famous polyglot's reported method only takes three months.

a. Listen regularly to the sounds of the language. In a week you should be very familiar with it.
b. study the written form (takes two weeks to gain familiarity)
c. shadow/recite for fifteen minutes a day

Here is what I think:

a. Yes, this may work on a basic level especially for someone with a good ear.
b. NO WAY if you are dealing with a language like Japanese. Oh, you'll be able to recognize that it IS Japanese, but that's about it.
c. You'll gain some words and phrases.

I think TOURIST level is probably possible in a MONTH for certain languages for SOME people, especially people who already know three or four languages. Tourist level to me is about the level you'd find in those Kershul books for languages like Norwegian (dang close to English), Spanish, "possibly" French, Italian, and German.

Another resource: Those Language 30 recordings (Berlitz?)

I recommend that adult learners learn tourist language first. That's what a lot of them want anyway.

I don't think that there is a "way" to knowing many languages. There is a way that works for me, but I am more interested in speaking than in reading literature. I learn to read and write of course, but for languages that are SPOKEN, it just seems strange NOT to learn to speak them.
K> T.   Tue Jun 10, 2008 5:01 pm GMT
"Linguistic diversity aside, in real terms it's 10 times difficult to learn many such languages, when you have few good materials" Xie


"When I was brain-washed, I had thought that polyglots must be supermen." Xie.

Polyglots always interest me, but I don't think of them as supermen. I think of AA's "polyglottery" as a product of his life. How many American men have wives who allow them to pursue their interest in languages the way that he does?
Xie   Tue Jun 10, 2008 5:03 pm GMT
Sorry for having a lot of digressions...

Indeed, I also learned (ok, back to business) that I might need 2-3 months to get used to French sounds, which has proved to be wrong. The fact that the West has defined everything language may have created this illusion. I'm a tone master (as I've told by an American writer) and I could apply the above method PERFECTLY with Japanese. And yes, French, too, since I already know English. The definition I mention means that I MUST know English before I get to know Japanese, regardless of everything! So, when English is that transparent, French wouldn't sound difficult at all, as it has turned out. Since I speak an exotic language (now, I can put this only in English) - as you may define it - so actually, and in real terms, I shouldn't suffer from the kind of really intricate problems you have with Japanese - or I may have perfect pitch?

That is of coz a matter of opinions. I can't understand what tourist language means. Without any prior academic knowledge, I know by instinct that this is pointless. This is exactly what some of your compatriots term as one good example of the dumbing down theory.
K. T.   Tue Jun 10, 2008 5:16 pm GMT
About Lomb:

She had some good ideas. Be ready for class with a private teacher and be ready to be corrected.

How many people crawl under a stone and give up languages when they are corrected by a native speaker? I appreciate it if someone tells me when I am wrong (really wrong, not just an opinion about whether my accent in Portuguese should sound more like one from SP instead of from Rio, for example.)

I have seen senior citizens learn foreign languages. It certainly can be done. So languages can be learned thoroughout life, at least for some people like Lomb.
K. T.   Tue Jun 10, 2008 5:32 pm GMT

I guess I WAS thinking of the western learner. Yes, you would see through the writing system of Japanese faster than a French person. A French person could not learn to read Japanese or Chinese fluently in three months, imo, as a novice language learner. Even a person with a good ear and an eidetic memory wouldn't be able to do it in my opinion. I'd like to see the savant from GB tackle it (he took on Icelandic, so why not another language?), but I wouldn't bet on him either.

I just use "French" as a stand-in for a western learner here.

"I can't understand what tourist language means." Xie

Tourist language is, to me, the approximate level represented by FSI level one. It involves the following:

Able to make purchases, understand simple directions, greet people, order in a restaurant, etc.
Xie   Wed Jun 11, 2008 12:45 am GMT
>>I have seen senior citizens learn foreign languages. It certainly can be done. So languages can be learned thoroughout life, at least for some people like Lomb.

But since knowledge is pricy (my hypothesis), ideas have proved to be costly. My parents still think that one's tongue would be too hard and fossilized to acquire a new tongue (like at their age, as immigrants to any place; they themselves have been). So, I'm learning my fifth... but that doesn't change their ideas. They aren't illiterate, but quite close to it, thanks to the chaotic education system (to be precise, virtually EVERYTHING except the markets, the medical field, and the transportation field) in China in the 60s and 70s. Yet, I should have been quite liberal-minded as a kid, because they ARE after all educated somehow. So, they can tell that one has to be at least decently educated (like them, who DID received the "best"/highest education there was of their time, i.e. very few people studied at university) to be liberal-minded.

Among my family, with a typically huge population thanks to insane baby booms..., an awful lot of them have become Anglophone citizens without mastering English at all. But many younger ones have been fairly sophisticated... is theoretically possible, and practically possible, for Lomb to learn new languages in her eighties, but that must have been based on her profound knowledge of SLA theories AND in practice, which most linguists don't even know. My linguistics professors claim to have a fossilized accent, even with native-speaking wives, for ? reasons. (Indeed, it could be my academic ideal to translate her books and let my countrymen read it; I can translate snippets of it - in case it's not really allowed - but who cares?)

Haha, I might have to wait until I'm fairly senile to see a Chinese FSI scale. Before that, the brain-washed will still think that, in general, anyone has to spend +3000 hours (excluding foreign immersion) to learn the CJK and Arabic. They might well know that nurture, rather than nature, is the only trick, but the general rule is "what Americans say" is true.