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Book review of “Polyglot: How I learn languages” by Kató Lomb

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I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading this book while riding the bus, and I’d like to share my opinion of it with you.

The book was originally written in 1970, by the Hungarian polyglot Kató Lomb, but the author has edited it several times up until 1995, making it more up to date in terms of development in the way people go about language learning, as well as Lomb’s new experiences and research in the field.

Kató Lomb (1909-2003) is known today as one of the greatest polyglots of the 20’th century. She worked as an interpreter and translator in no less than 16 different languages, and during her lifetime she studied over 28 languages in total. Lomb was one of the worlds first simultaneous interpreters, and one of the rare female polyglots.

Anecdotes and accounts from a life as a language learner

Even though the title refers to Lomb’s method in learning languages, it deals with much more than that. If you only want to know how she did it, it can be summarized fairly quickly and it doesn’t differ a lot from various reading techniques that other language learners use and have used throughout history. However, the book is very well written, and paints a colorful picture of Lomb’s life as a language learner, a polyglot and an interpreter who has traveled the globe. It is humorous, and provides a wealth of anecdotes, like when during the second world war, Lomb had Russian pages of Gogol’s “Dead Souls” sown into a Hungarian book, in order to being able to study Russian in the bunker during air-raids, without being caught studying “the language of the enemy”. There are also situations where she has had to save face for either herself or a foreign representative or otherwise improvise while interpreting and facing an unknown dialect, or just the total confusion of a Japanese visitor telling her that he is a specialist in “sexing” (determining the sex of young poultry.) The book is above all a passionate account of Kato’s love for languages, and it’s a great book to read if you’re into languages or foreign cultures, but it can also serve as a great motivator if you’re having a hard time getting through your foreign language studies every day. Lomb did it before tablets, kindles, mp3’s and internet. You can’t help but be drawn into the story of Lomb’s life in languages, and it very much encourages you to thread in her footsteps. Language geeks, myself included sometimes have a tendency to spend too much time reading about language learning, rather than actually studying. I suggest that you try reading the book in the original Hungarian, Russian, Japanese, Latvian or another language translation (If you know of more translations, please let me know (Scroll down to find links to some of the translations I’ve been able to find so far)

Language learning and age

Lomb addresses the subject of language acquisition and age in her book. She points out that most of the languages that she mastered, were acquired in adulthood, and after the age of forty. She was originally discouraged by the way that languages were taught in school, and had no significant success with languages as a child or an adolescent. This obviously serves to disprove the myth that languages can only be acquired to fluency in childhood. Lomb even argues that adults are much better at learning languages than children are, and that the quick improvements that you often see in children’s language development is due to the much smaller frame of reference. A kindergartner will only have to learn the vocabulary of the kindergarten in order to fit into a foreign language setting, whereas an educated adult needs to learn the equivalent of his native language’s vocabulary in order to feel at ease. There is, however, a great deal of truth to the fact that children seem to master pronunciation perfectly, whereas adults almost always keep an accent no matter how successfully they have learned a language.  Lomb speaks of some of her multilingual friends who had been born in a foreign country, only listening passively to conversations in Hungarian by their parents, and how these friends later picked up the Hungarian language as spoken by natives without much of an effort, or any foreign accent.

Can you have a talent for language learning?

“[S]elf-assurance, motivation, and a good method play a much more important role in language learning than the vague concept of innate ability, and that dealing with languages is not only an effective and joyful means of developing human relationships, but also of preserving one’s mental capacity and spiritual balance.”

Kató Lomb

Another theme is the book is that of talent. Anyone who has successfully taught themselves a foreign language has come across people qualifying their achievements as due to a “gift”, or a special talent for learning languages. In the book, Lomb says that there is no such thing. She describes success in language learning as purely due to a mix of time and motivation as positive factors, and inhibition working on the negative end. She makes the argument, that everyone is fluent in their birth language, and that nobody seems to have difficulty acquiring it. Second languages aren’t any different in that regard, and people often base their ideas of being “no good at languages” on not successfully memorizing French vocabulary lists in school. The truth is, that there’s no difference between learning new words in English and learning your first word in Spanish. Like anyone else, you will need to see the word repeated several times in several contexts before you start remembering it, and even after that you will sometimes forget it.  This was the same for Lomb as well as several other polyglots. You just have to stick with it. It’s like that famous Einstein quote “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer” – perhaps, when it comes to Einstein it’s a little hard to believe, but for most people archiving something, like playing the guitar well, learning to draw or learning a foreign language, it’s only a question of the hours you put in, and perhaps the techniques you use for studying.

Lomb’s method

Kató Lomb’s method of studying languages, as described in her book, corresponds fairly well with what is normally referred to as the “input hypothesis” – the idea is that you learn through comprehensible input, and not through hardcore grammar and vocabulary study. Lomb went about this by reading books, easy books, like cheap pulp fiction or romance novels, that could be consumed easily without worrying too much about unknown vocabulary. (See my list of easy books to read in translation).

Lomb was a fan of dictionaries and interested in grammar study – but she keeps coming back to the fact, that these things are secondary to language learning. You don’t have to be passionate about grammar in order to learn languages, because you’ll pick grammar up naturally by reading and listening to comprehensible input.
Lomb would read her books several times – first time without looking up anything and trying to understand all unknown words and terms from context. She underlines the importance of being able to figure something out by yourself – if you look a word up in a dictionary, you will forget it immediately, but if you try to figure it out, and finally, successfully guessing the meaning, the achievement will help imprint the word in your memories, and you’ll not forget it again. Lomb usually only looked up words if they kept appearing and seemed important. The second time Lomb would pick up the book, she would be much more stringent about it. The words figured out from context would consolidate and grown roots upon review, whereas the still unknown vocabulary would be explained by dictionary look-ups. I think, however, that it should be underlined that even though the second pass is to be studied more in depth, you shouldn’t worry about forgetting things you look up. Some of it will stick, whereas some of it won’t.

“At first, we should read with a blitheness practically bordering on superficiality; later on, with a conscientiousness close to distrust.”

Kató Lomb

For new alphabets, Lomb would figure out the meaning of letters from looking up international words in the dictionary. One could easily argue that you could go about learning new alphabets much easier, but here, it’s important to note again that Lomb’s method is all about discovery. If you “figure it out” by yourself, you will feel a sense of achievement. The dopamine released in your brain will help the new information grow roots. If you’re just handed the “key” as in looking up words in the dictionary or finding lists of the Latin corresponding letters to the Cyrillic script, the information will quickly fade.
For audio input, Lomb would look up the frequency for foreign radio stations and tape their newscasts. This is obviously much easier in today’s internet age. She would listen to the recordings repeatedly, trying to figure out what was said, and she would use newscasts in languages that she understood as reference for the themes and current events treated in the press.

Classroom learning and the use of a teacher

“In classes, the more lively and uninhibited ones will “suck away the air” from those with a more passive nature, despite all the efforts of the teacher. It is also a special danger in large groups that you will hear your fellow students’ bad pronunciation more than the teacher’s perfected speech.”

Kató Lomb

When reading the book, it seems to me that Lomb is very ambivalent when it comes to classroom learning and working with a tutor. The book is not entirely clear about how she confronts a new language as a complete beginner, but she hints to either starting with a textbook, or signing up for a language class. It goes without saying that reading from day one is quite an endeavor, and I also think that you should tackle the absolute basics first, or in parallel to jumping into different reading techniques. Personally, I’d recommend that you start with a textbook (see my review of Assimil Arabic here) but classroom learning is also an option. The above quote is very relevant, though. If you’re in a classroom setting, you need to know how to take advantage. Speak as much as you can with the teacher, and get your money’s worth. Written assignments and their corrections is also a great advantage of taking a course (or you could use lang-8), but in my opinion language courses just don’t return enough value for the money that you invest. Most importantly, you will spend a significant time listening to your fellow students speak the language as beginners rather than listening to native speakers.

A tutor, however, can be extremely helpful, if you find the right one and if you can afford it. Good use of a teacher is mainly correction. Don’t rely on a tutor to teach you vocabulary, because this will be much too slow. Use books for that. Kató Lomb also makes a point out of never using your writings as study materials unless you’re sure that they’re thoroughly corrected. It’s a waste of time to learn something that turns out to be incorrect.

Why learn languages

Lomb dedicates some time, trying to explain why she does what she does. Ultimately, it seems that languages are just a passion of hers, and this shines through the pages. She does, however, explore how language learning can be used in careers like interpretation, translation, teaching and in fields like tourism, and the numerous account of intercultural exchanges and experiences she has had also go to prove what value foreign language learning can bring to ones life. Her life in languages as described in the book, is characterized by spontaneity and optimism. She spent the war learning Russian in the bunker, and Japanese, she picked up because she rashly had accepted to take on a translation job before even knowing the language. Languages, as she points out, is the only thing worth knowing badly. An intermediate speaker of a foreign language can communicate, socialize, and get a point across, whereas a doctor, lawyer or mechanic who’s a beginner in his field wouldn’t make the same positive impact on using his half-way learned skills.

“Solely in the world of languages is the amateur of value. Well-intentioned sentences full of mistakes can still build bridges between people.”

Kató Lomb

I can warmly recommend this book. It’s a quick read, and it won’t bore you for a second. It will not, however, give you the key to learning languages. You need to find your own way, and like I stated in my article about language learning mistakes, you can sometimes find yourself spending all of your study time, reading about language learning instead of actually studying them. So read the book for pleasure, but then get out there and read something in your target language. Or better yet – read Kató Lomb’s book in your target language – check the links below.

First in English: Paper back on Amazon or a free PDF

Russian: Read online, Kindle

Japanese: Paper back on Amazon

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