Kató Lomb was a famous polyglot and interpreter. She was also a riot.
Lomb, who by her own account was proficient in 16 languages, attempted to explain teacher-driven language learning with an old Hungarian joke. The joke states that coffee in Budapest has no coffee substitute but no coffee bean, either. It therefore also has a mystery: What makes it black?
The teaching of languages, according to Lomb, is a field worthy of respect but also very much its own thing. It’s a creation of humankind with a unique history and mystery. Language learning, she claims, is a different field altogether.
This is all to say that even if you have absolutely no interest in learning languages (or think you don’t), you may enjoy reading Lomb’s stuff. In any case, you have little to lose by checking it out.
Part language-learning guide, part historical text and part autobiographical romp, Polyglot: How I Learn Languages is available for free online. That it’s translated from Hungarian (by Ádám Szegi and Kornelia DeKorne), and that a large part of Lomb’s advice on acquiring languages centers on the reading of books, adds a meta-linguistic dimension to the work.
Her sense of humor, laid-back writing style, and decidedly non-perfectionist ideals are the exact opposite of what many of us have come to expect from language-learning expertise. However, with new technology, new methods and the flexibility offered by online study in many sectors, Lomb’s ideas are ripe to be integrated into the mainstream society of language education and perhaps even education in general.
Lomb provides an overview of her own experience with languages, both as a means of survival and personal pleasure. She recalls teaching herself Russian in the bomb shelters of wartime Hungary, and her first attempts to communicate with Soviet soldiers. She took advantage of the political situation to offer her skills as a Russian interpreter, and the rest is actualfactual history. Needless to say, she had a very interesting life, but in How I Learn Languages she seems to genuinely care about making life more interesting for the rest of us, too.
Lomb’s Ideas on Language Learning
In the book, Lomb attempts to debunk a few myths about language learning:
- That you can’t learn a language past a certain age.
- That there is such a thing as an “innate” ability to learn languages.
- That you shouldn’t attempt to progress to the next “level” until a particular appropriate time.
- That “immersion” is a magical experience requiring no effort on the learner’s part.
Her suggested methods of language acquisition – including familiarizing oneself with a language by actually reading a dictionary rather than using it for reference, reading books extensively for both pleasure and learning, and listening to radio – should come as a breath of fresh air to those for whom learning a language has proved a dull, plodding task with no end in sight. Lomb’s brand of language-learning is its own reward, and so is reading her book.
A Note on the Translation
I don’t read Hungarian (yet!), but feel that commenting on some aspect of a translation can always offer perspective, regardless of how limited my own perspective may be. One thing that I thought was well executed in the translation was the handling of multiple languages within the text. Lomb provides many examples from a variety of languages as well as her native Hungarian. The translators have helpfully added footnotes explaining all of the Hungarian terms in English where appropriate, but providing English terms where more convenient for the example with their Hungarian counterparts below. I’m glad they didn’t simply try to render all of the text into English, as this would have been silly and made many of the examples pointless.
More on the Translators
You can read an interview with translator Kornelia DeKorne here, in which she mentions Polyglot: How I Learn Languages.
Ádám Szegi also translated Harmony of Babel: Profiles of Famous Polyglots of Europe, another book of Lomb’s.