The incredible case of Kató Lomb, the woman who taught herself 16 languages

Kato Lomb
Kató Lomb, 1909-2003

For the past year, I’ve been trying to learn Spanish. I started out knowing zilch – and had to begin with the alphabet.

It’s hard to learn a language as an adult. When people ask me why I’m trying anyway, I say travel, culture, the ability to speak and read another language. For fun, quite simply.

Total immersion is the best way to learn. Since that’s not an option for me right now, I’ve been researching the next best methods. And that’s how I learned about Kató Lomb, a fascinating woman. She was born in Hungary in 1909. She worked as an interpreter and over the course of her life earned money from sixteen different languages – that she mostly taught herself in her 30s and 40s. (Without modern research tools, like computers and the Internet!) Clearly, this is someone to take notes from.

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Lomb wrote a book in 1970 titled How I Learn Languages. (Ironically, it wasn’t translated into English until 2008.)

Lomb has a lot to say on learning a language. Above all, don’t be afraid of making mistakes. That can be paralyzing and prevent progress. Instead, hurtle forward. Be a bull in a china shop.

Lomb is famous for having said:

Language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly.

She explains what she means by this in her book:

If someone knows how to play the violin only a little, he will find that the painful minutes he causes are not in proportion to the possible joy he gains from his playing. The amateur chemist spares himself ridicule only as long as he doesn’t aspire for professional laurels. The man somewhat skilled in medicine will not go far, and if he tries to trade on his knowledge without certification, he will be locked up as a quack doctor.

Solely in the world of languages is the amateur of value. Well-intentioned sentences full of mistakes can still build bridges between people. Asking in broken Italian which train we are supposed to board at the Venice railway station is far from useless. Indeed, it is better to do that than to remain uncertain and silent and end up back in Budapest rather than in Milan.

I love this philosophy, because it gives me license to bumble forward, even though I’m certain to be terrible at first.

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Also in the book, Lomb revealed her process for learning a new language.

I’m summarizing it here, because there are many valuable kernels within.

Meaning and Grammar

  1. First, she buys a large dictionary in the target language and reads through to get a feel for the phrases and (if the language has a different alphabet) for the transliteration of letters.
  2. She does not try to memorize terms. Instead, “I scan and study them as though they were some crossword puzzle to be solved.” At this stage, she is just getting her “first taste” of the language.
  3. Then she buys (1) a textbook, with exercises and an answer key, and (2) some literature in the target language. She completes the exercises at a good pace, leaving room for errors. Then, using the answer key, she makes corrections to her work on the page.
  4. “I scold myself for the errors made and then promptly forgive myself.”
  5. Since the textbook is tedious work, she simultaneously reads some plays or short stories in the target language. In the first reading, she writes down words she understands – that she is able to figure out from the context. She also writes down the context in which the word appears.
  6. Only on the second or third reading does she begin to look up words she doesn’t know. “Even then, I do not look up each and every one.” Again, she writes the words down with context – such as a sentence using the term provided by her dictionary.

Audio Comprehension and Pronunciation

  1. At the same time she’s doing everything above, she listens to radio in the target language. She prefers to listen to news reports, which are likely to have some familiar elements. World events are the same, regardless of the language they’re reported in. In this ingenious way, she innately has a “key” to what she’s hearing.
  2. If she hears an unknown word, she writes it down. After the broadcast, she immediately looks it up in the dictionary, while “the word is still resounding in my ear with its entire context.”
  3. A day or two later, she writes down what she learned from the newscast. She delays this step because she says it forces her to work to remember – which helps retention.
  4. Once a week, she tapes the newscast. She plays these tapes over and over. This is when she works on her pronunciation.
  5. She also tries to find a teacher who speaks the language. (She prefers to talk with women, and in the book, she explains in detail her reasons why. It’s very interesting and worth a separate blog post.)
  6. From her teacher, she asks for two things she can’t get from books or the radio. First, she asks the teacher to speak very slowly so she can catch the entire context. Second, she asks the teacher to correct her when she makes mistakes, both in speech and in written compositions she prepares.
  7. Concerning the written compositions. At first, she produces “free writings.” Loose sentences, phrases she’s heard. She asks the teacher to correct her use of these, so she can determine whether she’s grasped their “meanings and functions properly.” When she’s reached a much higher level, she begins to make translations.

Some of these things I do already, like listening to the radio. But others I will pick up now, like the written compositions.

I’m curious, have you learned any new languages past classroom-age? Please share your experiences and tips!

Read it: Polyglot: How I Learn Languages, by Kató Lomb (1970)

Illustration by Marco Palena

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2 thoughts on “The incredible case of Kató Lomb, the woman who taught herself 16 languages

  1. Thank you for this summary! I remember reading Kató Lomb’s book in Russian translation some five years ago and it was a great inspiration to me. There are very few people like her on the planet, but what I find encouraging is that it is quite possible to gain a good reading knowledge of five-six languages and to enjoy reading your favourite authors in the original. However, based on my interaction with polyglots I’ve noticed that most of them are rarely interested in the great literature written in the languages they speak, opting, instead, either for the bestsellers or some middle-brow non-fiction.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for the comment! I’m so glad the post brought back good memories. I just recently stumbled across your blog and was so intrigued. I’ve been very interested lately in the subject of literary translation. I look forward to reading new posts of yours as I wander through your archive!

      Like

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