Inspiration from Kató Lomb, a Polyglot

Pretty cool lady. [Source: Goodreads]
I didn’t discover Kató Lomb until I was doing some serious research on polyglots, both past and present, but Lomb has become a huge role model for me. She was a Hungarian translator and a simultaneous interpreter, and she worked in a total of 16 languages. She ranked these by skill level:

“I only have one mother tongue: Hungarian. Russian, English, French, and German live inside me simultaneously with Hungarian. I can switch between any of these languages with great ease, from one word to the next. Translating texts in Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, and Polish generally requires me to spend about half a day brushing up on my language skills and perusing the material to be translated. The other six languages I know only through translating literature and technical material.”

Even more inspiring for me, personally, was that she learned most of her languages on her own, through reading, and she did it to satisfy her interest. Sure, she made money with her languages through interpreting and translating, but from reading her account in Polyglot: How I Learn Languages, it seems like she only learned English for a specific monetary goal (she wanted to teach before she even learned it!). The other languages just happened to reward her after she learned them to satisfy her interest.

Despite the fact that Lomb’s work was in speaking her languages (through interpreting), I love how she adamantly prefers books over learning with native speakers. This is one of my favorite quotes:

“A book can be pocketed and discarded, scrawled and torn into pages, lost and bought again. It can be dragged out from a suitcase, opened in front of you when having a snack, revived at the moment of waking, and skimmed through once again before falling asleep. It needs no notice by phone if you can’t attend the appointment fixed in the timetable. It won’t get mad if awakened from its slumber during your sleepless nights. Its message can be swallowed whole or chewed into tiny pieces. […] You can get bored of it– but it won’t ever get bored of you.”

Bah, it just makes you want to sit down and read, doesn’t it?

Lomb died in 2003 at the age of 94, so it’s possible that, had she grown up in the age of the internet, she might have thought differently about her learning methods. But I think there is so much to be said for learning primarily through reading. It’s convenient, it’s portable, and you can tailor it to your interests. You can stare at a phrase as long as you want to try and make sense of it. You can flip back and use context from a previous page to puzzle something out.

To stretch her preferences to all input-based learning (i.e., learning primarily through reading and listening over speaking and writing), there’s something to be said for going at something at your own pace, rather than trying to leap into conversation as soon as you can string two words together. Speaking with native speakers isn’t the only reason to learn a language, and speech doesn’t have to be the gold standard by which we judge language learners. Learning from reading– or learning a language with the goal of reading– is the opposite of what so many polyglots tout as the reason for learning languages.

Sitting down with a book is slow and quiet. It’s humble, and the results are not readily apparent to others. It’s just you and what you know.

I didn’t discover Kató Lomb until last year, but she has completely changed the way I think about learning languages. I was always pretty reading-oriented, but her accounts made me very confident that reading was a great and cheap way to learn a new language. Or at least now I have a good excuse for my uncontrollable book purchasing habit.



4 thoughts on “Inspiration from Kató Lomb, a Polyglot

  1. A book is the distillation of the best thoughts and ideas of a person. A movie packs in one hour and a half the efforts and best ideas displayed during months by dozens of people. When I enter a library or a bookshop I feel I am entering a place where hundreds of people want to talk with me and they don’t want a simple chit chat, they want to have the most serious conversation you can have with another human being.

    Sherry Turkle, in a TED talk to defend face to face human interactions said that “Human relationships are rich and they’re messy and they’re demanding” but human relationships through books stop being messy and demanding, they turn into something even richer and orderly with nobody complaining about you when you want to put them back on the shelf if you are not interested in them.

    Needless to say face to face interactions are also an essential and indispensable part of any meaningful life and I am not preaching in favor of locking ourselves into a room full of books but when they allow you to talk with people living far away from you or people who died thousands of years ago, in the deepest and most meaningful way, reading them is an expansion of your own life into realms that most humans can’t dream of.


    1. Well said! I think we all know that face to face interactions are important to humans, but in terms of learning languages, I don’t think they have to be the main goal in mind, especially if you’re learning for fun or learning a language that’s pretty rare. I always get rankled when someone says that “communication with native speakers” is the true reason to learn a language, so we need to get our heads out of books. I’m always thinking, “But written language *is* communication!” And even cooler, it’s communication across time and space.


  2. I certainly agree. In fact written words are much more than communication. The writer Manlio Sgalambro once wrote “reading is not a tool to educate yourself, it is a way to exist” (I mean… un modo de existir, I am translating this quote from a book in Spanish) and I think he is absolutely right. The philosopher Ortega y Gasset also wrote “la filosofía es antes filosofar, y filosofar es, indiscutiblemente, vivir”. You can change filosofar for reading and filosofía for written word and the sentence is also true.


  3. I will always prefer face to face communication. It’s unexpected, fast, and can’t be controlled. It forces you to understand, or to make the most of it, while at time same time following the social etiquette.
    And in the end, this is why the most of us learn languages, right?


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