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.