Friday, July 3, 2020

Polyglot: How I Learn Languages by Kató Lomb

Anecdotes and tips from a master multilinguist
Hungarian author Kató Lomb (1909-2003) has been called “the world’s most multilingual woman” and “possibly the most accomplished polyglot in the world.” After earning a PhD in chemistry, Lomb taught herself 16 languages well enough to work as a professional translator and interpreter in all of them, including Russian, Chinese, and Japanese. Lomb was also one of the world’s first simultaneous translators (like the ones who talk in the United Nations headphones). After achieving renown as a polyglot (master of many languages), Lomb wrote four books about languages and language learning. Her first book, Polyglot: How I Learn Languages, was published in Hungarian in 1970. An English translation can be downloaded for free from the website of TESL-EJ: The Electronic Journal for English as a Second Language.

The intended audience for Polyglot includes those who teach themselves foreign languages, those who teach languages to others, and those thinking of becoming professional interpreters. I fit into the self-taught category, but nowhere near the level of Lomb’s achievements. This book can be read by language learners of any skill level, even beginners, but one must have an avid curiosity for languages to find it interesting and useful. This book is for people who want to do more than just learn travel phrases, but who actually wish to read texts, have meaningful conversations, and go beyond mere memorization to learn the actual mechanics of a foreign language.

Despite the subtitle, only a few of the chapters really function as a how-to manual for language learning. This book is really a combination of Lomb’s personal anecdotes, learning tips, and educated reflections on languages. Even so, there is still plenty of concrete practical advice for those wishing to learn foreign languages. In addition to her own expertise as a polyglot, Lomb draws upon the work of educators who have researched the most efficient and successful methods of language instruction. First and foremost, Lomb dispels the myth that language learning is easier for children and that adults are too psychologically immutable to learn foreign languages effectively. Not only is she herself living proof that this is incorrect, having acquired almost all of her languages as an adult, Lomb also cites research opposing this assumption. In discussing her personal methods of language learning, Lomb enumerates her “Ten Commandments of Language Learning,” as well as a list of ten “dont’s” of language study. In a brief nutshell, her methods promote the deciphering of books (fiction, for example) over textbook learning, thus emphasizing the acquiring of words and phrases in context rather than memorizing vocabulary lists. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but too much to summarize here. Lomb also offers advice to those thinking of pursuing a career as a translator or interpreter.

Not surprisingly, Lomb credits enthusiasm and time invested as the most important factors for success. She obviously made language learning the most important activity in her life, and one would have to do the same to achieve her level of success. Those wishing to learn one or two languages rather than 16, however, need not be intimidated by Lomb’s methods. There is no panacea for acquiring fluency in an unfamiliar tongue, but Lomb’s insights and practical knowledge will surely prove helpful to readers with more than a passing interest in foreign languages. The advice she offers here is more rational and realistic than so many of the “learn in 30 days” methods on the market. In addition to her linguistic erudition, Lomb writes with a charming personality and sense of humor that makes the book an enjoyable read. I look forward to reading more of her works.

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