Book Review of Polyglot by Kató Lomb
For many people learning a second language the name Kató Lomb will probably mean very little. Her name is not usually something that is spoken about in a language lesson nor is it mentioned in textbooks, and yet her work and sheer joy of second (and beyond) language learning has almost certainly influenced how the subject or “art form” is approached today. Most importantly through her personal experience of learning more than 16 languages at the beginning of the 20th Century, the majority of which she acquired in her 30s and 40s, she demonstrates that adults are very capable of learning a second, third , fourth language, and to a high level.
Kató Lomb (1909 - 2003) is a Hungarian born translator, interpreter and polyglot and is also known as one of the world's first simultaneous translators. Of herself she says:
“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.
However, one of the most influential books Kató Lomb wrote in English, Polyglot - How I learn Languages, is not an academic account of the theory of language learning, although it has been a much drawn on source for research as a case study. The book, published five years after Lomb’s death tells of her language acquisition in a narrative style conveying her brimming enthusiasm for language as well as which skills she needed in order to master them; something of a method. In fact she developed a formula she swears by: “Motivation + Perseverance + Diligence = Polyglot”. Although perhaps not everyone is aspiring towards becoming a polyglot and would be perfectly happy with being able to speak one second language fluently, her method nevertheless, is worth noting down. “Motivation + Perseverance + Diligence” are a winning formula for success of any kind. Whether it is to excel at school, get the best grades for a top university, a job you have always aspired to or to learn a new language, this combination is both powerful and effective.
The book opens with a poignant if somewhat briefly answered question: what is language? Rather than an in-depth epistemology of language however, Lomb explores the interesting richness of contexts in which the word is used today, from the culinary to the poetic. The chapter closes with an account of those that work in and with language rather like an object of study, and those that live it. For this she introduces the apt metaphor of the choreographer and the ballerina. It is clear that Lomb sees herself as the ballerina in this image.
The other important lesson we learn from the book is that “language is the only thing worth knowing poorly”. Unlike learning to play an instrument or how to tackle a technical problem for which detailed knowledge and skill are required, Lomb points out that even a few words in a different language are often much appreciated and can go a long way. We are reminded of being on holiday abroad when stammering the few words we had practiced in advance save the day or even spark up a friendship. This is of course very different from a comprehensive and “active” acquisition of a language as Lomb herself experienced, but it is these reminders, Lomb states, that keep up the motivation and encouragement so vital for second language acquisition.
The rest of her book is dedicated to the topic of reading which, for Lomb, is more than a means to an end, but an end in itself and somewhat of a life-companion. With the same narrative style she writes about how reading has been her main teacher in language learning. Interestingly she emphasises reading books in a different language as soon as you start learning, and not, as is often the case, only when an adequate level of proficiency has been reached. This is where perseverance and diligence, mentioned earlier, come in. Her tip no. 1: dive straight in and “skip what you do not understand”. Chances are you won’t need it to get the gist, and if you do it will come up again. Tip no. 2: buy your own books and fill them with your translations, the words you understand and those you don’t and always accompany your reading with a dictionary! That is just the beginning…
To end with another evocative metaphor, Lomb writes: “A foreign language is a castle. It is advisable to besiege it from all directions: Newspapers, radio, motion pictures which are not dubbed, technical or scientific papers, textbooks and the visit at your neighbour’s”.
So in the spirit of “Motivation + Perseverance + Diligence” why not put it to the test? Give yourself a challenge. Learn a new language!