A language is the only thing worth knowing badly. Unlike a person who can play a few notes on the violin or your friend who took that one year of pre-med, the amateur language speaker gains something from trying rather than remaining silent. “Well-intentioned sentences full of mistakes can still build bridges between people.” This is the starting point of Kató Lomb’s Polyglot: How I Learn Languages, part biography and part instruction manual that insists anyone with time and interest to invest can achieve what she did – command of 16 languages.
Following a youth in which she was inaccurately labeled by her parents, teachers, and herself as a “foreign language flop,” Kató Lomb learned Bulgarian, Chinese, Danish, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, and Ukrainian in her 30s and 40s, going on to have a long and varied career as a teacher, translator, and one of the first simultaneous interpreters in the world. An autodidact of uncommon discipline, but not a perfectionist, she insists that innate ability has nothing to do with success in language learning.
Graduating into an economically depressed Hungary in the 1930s with a PhD in Physics and Chemistry, Lomb decided that she was going to teach English – a language with the most promising job prospects, but one she didn’t speak at all. Unphased, crouched at the end of her living room couch over an English novel, she writes that “within a week, I was intuiting the text; after a month, I understood it; and after two months, I was having fun with it.” When she landed her first teaching job, she was treading just one or two lessons above her students, but her energy and enthusiasm kept the class on track and riveted. At this time she also tried her hand at translating texts for a pharmaceutical lab. The proofreader sent her work back with the remark “whoever did this must have been one gutsy person!” And she was, which brings us to our first lesson.
Lesson #1: throw caution to the wind. Polyglot is filled with anecdotes of Kató diving in to the deep end. Whether it was a new language or a new career, for reasons of economic necessity or pure curiosity, she just went ahead and did things. This pattern reveals itself throughout the book as the propelling force behind her eventful and accomplished biography.
Kató admits that she “did need real guts for the next step [she] was about to take” – learning Russian in an increasingly fascist early 1940s Hungary.
Lesson #2: make it interesting. Get your hands on a gripping novel in your language of interest and start deciphering. Two strokes of luck helped Kató solidify her main approach to language learning: finding a Russian-English dictionary from 1860 in a secondhand bookstore and rescuing a romance novel from the garbage in a hotel room she and her husband rented. Unlike the classic Russian novels she had access to but could not tackle, this book was entertaining and simple. “By choosing texts that pull you in, you can’t avoid picking up something of the language, as you cannot rest until you’ve learned who the murderer is, or whether the girl says ‘Yes!’ in the end.”
Lesson #3: focus on what you can do. Start with what is available to you and proceed as well as you can, rather than focusing on what you lack.
Kató eventually dedicated hours to classic Russian texts – what better way to pass the time cowering in a bomb shelter? An acquaintance sewed pages of Gogol’s Dead Souls into every second page of a Hungarian encyclopedia, and in 1943 Kató pored over this Russian paraphernalia for hours. Forced to skip over big words that she didn’t understand (consulting a Russian dictionary would’ve been extremely questionable behavior), Kató worked out the first game changer in her self-study technique: just skip things you don’t know. What we remember best is what we figure out ourselves from context, as every student of a foreign language with a notebook full of definitions forgotten the second their eyes leave the page knows. Feeling the book become flavorless in our hands due to a million interruptions to look up words is a much bigger problem than knowing if the inspector watches the murderer from behind a lingonberry or barberry bush.
When the liberation of Hungary finally happened in 1945, Kató got the long-awaited chance to try out her Russian. A young man opened the door to the cellar where she was hiding, asked for salt, and sat down to share his food. When he realized that she spoke Russian, he was deeply moved and congratulated her: “well done, little guerrilla!“ After a while, some Romanian officers also entered the cellar and she greeted them in French. The Russian soldier was appalled, shook his head, packed up his things, and left, hissing “little spy!” Budapest City Hall was liberated on February 5, 1945. 44 lbs. underweight and surrounded by a bombed-out city but confident in her new ability, Kató presented herself that day as a Russian interpreter and was hired on the spot.
Lesson #4: do something harder. Throughout the next decade, Kató followed what she calls her “spirit of linguistic discovery,” taking opportunities as they presented themselves. She crashed the first Chinese course at a University in Hungary without registering, traveled abroad for the first time in 1954 to Czechoslovakia and of course picked up a juicy novel to learn Czech, translated the patent rights to a machine that manufactured shoe uppers into Italian, and learned Spanish by reading the Spanish translation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The only language she picked up during this time through conventional means was Polish, for which she did actually enroll in classes, but not without a Kató twist. A trick she recommends to all linguaphiles serious about learning a language: sign up for a level much higher than where you are. She asked to enroll in advanced Polish. When the instructor tried to ascertain her level of expertise, she replied “Don’t bother. I don’t speak a word of Polish.” To his dismay, she reasoned: “because those who know nothing must advance vigorously.” The instructor was so confused by this logic that he added her name to the roster without another word.
As with the previous lessons, this bit of advice applies to pretty much anything you want to accomplish. As a teenager terrified of the road, instead of just learning how to drive, I decided to learn on a manual transmission. My concern about remembering traffic laws evaporated as I tried to engage first gear in terror at a green traffic light – liberating!
In order to do that, you’re going to have to let go of inhibitions.
Lesson #5: don’t let fear of making mistakes keep you from speaking. Kató’s linguistic caveat to that is to remain open when others correct you – in fact, to encourage it. “Surviving in the medium of a foreign language demands self-confidence and openness,” she writes.
When I was an English teacher in the Czech Republic, I constantly came across students with an immaculate understanding of English grammar drilled over years of schooling, but the inability to open their mouths and say one spontaneous sentence. This meant that they could not use their language skills to connect with others or accomplish things in the real world, and learning certainly wasn’t a source of fun or pleasure.
Lesson #6: “Be firmly convinced that you are a linguistic genius.” She writes, “If the facts demonstrate otherwise, heap blame on the pesky language, your dictionaries, or this book – but not on yourself.” Kató’s linguistic story began when she graduated university into a country with little economic prospects and an imminent fascist takeover and ended with her travelling all over the world and working in 16 languages. If she experienced moments of self-doubt or pessimism, she doesn’t mention them in her book. What comes across instead is humble, unpretentious confidence fueling the bold moves she made again and again. It’s the opposite of what lies behind the blustering swagger of bullies. In 2019, may we all be like Kató in our unshakeable belief that there is a place in this world for our genius and enthusiasm.
ALTA offers interactive, comprehensive language classes both online and in-person at our Atlanta language training center. For more information, visit https://www.altalang.com/language-training/.
Maria Diment was born in Russia and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she works in the Translations Department at ALTA Language Services.