Polyglot: Why it’s better to learn languages from books

I see another difficulty in practicing a language with others. An uninteresting partner is uninteresting in a foreign language as well.

I have written about how much I suffered in Japan because everyone wanted to practice their English with me and I couldn’t attain with the greatest effort to get answers in Japanese to my questions asked in Japanese. In the end, someone took pity on me and recommended a certain Mr. Matsumoto, who understood my sorrow and showed willingness to converse with me in Japanese in the afternoons.

Mr. Matsumoto proved to be a Buddhist monk. He was indeed ready to talk in Japanese, but unfortunately his only topic was Buddhism; specifically, that 11 of its 12 branches held completely false views. Only the branch that he followed was the true one. While he was explaining to me what the sole correct interpretation of the Lotus Sutra was for the third hour, I slipped away.

—Kató Lomb, Polyglot: How I Learn Languages [Download PDF]

Through the wonders of Twitter, YouTube and Wikipedia, I just discovered Kató Lomb (1909-2003), a Hungarian translator and interpreter who worked in 16 (sixteen) languages. Though her training was in chemistry, the Depression forced her to seek alternative employment, and she decided to try teaching English. (80 years later that is still a viable alternative for unemployed graduates!) Then came Russian (which was handy when the Soviets took over Hungary), French, and so on, and so forth. Each time she had some immediate incentive to learn a language (usually economic), and so she racked up language after language. She denied having any particular gift for languages, and in fact did poorly in language classes as a child. What she did have was motivation, and a method that made learning interesting. Her key to learning was to seek out texts that were interesting enough to stick with through the rough patches. She did most of her learning by reading novels. Wanting to know what happened in the end was a great spur to keep slogging through unknown words. Though she did make some use of grammars and dictionaries, and even formal classes, the bulk of her learning came from reading books. It’s the only way she was able to learn so many languages so quickly and so fluently. She felt that traditional teaching methods that focus on grammar, vocabulary lists, and boring exercises were ineffective and slow. It’s hard to argue with that given her results!

Though I am only part way through Polyglot, I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in languages. As if to illustrate her point, she also tells some very funny stories, so it is quite an entertaining read as well. Bonne lecture!

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6 comments on “Polyglot: Why it’s better to learn languages from books

  1. Stefanie says:

    How very interesting! Langauges are considered part of the humanities and in my last class for school when we got to languages there was quite a lot of discussion about how many language departments are trying to separate themselves from literature and literature departments. And here we have an example of an obviously successful language learner who used literature to learn and become fluent in a particular language.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Stefanie, that's interesting. Lomb also mentions technical works as being helpful for language learning, if it is in one's own area of expertise. Perhaps instead of standing alone, language departments should link with both arts and sciences. Workers in all fields might be interested in learning languages to access more literature and have the opportunity to work abroad. I don't know how her idiosyncratic method would work in an institutional setting, though. I think language teachers are still trying to figure that out!

  3. tony price says:

    thanks for this link – i hadn't heard of this either but it looks really fascinating, i specially like the idea that you can still learn languages in advanced old age – which seems to be looming ever nearer!

  4. Sylvia says:

    Tony, the interesting part is where she compares the hours of classes it takes an adult to achieve basic proficiency versus the number of waking hours it takes a child to reach the same level. By her rough calculation adults learn 20 times faster! So much for the theory that it's harder to learn languages as you grow older.

  5. Melwyk says:

    This sounds fantastic! I would agree with her that having some intrinsic motivation to learn the language, whether that's a great novel or a non-fiction work in your area of interest, aids in one's success. For example, I studied French for many years through school and into university, but the only time I felt that I was reading with any fluency was in university when I found a rare book in my own personal obscure area of interest at the time, and it was only in French. I got my dictionary and sat down and read it. And I don't remember it as a “French” book, but as something I read and absorbed into my own understanding. What an interesting post this was!

  6. Sylvia says:

    Melwyk, that sounds just like what Lomb did. She is certainly not against classes or learning grammar, but reading is the core of her program, and the rest is a support. After all, we all grow up and learn our mother tongue fluently long before we learn what nouns and verbs are.

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