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Hungarian polyglot’s secret formula to language self-learning

When Kató Lomb graduated with a PhD in physics and chemistry, she knew what she was going to do next: She is going to teach English. The only problem? She first needed to learn how to speak English.

At the time, Lomb was in her late twenties and spoke Hungarian, some French and a bit Latin—an unremarkable feat in early-20th century Europe. In the next two decades, she went on to become one of the first interpreters in the world, master 16 languages, and gain a basic understanding of 11 more. All through self-study.

What was Kató Lomb’s secret?

The formula behind Lomb’s language learning success

Kató Lomb did not believe in innate language talent. After all, until her mid-twenties, even her parents decided to strike her off the list of those capable of mastering a foreign language.

Instead, she expressed language learning in a simple equation, with motivation and invested time in the numerator (although with motivation, one can pinch off some ten minutes a day even with the busiest job), and inhibition in the denominator (the fear of being clumsy, being laughed at).

The stronger the motivation within us, and the more we suppress inhibition, the faster we acquire the language.

Time: Approach language learning with grit and perseverance

Rather than joining an English language school, a luxury during the Great Depression, Lomb turned to self-study. She found a novel written in English, and plowed through with nothing but an English-Hungarian dictionary by her side.

Within a week, she was intuiting the text; after a month, she understood it; and after two months, she was having fun with it.

Lomb’s first technical translation for a local pharmaceutical lab was turned down with a note that “Whoever did this must have been one gutsy person!,” but she persevered, and managed to find a teaching job in the end. On the basis of a Latin saying, adage docendo discimus (we learn by teaching), she treaded just one or two lessons ahead of her students:

I hope that my energy and enthusiasm made up for what I lacked in linguistic knowledge. —Kató Lomb, Polyglot: How I Learn Languages

No matter the resources at hand, no matter how limited your opportunities, if you stick to the learning regularly, results will come. Tweet this now!

Motivation: Make learning so interesting that you cannot stop

As she developed her method, and learned ever more languages, Lomb quickly realised that interest and motivation are key for successful learning.

We should read because it is books that provide knowledge in the most interesting way, and it is a fundamental truth of human nature to seek the pleasant and avoid the unpleasant. The traditional way of learning a language […] can hardly serve as a source of joy. Nor will it likely be successful.

Even Lomb was bored with fabricated dialogues of traditional textbooks, so she stuck to her newfound method of tackling real literature that she found personally engaging: detective stories, romance novels, even technical manuals, as long as she found them interesting.

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. Tweet this now!

Inhibition: Embrace failures and don’t strive for perfection

Throughout her life, Lomb never let herself be put off by mistakes and failures, and she never strived for perfection. “Language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly,” she claimed.

In 1941, Kató Lomb set out to self-learn a second language: Russian. But by the time she was able to move onto more interesting reading, it was 1943, and Hungary was a target of daily carpet bombings.

Lomb camouflaged Gogol’s Dead Souls as an encyclopaedia and made rapid progress as a result of hours spent in the bomb shelter, but she had to adapt her methodology. After all, consulting an English-Russian dictionary in a fascist shelter would hardly be acceptable.

This led her to the first improvement of her self-study technique: Boldly skip over rare and complicated expressions on first read-throughs. After all, what we remember best is what we have figured out ourselves from context.

It’s much more of a problem if the book becomes flavourless in our hands due to the many interruptions than not learning if the inspector watches the murderer from behind a blackthorn or a hawthorn.

To stay motivated and avoid burn-out, don’t look up every expression that puzzles you, and instead make use of context to understand a text or conversation. Tweet this now!

Go out and do stuff

I’ll close with one of Lomb’s Ten Suggestions for Successful Language Learning, which encompasses all three of the concepts we covered:

VIII. 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 visitor at your neighbour’s.

With the abundance of resources available to us today, it is important not to waste too much time researching apps and textbooks, and settle on a few we like the most. This does not mean, however, that you should limit yourself to a single source.

Tackling the language in many different ways makes learning fun (motivation!), allows you to learn something every day (time!), and makes sure that you don’t get frustrated by lack of progress in a single skill (inhibition!).

Try to integrate learning into everything you do. Go out, enjoy yourself, and learn the language as it is actually used, without the feeling of spending laborious hours studying at your desk.

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