Lessons From A Gifted Language Learner

“KNOWING is not enough we must apply. WILLING is not enough; we must do.”
by ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe~


In trying to better understand what it takes to become a great ( if you prefer, you can use better!) language learner, it can be instructive to look at gifted language learners and see what we can learn from their experiences in becoming “gifted”. This week we will look at Kató Lomb (1909- 2003), who was an extraordinarily “gifted” language learner. One thing we will find is that her story and techniques seems to fly in the face of many commonly accepted practices Not everyone would want to learn a language by themselves like she did, but her example is informative from many points of view. 

She didn’t believe in the so-called language talent. “I don’t believe there is [an innate ability for learning languages]”. In fact in her youth she showed evidence that she was quite inept at languages.  Her interest in languages in fact only grew only after she graduated in the sciences. Hungarian by birth, she learned 10 languages well enough to able to interpret fluently (in four of them even without preparation). Altogether she knew 16 languages well enough to make money from them. She  became an interpreter, translator, language genius and one of the first simultaneous interpreters.

Kató’s technique emphasised the importance of:

  • interest – this was for her was a key to her success (Engagement is what happens when you get interested). She always sought out experiences ( books, conversations etc) that were interesting to her,
  • context of where language occurs ( something I talk a lot about in my posts on vocabulary). She maintained that in understanding a text (be it a book or a heard text) the context is a key to understanding and retaining it, it can help us several times if we don’t understand something; on the other hand, she never studied words separately, isolated, but rather they remained in her mind based on the text she read or the context she encountered (which is one reason why immersion is a far better way of learning, as the context is ongoing and continuous),
  • dispensing with translation and dictionaries when possible.

Kato Lomb

Another interesting feature of her learning is that she learned these languages mostly by self-effort. Bored with the artificial dialogues of course books, her favourite method was to use an original novel in a language completely unknown to her, whose topic she personally found interesting and then she set about deciphering what she could. Slowly she unravelled the basics of the language: the essence of the grammar and the key vocabulary. She didn’t let herself be distracted by unusual or complicated expressions: she just skipped by them. Her rational was, what is important will sooner or later emerge again and will explain itself if necessary. She maintained that we don’t really need even a dictionary: it only spoils our mood from the joy of reading and discovering the meanings. In any case, what we can remember is what we have figured out ourselves. For this purpose, she always bought her own copies of books, since while reading she wrote on the edge of the pages what she had understood from the text by herself.  

This method first described by her in her book, has been used by others as well.   She didn’t let herself be put off from her goals by mistakes, failures or the need to be perfect, but she always clung to the joyful, enjoyable side of studying languages.

Her example of developing her prodigious language learning ability in her adulthood confirms what I have long maintained. Namely, that language learning talent is developed by who you are, what you do and how you do it. So if your current progress is not matching your expectations, don’t blame yourself, your past or your genes etc. Just set about finding what you need to do in order to become a more effective language learner. Maybe there might be some aspect of your personality that might need tweaking, or possibly you might need to change the practices you have or maybe you might need to be more careful in how you learn.

This site is replete with ideas and strategies you can explore. Try one that appeals to you in some way and give it a good go. If it does not seem to be working, leave a comment at the bottom of the post and I will get back to you to see if there is something you can tweak to turn your results around.