More and more I read about successful polyglots through history and I see an emerging trend. They were both autodidacts and avid readers as well.
I recently finished reading Kató Lomb’s Polyglot: How I learn Languages and I found it extremely interesting, obviously. What I did find most interesting is that she basically did almost all of her learning on her own with no teacher and most often without even anyone around to practice the languages with. If she had a book, a bilingual dictionary, a pen and a notebook, this was already enough for her to go to work and to begin mastering the language. The book is inspirational and it also hints that the folks at LingQ might not be so far off the mark.
Kató Lomb’s story reminds me of a story I once read about of a Mexican priest who was being sent to minister in the Basque land of Spain. He could not find any language materials for teaching Basque. The only material he could find was a bible in Basque. So he took the Basque language bible and his Spanish language bible with some paper and a pen and went to work using detective skills. He figured out vocabulary and grammar by looking for patterns in the Basque bible and comparing it to the same verses in the Spanish bible. He unraveled the Basque bible like it was the Rosetta stone. By the time he finally was shipped off to his new parish in the Basque country he could already speak Basque without ever having a teacher, without having been to the Basque country and with having only ever met one or two Basque people in his life! The Lomb story tells us that the priest’s success with Basque would be an expected outcome for anyone willing to expend the effort.
Another thing that amazes me about Ms. Lomb’s linguistic achievements is that the vast majority of her learning was later in life. Other than a French class in grade school and some dallying in Latin she did not start learning languages until she was over thirty years old. And she immediately put these languages to use in her life and never really let them go. Even more impressive, using Lomb’s way of doing things, is her learning Chinese where the writing would have been a major hurdle.
I would have loved to have personally met Kató Lomb. She definitely embodied enthusiasm and diligence and showed us all that it isn’t talent or circumstance that turns one into a successful polyglot but rather loving persistence.