JRR Tolkien on Learning Languages

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I’m a huge Tolkien fan, and it’s not just because of his fiction.

There’s no doubt that JRR Tolkien was a true language lover. While he is most famous for writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, those stories grew out of his avid construction of new languages, like Quenya and Sindarin. Tolkien was also a philologist at Oxford, and he knew a good number of real-life languages himself.

I love that Tolkien embodies a lot of language-learning virtues that I feel are very important. Tolkien loved language, not just the cultures that used them, and he certainly didn’t learn languages to communicate with very many people, considering Gothic and Medieval Welsh are among the languages he studied. Tolkien didn’t travel a lot during his lifetime; in fact,this is how he described himself:

I am […] a Hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.

Tolkien’s attitude towards learning languages is very refreshing nowadays. He advocates a simple pleasure in learning new words, in listening to the sounds of a language, in seeing it written on the page. Of course, he states it much more beautifully here:

The basic pleasure in the phonetic elements of a language and in the style of their patterns, and then in the higher dimension, pleasure in the association of these word-forms with meanings, is of fundamental importance. This pleasure is quite distinct from the practical knowledge of a language, and not the same as an analytic understanding of its structure. It is simpler, deeper– rooted, and yet more immediate than the enjoyment of literature.

–From “English and Welsh” 1955

While I certainly enjoy reading literature in the languages I learn (it’s in the blog’s title!) I also like to enjoy languages on the level he describes.

He didn’t much like it when students took on new languages, hoping for an end result (he refers to scholarship, but I think this also applies to folks who learn languages with the end goal of travel or a better job):

No language is justly studied merely as an aid to other purposes. It will in fact better serve other purposes, philological or historical, when it is studied for love, for itself.

–From “English and Welsh” 1955 (emphasis added)

So, what does this mean for the average learner? One who’s not locked in an ivory tower at the University of Oxford?

I’m a big advocate for the idea that learning languages is an end in and of itself. Even if you are taking on Spanish, Chinese, or any other language with some practical purpose in the back of your mind, you’ll get much farther if you forget about that for the time being and enjoy the language as it is, with the materials and media in front of you.

Constantly gauging your level and trying to determine whether it is “high enough” to be useful in the workplace or for travel is pretty self-defeating. It’ll only make you impatient, and you’ll fail to see the progress you have made, the things you can enjoy in your target language. And you can enjoy anything, even as a raw beginner with a dozen words under your belt.

Tolkien additionally helps us realize that there is more than one way to know a language. By many modern polyglot’s standards, Tolkien probably wasn’t all that multilingual. While most sources attribute to him knowledge in Latin, Old Icelandic, Middle English, Finnish, Old English, and many, many others, it’s likely he knew these languages through reading and translation, rather than the modern standards of fluent speech. It’s well-documented that Tolkien had a huge obsession with the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, but it doesn’t seem like he ever traveled to Finland, and who knows if he ever practiced conversation with a Finn. He knew Finnish through literature, and that was good enough for him.

Tolkien shows us the old-fashioned way of learning languages, when “knowing” a language generally meant through reading and translation. He shows us that even in a society that values languages for scholarship, work, or status, you can learn more by sitting back and taking pleasure in the actual language itself.

So take a break from your goals. Read a book and ignore whatever you don’t know for the time being. Watch a movie in your target language and enjoy the sounds and the rhythm of your partially learned language. Get excited when you recognize a word or grammar pattern, but don’t fret too much that you don’t know everything just yet. There’s always more to learn, but by settling down and having fun with learning itself, everything will be all the more satisfying!

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