I subscribe to a lively mailing list for language teachers, FLTEACH. In a recent message, a professional translator recommended Kató Lomb’s classic book Polyglot: How I Learn Languages. It’s a fun read, and interesting for its emphasis on the important of reading (for pleasure or work) for language learners at all levels.
My favorite passage from the book, which motivated this post, is the following. I’ve highlighted my “most favorite” bit in red.
We should learn languages because language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly. If someone knows how to play the violin only a little, he will find that the painful minutes he causes are not in proportion to the possible joy he gains from his playing. The amateur chemist spares himself ridicule only as long as he doesn’t aspire for professional laurels. The man somewhat skilled in medicine will not go far, and if he tries to trade on his knowledge without certification, he will be locked up as a quack doctor.
Solely in the world of languages is the amateur of value. Well-intentioned sentences full of mistakes can still build bridges between people. Asking in broken Italian which train we are supposed to board at the Venice railway station is far from useless. Indeed, it is better to do that than to remain uncertain and silent and end up back in Budapest rather than in Milan.
Lomb’s observation that “language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly” is amazingly astute. It goes hand-in-hand with what every language teacher knows: it’s important to make mistakes while learning a language, and even more so, to not be afraid of making them. This is why I often tell my students “Me gusta el español malo”. As a language learner, I don’t mind sounding like an idiot when I attempt to communicate in German or another language that I barely know.
Depending on one’s personality it can be hard to be fearless — but one must always try!