5 Quotes About Language Learning from J.R.R. Tolkien and Kató Lomb

Learning a new language can be a lot of fun—you discover new cultures, new people, new movies and new books!

It broadens your horizons and keeps your brain healthy.

But sometimes you need a little push to keep on studying and learning, and what better way to do that than with inspiring quotes?

There are plenty of quotes about language floating around the Internet. However, these quotes never talk about the down and dirty parts of language learning. Language learners don’t seem to generate these quotes. The quotes try to lift your spirits, but they rarely come with practical advice!

That’s why I now present you with five quotes by two famous polyglot language learners. These will inspire you to keep going when you feel like you aren’t making progress, and they’ll give you some new ideas to try out, too!

5 Quotes about Language Learning to Motivate and Inspire You

Quote #1:

No language is 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.

 — J.R.R. Tolkien, from “English & Welsh,” a lecture given at Oxford in 1955

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” loved language for aesthetics and historical purposes.

He was an avid learner of many, many languages—he had knowledge of Latin, Greek, Finnish and Medieval Welsh, among many others. Those certainly aren’t your everyday choices for language study! Despite those niche skills and preferences, he invented several fictional languages for his stories, including Quenya and Sindarin, and was an esteemed philologist, as well.

Learning a host of ancient languages combined with Finnish allowed Tolkien to become rich and famous from “The Lord of the Rings,” but somehow, I don’t think he was betting on that from the beginning.

Tolkien’s love for languages drove him first—the language’s use came after. This is a wonderful lesson to learn when many choose to learn languages for fashionable reasons or monetary gain.

How can you apply it?

Benefits of learning a particular language should be secondary, and even then those benefits might not always be readily apparent.

Fads pass and economies change. If you love the language, that love will last longer than some goal that’s dependent on the outside world. For example, everyone wanted to learn Japanese in the ‘80s when its economy was booming like no other. Then they hit a recession. Better to have learned Japanese for the manga and anime!

If you’re still deciding which language to pick up, apply Tolkien’s wisdom in your own life by choosing a language you genuinely like! Pick a heritage language, or the language of a culture that fascinated you as a kid. Maybe you even have that one language for which you have an irrational love. If those things match up with an economically advantageous language, then so be it, but it certainly shouldn’t be your first thought.

Quote #2:

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.

— J.R.R. Tolkien, “English & Welsh,” Oxford, 1955

Aesthetics of language is a subject not often talked about, but Tolkien thought about it all the time, especially when he was inventing his own languages. Tolkien valued aesthetics above the practical purposes of language, like chatting with native speakers or reading novels.

How can you apply it?

When you’re feeling burned out, take a step back and listen to the language for what it is. Relax and listen to talk radio or music in your target language without any expectations.

Try TuneIn Radio to find international radio stations if you don’t live in a country that speaks your target language. You can even try shadowing, a learning technique championed by Dr. Alexander Argüelles (a polyglot himself), to better listen and absorb the sounds of your language. Shadowing involves listening to recorded audio in the language and saying the audio yourself almost simultaneously with the recording to help you produce the sounds and rhythms of a native speaker.

Really admire the sounds and the rhythm! Your skill level doesn’t matter so much for this—you don’t need to understand everything to appreciate the aesthetics of a language.

Quote #3:

I only have one mother tongue: Hungarian. Russian, English, French, and German live inside me simultaneously with Hungarian. I can switch between any of these languages with great ease, from one word to the next. Translating texts in Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, and Polish generally requires me to spend about half a day brushing up on my language skills and perusing the material to be translated. The other six languages I know only through translating literature and technical material.

— Kató Lomb

Kató Lomb was a Hungarian translator, simultaneous interpreter and, clearly, an accomplished polyglot. She knew 16 languages, but she wasn’t shy about letting people know that she wasn’t some supernatural genius—she knew her languages at different levels. Some languages she could only read, and some got pretty rusty from disuse.

Lomb accepted that language learning never stops and that one’s language level is always in flux.

How can you apply it?

Multilingual people rarely know all of their languages at the same level. Language learners often feel that at some point they will have “learned” the language and that they won’t have to study anymore. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Even very accomplished learners always upkeep the languages that are important to them. If they don’t, they know that the language will weaken.

On the other hand, many learners also believe that polyglots speak their languages all at the same level. Polyglots often have to brush up underused languages, much like Lomb did. Some only have an intermediate knowledge of some languages, and some can only read in others. Languages are complicated, and they aren’t easy to measure!

So, keep track of your languages! If you know you’re getting rusty, know that you can always brush up on a language.

Quote #4:

A book can be pocketed and discarded, scrawled and torn into pages, lost and bought again. It can be dragged out from a suitcase, opened in front of you when having a snack, revived at the moment of waking, and skimmed through once again before falling asleep. It needs no notice by phone if you can’t attend the appointment fixed in the timetable. It won’t get mad if awakened from its slumber during your sleepless nights. Its message can be swallowed whole or chewed into tiny pieces. […] You can get bored of it—but it won’t ever get bored of you.

— Kató Lomb, “Polyglot: How I Learn Languages”

Lomb learned Russian through trashy romance novels, which she writes about in her book “Polyglot: How I Learn Languages.” Learning through novels was her favorite method. She would parse through them and decode them, using dictionaries only if she was dying to know what a word meant.

How can I apply it?

Read more novels!

Native-level novels, no matter the reading level, are great for beginners and seasoned learners alike. The massive context allows you to pick up words even when you’re not intending to. The long descriptive passages provide plenty of less common vocabulary, and the dialogue gives you everyday phrases and common slang. Best of all, you can copy out words and sentences into your SRS to remember forever! FluentU allows you to create your own SRS sets, and its video dictionary ensures you always have context for your new vocabulary.

Where can you find novels in your target language? Check out Project Gutenberg for books in the public domain (but be wary of older books in case of goofy, archaic vocabulary). The Amazon Kindle Store for your country might have a selection of popular books from the bigger languages (for example, in the US store, I’ve found e-books in Spanish, French, German and Italian). Amazon third-party sellers are also a good bet—just search for author names or book titles in the target language. And, of course, a good used bookstore can have some great finds!

Quote #5:

Language is the only thing worth knowing even partly.

— Kató Lomb, “Polyglot: How I Learn Languages”

As I mentioned earlier, Lomb had an incomplete knowledge of many of her languages, but she wasn’t afraid to use them, whether she was translating or simply talking to someone.

How can you apply it?

Many language learners have an all-or-nothing mentality. They’ll dramatically think, “If I’m not fluent in a year, then all is lost!” I am personally prone to catastrophic thinking when I mess up grammar or can’t think of the word I wanted. After all, if I can’t do it perfectly, then I must not know anything!

This, of course, is wrong.

This kind of thought process only serves to discourage language learners and keep people away from learning a new language at all. Any level of language acquisition is worth far more than you think!

Get back to the basics. Simple greetings and polite words go a long way when talking to someone in his or her language. No matter your level, pick up a high-quality phrasebook for your language (the ones from Lonely Planet are like mini textbooks, and available for both major and less-popular languages!) and make sure you’re strong on the basics.


Hopefully, you’re now super revved up to get back into learning your language.

Remember that even the best, most illustrious polyglots experienced the same struggles as we do, but we can take their ideas and use them, maybe even better than they did themselves!

After all, Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

And One More Thing...

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With FluentU, you'll learn real languages—as they're spoken by native speakers. FluentU has a wide variety of videos as you can see here:

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