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Last & Least

Learning a foreign language: Conrad's case

Dr Binoy Barman

JOSEPH Conrad, the noted writer of “Heart of Darkness”, is said to have learnt English, a foreign language for him, in an amazingly quick pace, so quick to be termed a miracle. In a very short span of time he became a very efficient user of English. He mastered the system of the language to the extent he could put it to excellent creative writings. He produced masterpieces in English literature which are still read with great appreciation worldwide. His achievement is astonishing in real sense of the word. The fact has baffled the linguists for over a century.

Conrad was born in Poland in 1857 and learned Polish as his first language. Then he learnt French as a second language when he started his career as a sailor in a French ship at the age of 16. He only began to learn English when he took a job in the English ship Mavis in 1878, first setting foot on English soil at Lowestoft. At that time he was scarcely able to speak a word of the English language. But it was a prerequisite to remain in his job as it was necessary for his promotion. He pledged to succeed as an English sailor. And we know the history. In eight years, he obtained a third mate's ticket, then a mate's and finally a master's, thanks to his knowledge of English along with navigational skills. He worked in English ships for long sixteen years, rising from deckhand to command a ship of his own.

English was not Conrad's mother tongue or first language. He did not acquire the language naturally or unconsciously during his babyhood and childhood. We know from his biographical account that he studied at the schools in Krakow and Geneva, where he never studied English. He had to learn English as an adult through his strenuous personal efforts. It was not taught institutionally to him. He underwent a method of instruction, say, self-instruction, in which he helped himself. The linguists might say, for Conrad, English was the business of 'learning' and not 'acquisition'. Learning implies a conscious effort while acquisition an unconscious effort. Adults cannot 'acquire'; they can only 'learn'.

Conrad became a British subject in 1886 though he settled in England a little later, in 1893, at the age of 36. He became serious in writing and came up with his first novel Almayer's Folly in 1895. Before his death, Conrad left a pile of superb fictions in English. He wrote about sixteen books of stories and novels from 1895 to 1924, which brought him worldwide reputation as a writer. His important works include The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), Under Western Eyes (1911), Within the Tides (1915) and The Shadow Line (1917). However, he was not a commercially successful writer during his time though he was a master artist.

Conrad created a unique style of writing fiction in English. His sentences are strong-built, complicated and lengthy, soaked in a mood of seriousness. His diction is precise, difficult and often metaphorical. His style is ornate. In his fiction he adopted a complex method of narration and broken time sequence. A critic comments on his style: “He has, through a sheer miracle, wrought ill-assorted elements into a strong synthesis; he has in a learnt language, fashioned an irresistible style, loaded with nervous impact of stern realities, carried onward by a rhythm which not only multiplies their hard rigour, but bathes it in a meditative music through which the soul catches an undertone of softer harmonies.” His narrative style was a precursor of modernist literature.

Conrad is now considered as one of the most powerful English writers of all times. He garnered the respect of such famous contemporary writers.

as John Galsworthy, Henry James, H. G. Wells and Ford Madox Ford. The last one collaborated with Joseph Conrad on two novels -- The Inheritors (1901) and Romance (1903). Conrad influenced a galaxy of later writers including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, Jean-Paul Sartre and Graham Greene.

My question (it is also the question of anybody interested in English Language Teaching or ELT) is: What are the reasons of Conrad's tremendous success as a foreign language learner? That is, what are the secrets of his learning a foreign language so successfully? Let us make some conjectures here, which may provide tentative answer to the question.

It is a common belief among the applied linguists that children learn a language quicker than the adults. What the children can learn in five years may take ten years for the adults. In terms of learning speed, children outwit the adults. But Conrad's achievement seems to have disproved the theory. Conrad learnt in five years so much of a foreign language that it may take ten years or more (or lifetime) for children to do that. His achievement goes counter the hypotheses of 'Language Acquisition Device (LAD)' and 'Critical Period (CP)', which claim that particular mechanism of children's brain helps them to learn a language quickly and this special capacity is lost during the time of puberty. The adults are deprived of the supposed biological advantage. Then, what made Conrad so successful? In fifteen years Conrad became a perfect user of English. No children can be compared with him. He performed better than children in terms of speed and accuracy.

One fact should be acknowledged that Conrad's writing was better than his speaking. Researchers reveal that he spoke English well but it was marked with a bit of Polish accent. It is obviously the mother tongue interference in pronunciation. His excellence in writing skill is correlated with reading skill. Conrad was an avid reader just from childhood. During long, lonely and unoccupied hours, he went to his father's library and read different books on history and voyages. In his schooldays he read books of Charles Dickens and Frederick Marryat albeit in Polish and French translation. He retained this reading habit throughout his life. During the course of learning English, he resorted to reading on a regular basis. This habit helped him to gain sufficient command over the language. He showed his formidable skill of writing in his immortal creations. So the theory comes down to: 'good reading results in good writing'. Without adequate reading, nobody can write adequately. We may call reading a way of learning -- an effective way indeed. It is what some theorists might term “Reading Approach”.

It is also possible that Conrad got strong genetic support in his learning endeavour. His father was Apollo Korzeniowsky, a poet, playwright and translator. He wrote plays of political themes and translated Alfred de Vigny and Victor Hugo from French and Charles Dickens and Shakespeare from English. Conrad got a creative faculty genetically from his father. Though it is debatable whether linguistic capacity goes through heredity, it is almost certain that he inherited a reading mind from his father. Reading made him a superb learner and writer.

Motivation was another important factor of Conrad's dazzling success in learning a foreign language. Motivation, both internal and external, worked intensely in him. His external motivation came from his desire to build a career as a sailor of British merchant navy whereby his English language would be rewarding. He was resolute not to fail in his profession. It added instrumentality. Internal motivation came from his drive to learn a language for the sake of getting in touch with the great minds of English literature. Being a keen reader, he had the privilege to take up the English books and devour them to quench his thirst for knowledge. The combination of external and internal motivations proved to be a powerful determinant in his learning process.

Conrad lived in an environment of English while learning the language. He had day-to-day interaction with the English people. In his family also he had to talk in English. His wife Jessie George was an English lady, whom he married in 1896. This facility helped him in learning the language in a practical way. The best way to learn a foreign language is to place oneself in the setting where the language is used. The skill of language is best achieved through a process which the applied linguists call 'acculturation'. The learner picks up the language as a cultural trait. He gets integrated with the society where he gets acquainted with the linguistic norms. He learns not simply the linguistic symbols but their applications. He gains discourse and sociolinguistic competencies, the higher use of language. Conrad was acculturated with English to the core.

Joseph Conrad's case is curious in the sphere of applied linguistics and ELT. His case nullifies the hypotheses of LAD and CP. But it provides strong support for the efficacy of reading, motivation and acculturation.

The writer is Assistant Professor and Head, Department of English, Daffodil International University.

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