The Loom of Language: An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages

The Loom of Language: An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages by Frederick Bodmer has always been my favorite book about learning languages. I first discovered it on F.X. Micheloud’s Learning Languages site about 9 or 10 years ago when I was still an undergrad and much more interested in learning languages on my own rather than taking boring classes at university. I wanted to learn useful vocabulary and focus more on understanding and speaking the language while my classes wanted me to analyze Zola or Sand with very limited knowledge of French. Or my classes were cancelled because not enough students signed up for German or because there were no teachers available for Italian. My language books (all 500 of them) and later the internet became the main resources I used in studying, but I always went back to The Loom of Language because it explained everything so well.

It is the only book that actually teaches languages instead of simply teaching how to learn languages. There are several books and resources available for that already. I was specifically looking for something that compared European languages and gave me the rules and words needed to learn the languages – not to learn about the languages. Originally written in the 1940’s, it is obviously outdated in some parts – the quote “1,800 million people on this globe speak approximately 1,500 different languages” is so very wrong today – but it’s still the best book for multilingual learners to get an overview of Latin and Germanic grammar and vocabulary.

The first part of the book starts with the history of human language and alphabets and leads into morphology and syntax of several languages, and ends with the classification of languages throughout the world. The second part focuses on learning vocabulary (from the given lists) taking advantage of similarities among languages and sound shifts that cause predictable changes from one language to another. What I always found most important, however, was the assertion that you should learn certain words first, such as personal pronouns, auxiliary verbs, demonstratives, prepositions, conjunctions, etc. (essentially function words) because they are the most common and least recognizable when they change cases.

Many nouns, adjectives and verbs should come after the function words because they are more likely to be recognized thanks to common affixes among similar languages and “international” words such as telephone or taxi, and also because these concrete words are highly dependent on the situation. Bodmer’s example of a Dane who learns the word rabbit in one of his first English lessons but who may never talk about rodents of any kind for 10 years really illustrates the need to learn the function and abstract words first, or at least to focus immediately on the words that you will need depending on why you are learning the language.

Bodmer also encourages learners to “get a bird’s-eye view of the grammatical peculiarities of a language before trying to memorize anything” and to not waste time on memorizing case endings of nouns or adjectives until a reading knowledge of the language is achieved. Most textbooks don’t agree with this as they introduce cases and declensions early on so that students are supposed to memorize the endings before they even learn many nouns or adjectives. Bodmer’s method is based on recognition and input of useful vocabulary first, and later intensive reading and writing to perfect the grammar, which seems to be the opposite of certain books.

He also states “If you learn only ten new words of the group which includes particles, pronouns, and pointer words every day for a fortnight, you will have at your disposal at least 25 per cent of the total number of words you use when you write a letter. When you have done this, it is important to have a small vocabulary of essential nouns, adjectives, and verbs ready for use.” All of this essential vocabulary he is referring to is included at the back of the book in several lists that compare English, French, Spanish, Portuguese & Italian and English, Swedish, Danish, Dutch & German. Sound familiar? These “basic vocabularies” were the inspiration for creating my own multilingual lists and lead to the Romance and Germanic Vocabulary & Verbs pages that I am still working on.

The third part of the book gives information on other languages in more detail, including non-Indo-European and constructed languages and leads into a discussion on language planning and a “true Interlingua” that would be “a passport to a wider international culture.” The last paragraph is still relevant today, though written during WWII.

“Of itself, no such change can bring the age-long calamity of war to an end; and it is a dangerous error to conceive that it can do so. We cannot hope to reach a remedy for the language obstacles to international co-operation on a democratic footing, while predatory finance capital, intrigues or armament manufacturers, and the vested interest of a rentier class in the misery of colonial peoples continue to stifle the impulse to a world-wide enterprise for the common wealth of mankind. No language reform can abolish war, while social agencies far more powerful than mere linguistic misunderstandings furnish fresh occasion for it. What intelligent language planning can do is to forge a new instrument for human collaboration on a planetary scale, when social institutions propitious to international strife no longer thwart the constructive task of planning health, leisure and plenty for all.”

Language, culture and politics always have been connected and probably always will be. The government of Belgium just collapsed (again!) because of tensions between French and Flemish speakers and the French-English tensions in Quebec has a long history as well. Hispanics in the US are discriminated against because they do not speak English well enough or not at all even though the US has no official language. Montenegro calls its language Montenegrin though it is actually another dialect of the now defunct Serbo-Croatian language that also includes Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian because the Balkan states must have their own “standardized” language in order to be eligible for EU membership.

Interestingly, WWII and the Balkan wars in the 90’s were what encouraged me to start learning languages in the first place. I wanted to read the original documents and journals and newspapers and try to understand why wars happen and where the hatred for other human beings comes from. There are still several armed conflicts happening all over the world, and the racist propaganda against immigrants in several countries, including both my home and adopted countries, is what keeps me learning languages – so that one day I can help those immigrants, and especially refugees, adjust to their new lives and fight against the discrimination. Perhaps I am a bleeding-heart liberal when it comes to the underprivileged (especially the poor who  are usually immigrants) but rampant inequality among groups of people is heart-breaking to me; and even though it sounds trite and clichéd, I still believe that learning foreign languages plays a large part in making the world a better place.

Update: Also check out Quotes from The Loom of Language on Classroom Learning and the Direct Method