Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Too Old To Learn A Language?

Instead of launching into long-winded cogitations on the topic of mature language learners, I'm going to share an article about British writer and translator Mary Hobson, whose story I find really inspirational.

The piece below was originally published in Russia Beyond The Headlines (RBTH):

‘Learning Russian has given me a whole new life’

April 22, 2016 YELENA BOZHKOVA
English writer and translator Mary Hobson decided to learn Russian at the age of 56, graduating in her sixties and completing a PhD aged 74. Now fluent in Russian, Hobson has  won the Griboyedov Prize and the Pushkin Medal for her translation work. RBTH visited Hobson at her London home to ask about her inspiring experience.

RBTH: Learning Russian is difficult at any age, and you were 56. How did the idea first come to your mind? 
Mary Hobson: I was having a foot operation, and I had to stay in bed for two weeks in hospital. My daughter Emma brought me a big fat translation of War and Peace. “Mum, you’ll never get a better chance to read it”, she said.
I’d never read Russian literature before. I got absolutely hooked on it, I just got so absorbed! I read like a starving man eats. The paperback didn’t have maps of the battle of Borodino, I was making maps trying to understand what was happening. This was the best novel ever written. Tolstoy creates the whole world, and while you read it, you believe in it.
I woke up in the hospital three days after I finished reading and suddenly realized: “I haven’t read it at all. I’ve read a translation. I would have to learn Russian.”
RBTH: Did you read War and Peace in the original language eventually?
M.H.: Yes, it was the first thing I read in Russian. I bought a fat Russian dictionary and off I went. It took me about two years. I read it like a poem, a sentence at a time. I learned such a lot, I still remember where I first found some words. “Between,” for instance. About a third of the way down the page.
RBTH: Do you remember your first steps in learning Russian? 
M.H.: I had a plan to study the Russian language in evening classes, but my Russian friend said: “Don’t do that, I’ll teach you.” We sat in the garden and she helped me to remember the Cyrillic script. I was 56 at this time, and I found it very tiring reading in Cyrillic. I couldn’t do it in the evening because I simply wouldn’t be able to sleep. And Russian grammar is fascinating.
RBTH: You became an undergraduate for the first time in your sixties. How did you feel about studying with young students?
M.H.: I need to explain first why I didn’t have any career before my fifties. My husband had a very serious illness, a cerebral abscess, and he became disabled. I was just looking after him. And we had four children. After 28 years I could not do it any longer, I had break downs, depressions. I finally realized I would have to leave. Otherwise I would just go down with him. There was a life out there I hadn’t lived. It was time to go out and to live it.
I left him. I’d been on my own for three years in a limbo of quilt and depression. Then I picked up a phone and rang the number my friend had long since given me, that of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London University. “Do you accept mature students?” I asked. “Of sixty-two?” They did.
When the first day of term arrived, I was absolutely terrified. I went twice around Russel square before daring to go in. The only thing that persuaded me to do it was that I got offered the place and if I didn’t do it, the children would be so ashamed of me. My group mates looked a little bit surprised at first but then we were very quickly writing the same essays, reading the same stuff, having to do the same translations.
RBTH: You spent 10 months in Moscow as part of your course. How did you feel in Russia?
M.H.: I hardly dared open my mouth, because I thought I got it wrong. It lasted about a week like this, hardly daring to speak. Then I thought – I’m here only for 10 months. I shall die if I don’t communicate. I just have to risk it. Then I started bumbling stuff. I said things I didn’t at all mean. I just said anything. The most dangerous thing was to make jokes. People looked at me as if I was mad.
I hate to say it, but in 1991 the Russian ruble absolutely collapsed and for the first and last time in my life I was a wealthy woman. I bought over 200 books in Russian, 10 “Complete Collected Works” of my favorite 19th-century authors. Then it was a problem how to get them home. Seventy-five of them were brought to London by a visiting group of schoolchildren. They took three books each.
RBTH: You’re celebrating your 90th birthday in July. What’s the secret of your longevity? 
M.H.: If I had not gone to university, if I had given up and stopped learning Russian, I don’t think I’d have lived this long. It keeps your mind active, it keeps you physically active. It affects everything. Learning Russian has given me a whole new life. A whole circle of friends, a whole new way of living. For me it was the most enormous opening out to a new life.
*   *   *   *   *   * 
Before I embarked on my multilingual project, my goal was to speak five languages "really well". I'm not all that far off with my Spanish, but my Portuguese  –  and most definitely my French!  –  still need A LOT of work. By the time I get those to a decent enough level and have reached my goal of five, I'll be pushing the Big Five-O, age-wise.
Thing is, I can't really see myself stopping there. I know I'll want to go on learning languages, and I'll most likely be wanting a change from the Romance ones. Although I had dismissed it as an option for the longest time, Russian may well be on the cards. Or rather, a return to Russian, since I studied the language at school for a couple of years (thirty years ago, oh my!). I can still read and write Cyrillic, but everything else has evaporated. Besides a smattering of previous experience, another factor in its favour is relatively easy access to both people and country. Russia is just a short plane ride away, and there are plenty of native Russian speakers dotted about Europe. 


  1. Interesting story, thanks for posting.

    - Vee ( a fellow Duolinger)

  2. This makes me SO HAPPY. What a lady!

    1. I know! So inspiring! I've been "stalking" her a bit on google, and found a really good interview she did for the BBC, plus some other articles, etc.

  3. I needed to read this. I'm 59 and still trying to learn Spanish (which I've studied off and on since I was a teenager!). I've often thought that I might enroll for a degree in Spanish when I retire. I don't know if I will (because retirement is still a ways away), but Mary's story has inspired me to not give up!

    1. Enroll NOW :) Do it part-time. And look for some Spanish speakers in your area. It's always easier to learn when there's people you can actually practice and use the language with. Good luck!