Language Learners from History: Joseph Conrad

Read this week about Joseph Conrad as we kick off a brand new series profiling impactful language learners from throughout history. 

Joseph Conrad (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski)

66358-004-D159F524Lived: December 3, 1857-August 3, 1924

Occupation: Author

Native Language: Polish

Acquired Language: English and French

Joseph Conrad, a native Polish speaker, would become one of the best-known English language authors of the nineteenth century.

Conrad was born into a family of the Polish nobility (the szlachta) in the Russian Empire’s Ukrainian region. He was born surrounded by many languages, including Polish from his parents, and acquired knowledge of Latin, German, and in particular French, during his upbringing. Conrad’s father Apollo (like his son) had a knack for languages and was known for translating famous literary works into Polish including those penned by Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, and Heinrich Heine. Joseph would read many of these translated works as a child.

Conrad was not known as a good student, but possessed the French language skills to pursue a career as a sailor for the French navy when he was sixteen. He spent much of his teens and twenties as a sailor on French and then English vessels. He used this time to improve the French he had learned in childhood, and to introduce himself to English, a language he wouldn’t become proficient in until his late twenties. Conrad’s travels included voyages to the Caribbean, Australia, and Southeast Asia, and Africa. He would witness European colonialism first hand, making it a major of topic of his later writings.

Conrad would go on to compose several famous works in English inspired by his seafaring voyages, including Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and Typhoon. He was known for a thick, heavily descriptive style, impressive given he was writing in his third language. He was occasionally criticized by fellow Poles for not contributing to the literature of his native language.

Conrad’s response to such criticisms can be summed up in part of letter he wrote to a Polish librarian in 1901: “It does not seem to me that I have been unfaithful to my country by having proved to the English that a gentleman from the Ukraine can be as good as sailor as they, and has something to tell them in their own language.”

While receiving praise for his dense, meandering style, he receive his share of criticisms, most famously from Nigerian literary critic Chinua Achebe, who censured Conrad’s portrayal of Africa. Nevertheless, Conrad, who didn’t speak of word of English until his twenties, would go down as one of the most influential English-language writers of his era. It goes to show that it is never too late to start learning a language.


Have a suggestion of someone you would like to see featured in this series? Leave a comment below!

Leave a Reply