In days past, before the Internet and globalization, the Bible used to be a tremendous resource for polyglots because of its ubiquity and translation into so many languages. In many ways, it still is. As a foundational text for Western culture, the narratives are familiar and culturally significant. The only problem with using the Bible for learning modern languages is the archaic nature of the text and language employed therein. It is easy to develop a stilted style if using the Bible as the basis for your speech in a new language. After all, the King James Bible has famously been the basis for stabilizing the archaic speech in certain dialects of Appalachian English.
Today, there are many other resources available for learning languages. The same principles of what makes the Bible a polyglot goldmine apply to several other works of literature and film that have achieved global reach and significance, albeit for other reasons. Among these, and among the most translated books, is the Harry Potter series. Although not my favorite children’s books, they do serve as an outstanding resource for language learning for a number of reasons:
- Easy language and style
- Number of translations
- Ubiquity and availability
- Accompanying films and audiobooks
The language used in the Harry Potter series is simple, without many complex sentences. The books have been translated into around 70 (possibly more) languages. Compared to the Bible’s 530+ translations, that might not seem like much, but you have to take point three above into consideration as well — the books are easy to acquire in different languages. Now, for example, you can get the Luther Bibel in German on Kindle (as well as in hardcover), but a decade ago, I had to have a German friend bring me back a copy when she was returning home for a short trip from the USA. Taking into consideration the accompanying films, which have themselves been dubbed and subtitled into many languages, the Harry Potter series is a formidable learning tool. There are also audiobooks for several languages.
Familiarity with the story allows one to get into a translation quickly and begin learning from context. Through sheer repetition, you’ll soon pick up a number of common words: anything from uncle to owl. The language is pitched at a decent entry level, and can serve as a stepping stone to more advanced texts.
Some translations present more inventiveness than others. The Latin translation, for example, required a number of Latin neologisms for concepts non-existent in Classical times (such as trains and cars). Other translations, such as the French, contain many vocabulary items that will be familiar to English speakers, albeit in different forms. To me, the best part of the French translation of Harry Potter, for example, is the fact that magic wand translates as baguette magique in French. Baguette magique? Seriously? Cannot stop laughing…
Kindle editions and and audiobooks of Harry Potter in a range of languages are available through the Pottermore Shop liked via Amazon. Here’s the Kindle edition of book one.