Lesson #283: Digging for Treasure in Difficult Texts – Do English Classics Help You Learn English? (A Reflective Lesson)

📘 “We got together in a few days a company of the toughest old salts imaginable – not pretty to look at, but fellows, by their faces, of the most indomitable spirit.”

― Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (1883)

For a long time I have been intending to prepare a special Lesson on Robert Louis Stevenson’s most well-known novel, Treasure Island (1883). This is a book that has captured the imagination of many readers – especially readers of the adventurous kind! – over the years.

🗝️ Learning a language shares many similarities with searching for treasure on a distant island.

As we read some of its most memorable lines, we will reflect on how the book’s ideas can help us become better students.


📘 “Seaward ho! Hang the treasure! It’s the glory of the sea that has turned my head.”

― Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (1883)

Robert Louis Stevenson’s most famous novel, Treasure Island (1883), captures these three aspects of a struggle for treasure.

His novel raises questions about wealth. What do we think is valuable? What are we living for, what do we hope to gain, to achieve?

Indeed, I believe we all have dreams about adventure and accomplishments. But what is the real process, the reality of finding the ‘treasure’ we want?

Here are some discussion questions you can ask yourself:

  • 🫴 What do I think is valuable, worthwhile?
  • 🫴 What is the price I am willing to pay for what I value (time, effort, finances)?
  • 🫴 What does ‘being rich’ mean to me? Is it about having money and living comfortably? Is it about being alive? Is it about having honour?


📘 “You can kill the body, Mr. Hands, but not the spirit…”

― Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (1883)

Learning a language is a journey with many challenges and not just a fun treasure hunt.

Treasure Island, like many wonderful classics, is quite full of advanced and specialised vocabulary, even by native English reader standards. It can be challenging at times! I remember this was my own experience when I first read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novels at the age of 12 or so.

This relates to something I recently saw on Instagram recently. Another language teacher said she does not think that reading children’s books will help you learn a language.

🧐 🫴 What do you think? Can we really learn the English language from English literature?

I absolutely know it is possible to learn advanced English from classic books. And so I disagree, politely disagree, with this other language teacher. Books, classics, children’s literature – all these have a place and a purpose in learning a language.

When used purposefully, they are essential resources for committed English language learners.

Basically, it all depends on what you expect to learn from a text.

You need to have a vision, a dream, of what you are aiming for. That will help you to become a determined student who overcomes any challenge in your way!

So if you really want to learn, be realistic and invest the right effort from the start. Becoming fluent in English has never been easy. Start by reading widely – try reading blogs, newspapers, books – because these will enrich your learning experience.

But remember: the only way you will ever learn to write fluently in English (especially in formal English) is by reading well-written books like the classics.

And of course it will feel like an uphill journey at times.

However, you are not alone! My Lessons here and those of other tutors (on platforms like YouTube) will help you to personally benefit from the classics.

In fact, any native English speaker who has a rich vocabulary has made this exact same effort before you.

Perhaps they just don’t remember all the hard work they had to invest in learning English!

But they had an aim to improve their English, and that aim, that dream, carried them through to the end.


📘 “We must go on, because we can’t turn back.”

― Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (1883)

Treasure Island is a coming-of-age book, meaning that the main character grows from boyhood into manhood. It is a kind of journey that isn’t just physical, however; it is also emotional, mental, and moral.

🫴 What is our own language journey like? Why are we learning English or any other language?

🫴 Do we learn a language like English because we must (such as when it is part of a school curriculum)? Or do we learn it because we believe it will make us more broadly human and humane as we learn to see the world from new perspectives?

🫴 And who are our ‘parents’ or ‘teachers’ on this journey of life?

The main character in Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins, is a kind of orphan who is mentored (advised and trained) and fostered (almost adopted) by several men at different stages – firstly by his sick father (who dies early on), then by a kindly wise doctor, then by a pirate, and so on. Jim learns something from the strengths and failings of each one.

Who and what are your ‘teachers’ on this journey of learning English? I don’t just ask about the persons who teach you, but about the resources you use to study English. For example, do you like sports? If so, have you watched sports programmes on television or on the internet? Those might help. Do you love cooking? Cookery books and programmes might be just perfect for you. Do you enjoy reading novels in your own language? Then resources like my website will be helpful for you, since I have Lessons aimed at learners of different levels (though mostly around beginner intermediate level upwards).

Do we learn a language like English because we have to? Or do we learn it because we believe it will make us more broadly human and humane as we learn to see the world from new perspectives?

If so, then classics (novels and poems that have been loved by many people from different eras), can help us create a more worthwhile journey, which in turn shapes us into richer people.

And so, the argument in favour of reading English classics while studying English comes full circle:

Is it possible?

Yes! It is difficult, but it is also worthwhile in the end!

And that seems to be a good place to end today’s reflective lesson!

Photo credits: Pixabay

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)