Friday, 17 June 2016

Od 5 Lat

Polish class has ended for the summer, and as I stood on the doorstep of the uni building, zipping up my raincoat, I felt a little sad. As usual my energy had plummeted during the lesson, for I am a morning person, and it had been a long time since lunch.

"Quare tristis es, anima mea?" I asked (if not in those words) and realized that this was the end of four years of night classes and I had studied Polish for five years.

"And I'm still not fluent," I inwardly grumbled.

However, the number 5 cheered me, for some years ago I vowed I wouldn't quit Polish until I had studied it for five years, and here we are. I haven't quit. Vow fulfilled.  My present to myself was going to be an intensive, total immersion language course in Poland but...that's not going to happen this year. (Maybe an intensive, total immersion weekend?)

Success with Languages suggests the learner do a lot of self-reflection on why he or she wants to learn the target language chosen. The answer to why is quite embarrassing as it is "Because [Polish Pretend Daughter] said I couldn't do it." Since then Polish Pretend Daughter has completely revised her opinion on the abilities of foreigners, having married a Frenchman who now speaks Polish. Obviously there has to be a better reason to learn Polish, and I suppose "I want to know what Polish people on the bus are saying on their mobiles" could be one.

The learner is also supposed to celebrate his or her successes. As for successes, I guess I have come far from the day I first sat in our library (actually a Regency-era linen closet filled with our books) with Pimsleur Polish 1 and nervously began to learn the apology word "przepraszam" ("Szam...praszam...przepraszam...") Thanks to its ubiquity in the Polish language, the sound "psh" now holds no terrors for me.

What else? I can get the gist of Polish children's books without a dictionary and the gist of some Polish conversations on the bus. I can shop, order food in restaurants and buy tickets in spoken Polish and order books online in reading Polish. I am really, really good at using Polish-English dictionaries. If presented with a Pole who spoke no English whatsoever, we could probably have a pretty good Polish conversation although presumably I would sound like the anglophone equivalent of Long Duk Dong.

I also know more than the average non-Pole about the history of Poland and contemporary Polish politics, and I read everything a non-Pole (or a Pole employed by the Guardian) writes about Poland through the hermeneutic of suspicion.

But to get back to language, I have learned a lot about language-learning while doing it, so here are my observations:

1. Unless you have a rare gift, learning a language outside an immersion context is very difficult. 

2. There is only so much you can do outside an immersion context. With the help of audio material (crucial), you can learn a basic vocabulary. With the help of a decent textbook, you can learn quite a bit of grammar. After that you need to go where almost everyone speaks the language and speak it there.

3. You have to get over thinking you sound stupid. Nobody thinks you sound stupid. Native-speakers think you sound foreign. They may even think you sound attractively exotic. In some cultures, native-speakers think you are a wonder for attempting to learn their language at all. Of course, you may run into a native-speaker who says learning his language is a complete waste of your time. Fight him on this by mentioning the brilliance of a few of his national literary heroes, whose writings can only be properly appreciated in their original language. One of the secrets of life is NEVER to agree with someone who has just run down his own country/culture.

4. Weekly classes outside an immersion context are helpful if the teacher is a native speaker. However, weekly classes are at least 50% listening to a lot of non-natives slowly murder the language. If you can afford a private tutor, hire a private tutor instead of taking classes.

That said, if you enroll in a for-credit university course in a minority language (like Polish or Italian) in a multicultural metropolis like Toronto, you may discover that most of the other students grew up speaking a version of that language at home. In this case, you may have a dozen unpaid young profs all around you as well as the official prof, an excellent situation.

5. Anyone who wants to improve their language skills must be plunged regularly into an immersion context. The child must be sent to immersion school or, at very least, immersion camp. The high school or university student must go on that course offered abroad (or if an anglo Canadian learning French, Quebec). The working person must go abroad on holiday or into a family that habitually speaks the target language at home.

Why? Apparently the human brain is so efficient, it throws away information it doesn't need. Apparently all your memories are not buried in your brain and if only you were smarter/took a magic pill, you STILL would not be able to access them all. Apparently, most of your memories are gone. Only in an immersion context does your brain say, "Holy guacamole! To cope I am going to have to hang onto all these weird new words and linguistic structures!" Only in an immersion context are you forced to repeat often enough the same physical movements of your mouth and tongue needed to make the properly foreign sounds. Studying for exams is so hard because you are fighting your own brain.

This may not be true of reading the language, for when you read a foreign language, it prompts the English in your head. However, having to remember foreign words unaided is a different kettle of fish. This brings me to my next point.

6. When you learn a language, you are actually learning four languages: the language as read silently, the language as heard, the language as spoken and the language as written. People find one skill easier than another. Not surprisingly, I find reading and then writing Polish easiest, thanks in part because I can (and do) use a dictionary so often. Others, however, may find listening and speaking easiest and struggle with reading and writing.

7. Balancing out the easier activities with the harder activities takes serious discipline and motivation.

8. Unless you are in an immersion context, you must study every day. You must besiege your brain with recordings, reading material, the sound of your own voice speaking the language and the efforts of writing something original in it. Why Saint Francis called his body "Brother Ass" when the real ass is the brain is a mystery to me. But maybe Saint Francis, born long before Descartes, didn't make that distinction. The brain is PART of the body and therefore it must be exercised daily to do what you want it to do.

9. To learn well, you have to feed your brain. Here's a list of brain-boosting foods. Apparently 8 oz of coffee helps it learn better, too. I always drink coffee before class and often when I am reading Polish.

10. This may sound extreme, but marrying someone who is fluent in the language can be a huge help. (It can also hinder, however, if he or she discourages you.) First of all, you associate the language with happy feelings (very important). Second, you may have ample opportunities to practice with a native or (at least) advanced speaker. Third, the target language spouse may want you to learn his/her language because he/she wants to raise bilingual kids and wants you to be able to speak to his/her parents, grandparents and other relations or even reside in his/her country of origin. You could end up like Monsieur Chopin, who started off French but then somehow spent most of his adult life in Poland and his half-French, French-speaking child Frederik became a national Polish hero.

Naturally I do not know this first hand, but I do know some determined wives and girlfriends of Polish learners and the student in my class with the best accent is a woman married to a Pole who, she says, is very strict about her pronunciation. Fortunately, she grew up with boys and prefers men as friends, or I would say "Yikes!"

Update in response to today's primary Francis-scandal: Not only am I sure my own marriage to B.A. (contracted when we were in our late 30s) is valid, I am sure my parents' marriage (contracted when my mother was a baby-faced 23) is valid. However, I would not be surprised if many marriages between western people of my own messed up generation are indeed invalid. Without a rigorous scientific or theological study, I wouldn't dare to say "most", though. My hypothesis is not a reflection on marriage but on the decadent, confusing, culture-clash, post-Christian society in which my generation and subsequent generations grew up.


  1. Gratulacje Pani McLean i powodzenia w dalszej nauce polskiego! Podziwiam Pani determinację. Wszystkiego dobrego.

    Your Very Single Polish Reader :-)

  2. 5 years! Wow, that's fantastic!!

    I can definitely see the point about many people being confused about what marriage really is . . . but I was disturbed by the fact that he later commented that he was sure that many (faithfully) cohabiting couples were truly married and received the graces of marriage. Um, what? So couples who are at least trying, and get married in the Church, are likely not to be truly married? But those who choose to just live together for years are? :(

    1. Well, try not to listen when someone starts a sentence with "the pope said spontaneously" or "the pope had an unscripted question and answer session"...

    2. Fortunately, many great saints and Pope Benedict have left us a lot to read. If we read Francis news less and Catholic doctrine more, we'll feel better. There are a crowd of popes buried in St. Peter's that we have rarely, if ever, heard of.

    3. Fortunately, many great saints and Pope Benedict have left us a lot to read. If we read Francis news less and Catholic doctrine more, we'll feel better. There are a crowd of popes buried in St. Peter's that we have rarely, if ever, heard of.

    4. @Magdalena. I'm glad that works for you!! His unscripted comments, questionable actions, etc. are what everyone who isn't Catholic latches onto, so personally, I find it helpful to know what he's said when I'm talking about him to my non-Catholic (and badly catechized Catholic) friends. I like to know why they suddenly think that the Catholic Church teaches that cohabiting couples are just as married as anyone else.

      And that's the thing that really bothers me about the comments that he makes. If he truly believes the things that he says, then that's sad. But his comments are very damaging because non-Catholics and badly catechized Catholics listen to them. He's confusing tons of people who don't know the truth to begin with. :(

      Believe me, my non-Catholic friends LOVE Pope Francis because of things he does like this.

      And very true, Mrs. McLean!! But they also lived before the advent of mass media. If they said something untrue, nobody outside a handful of people knew about it most of the time. :( Maybe in hundreds of years nobody will have heard of him, but he can do a lot more damage in the meantime.

      Obviously, he can't destroy the Church or anything, but I really wish he would stop talking without a script, or something.

    5. Believe me, I feel your pain. Part of the problem is that people just uncritically believe what they read on social media. I don't if it is because the pace of modern life and all the rushing around makes the brain unable to reflect, but I have heard very intelligent, very well educated (not just indoctrinated in PC) people repeat utterly lame and brainless slogans like "Because it's 2016."

  3. To i ja przyłączam się do gratulacji i składam wyrazy uznania;) Jestem przekonana, że za niedługo język polski będzie dla Ciebie niczym Twój ojczysty język;) Czego oczywiści Ci serdecznie życzę. Uściski dla Ciebie kochana Dorothy!

  4. I have been learning foreign languages for a few years now (English, French, Japanese and now Polish). I agree with most things you say. But I think that although language comes in four different shapes, the main distinction should be between spoken and written language. After all, speech has existed far longer than writing. I think it's good to view languages as a primarily oral and secondarily written. I, for example, more or less gave up on written Japanese (too much effort to keep the characters up) and focus on the oral part. I think it is advisable to most language learners to focus at least 70 % on speaking/listening (with more emphasis on listening). What is your view on this?

    And congratz to 5 years of Polish! I hope it also brought some pleasure. I find language learning really fun!


    1. I think you are right. But it all depends on what you want to do with the language. If I travelled to Poland more often, it would make sense just to concentrate on speaking. However, it is much more likely that most of my "Polish time" will be spent in reading and writing. In fact, most of my communications with native Polish speakers are through correspondence.

      That said, there's nothing like knowing the right thing to say just when you need to say it!

    2. I think you are right. But it all depends on what you want to do with the language. If I travelled to Poland more often, it would make sense just to concentrate on speaking. However, it is much more likely that most of my "Polish time" will be spent in reading and writing. In fact, most of my communications with native Polish speakers are through correspondence.

      That said, there's nothing like knowing the right thing to say just when you need to say it!

  5. Congratulations on five years! And take heart - in my experience, "able to have a basic conversation" is a major tipping point, and the gains will start to increase exponentially after that. Or at least, much faster than at the beginning. With Czech, it felt like I went from "able to have a very basic conversation" to "pretty fluent" with the same or less effort as it took to go from zero to basic conversation.

    (Just to clarify, I mean social conversations, like chatting with someone in the same train compartment or at the next table in a pub. Ordering a meal or buying a train ticket are also great skills, but they don't open the huge range of possiblities for both speaking and listening that even a really slow, halting social conversation can do.)

    1. The best thing ever for my Polish was having conversations with Poles just a little older than me (and therefore given Russian, not English, lessons at school) at a wedding. Now THAT was a challenge, but being primed with whisky and wedding joy, I was up for it. Thank you for the encouragement! I hope it is like that for me!