Friday, 26 August 2016

The Language Parent and the Spy

It's Polski Piątek, so I will return to complaining about my brain. "Brain" in Polish is "mózg"--pronounced moozk--by the way.  Boli mnie mózg means "My brain hurts", and it most definitely did yesterday. This was thanks to my Language Parent, who was determined to fix the way I pronounce trz.

"It's not ch," she scolded. "It's trz, which is more like sh!"

Having just searched fruitlessly through Success with Languages (ed. Hurd & Murphy) and How We Learn (Carey), I can't tell you where I got the term "Language Parent" from. However, I can tell you that a Language Parent is someone who is willing to help you learn to speak his/her language in the same way a parent is willing to help his/her infant learn to speak his/her language: with sincere attention, good humour, constant correction and constant encouragement. This is a lot to expect from anyone who is not actually your parent, so if God sends you a Language Parent you must not look him or her in the mouth---except literally, to see how they make the trz sound.

My Language Parent works in the Historical House café--a seven minute walk from here--and is a force of nature. She very much likes people---very useful for language-learning--and perfected her English working in a tourist-trade shop on the Royal Mile, which culturally would be the equivalent of me working in a Judaica shop in Białystok. Clearly Language Parent is much tougher and braver than me.

Fortunately, Language Parent is confident in my powers and predicts that after two weeks in Warsaw, I'll be, like, "Cześć [incomprehensive youth slang with a rhythm strangely like that of a rap song]." I am not so sure, so I creep down to the café to await Language Parent's lunch break.  According to everything I have read, the best way to learn a language is to speak it to a native and listen to the native speak back to you as often as possible.

Naturally this is not easy because nothing in learning Polish is easy. However, it is made easier by LP's interest in my current children's storybook, which she has me read to her. LP interrupts at every word I get wrong (many) and assesses what my personal pronunciation and reading problems are. This is absolutely brilliant. Before LP pointed it out, I had no idea that I read the preposition "z" as  the preposition"w", but sure enough, during last night's Polish club meeting, I caught myself doing it.  How bizarre. Someone from Warsaw University should come and do a study on me.

According to How We Learn interruptions help us learn, so it is good to be corrected in this way--as long as it doesn't make us lose heart, of course. Mistakes also help us learn because we tend to remember them--when they are pointed out and corrected. When I was 10, I had my whole Times Table down cold except 8 x 7 = 56. Notice that I remember that.

At any rate, our concentration for half an hour was so intense that I got a headache and begged a paracetamol from the first member of Polish club who arrived. In general, I try not to think in Polish on the same day as Polish club or Polish class because it tires out my brain, which accordingly gives up at 8 PM, if not sooner.

Another brain-tiring activity is watching Polish films without English subtitles, which I can assure you I would not have had the discipline to do before 2015 or whenever it was that I made myself watch Przysłuchanie (The Interrogation) while house-sitting.  Przysłuchanie was emotionally intense and much, much too hard. Currently it is a better idea to watch a film with the English subtitles first, and then watch it without the subtitles or with Polish subtitles.

This week I watched the spy thriller Jack Strong, first with B.A. (English subtitles for the Polish and Russian parts) and then alone (Polish subtitles for the Russian and English parts). The best parts of the film (besides all the guy stuff that made it husband-friendly) were the scenes of the Polish spy trying to write a letter in English and of the American spy speaking beautifully grammatical Polish with a strong American accent. I now have a clear language goal; I want to speak Polish at least as well as an American spy.


  1. I remember a Polish speaker exhibiting the difference between these sounds (yeah! I actually understand one of your Polish references!) It was slight, and I could hear it, others couldn't. But I have no idea if I could reproduce the sound.
    I've seen videos on youtube about sounds difficult to pronounce for english speakers and how to work up to them (where to put your tongue or lips). Maybe there's some ones on Polish?

  2. Well, I could try. I did manage to figure out the difference between cz and ć.

    Listen, hipsterism is still not dead, so I highly recommend you pick a random Central or Eastern European country and learn all you can about it. At my favourite hipster cafe there's a Scottish waiter learning Bulgarian. Practically speaking, I would recommend Russian, though.