How I learn Polish?

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When I'm in a country where I don't speak the language, I find it irresistible to decipher the local language a bit. Along the way, I found it equally fascinating to figure out how my brain works, and how I best learn a new language. I visited Poland in August and September 2020, and here are some musings on learning Polish.

Determine the goal

Not my goals

  • Reading literature
  • Work in Poland
  • Grammatically correct communications.

Goals

  • Daily conversations in Polish
  • Reading signs in the streets and in shop windows, etc.
  • Speaking & pronounciation
  • Understanding spoken Polish
  • Writing: This is the odd one out: Originally it wasn't on my list, but I added it, as I found out that otherwise two-way communication using Google Translate would be limited.

Definition of success

Being able to do everyday's life in Polish.

The language won't learn itself

To start with what may seem a blinding flash of the obvious: It doesn't go by itself. Just being in an environment where most people speak Polish, doesn't magically make me speak Polish through osmosis or something. And frankly, I think this is also how it seems to work for children: It takes an effort plus endlessly practicing.

Space needed

Learning a language seems to require 'mental space':

  • In the first week here in Poland, I wasn't working yet, and could use all my mental faculties for learning Polish. It went really well. Just magically
  • From the second week on, I also worked. Learning progress dropped a lot (also because I spend less time on it).

Is that good or bad news? I think it's neutral. But there is good news: I can do all kind of actions to improve the 'mental space' in my head for learning:

  • Basically, get more serene. And yes, that's a tall order
  • Meditate - to 'collect' the parts of my consciousness that is scattered over irrelevant things
  • Be mindful: Do only one thing at a time, with full attention, without judging.

Avoid perfection - One thing at a time

Two things that seem to be at odds concerning learning languages:

  • Learning is easier than unlearning/relearning. In other words: When learning something, you have to do it right from the start, as if you learn something wrong it becomes much harder to later correct this. This implies that when learning some aspect about a language, it has to be perfect from the beginning, including all details, nuances and maybe irregularities - Quite a challenge and probably not much fun
  • Children don't seem to learn this way at all: They learn by trying, making mistakes and being corrected.

The solution to the riddle? Focus only on what is relevant right now:

  • Right now, the only conjugations that I know in Polish are "I am", "you are" and "he/she is", and that's good enough. Hopefully, soon the moment will come when this isn't enough anymore, but until that time, I won't bother about it. When I use other verbs, I just mutter something (e.g. 'robota' seems to do to the trick whenever I need to say something related to 'work', 'doing' or 'functioning'), and it works just fine - for now.
  • This drive for perfection seems to be the norm: Whenever I ask people about an aspect of a language (or any other piece of knowledge), most people seem to be unable to keep their answer simple.

Immersion vs. grammar

[1]:

I teach English to young adults in an institute in Peru. Various persons learn English best in different ways. Children may do best with immersion and I would hate to have to explain third conditionals to 10 year olds. Adults tend to need to understand things so more structure and grammar is needed, hopefully taught in a communicative manner without a lot of teacher talking time. Young adults are in the sweet spot where everything works. That said, my wife is struggling with program. After a year of studying, she is spending a month with Rosetta Stone, which seems to be doing a really good job in reenforcing what she is already supposed to have learned.

Just try it - Make mistakes

  • Remove every barrier between myself and trying it out - Using Google Translate turned out te be wonderful tool for me to communicate with people with whom I don't have a common language
  • Just make mistakes. Just like little kids aren't embarassed to make mistakes. There is no other way. Too embarassed? Then work on that first, since otherwise, it will never succeed
  • Keep trying - Like every sentence is a jump in the dark.

Note & celebrate the progress

  • Make sure you see the progress
  • Celebrate it, even in a small way. This helps to keep me motivated
  • Repetition is reinforcing.

What's the best next step?

  • It seems to really pay off, to constantly ask myself what's the next most effective thing to learn
  • Funny example: I picked up from a YouTube video, that it might really help to early learn prepositions, as you usually can't figure them out from the context (e.g., but, and, thefore, behind, in, etc.)
  • Learning some incomprehensible and discouraging piece of grammar, is probably never the best next step - But the bar will change along the way.

Follow the energy

Keep monitoring what gives the most energy. E.g.:

  • Years ago, I set to a Croatian acquitance in Croatian, that I was learning that language. She was impressed and I was thrilled
  • Some years ago in Estonia, I could ask in the hotel for the key of the room, all in Estonian, by heart. That was so cool
  • A couple of days ago over dinner in a restaurant, I was able to say in Polish that I wanted the same drink as someone else at the table - I'm still excited that this worked.

Note to self: It seems to involve other people for me.

Decompose the skill

Learning becomes a lot easier, if I can decompose the skill into more manageable chunks. E.g.:

  • Pronounciation
  • Writing down spoken words - Very handy for two-way communication using Google Translate
  • Verb to be
  • Numbers
  • List of 100 most used words
  • Propositions that appear amongst the 1,000 most used words.

Shower conversations