The Importance of Everyday Language

After I had spent a year in France, I could say a lot of stuff in French. For example, I could talk about la libre circulation des marchandises (the free movement of goods). Also, I could explain the role of La Cour internationale de Justice (The International Court of Justice) within Public International Law.

I couldn’t, however, say things like “hey, your shoe strings are untied!” or “I could really go for some crêpes right now!”.
In other words, I hadn’t learned the more colloquial, everyday French – the part of the language that allows you to understand people on the street. Sure, I was still able to somewhat express myself in French – but all within narrow limits.

I realized that I didn’t want that to happen with Polish.

Which is why I keep putting emphasis on colloquial Polish. Before I invest time and energy in learning some vocabulary, I make sure that I can really need the stuff in everyday life.
I do this by choosing my language sources accordingly.

I don’t hesitate to buy and read lowbrow magazines. A weekly like “Polityka” will provide you with a lot of eloquent expressions, but if you restrict yourself to intellectual stuff, you will inevitably sound awkward in ordinary social situations.

A lot of Polish Expressions and everyday conversations can be found online. I compiled a list of different sources that I found to be both entertaining and helpful:

http://kobieta.wp.pl/ – One of the first results if you type the words “dla kobiet” into Google. Has some articles of the kind that you would expect from a women’s magazine, along with some self-tests.

http://bash.org.pl/latest/ – I learned a great deal of English by reading bash.org, and I don’t see why this wouldn’t work with Polish, too. Especially since it contains highlights like these:

<sacrum_profanum> kurwa jak pomysle ze mam wstawac w niedziele o 6 rano to chuj mnie strzela normalnie
<Ja> a po co tak rano?
<sacrum_profanum> do roboty kurwa
<Ja> a gdzie pracujesz?
<sacrum_profanum> ksiedzem jestem

(http://bash.org.pl/80894/)

http://www.opensubtitles.org/pl/search – As you might already know, foreign movies don’t really get dubbed into Polish. Instead, they invented the use of a “Lektor”. This basically means that one guy will read all the dialogues in Polish while you can still faintly hear the original sound in the background. In other words, avoid this stuff at all costs (especially all love scenes) if you cling to your sanity.

However, there are also subtitles in Polish that allow you to just read the translations of films and series you probably already know. One resource for this is the above-mentioned link. If you want to try a Google search, go for “napisy po polsku“.

There are also some genuinely Polish series and films. A Google search for “scenariusze” (“scenariusz” means “script”) gives you some results for classical Polish films such as “Rejs” or “Seksmisja“.
There is also a quite popular “serial” called “Świat według Kiepskich“. It is a sitcom centered around a somewhat dysfunctional family that lives in Wrocław. The setting is thus quite similar to “Married… with children” (in Polish “Świat według Bundych“). You will find some memorable quotes at Wikiquote and in the according forum:

http://pl.wikiquote.org/wiki/%C5%9Awiat_wed%C5%82ug_Kiepskich

http://www.forum.kiepscy.org.pl/

http://demotywatory.pl/ –  Everyday wisdom in the form of Polish demotivationals.

http://peb.pl/ – A Polish forum with discussions about just everything.

http://www.joemonster.org/ – A satirical site with a wide range of subjects.

And, if you are a linux user: here is a collection of Polish fortunes.

All those links are great sources for Khatzumoto’s ‘10,000 sentences’ system which he explains in great detail here.

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Published in: on July 11, 2011 at 4:37 pm  Comments (1)  

Udawaj, że jesteś native speakerem!*

(* Pretend that you’re a native speaker!)

Some time ago I chatted with a guy from Poland. After some time chatting in Polish he asked me something that really made me smile:

“Długo mieszkasz w Niemczech?”

He actually thought that I was originally from Poland. No need to make a big deal out of this though, since it doesn’t tell so much about my language skills than about the fact that only very few people bother learning Polish as a foreign language. After all, it comes down to probability. Plus, he could only assess my written Polish; my accent still gives me clearly away as a non-native.

Nevertheless, I really like it when people assume that I’m a native speaker of their language.

I like it because certain facts tend to cloud the judgment of other people. They tend to adjust themselves when they are aware that they’re talking to a non-native speaker, all the more if that non-native speaker happens to be from a country they don’t like.
(And this is the very same reason why I post in some forums with a gender-neutral nick…)

Also, it poses kind of a challenge for me: how long can I pretend in a conversation/or a chat that I’m a native? I’ll be more attentive to mistakes I may make, and that in turn helps my concentration – kind of fake it till you make it. Oooh, and don’t forget the secret agent-feeling.

And finally, I guess it’s also a matter of identification – though I’m not sure to what extent this issue applies to other people. Some people just love a certain culture and its language so much that they just want to pretend that they’re (already) part of it – and no longer a foreigner.

The question “Why lie about being a native speaker” is being discussed in the HTLAL-Forum; the according thread can be found here.

Published in: on July 5, 2011 at 6:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

Meanwhile, in Poland

Smalltalk between two elderly ladies in the morning, as witnessed by my Polish teacher:

Lady 1: No kurwa, co?
Lady 2: No kurwa, nic!

 

Published in: on June 29, 2011 at 11:10 am  Leave a Comment  

Culture vulture

There are different stages when it comes to learning a new language.
First, you start off with the basics: hello, how are you, my name is Penny, this pie tastes great.
This stuff is pretty much the same in any language.

But when you get past the beginner/intermediate level, you will start to dive deeper into the language and its peculiarities.
And at this point you will hopefully discover how close a language and its culture are related.

A common misconception among language learners is that languages somehow exist in vacuo. It is the idea that you can learn a language without having a certain country in mind.* This is wrong – ask any etymologist. Language and culture are closely connected and interact with each other; it is only because all** human cultures possess a common root that we don’t realize this circumstance from the very beginning.

The culture and history of a country influence certain words and idioms. You can’t use the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” in German without a certain connotation. A country is formed by its politics, its history, its cultural and religious background. Someone from France has a completely different understanding of socialism than someone from Poland or the US. And if a European and an American think of liberalism, they think of two entirely different concepts.

The more you advance in a foreign language, the more you will become aware of those differences. Languages consist to a great extent of figurative speech and allusions. And you need to learn that stuff, too – or otherwise you’ll be lost when a Pole mentions “Kiełbasa wyborcza” (election sausage). And how are you to understand the name of Poland’s most popular newspaper “Gazeta Wyborcza” (The Election Newspaper) when you don’t have the foggiest notion of what happened in Poland during the 1980s?

Learning Polish does not only mean to learn a new language. If you are really determined to do it, you will inevitably learn about the history and culture of the country and its neighbors. Weźmy się do roboty!***

_________________
* This might be one of the reasons why Esperanto never really became prevalent. It is hard to create an artificial language, but it is even harder to create an artificial culture in order to have a context in which the language actually can be used.

** All I can think of.

*** Let’s do some work!

Published in: on June 23, 2011 at 11:46 am  Leave a Comment  

Access denied

The other day, I wrote an e-mail in French. Or at least, I tried to.
The e-mail was about postponing a meet-up since I was already busy on the date proposed, so I wanted to write that most certainly I wouldn’t make it there in time. My e-mail writing process looked something like this:

Malheureusement, chyba nie potrafię… hey, wait a minute… this isn’t French. Again. What’s ‘chyba’ in French? I know the word, dammit. Dictionary. Ah, ‘probablement’. Next try. Probablement, je nie dammitdammitdammit ne potr… awwwwfuckit… n’arriverai pas à venir ce soir-là ponieważ… weil… since… dictionary… parce que!

To put it briefly: After having occupied myself with French now for more than ten years (which includes spending one academic year in France), it took me about 30 minutes and the extended help of Google and a Dictionary to write that I won’t make it to a meet-up.

What is wrong with me?

Nothing.

I just experienced a strong case of language interference.
Unlike German, English and Polish, I don’t use French on an everyday basis. I don’t have any problems when it comes to understanding the news in French, and in principle I can express myself in French quite comfortably (though I never learnt the more colloquial French).
So in principle, I am perfectly able to write a letter like the one above in about two minutes without the help of a dictionary. In practice however, I couldn’t access the knowledge. It was blocked by my Polish, just the way French blocked my Polish when I started getting involved with the latter (“w zasadzie nie, mais“).

Interestingly enough, I don’t experience this with English. As you can probably tell from my posts here, I can write quite decently in English (note that I didn’t say “flawlessly”). I hover around a C 1 level in English, whereas my Polish and French are both at about B 2. Moreover, I use English both passively and actively way more often than the other two languages. Consequently, English takes a special position in my brain somewhere in between my mother tongue and my other foreign languages.

So, what to do about those interferences?
Relax.
The language is still there, and the more you relax, give it time and some input, it comes back automatically – often quite quickly. Maybe you’ll still end up with meaningless gibberish from time to time when you try talking, but as we like to say in Germany, only Wayne will care about it.

Published in: on May 12, 2011 at 9:10 am  Leave a Comment  

Running with my shoelaces tied together

That’s what it feels like sometimes when I speak Polish. Fortunately not all the time, but still often enough.
When people address me in Polish, I usually understand about everything they say. And when I think that I can contribute some interesting stuff, I feel an urge to jump into a conversation as fast as possible. I’ll be so hurried to talk about all that stuff I have on my mind that I won’t accept that I’ll have to talk in a foreign language – that I, in fact, can’t phrase my thoughts as fast and as precisely as I’m used to do.
And that’s just where the shoelaces come into my way: the końcówki (endings) and the pronunciation. I hereby admit that on some days, my Polish pronunciation is quite crappy. On those days, I don’t care about word stress or prosody, let alone any efforts of rolling my R.

Why is that?

Because in those moments, I care more about communicating than about speaking just for the sake of speaking.
On the one hand, this is a good sign: it means that I get along well with my interlocutor and that I don’t speak with him only because I want to practise my Polish.
On the other hand, it kind of ruins the idea of actually practising my spoken Polish. I know that natives don’t care much about grammatical errors as long as the pronunciation sounds good. And I know that people judge other people based on their accent. And so, paradoxically, because I hurry to say something intelligent, I risk that people think I’m stupid.

Published in: on May 5, 2011 at 7:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

Language rants, or: you nerds sure have too much time

Es wurde schon alles gesagt, nur nicht von jedem.
Everything’s been said, but not by everyone yet.

– Karl Valentin

I already mentioned some of my thoughts about polyglot blogs here. However, in this post I assumed that yes, the bloggers in question are no impostors but do learn the according languages.
However, a recurrent topic in the language learning part of the internet deals with the fact that people doubt these achievements.

I can identify two different lines of thought here:

First, they say, the bloggers had some prior knowledge of the language. As you can understand from my previous post on languages bloggers, I wholeheartedly agree on that one. I’d even go as far as saying that it is inevitable that they have some kind of foreknowledge after having delved into a wide range of languages, investing both time and passion. After some time, it’s a law of nature that they cannot learn a language from scratch anymore.

The second issue deals with the language level the bloggers claim to acquire. Do they really speak all those languages that well after such a short time span or do they inflate their knowledge?
Let me answer this one with another question:

Why should I give a fuck?

How will my life be affected if I am to find out that Benny the Irish Polyglot didn’t reach level C 1 but only B 1 in, say, Spanish? It’s none of my business if he gets by in Spain or not. The only way this could affect me would be if I used ineffective methods because I read it on his blog. But even if we assume that he didn’t make as much progress as he states: does this make his methods useless? This would imply that language learning is only about methods, but as everyone knows (or should know), it isn’t. I may sound like a broken record here, but the circumstances under which someone makes progress are highly individual.

Does he feel a special connection whatsoever with the country he’s in? Does he love talking? Is it easy for him to grasp the prosody of a given language? Is he lovesick? Does he already know a similar language (cf. #1)? Are the locals friendly and easygoing or is it hard to make contact?

All this stuff will highly influence the progress a learner will make, and none of this says anything about the effectiveness of the methods used.

I read language blogs to find new inspiration. Whenever I encounter new methods and ideas, I’m likely to try them out, happy and grateful that someone shared their experiences on the net. But I know that I’m different from the other bloggers, so I’ll have to adjust their methods to my needs.

Having said that, it seems to me that there is another reason for all those rants: fear and bitterness. Fear that all those endless hours of studying were in vain if any stupid blogger on the internet receives huges credit for his language skills just because he states on his blog that he’s fluent, and bitterness if this actually happens.

Luckily, there’s an easy solution for that one: don’t learn a language because you want to impress anyone. Do it for yourself – this should be reason enough.

Update: I just realized the extent to which this discussion may have been led by personal differences between the persons involved. I’d like to make clear that this blog post is solely and exclusively limited to the language learning aspect of this discussion. I don’t know everyone of the persons involved, and I am not interested in taking part. However I’d like to add that I am really sick of people who wash their dirty laundry in public.

Published in: on May 4, 2011 at 10:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

Another language? No thanks, I’m full.

In the Martial Arts class I attend, our trainer keeps repeating one important principle: it’s better to train only a few effective moves to the point of perfection than to train haphazardly by dabbling in several techniques without mastering them.

Even though the use case may be different, this principle also applies to learning languages.
Of course, I can start learning, say, three languages right now. Depending on the language, I’d be likely to advance quite fast in anything germanic, romanic or slavonic. But right now two points hinder me from doing so:

1. Lack of identification. For me, this is one of the most important factors for learning a language. Without identification, I can barely brace myself up for investing time and energy in any language. For example, knowing German and English, learning Dutch would probably be a matter of weeks for me. But right now, I don’t feel any connection at all to that country. And so, even if I’d get a decent discount on this language, I’m not inclined to learning it.

2. Lack of time and energy. Let’s not fool ourselves here. Learning a language to the point that it’s actually useful requires a huge workload. I invested about 1,000 hours in learning Polish until I reached level B 2 (with listening still being a bit worse). In order to attain level C 1, I figure that at least 3,000 more hours of work will be necessary.

If I’m not willing to invest hours of study on a regular basis, I don’t see much sense in studying at all. Admittedly the workload might be reduced in cases like Dutch, but it’ll still eat up some time. And this is also time I could invest in maintaining and improving those languages that I already know!
It’s easy to learn the basics of any language. But it’s an art in itself to advance in it, and only at this point, learning gets interesting.

Languages are like weapons. And I like my weapons to be sharp.

Published in: on May 2, 2011 at 7:54 am  Comments (1)  

The Sherlock Holmes way of learning Polish

What makes a good language learner?

Passion and devotion, of course.

Okay, and what makes an outstanding language learner?

Passion, devotion and pattern recognition.

What?

Pattern recognition. The ability to find patterns in a system in order to make general assumptions on how the system works.
You will find that nearly all people who excel at something are excellent at recognizing patterns.
An outstanding chess player is able to recognize among a huge variety of possible game constellations the ones which lead to certain strategic results, and will play accordingly.
A brilliant lawyer draws conclusions by recognizing and comparing certain patterns which arise in different legal fields, which will allow him to solve a case even if he has only little knowledge about the legal field in question.

And a great language learner is able to recognize certain structures concerning the specific foreign language, either within the language or by comparison.
This will make the learner efficient and save him a lot of resources he can use for other things.

For example, you can rote learn all the verbs connected with the polish genitive: brakować, potrzebować, szukać, and so on. Or, you have a closer look at the semantics and notice that all those verbs point at something which isn’t there:  to miss, to need, to search. Which in turn goes well with the fact that you use the genitive whenever something’s denied: “To (nominative) jest, ale tego (genitive) nie ma“.

Polish is full of patterns like these – actually, the whole language works just like a huge box of bricks.
There is a handful of prefixes like w-, wy-, roz-, od– and so on. All of them bear a certain meaning, which is why you can easily conclude the meaning of unknown words. You know that “wejście” means “entry”, because it combines “iść” (to go) with the prefix “w” (meaning in, into). The according verb is “wejść” (perfective). And how do you turn a verb into a substantive? By adding -ie: wejście.

Now have a guess on how to say “exit” in Polish. Of course: “wy-” instead of “w-“: “wyjście“.
This kind of detective work doesn’t depend on prefixes; in fact, a lot of words are composed and give you an idea on how speakers of Polish see the world.
A spine, for instance, is a bent post: “kręgo-słup“. “Krąg” means circle, so you can figure that its root is used for a lot of things going round: “krążenie” is a  circulation, “kręcić film” means to shoot a film (obviously referring to the crank used back in the old days… but also applicable to digitally shot films), and a “śrubokręt” is a screwdriver.

There’s a virtually endless amount of pattern in Polish, be it that most perfective verbs are likely to differ in the same way from their imperfective equivalents or that a certain combination of sounds is always written in the same way. (For instance, you won’t find a Polish word ending on “-uw“; there is only “-ów“.)

So how do you find those magic patterns that will do all the work for you? You will need two things: exposure and attention.
The actual reason why exposure is so important for learning a language is that it allows your brain to draw assumptions on how the language works. Or, in other words, what kind of patterns there are.
So you will need exposure. Like, a LOT of exposure (I’m talking several hundreds of hours here). But with one important restriction: it mustn’t be dull.
You need to have fun while being exposed, because otherwise you won’t pay much attention. And this is the second ingredient for fast learning. Recognizing patterns works on a subconscious level, but trying to do it consciously accelerates the learning process a lot. And additionally, it will help you to transfer your abilities of pattern recognition to other areas of your life as well.
So give it a try, because there’s so much to find!

Published in: on April 11, 2011 at 10:23 am  Leave a Comment  

Comparing apples to oranges, or: how not to fool yourself when reading language blogs

I always find it kind of misleading when I come across blogs from people who learn a language within a certain time span.
There is nothing inherently dishonest with those endeavours, and the guys who write those blogs actually learn their languages within the time span given. But whenever they suggest that their average blog reader can achieve the very same thing, I think they underestimate just how different lives and experiences are and how much power these circumstances exert.

Even if one of those bloggers starts his new language from scratch, it’s something entirely different from the average housewife taking on to learning a language after 20 years of ironing clothes and watching TV.
The guys over there are fucking used to learning a language. Imagine Mr. Fatty and Mr. Sporty both starting on taking skiing classes – can you guess which one will learn faster?

And it’s not only about training. It’s also about passion. If you start a blog on how to learn a language, chances are you are a bit more freakish about learning nerdy stuff than average Joe. After a certain line is crossed, language learning starts to become a nerd activity. There are few sane people who’ll start a blog on how to learn Polish because, you know, they just like learning this shit. So whenever you come across such a language blog, you’re likely to read advices from people who are used to being somewhat different and who are quite creative when it comes to using their brain.

At the end of the day, it narrows down to language difficulty. Learning Polish is quite easy. If you are a Czech. You’ll have prior knowledge that enables you to grasp the concept of that language way faster than, say, a native German.

On a different scale, the same idea holds true for any language enthusiast you’ll encounter. Those guys just have prior knowledge when it comes to learning languages in general that makes learning any language much easier for them as for the unsuspecting housewife.

However, even beginners can learn a lot from them – they just need to realize that, since their preconditions are different, they may need some more time and patience until their brain starts working like the one of a true language nerd.

Published in: on April 8, 2011 at 9:49 am  Comments (1)