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.


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)  

And now for a strange observation

As you might know, I like to think about human relationships and the reasons why they often go wrong.

So I am used to look closely at my behaviour and that of my dear fellow humans, which in the context of learning Polish leads me to establishing the following hypothesis:

A person who learns a slavonic language in their spare time, i.e. without an actual (be it professional or family) reason, is likely to have some unresolved issues.

I can back my hypothesis empirically based on my observations of the few people I know who actually learn a slavonic language “just because”.

Since I am used to looking for patterns, I came up with the following reasons for that strange phenomenon.

1. Social rapport. If you learn Spanish or French, native speakers may approve of your efforts. If you learn Polish, native speakers are likely to be carried away by enthusiasm, especially if you are really (“really” as in “knowing ancient polish war songs lyrics”) into language and culture. Given that you are used to being an outsider, this is an easy (and addictive) way to gain social recognition.

2. Convenient excuse for being an outsider. When you are an outsider living in a foreign country, almost every slightly deviant behaviour can be explained by the mere fact that you’re a foreigner. So yeah, you’re still different, but now it can be easily explained why.

3. A distracting intellectual endeavour. Learning a slavonic language is time-consuming. Every evening you learn some new grammar features or finally figure out how numerals work in Polish is also an evening you don’t spend thinking about all the stuff that went wrong in your life.

So in a nutshell, natives won’t peg such a person as a weirdo, but will rather be flattered that someone is so much interested in their country so that they’ll condone the more difficult parts of this person’s character.

This observation is not meant to imply any judgment, and by no means am I to say that all people who learn a slavonic language for fun are crazy weirdos. However, if they are then all the better, because those make for the most interesting people!

Published in: on April 7, 2011 at 9:38 pm  Comments (1)  

Back on track

It’s been a while since my last post here.
This is because I got stuck.
Ever since I came back from Poland last summer, I spent at least 30 mins/day learning Polish. Most days it added up to about 2-3 hrs. I know that compared to real language nerds this isn’t a lot, but nevertheless it led to some kind of burn-out.
I kept up with this consistency until late February. Then the winter term ended and, and so did my regular schedule at the slavic institute.
During those 8 months of studying, I always tried to go for diversity. I read women’s magazines – you never know when you’ll need the polish word for “ovary” –  and stuff like Polityka, I watched Talkshows and some episodes of “Czas honoru” (which revealed that german nazi officers apparently spoke some excellent Polish). I listened to Radio for hours and went to conversation classes. I wrote some stuff in Polish, and I listened to several Podcasts. Oh, and I went through flashcards and a vocabulary program and, in addition to that, picked about 1,000 sentences for Anki of which I revised about 200-300.
All in all, I made quite some progress (not quite astonishing given all the time and effort, after all). However, there’s still much room to improve.

But I just needed a break. So I stopped studying Polish for some weeks, and I didn’t feel bad about it – because I know that as soon as I try to force myself to do this stuff, I may start to dislike it.

So I lost my Polish mojo for some time, but that’s okay because I knew that sooner or later, it’d come back.
And so it did indeed when I learnt about the “Read More or Die” Tadoku contest, which is a contest on reading as much as you can in your target language.
I decided to give it a try and read the first part of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy in Polish. By now I’ve reached page 80, and it’s quite a pleasant surprise that I understand way more vocabulary then I did back when I started reading books in English.
So I guess that by now I understand more than 80% of the words, and because of the modular structure of the Polish language, it’s quite easy to figure out new words. (Reading “jadłowstręt” in a paragraph about just how skinny someone is, thinking “jadło” – sounds like some form of “jeść” – “to eat”, oh and “wstręt” means something like “disgust”, so apparently it’s some form of anorexia. Piece of cake, so to speak. Ahem.)

So all in all, I’m back on track. And that’s great!

Published in: on April 5, 2011 at 10:32 pm  Leave a Comment