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  

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