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?


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?
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)