I can’t believe it’s been eight whole months since I took my TISUS test, switched Swedish from “learn” to “improve” mode and picked up the language I’d been intended to try out for a year – Polish. (In fact, my Polish Glossika package had been lying around in my hard drive for quite a long time.) Fast forward to two months ago, I was attempting to test out my Polish skills for the first time with the surprisingly numerous Polish participants at the Polyglot Gathering. And around a month ago, I stepped foot on Polish soil again, spending entire evenings with friends I made in Berlin. Did it work? Yes and no. I think it’s about time I reflected on what I’ve done so far, how far I’ve gone, what I’ve done right or wrong and how I’ll go forward.
A difficult language
I have a confession to make. Why did I start learning Polish? When people ask me this, I usually bullshit things like Chopin. But the real motivation I had was to take on the “most difficult language of the world”. But what makes a language difficult?
I will get into more detail on this eventually, but unlike many other people, to me what makes a language difficult isn’t the grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary etc. At least not just these. The determining factor is how similarly (to your strong language) you say things. For example, German has quite an annoying grammar, but I never had problems with the language as a whole, because most of the times you can translate things word by word into German and it’s…not too far off, such as “break up” and “drink up”. In contrast, in French you can’t think the same way. I read somewhere that verbs in Romance languages mainly denote direction, with the manner as a supplement. This is the opposite of English. You don’t say fly home, instead go home by plane. There aren’t direct translations for things like “it sounds like…” This is what makes French the hardest language I’ve learnt so far.
What about Polish?
When it comes to verbs, Slavic languages (ignoring the aspects for now) put everything in one word. For example, przylecić (to arrive by flying) combines the direction and the manner, on equal terms.
Despite Slavic languages appearing to be more distant from Germanic ones than Romance ones are, so far (correct me if I’m wrong) I’ve found quite some translatable instances. For example, “on my own” is expressed as “na własną rękę” (“on own hand”, identical to Swedish).
My course of learning
Let’s get to the important part: what did I do? Fret not – I’ll list every single thing (material) I did for Polish!
Beginning: frontloading courses and getting a feel for the language
- Glossika: I probably mention this too much. Details in the review, but by going through the method, I really did get a feel for the structure within a few months.
- Duolingo: I never found Duolingo terribly helpful, but it’s a great, fun supplement, and the built-in motivation through gamification helped keep me at least doing something every single day. (It actually made me jump the gun in learning Polish when the course went into beta.)
- LingQ: I started with the ubiquitous, dumb story “Who is she?” and went on from there. It helped supply some daily vocabulary that Glossika might have left out, and demonstrated more sentence structures – as you know, the possibilities here are endless.
- Anki: normally I use Memrise (like I did for Swedish), but I couldn’t find a suitable beginner course there, so I resorted to an all-encompassing 10000-word Anki deck. 50 words (i.e. 25 new) per day. Warning: not a good idea. More on that later.
- italki: as usual, I needed something to get my mouth moving, apart from speaking to myself and practising tongue movements! So I took a few lessons from different teachers.
- PolishPod101: great YouTube channel with listening drills and cultural info in Polish, even if you don’t join their site.
Intermediate: expanding my abilities, activate my knowledge and furthering my vocabulary
- Easy Polish: the lovely Justyna asks Poles on the streets interesting questions, with subtitles. It’s natives talking to natives though, so basically: 100mph and slurrrrrr. Which makes it realistic…and intermediate. Make more of these please!!!!
- Readlang: as I mentioned in my Swedish resources post, Readlang helps give you instant translations when reading in a foreign language. My idea is to learn (non-core) words by repeated exposure instead of purposeful memorising. There’s also a browser extension, which can be combined with…
- fakt.pl: the best free news site I could find. It feels more like gossip than news, but I thought, why not? It’s been (sadly) the only item in my RSS “polski” folder.
- Podcasts: like Steve Kaufmann recommends, RealPolish is totally zajebisty (awesome). The host Piotr reads out stories or speaks about specific topics at a relatively slow pace. It’s just sad that it comes out once every two weeks. And that I haven’t shelled out for his 365 stories course and/or VIP club…yet.
- Language exchange: it’s everywhere nowadays, but I did it mostly on Facebook messenger (because I have a few Polish friends) and Speaky. I’m still angry at the latter for not having Cantonese though. Warning: you might have heard of HelloTalk, which is a great app that has now sadly become more of a dating app than language exchange…I stopped using it after a Polish girl (well at least she got the language right) started spamming me with her selfies.
- CouchSurfing in Poland – finally!
Assessment of my abilities
Reading: we’re talking about a language more foreign than German or French here, so my vocabulary is bound to take more time than usual. With 7862 Anki cards under my belt and occasional gossip news, I feel like you can drop me in Poland (again) and I’ll read all important stuff just fine. Books, though, are another story: I picked up a (literally) random e-book, and even though I understood much more than I expected, I didn’t feel very ‘fluent’…yet.
Listening: no. It’s just too hard. I made my Polish friends speak at maybe 80~90% speed to communicate normally, and when they got excited, I had them repeat once or even twice. And I’d get what they’re saying, though not every word. Especially whenever I got tripped by one word (or maybe a bit drunk), the rest of the sentence just became a blur. Not to mention my favourite – podcasts (intended for native speakers). Again, only the gist.
Writing: I’m doing fine! At least I’m chatting with friends without needing a dictionary, most of the time. As for more serious topics…I tried once. That was a dictionary-fest. And lots of weird collocations.
Speaking: we’ve gotten to the important part, haven’t we? Apart from having to make people repeat what they say, I did well activating my knowledge in Kraków! My mind goes into overdrive when speaking, i.e. I still have to do all the case ‘calculations’, but otherwise I can survive in Poland. It just needs a bit more…automation. But that takes time.
What I’ve done right / wrong
- I’m not sure, but I think it was a good idea to build a large vocabulary early on in such a foreign language. It inevitably gave me a lot of (seemingly) useless words and took quite some time every day. I even started thinking spaced repetition might not be the best method for me. Yet I soon got insight into the incredibly consistent word-building system of in the Polish or even other Slavic languages, which I totally fell in love with. The same insight took me lots more time to obtain in German, for example. Plus I jump in joy when I recognise a really uncommon word when chatting or reading.
- Despite still not being able to follow native speakers’ speed perfectly, drilling on learner podcasts, YouTube videos and LingQ was certainly a good idea. Otherwise I wouldn’t even get the keywords when chatting with people.
- I need more relatable reading materials at an appropriate level!
- I still haven’t grasped the most effective / efficient way to take Skype lessons for me. Now I’m just doing haphazard conversations, instead of setting a focus topic every time. That’s how I ended up learning words for the glass industry before education. Well I gotta get working then!
Plan for the months to come
For one, I’m still in “learn mode”, as expected of such an unfamiliar and complex language. Unlike Swedish, it’s bound to take more time to get to “improve” and “maintain” mode. I’ve learnt so much about the importance of making mistakes – a problem that I less frequently encountered in my less foreign and complex languages. And I’m sure to make some more!
However, it’s summer, so I’m changing things up: I’m taking a short break from Polish to polish my German (see what I did there?) and possibly/eventually, French. (That needs some work.) I’m currently trying out the increasingly famous Goldlist Method, so stay tuned for a review or just random thoughts on that soon!
P.S. some links in this article are affiliate links, which means you get to support me, my learning and my blog by clicking on them – sometimes you even get a reward yourself!