A question I get asked often is “Why did you start language X”? To tell you the truth though, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. I picked up each of the different languages I speak for different reasons, and each decision depended on a number of factors. The same goes for my latest flirt, Polish.
Why did I start learning Polish?
I went to Poland in August 2007 with a couple of friends. We were touring Europe, and we stayed just a couple of days in Krakow. We arrived late and tired on the first day, and then spent most of the following day visiting Auschwitz. That night, we weren’t feeling very cheerful – and understandably so. So we went out for a drink and came back to the hostel quite early, meaning that we barely had any time to experience Krakow’s night life and to make contact with the natives. Despite this, I liked Krakow a lot, and I found people generally warm and good-looking. The country looked much more modern than I thought, which kind of surprised me, given that I had thought Poland was still quite a poor country.
Two months ago, I decided to pay my dear friend Richard Simcott a visit. He was staying in Poznan, a city up north, for one of his “linguistic missions”. He was staying in an apartment with some Polish people. As soon as Susanna and I landed at the airport, Richard brought us to a restaurant where we met his roommate Agnezska.
I had a great time: the food was delicious and the company was great. We talked about a number of things, and Agneszka tried to teach me how to pronounce a couple of words. I struggled at first, but I was intrigued by the language.
When you are in a country, you get to hear a language all the time. I had heard Polish before, but never so intensively and for such a long time: I kept hearing it on the street, at home, pretty much everywhere. I was gradually, and unconsciously, falling in love with the language.
A crucial meeting: Michal
Richard was hanging around every day with Michal, a Polish guy whom he had met a year before. We spent a lot of time together, and we even shot a couple of videos at his place . His passion for language and music was obvious, and we all agreed that he was an extremely nice, calm and relaxed person. After Richard left Poznan, I went to Berlin, but later had to return to Poznan to catch a flight to Oslo. So I returned to Poznan and spent a day with Michal.
He was a great host, giving everything and asking nothing in return (if not good company). We talked about music, love, languages and life in Spanish (he is also a language coach). He sells posters of the most common 1300 words in Polish, so they were scattered all over the place and it was inevitable for me to take a look.
When you come into contact with a language, one strong motivating factor is the possibility of using it. Somehow Michal’s posters got my imagination going, and before I knew it I found myself thinking about all the things I could do with those 1300 words: living in Poland, kissing a Polish girl, talking to a great friend, watching movies and TV, chatting with people around a table, and listening to the radio in Polish. All this flashed through my mind without me even realizing it.
In the end, Michal’s (and Richard’s!) kindness, the sound of the language, and all the good experiences that I had were pushing me in the direction of picking up Polish. “I am going to start Polish as soon as I get back to Rome”, I remember having said to Michal before going to bed. And so I did.
HOW did I start learning Polish?
While “why” one would pick up a language is often a subjective and individual choice, the “how” can be much more interesting for readers who generally have difficulty picking up a language by themselves from scratch.
The very first thing that I did when I came back to Rome was to get hold of ASSIMIL, a language series that you can find everywhere in Europe.
The reason why I always start with ASSIMIL is simple: it adapts perfectly to the way I learn languages. I won’t delve into that too much because I am writing a book about it, but I can tell you that ASSIMIL is a great language series for the following reasons:
- Funny and entertaining dialogues
- Bilingual text
- Phonetic explanations
- Progressive and easy to understand grammar notes
- Progressive and effective exercises
- Pleasant graphics
- Audio in the target language only
First apparent hurdle: pronunciation
When you first start learning a language, everything looks and sounds completely new.
As far as Polish pronunciation is concerned, two things struck me, both visually and orally: the nasal sounds and the consonant clusters.
The nasal sounds are what made Polish sound not only pleasant, but also vaguely familiar to me (since I already spoke Portuguese and French). The nasal “en” is symbolized by the letter “ę”, in words like “więso”, or “węch”
What struck me even more, though, were the consonant clusters. Here are a few examples:
Cz, dz, dż, dzi, dż, drz, sz, ść, szcz.
Now, if you want to learn to pronounce each of these sounds individually, it doesn’t take much time. But imagine chaining them together in a long sentence:
Skąd moge wiedzieć dlaczego przestal pisać do ciebe?
Yes, it might look and sound intimidating, but you can learn to pronounce it with the right approach and the right tools. I call my approach the “three stage encunciation technique”, which works very well with Polish (more on this in upcoming articles).
Second apparent hurdle: grammar
Like many other Slavic languages, Polish has cases, which represent a real nightmare for foreigners who don’t speak a case-based language.
If you are wondering what a case is, here is a definition from Wikipedia:
In grammar, the case of a noun or pronoun is an inflectional form that indicates its grammatical function in a phrase, clause, or sentence. For example, a pronoun may play the role of subject (“I kicked the ball”), of object (“John kicked me”), or of possessor (“That ball is mine”). Languages such as Ancient Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit had ways of altering or inflecting nouns to mark roles which are not specially marked in English, such as the ablative case (“John kicked the ball away from the house”) and the instrumental case (“John kicked the ball with his foot”).
You can find the rest of the article here.
While cases can represent an obstacle at first, they are not that difficult to grasp as long as one takes a natural, dynamic approach to them. I personally think that focusing too much on grammar tables can slow down and possibly discourage a language learner, so I find it’s better to expose oneself to the language as much as possible and infer the meanings of the cases from context.
Stay positive: There is always good news
Although Polish might look and sound intimidating at first, the fact that there are millions of people (including non-natives!) who speak it fluently testifies to that fact that you can learn that language too. Remember: attitude is key. If you think that something is difficult, you will find it difficult. Even the most complex systems are made up of simple parts, and you have to figure them out by analyzing each tiny component one at a time.
Plus, in any language there are always aspects that you will find refreshingly simple for some reason or another. Let’s look at the “easy” aspects of Polish.
First, Polish has a precise spelling system with very few irregularities. The system is based on latin letters, so it takes little time to get acquainted with it.
Secondly, the pronunciation is not as difficult as it seems. Like with every problem I come across, I came up with a solution, called the “three stage encunciation technique”, which works very well with Polish.
Thirdly, if you speak another Slavic language, things can be dramatically easier for you because the structure of the language is similar, and Slavic languages share a huge amount of vocabulary.
Even if you don’t speak a Slavic language, there are quite a few words that can be understood fairly easily, given they are loan words coming from other languages.
I am excited about this new adventure, and I am looking forward to showing you not only my progress in this beautiful language, but also what you can do to learn it.