A little Polish polish

2021.01.28 by Josh Erb; 849 words.

Problems // Problemy

I've been trying to learn Polish on and off for the better part of ten years. It's a sad thing to type, but it's true. Ten whole years and I have little to show for it except for being able to say the days of the week, a few key phrases like ordering a beer, and some fun swears[1]. The worst part is I'm not even learning it for any professional or academic purpose. I simply want to be conversant in it. Have a nice chat, if you will. The vocabulary I'm trying to retain is not particularly technical or opaque.

This is pretty dismal. But recognizing that fact energizes me to correct course and refocus my energy. I'm doing my best to break out of the cycle of saying "Sure, I'll get better at it soon but right now I'm swamped with work." The truth is, I'm always going to be swamped with work. I'm always going to feel like I'd rather be watching Netflix or reading a book or tinkering with the CSS of my website instead of practicing some phrases and learning some new words. This is just a fact of who I am. So my problem is about balancing my desire for short term comfort with my need for longer term success.

Opinions // Opinie

I don't think that languages become easier to learn the more of them you have studied. I speak French somewhat well, and I studied Arabic for three years of undergraduate, but even with this experience under my belt Polish feels absolutely impenetrable to me most days. It forces my mouth to take awkward forms and shapes, and my ear has trouble tuning into its subtleties. And yet, I think this is the great thing about learning another language! It truly boggles the mind to recognize that we live in a world were there are thousands of different ways[2] for humans to communicate their thoughts and experiences.

A significant portion of my friends who speak Polish as their mother tongue have told me something along the lines of, "oh, well Polish is the hardest language in the world to learn." And I disagree, I think every language in the world is hard learn, especially if your goal is to learn it well. Yeah, so what if Polish requires you to conjugate your nouns depending on what role they play in a sentence? In English we have nouns that are spelled the exact same but pronounced differently depending on their context[3].

Learning a new language is hard and confusing and that is the joy of it.

Solutions // Rozwiązania

My approach this time feels pretty good because it's uncomplicated. First off, I downloaded an app that makes me pay a subscription fee for lessons[4]. I'm using this app every day to introduce myself to new vocabulary and grammar.

That's it. That's the primary thing I'm doing. Just drilling vocab and grammar constantly and reminding myself that I don't need to speak or understand it perfectly right away. It's only through consistent and earnest exposure that the language will begin to stick.

As a bonus, I'm fortunate enough to have a Polish partner who will look over at me after I've finished one of my lessons and ask "Czego się dziś nauczyłeś?"[5], which forces me to respond "Nauczyłem się..."[6] and haltingly recall everything I've just gone over. In these moments, I'm forced to recall things in a more dynamic way and this reinforces all of the learning I've just done.

So yeah, learning a language without any structure except whatever I impose on myself is difficult, as the past ten years have shown. I'm still trying to see if this new approach is going to make any difference. But I'm feeling optimistic at this stage. Ask me how I'm doing in six months.

  1. It is a widely known fact that swear words are the easiest part of language to learn because, like a mischievous child, your brain instinctually recognizes that it should not have them in its possession and immediately stashes them away.

  2. Anywhere from approx. 6,500 to approx. 7,100 ways depending on which dubious website pops up first in your search engine.

  3. Don't believe me? Do you pronounce the phrases "Please press record." and "Play the record." the exact same way?

  4. It's dumb and I sound like some Wall Street shill when I admit it, but putting money into a goal does have a pernicious way of making you stick with it. Maybe this is a consequence of spending too much of my time in the world of stuffy adults, but for my current purposes I'm just being pragmatic. The app is Babbel, for those interested.

  5. translation: "What did you learn today?"

  6. translation: "I learned..."

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