As scaffold builds a building, sentence frames help build your foreign language competency. Image from freeimages.com

Sentence Frames – A Home to Hang Your Words

Idly keying out some Duolingo practice phrases this weekend, an interesting sentence popped up in Polish. Kiedy śpię, to nie mówię. When I sleep, I do not speak. Hmm, I thought. That looks like a good addition to my Polish sentence frames.

Sentence frames are short, recyclable chunks of language with repurposable slots you can swap items in and out of. The idea comes from primary literacy teaching, namely the writing frame. Early schoolers support their writing skills by memorising reusable chunks with customisable blanks.

To get started on your own, all you need is a beady eye to spot sentences you can strip down for potential reusable frames. Take my Polish sentence, for example. Removing the content stuff, we’re left with:

Kiedy X, to Y. When X, (then) Y.

At this point, it helps me to read the stripped-down sentence aloud, substituting X and Y for a meaningful mmmm…. Kiedy mmmm, to mmmm. It sounds daft, but it prepares the brain for step two.

Doing Your Lines

The next thing to do is go to town with it. Like Bart Simpson (semi-)dutifully doing his lines on the board, scribble out a whole bunch of sentences using the same pattern. Slot in whatever comes to mind to start cementing it into memory. When I go to town, I visit my friend. When I get home, I turn on the TV. And so on, and so on. Soon that pattern will be tripping off the tongue as easily as a native phrase.

The reason these sentence frames are so valuable is that they supply that native phrase structure, rather than unordered, abstract dictionary knowledge. Instead of fumbling to piece sentences together from scratch, you have something to hang words onto before you start speaking.

They’re also easy to mine in your day-to-day language contact. You can spot potential speaking frame fodder anywhere and everywhere. Duolingo throws plenty of short, snappy examples at you, for instance. But billboards, TV ads and social media posts are excellent sources too.

Short ‘n’ Simple(ish)

Just like writing frames, sentence frames work best when they are simple. Some might only have a single slot, but represent a really frequent but language-particular pattern, like the Gaelic:

‘S e X a th’ ann. It is an X.

Others can be equally short but a little more complex, fitting in a third slot, like the German:

Wenn ich X hätte, würde ich Y Z. If I had X, I would Z Y.

Note the word order there. By memorising that frame, you’re drilling that very particular verb-final order of German subordinate clauses, too. That’s a lot of useful material packed into a nice cosy space.

Wherever you find them, however you drill them, sentence frames are a great tool to have in your language learning toolbox. For sure, it’s a case when doing your lines can be very good for you.

 

 

Teach Yourself enhanced ebooks plus audio for Kindle

Teach Yourself Enhanced eBooks : Bargains Hiding in Plain Sight

I had a bit of Amazon credit to spend this week (from TopCashBack, no less), so I decided to treat myself to a couple of Kindle books I’d had my eye on for a while: the enhanced ebook + audio editions of a couple of Teach Yourself Complete titles.

As Greek and Polish seem to have lodged themselves firmly in my heart as big life language projects (did I choose them, or did they choose me?), it seemed only right to install both of them on my device. Although they’re hardly brand new editions, the ebook + audio range being available since the early 2010s, they’re my first in that format. They’re cheap, too – most are just £3.99 right now, with the odd one, like Cantonese, even cheaper.

Of course, I already have both of these books (in several versions, vintage and otherwise, as you’ll know if you’ve been following my recent compulsion!). But even though I’ve completed them both in other guises, I still love these titles for revision. I’m also stoked by the idea of a one-stop-shop mobile library – a single place for all that content, with no need for app-switching for listening material.

Teach Yourself enhanced ebooks plus audio for Kindle

Teach Yourself Complete Greek and Complete Polish on my Kindle app

Teach Yourself… To Be Compatible?

Confession: I almost didn’t bother with them at all.

The reason was the not insignificant number of negative reviews left for those products on Amazon. The big bad mark against them was the charge of incompatibility, particularly the audio. A number of users frustratedly left their one-star slaps-in-the-face stating that the audio simply didn’t work on their devices.

Thankfully, it seems like an issue on older Kindles, rather than the content itself. I’ve had no problems at all running them on the Kindle app for iOS on my two-year-old iPad. Audio prompts appear as little speaker icons, and a mini player pops up at the bottom of the screen when you tap them. There is full scrub / pause functionality too, so you don’t have to listen to the whole thing from start to finish.

Teach Yourself… to Read Non-Latin Scripts?

That said, there was another frequent review gripe that put me off plumping for them even more than the potential audio issues. Several users mentioned a lack of support for non-Latin characters in the dialogues. Instead of letter characters, some only saw blank boxes – clearly a font fail. Now that would be a deal-breaker for languages like Greek, Hindi and Russian!

Again, it seems to be a case of device support, not product support. Greek characters display perfectly on Kindle for iPad. Not only that, but they’ve used a really nice, readable font for the Greek.

If there’s anything to be said in the way of constructive criticism, it’s just a question of layout. Sometimes, vocab lists can look cramped, for instance, although that’s easily fixed by rotating to landscape. Elsewhere, some exercise tables are obviously images rather than text, with instructions to ‘fill in’ despite not being editable (as the image above illustrates). Nonetheless, they’re tiny quibbles given the convenience of the format.

If In Doubt…

All in all, my experience with the Teach Yourself Complete ebooks has been tiptop. It all goes to show that you can’t always trust reviews out of context.

If in doubt, though, you do have one tool at your disposal for a definitive answer on compatibility: the free sample. There are free samples – usually just the first chapter or so – available for all Amazon Kindle books. I made sure to download both the Greek and Polish samples above before spending my hard-earned (yet still bargainous) £3.99.

If you want trusty Teach Yourself content on your devices, these are a really good punt. They’re not available in all the Teach Yourself Complete languages, but most of the major learning languages are available (French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese, for starters).

A dog with big ears. Phonotactics is what governs which sounds sound 'right' together in a language. Image from freeimages.com

Phonotactics Physio : When Sounds Sound Wrong

If there’s one thing I’ve learned on my ongoing linguistics adventure, it’s that there’s a fancy word for everything in science, and linguistics is no exception. Welcome, phototactics (from Greek, roughly sound arranging).

The phonotactics of a language govern how different sounds fit together within it: which can occur next to each other, which can start a word, which can end one, and so on. It’s thanks to the phonotactics of English, for example, that we don’t have words like ngrasn.

Unsurprisingly, then, it’s always fun and games when the phonotactics of your native language square up against those of your target language.

Phonotactic Fallout

Mismatched phonotactics result in the distinctive features of often stereotyped non-native accents. For instance, Spanish-speaking learners of English will often first add an e- before words beginning with sp- and st-. The reason? The phonotactics of Spanish don’t allow those combinations word-initially, so they’re anathema to Spanish ears. By contrast, cognates of English sp- and st- words in Spanish already have that e- built in: especial, especie, and even España itself.

Similarly, English learners of Modern Greek might have issues with particular clusters of sounds. The word mortal, for example, is θνητός (thnitós). When was the last time you heard an English word containing thn, at the start, middle or even end? Less alien is perhaps Greek ξ (ks), as there are plenty of English examples containing it: box, exit, exaggerate. In Greek, however, it very commonly occurs at the start of a word; ξέρω (ksero, I know), ξέχασα (ksehasa, I forgot), ξυπνώ (ksipno, I wake up). Early learners of Greek are often tempted to add a quick little schwa vowel between the sounds, like kǝsero for ‘ksero. The initial ks is so strange to English ears that we pronounce Greek borrowing ξυλόφωνο (ksylophone) as ‘zylophone’ to pander to our own phonotactics.

Phonotactics Physio

So how to cope with wildly different phonotactics in your target language?

Getting used to creating sounds unusual in your native language involves training muscle memory. Physio for phonotactics, if you will. That means practising individual words, as well as undertaking more involved speech tasks like shadowing.

It also helps to identify cases where your native language does come pretty close to the target language sound, noting that it might happen between words rather than within them. Take a couple of Polish words thrust into the topical limelight recently: szczepionka (vaccine) and szczepić (to vaccinate). That initial szcz, or /ʂt͡ʂ/ as Wiktionary so accurately puts it, simply doesn’t occur within any single word in English. The closest English gets is with broadly similar sounds across word boundaries, like wash cherries. But say that out loud a few times, concentrating on the sh_ch, and you get an idea of Polish szcz that you can transfer to your Polish pronunciation.

Tackle such words repeatedly, enlisting the help of your iTalki tutor or similar in topical chat related to them. Gradually, you will start building up a target language phonotactics  that doesn’t depend on your own native language judgements.

 

A brick wall, doing what brick walls do best - offering resistance! Image from freeimages.com

Cross-Language Tactics Resistance : Doing What Works – Everywhere

Sometimes, we know what’s best for us. But we still don’t do it. It’s a frustrating matter of resistance.

I notice this a lot cross-language. It’s that realisation that I’ve had great successes in some learning projects, but fail to carry over what I did right to another.

I think the issue can be that I tend to ‘bubble off’ a new language learning project into its own mental microcosm. And that’s quite necessary, of course; it helps maintain separation, limit interference and keep me sane as a polyglot learner.

But it also sets up brick walls that make it hard to transfer good practices as an automatic habit.

The Great Greek-Polish Divide…

I’ve been active with Greek and Polish concurrently since the first 2020 lockdowns (Polish a lot longer as a continuous projectGreek a resumption project from years back). However, with pretty much the same lesson-per-week pace, I feel conversationally fluent in Greek, but perennially clumsy in Polish. I gab away happily with my Greek tutor about all manner of nonsense. Polish, on the other hand, can still feel like wading through ungrammatical, uncolloquial treacle.

I’m tempted to put it down to the fact that Greek is, perhaps, simply an easier language to learn than Polish. Taking an external, objective measure, though, this doesn’t seem to be an excuse to let me off the hook. The FSI, in its difficulty ranking for learners, classes Greek and Polish both as Level III, or hard languages.

So what am I doing so differently?

It is mostly down to my different attitude towards learning materials in the two languages. For Polish, I try to use serious textbooks. For reading material, I aim for the news.

Now, I barely read the news in Greek; I follow TV chefs on Instagram instead (and pop culture is the healthiest of all guilty pleasures for language learners, of course). I don’t spend a lot of time with textbooks or grammars, either. Rather, I just do a few minutes of Glossika and Duolingo every day. Glossika in particular has been transformative; just blasting my brain repeatedly with everyday sentence structure has produced amazing results.

Similar “brief blast” treatment comes in the form of Instagram accounts which post short, snappy quotes in Greek. It’s just enough to activate the Greek brain and impart a couple of new words without the overload of hefty reading. X and Y are recommended for fellow learners.

Chat Habits

The nature of my chat – or what I want to chat about – differs similarly. In Polish, I started out with my head stuck in serious discussion mode. I feel I should be talking about weighty, lofty matters. Where that idea comes from, I do not know; but I do know that it hobbles my fluency, much as a bunch of ‘should do’ norms stop us from reading what makes us happy in the target language.

In Greek, my conversation classes are usually without formal structure, and I ramble quite happily about some very low-brow stuff indeed. Maybe it’s because Greek was a revival project under lockdown, so the stakes felt lower. I believe we all develop a different persona for each of our target languages, and Greek Rich is certainly a lot more laid back.

But even looking beyond Greek, there are healthy chat habits I have in other languages that I need to carry over to Polish. In Gaelic, for example, I have a regular, lively get-together with fellow local learners, albeit, temporarily, a Zoom meet rather than our pre-pandemic pub chat. I still don’t have a huge vocabulary, but I use what I have, and it works. Our ‘no English’ rule is fantastic practice for flexible thinking as a fledgling A2 speaker, forcing us to express what we want to say in alternative, economical ways. By contrast, in Polish, I probably tried to learn too many isolated vocabulary items too soon. A case of trying too hard, too soon; I’m spoilt for choice and a worse speaker for it.

Resistance Busting

Good news for me: I am redressing the balance between my Greek and Polish now.

Thanks to some extra group classes laid on by my Polish tutor, I’m getting more of that informal, friendly chat that bolstered my Greek so much. I’ve discovered cheesy soap Pierwsza miłość (first love), which is filling my Polish ventricles with light-hearted nonsense. I’ve cut back on going too hard, too serious with the dreaded news. And I’ve started to add a few minutes of Polish Glossika to my daily tactics (even though it feels, oddly, like I’m cheating on my Greek there).

Other remedies are harder to source unless someone points them out, of course. For instance, I’m still looking for fun and snappy Polish quote accounts to follow (any recommendations welcome!). And I’d still love a shot in the arm for my Polish pop culture socials generally.

But, happily, I’m turning the tide. Polish is a language I care about very much; it’s waiting for me to break that resistance and benefit from the techniques my other languages have enjoyed for so long.

Which of your languages seem resistant to the success you’ve enjoyed with others? And how do you try and overcome that? Let us know in the comments!

Polish verbs of motion - my mistake-ridden brain dump!

Slavic Kryptonite: Vanquishing Verbs of Motion

Every foreign language has its kryptonite. Sometimes it’s a common sticking point that takes most learners time to really get. Other times, it’s a personal stumbling spot for an individual learner. For me, it’s verbs of motion that are my strength sappers.

So why are they so difficult? Or, rather, why do I find them so difficult? I’m not denying the possible existence of some polyglot supermind that simply understands them at a click of the fingers (and I bow down to that mind!). But, for me, verbs of motion take time to grasp as a native speaker of a non-Slavic language. Namely, they have an extra layer of granularity compared to the comparatively simple come and go in English.

First of all, like many languages, Polish makes a distinction between going by foot and going by vehicle. Nothing strange there – for example, decidedly non-Slavic German does the same with gehen and fahren.

But in Polish (as well as many of its Slavic sibling and cousin languages – perhaps all of them, although I’m sure someone better-versed can correct me!), there is also a split between going once and going frequently or repeatedly. These can be formed from quite unsimilar roots, too; to go (on foot) in Polish is either iść or chodzić. So, we have:

  • idę do szkoły
    I go / am going to school (now)
  • chodzę do szkoły
    I go to school (regularly, as I work / study there, for example)

Brain Dump Horror

So far so good, then; just a few extra nuances and verb tables to learn. Now, I thought I had those covered, but there’s always room for revision. So, one evening this week, I decided to do a brain dump to check what I remembered. Brain dumpage, of course, is always worth doing regularly to audit your language skills. I splurged as much as I could remember onto a sheet of paper, then checked my results against a good grammar book.

It wasn’t pretty.

Polish verbs of motion - my mistake-ridden brain dump!

Polish verbs of motion – my mistake-ridden brain dump!

Present tense? No problem. Past and future? A disaster.

To be fair, I could have seen it coming. My poor iTalki Polish teacher has been subject to my unconfident fumblings for the right going word for some time already.

It was time to sort it out.

Verbs of Motion : A Strategy

Here’s the thing: knowing conjugations and grammatical intricacies off-by-heart are important for serious study of a language. But if your goal is to speak fluently, then simply having a few common forms confidently in memory is arguably more useful. In any case, some linguists, like Bybee, argue that this is how we build up and reference our native languages too – not as grammatical tables and rules, but as interconnected exemplars in the mental lexicon, ready-for-use, pre-conjugated models from exposure that we use for reproduction.

Of course, you could say that my Polish-learning brain was doing a bit of that already. If you look at my red-bepenned brain dump above, the past tense bits of to godid get right were the first, second and third person masculine forms – probably frequent parts in my own conversation.

But then, what about what I do with other people? The we bits of the paradigm clearly needed some work. And then, talking about friends and family – for that, let’s add in the they parts. Gradually, a picture emerges of what I need to add to my vocab drilling. This useful list at the ready, I then add them into Anki as individual vocab items, and they’re on the conveyor belt to stronger recall. Here are a few for illustration:

  • pójdę
    I will go (on foot, once)
  • (po)jadę
    I (will) go (by transport, once)
  • szliśmy
    we went (on foot, once)
  • jechałem
    I went (by transport, once)
  • jeździłem
    I used to go, would go (by transport, multiple times)

…and so on. Fingers crossed, talking about moving and shaking will start sorting itself out soon.

Break it down, build it up

It’s a great trick, but time-old and simple: break a bigger problem down to slowly build up your competencies. You can apply it to verb patterns in many foreign languages, not just Polish, as well as any other aspect that seems too multifaceted and complicated to grasp all in one fell swoop.

The next time I do a brain dump of Polish verbs of motion, I hope I’ll get a few more right. And if I do, I expect it will have more to do with working on those key forms, rather than developing a photographic memory of entire verb tables.

The number one on a post. Image by Ulrik De Wachter, freeimages.com

Basics Fatigue : Conquer Chapter One Boredom and Fill Those Gaps

Do you ever get ‘basics fatigue’? No, not ‘basic fatigues’ (although you can do your language learning in military clothing if you so wish). Basics fatigue is when you know you should go back to basics to fill in foundational gaps in your language knowledge. The problem is, you have no motivation to do so as you feel you should be beyond that level already and the prospect is, well, just dull.

I’ve been experiencing this with Polish a lot lately. The culprit is largely unsystematic and haphazard learning in the beginning – an advert for planning your learning if ever there was one. In any case, I’ve suspected for ages that I’d benefit from getting reacquainted with the first few chapters of Colloquial Polish. But the fact that I probably know 75% of the material in those early chapters already is really off-putting.

Unless I get over it, though, that stubborn, motivation-resistant 25% will keep tripping me up again and again.

So how to conquer basics fatigue?

Seek Novelty

The most obvious way to increase interest is to look for novelty. That is to say, seek out new courses rather than your old books. For instance, in some form or other, Teach Yourself Polish and Colloquial Polish have been lying on my shelves for years. For a change, I gave the home-grown Krok po kroku a look. It worked a treat; it’s a big, glossy, bold and colourful title that really pimped up my basics game.

In fact, there’s the obvious added benefit to sourcing these kinds of resources from a pure target language approach. Reading through materials completely in Polish, including all instructions and explanations, added enough of an extra challenge to keep my focus for longer than books teaching through English.

Widen the Net

Similarly, language guides that teach the basics via the medium of another language – neither your native or target one – can mix things up a bit.

In my case, I was lucky enough to have one close to hand already. The Polish edition of Langenscheidts Praktisches Lehrbuch had languished, forgotten on my shelf, shamefully untouched for a few years. Then, I rediscovered it. Seeing basic Polish through the lens of my German gave me a whole new perspective on its structure. It joined up the dots between my languages, and gave me a stronger linkage between two of my foreign languages without the need for my native language as support. And what a great, solid course it is too, by the way.

Originally, I picked it up on a trip to Germany in the early noughties, transporting it proudly home as part of my language learning bookshop swag (including, if I remember rightly, a German-Estonian dictionary for reasons that were probably clear at the time). I love this kind of thing, of course – learning materials in a language other than your native one. 

Langenscheidt's Polish course - great for the basics if you already have German.

Langenscheidt’s Polish course – great for the basics if you already have German.

Langenscheidt's Polish course - sample page

My old Langenscheidt handbook seems to have been long since replaced by its successor, Polnisch mit System, if you want to give something similar a go. Failing that, Polnisch ohne Mühe is a good option for Polish learners with decent German.

Incidentally, I also recently came across Polisch-Deutsch für die Pflege zu Hause. The book is intended for Polish heath care workers in German-speaking countries, but has some great bilingual dialogues and vocabulary lists that cover the basics in a fresh and interesting new context (at least for me!).

A Practical, Active Approach

If you regularly take one-to-one language learning lessons on platforms like iTalki, there is a very practical way you can retread the basics. Namely, a lot of the social glue of everyday conversation finds itself in those first few chapters. Greetings, niceties, friendly goodbyes – the basics of language learning – they’re all in there. And when it’s those things that are missing, conversation can grind to an unnatural halt. It can take some very focused intervention to put that right.

Instead, what about attacking those chapters methodically, creating a speaking scaffold list of phrases from them? This can help structure iTalki lessons, for example, with a better defined beginning, middle and end. Using book sections to create your own resources beats a purely passive review of them.

Teach the Basics

If all else fails, and those basics really aren’t inspiring you, then you could always try teaching them to someone else. It’s often said that to teach something is to really get to know it. Are there any other budding polyglots around you? Use those foundational chapters to put together a mini lesson for them.

Willing participants can come from the most unlikely sources. My mum recently approached me, in fact; as an NHS vaccine jabber, she was meeting more and more Polish people daily, and wanted to learn a few basic phrases. Out came the books. Suddenly, all those Chapter Ones were a lot more fun.

How do you overcome basics fatigue? Do you have any tricks for reinvigorating foundation material for revision? Let us know in the comments!

Polish revision from the past

More Joy With Old Books : A Polish Boost from the (Not So Distant) Past

More joy with old books this week, as I came across a 30-year-old Polish course that turns out to be just what I needed.

I was after something systematic to work through and cement some colloquial turns of phrase. My fluency is quite stop-and-start in Polish, and I struggle to speak fluidly in conversation. Given the length of time I’ve worked with Polish over the years, I knew I needed to up my game.

The problem is mainly a lack of regularity. That doesn’t stem from a lack of interest at all; Polish is very dear to me, being one of my central language projects. That fascination dates right back to my teenage years. But I’ve just let it simmer, barely spending an hour a week on it for so long. Thanks to the efforts of my very patient Polish teacher, it’s remained solid – just – but it’s high time I repaid his hard work by being a more conscientious student!

But what to use? I’ve found some gems of old course books in many other languages, so I knew there might be something shiny lurking in the not-so-distant language-learning past for me.

Strong Polish Cheese

So along comes the cheesily-named Już mówię po polsku (I speak Polish already). Yes, thank you – I do speak Polish already. Just not as well as I want to. So what are you going to do about it, book? 

Well, Już mówię po polsku was first published in the 1990s, and certainly carries over that cheesy title vibe into the text itself. Anyone who went to school in the 80s and 90s will remember that corny, dad-joke type of humour that fills language textbooks of the time. Tricolore, anyone?

But the text is solid. It’s aimed at those making the leap from A1/2 to B1/2, with graded reading passages and dialogues with a different grammar focus each chapter. As such, the texts aren’t hugely challenging for me to understand. But this touched on a methodology my Polish teacher has passionately shared with me: the utility of readers slightly below your maximum comprehension level.

This approach works wonders for intermediate learners, because you are retreading high-frequency, colloquial language – exactly the kind that I am struggling to produce in a flowing way during conversation. It reminds you of idiomatic turns of phrase you might have forgotten. And it restrengthens pathways to weakening basic vocabulary. In short, it’s perfect for someone who tends to run before they can walk, cementing all those cracks in the foundations.

Już mówię po polsku - Polish revision from the past!

Już mówię po polsku – Polish revision from the past!

Gems in Not-So-Usual Places

So I found my regular extra reading and listening thanks to a bit of book archaeology. Naturally, coming across linguistic antiques like this requires a little deeper digging than usual. Już mówię po polsku is the kind of text you will only really spot when rummaging through second-hand marketplaces online, or in old bookshops. It still seems to be available – just about – from some Polish booksellers like this one or this one, including the CD. It’s certainly not as ubiquitous as the usual Teach Yourself or Colloquial courses.

That said, if you want some systematic (if cheesy) Polish reading, it’s worth dusting off your trowel to dig up a long-lost copy!

 

The Polish flag. Photo by Michal Zacharzewski from FreeImages

Polish Podcasts for Intermediate Learners

When you’ve smashed the barrier of your first thousand words or so, course books and learners’ guides simply won’t cut it any more. You need to step it up a level. But it can be hard to find resources that are accessible for learners while still presenting engaging material you want to listen to.

No problem – here are some excellent resources if you’re an intermediate Polish learner and want some fun edutainment as well as a language workout!

Polish with John

There are few teachers more dedicated than Jan to spreading the joy of Polish. He publishes regular and frequent podcasts on many interesting topics, ranging from language learning to history and beyond. Jan has a lovely, clear voice that is easy for learners to understand, and even provides transcripts of each short programme. Highly recommended, and it’s worth supporting the great work he’s doing!

SBS Polish

Strictly speaking, this podcast isn’t aimed at learners. It’s actually the regular Polish news bulletin of Australian broadcaster SBS. However, the stories are broken down into short, digestible clips, and feature material on international current affairs that should be familiar to many listeners. I’ve not found a Polish easy news alternative like the excellent News in Slow… series, but this is the next best thing!

Real Polish

Piotr has been on the podwaves for some years now, building up a loyal band of Polish learners. His programmes are in a longer, documentary-style format, and also feature a chatty preamble where listeners can send in an audio introduction. It’s a nice sociable touch to a great resource, backed up by full transcripts and resources for subscribers.

Polski Daily

This is another great learners’ podcast entirely in Polish. That’s just what you need when you’re aiming to think in the language and not simply translate from your native language when speaking. Like Jan and Piotr, Paulina selects material from a broad array of themes, with a big nod to cultural life in Poland.  On the website you can also enjoy some cosy interviews in the lovely Real Talks with Poles series.

Lepiej Teraz

Radosław is a life coach from Poland who publishes a monthly podcast on many aspects of self-improvement. Like SBS Polish, this isn’t aimed at learners, but rather native speaker professionals. That said, a lot of the themes will be familiar to listeners, so context and gist help. Also, Radosław is another podcaster with a great voice for listening to!

Have you found other gems on your own podcast hunts? Please let us know in the comments!

A colourful disco. Expressing what goes on at the disco is made all the easier by aspect. Image from freeimages.com

A Handy Aspect : Expressing Continuity and Completeness the Neat Way

I’ve been doubling down on Greek and Polish lately. And it struck me that they have similar tactics for expressing something we might not be overtly familiar with in English: aspect.

Aspect refers to how an action plays out over time. Typically, that includes notions of whether it was continuous, or complete / finished (telic). In grammatical terms, the opposition is between imperfective (the ongoing sort of action) and perfective (the completed one). It’s something we express in English, but typically we employ a bunch of strategies (and often several words) for it:

  • I was eating (continuous, no end point)
  • You have eaten (a complete action – the eating started and finished)
  • She ate it up (ie., she ate all of it – it’s gone now!)

So far so good; it’s nothing we’re not used to. After all, English does like its wordy, compound verb constructions.

An Intriguing Aspect

On the other hand, Greek and Polish – two languages you might not normally lump together – actually deal with this type of accent extremely similarly and succinctly. Firstly, Polish (and other Slavic) verbs come in aspectual pairs, each one expressing one end of that continuous-complete continuum:

  • 🇵🇱 robić (to do – imperfective, continuous, repeated, habitual etc.)
  • 🇵🇱 zrobić (to do – perfective, completed action, started-then-finished etc.)

Likewise, Greek has a system of alternating verb roots to express the same:

  • 🇬🇷 γράγω (ghráfo, write – root stem, used for imperfective forms)
  • 🇬🇷 γράψω (ghrápso, write – dependent stem, used for perfective forms)

As unfamiliar as the system of aspect-within-the-verb can seem at first, when you get used to it, it turns out to be a very economical and elegant way to narrate action. Just a tiny tweak alters the framing of your story:

  • 🇬🇷 έγραφα ένα γράμμα (éghrafa éna ghrámma: I was writing a letter – and it wasn’t finished before whatever happened next happened!)
  • 🇬🇷 έγραψα ένα γράμμα (éghrapsa éna ghrámma: I wrote, and finished, a letter)
  • 🇵🇱 robiłem moje zdanie domowe (I was doing my homework – but didn’t necessarily complete it)
  • 🇵🇱 zrobiłem moje zdanie domowe (I did my homework – and it’s complete!)

Neat, right?

Aspectual Automation

When first getting to grips with aspect in a new language that makes it explicit, you have to do a quick ‘mental check’ before you narrate events. What happened? Did it finish? Did it carry on? Was it interrupted? It’s the kind of thing that native speakers do intuitively. But, after a while, you start to do that aspect calculation automatically, too.

Luckily, if you also study Romance languages, you have a head start. In Spanish, for example, the difference between the imperfect and the preterite is one of aspect:

  • 🇪🇸 escribía una carta (I was writing a letter)
  • 🇪🇸 escribí una carta (I wrote a letter)

But it’s the Germanic languages, like English, which have tended to lose their in-verb markers of aspect. English has ended up with just two synthetic (inflected, single word) tenses, present and past; for all the other fancy, nuanced stuff, we need to fall back on our bunch of words techniques.

Aspect can be a tricky thing to get your head round if you haven’t grown up with the concept overtly in your first language. But it’s a fun feature to master, especially for telling stories in your target language(s)!

The Polish flag. Photo by Michal Zacharzewski from FreeImages

Język polski i ja / Polish and Me

Not long back, a lively online language learning debate caught my eye. It was around the unassailable prominence of English as a medium for discussion in the polyglot community, and the irony of this within a community of a hundred other choices. Where is the diversity, the German, Japanese, Polish, Spanish articles? After all, we are spoilt for choice.

Of course, it is hard to get round this – not least because we all speak a slightly different set of languages. So, at least for now, English looks to keep its place as the most inclusive choice of language for discussion.

That said, I would personally echo that hope to see more blog and social media content in the languages I learn. Above all, being a blogger myself, it seemed like a good cue to lend a little ballast to the non-English side of things, to be brave, to publish non-English content.

Safe, comfortable English is a difficult spot to get out of, though. As a native English speaker, the reason for my reticence is probably one shared by many of my fellow anglophone enthusiasts: fear of mistakes, of others simply doing it better. That kind of anxiety is self-fulfilling; keep your fledgling skills too tightly caged, and they might just wither away.

Luckily, the chance came along to do a bit of writing along these lines, but with support. That made all the difference.

Good Timing

By complete coincidence, my iTalki Polish tutor Jan set a very appropriate homework task for me recently – a simple blog post, in Polish, about my personal history of learning the language. Writing from experience, like diary-keeping, can be an effective way to engage with, recycle and strengthen your language skills. But in this case, it gave me the opportunity to create something original – and not in English – for Polyglossic.

Now, the natural thing to do would probably have been to do this in one of my stronger languages. German, Norwegian or Spanish. You could say that Polish was simply in the right place at the right time. However, maybe that makes it an even better candidate. My lagging Polish is crying out for a bit of extra writing practice.

Let’s overlook for a moment (pretty please!) the discrepancy of this preface to it in English. Hmm. But for a first non-English post in a site full of them, it only seemed fair – at least for the time being. Baby steps.

Finally, huge thanks to Jan for the prompt and the copious corrections to this during class. Check out his own blog, Polish with John, for some fantastic original resources for learners. Any remaining errors below are completely my own!


Język polski i ja

Na Początku

Interesuję się językiem polskim od wielu lat. W latach dziewięćdziesiątych słuchałem polskiej muzyki w radiu u polskiego sąsiada, Pana Wilsona (jego prawdziwego polskiego nazwiska nie znam) i bardzo chciałem się nauczyć tego pięknego języka.

Ale wtedy nie było łatwo uczyć się polskiego. W bibliotekach nie było wielu materiałów do nauki. Jeśli ktoś chciał się uczyć hiszpańskiego, francuskiego, niemieckiego, dostępna była masa materiałów i książek. Niestety do języka polskiego był tylko jeden, bardzo stary egzemplarz “Teach Yourself Polish”. Było to wydanie z lat czterdziestych oparte na starej metodologii. Zastosowana była metoda gramatyczno-tłumaczeniowa. Pięćdziesiąt lekcji gdzie student musi czytać przykłady, nauczyć się listy słów, a potem zrobić długą listę tłumaczeń. Wtedy uważałem, że to było zupełnie normalne, że tak po prostu uczy się języków. To był błąd.

Brak mówiących

Nie było dostępu do mówiących. Pan Wilson nie lubił mówić po polsku (był starym człowiekiem a miał tragiczną historię i złe doświadczenia z wojskiem), a wszystko, co robiłem, było tłumaczeniem zdań nie mających praktycznego zastosowania. Tak nie da się nauczyć języka obcego.

Nawet słownictwo nie miało sensu dla mnie – słowa z lat czterdziestych, słowa I zwroty takie jak porucznik, pułkownik, polsko-brytyjskie przymierze i tak dalej. Myślę, że książka została napisana dla żołnierzy, którzy pracowali w polakami po wojnie. Po prostu nie mi pasowała. Ciekawe słownictwo, oczywiście, ale nie bardzo przydatne – na początku tylko chciałem rozumieć polskie piosenki! Ale nie było innego wyboru.

Nowy Świat

Wiele lat później, świat się zmienił. Nie tylko jest więcej książek, a też więcej metod, szerszy dostęp do materiałów do mówienia i słuchania w internecie, wszystko, co by mi pomogło jak młodemu studentowi.
Wniosek jest taki: nie da się uczyć się języka obcego bez słuchania i mówienia. Sama książka nie wystarczy.