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.
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 go I did 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:
I will go (on foot, once)
I (will) go (by transport, once)
we went (on foot, once)
I went (by transport, once)
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.