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.

A classroom ready for teaching

Teaching to learn: boost your studies by helping others

The idea of learning through teaching is nothing new. We find the idea in an old Latin proverb, docendo discimus (by teaching, we learn), possibly handed down to us from Seneca the Younger. The premise is simple: being able to explain what we know turns that knowledge from passive into active smarts.

We might also argue that the skill of teaching is facilitating learning, rather than bound to the actual content of that learning. It’s not necessarily about what you know, but how well you can explain (and re-explain) material – even new material. In this light, a natural next question is: can we teach without being experts in that content already? And are there learning benefits for us in doing so?

Primary Languages

The Primary Languages model rolled out in many UK schools is a great example of learn-while-teaching. Many teachers are not language specialists, but rather using teaching materials that allow them to stay one step ahead of the students.

The very best materials, like Linguascope‘s elementary resources, are packaged like ready-made lesson plans, which can be reviewed before class and form a roadmap for the teacher. Great teaching in this context is the skill of presenting, explaining and reviewing content, even if you’re just a few steps ahead of your class.

Peer teaching

In the classroom setting, learning through teaching can be just as powerful between peers. Students may be tasked with learning material in order to teach it to other students, either contemporaries or those in lower year groups. The resulting ‘altered expectations‘ – the knowledge that you’ll have to teach the material you’re learning to others – transform motivations and sharpen focus on really understanding. Also dubbed the ‘protégé effect‘, educational scientists have noted how preparation to teach results in students spending longer on material. One study provides empirical evidence for this ‘teaching expectancy‘ effect.

The idea has achieved some institutional acceptance already; educationalist Jean-Pol Martin has helped to instill the Learning by Teaching (Lernen durch Lehren) model as a popular method in German schools. The modern ‘flipped classroom‘ also has elements of student-turned-self-teacher, too, reversing traditional roles.

Build teaching into your own learning

So, teaching as learning has a long pedigree, and already has some good traction in the real world. But what lessons can we take from this for our own language learning?

Bug friends and family

Share with friends and family what you’re learning. They don’t ‘do’ languages? Then break it down as simply as possible. Tell them about a quirk of your target language that you find unusual. Think you’ll bore them to tears? Then find some way to make it interesting to them. The more challenging, the harder you’ll have to think – and the more that material will stick.

To get the interest of family and friends, I’ve actively looked for things that will make them laugh in the past. Never underestimate the power of humour in learning! Funny-sounding words (Fahrt in German is always a good one), weird idioms (tomar el pelo – literally ‘pulling the hair’ for ‘pulling someone’s leg’ in Spanish) and other oddities speak to the imaginations of the most reluctant listeners. “You’ll never guess what the word for ‘swimming pool’ is in French…”

Find a learn-and-teach partner

You can go beyond sharing humorous factoids and foibles. Find a fully-fledged language partner – someone who is as motivated as you to learn the language – and devise a schedule where you take turns in teaching vocabulary or grammar points each week. You’ll be activating those ‘teaching expectancy’ effects that worked so well in the classroom studies above.

Create resources for other learners

A revision technique I learnt as a student was to condense important points into simple explanations for others. If you can explain something complicated in a new, simpler way, then it’s a good sign that you really understand it.

Something I’ve been doing recently is to revisit my Castilian by creating Spanish revision videos for beginners. It’s been a form of revision for me, activating old knowledge bases that were starting to fade through lack of use. And because of the interconnected nature of knowledge (the neural networks of our brains), switching on a few buried memories triggers and refreshed many more connected informational blobs.

It’s easy to find a platform to share your homemade revision resources these days. Starting a YouTube channel or a Facebook group could be the perfect platform for your own learning through teaching.

Teaching is connecting

At the heart of it, learning through teaching embodies what languages are all about: making connections, building bridges. Try working some of these ideas into your own learning, and enjoy the social splashback!