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.

Jars of jam. Image by freeimages.com.

Language Jam on Ukrainian Toast

What did you have for breakfast this morning? For me, it was a large dollop of Ukrainian jam on toast. I know, that makes two weeks in a row that I’ve written about food. But this time, it was purely food for the brain and polyglot soul, as it was my very first #LangJam.

My Language Jam language reveal, showing Ukrainian as the randomly selected language.

My Language Jam mission: Ukrainian

My mission: 35-million-speakers-strong Ukrainian. It was quite an inspired random choice on Language Jam’s part. I spent some years studying Russian a while back, and Polish is a major active project for me now. So it seemed very apt to check out this fascinating bridge between hotspots on my language map!

Duolingo = lazy language jam?

First off, I must admit that I maybe failed to match the verve of some friends and colleagues. I remain utterly impressed at the reams and reams of notes some fellow jammers have been making. Just look at this.

Instead, I focused on Duolingo as my main resource, with Wikipedia and Wiktionary filling in the background gaps.

I chose to use Duolingo not just because it was the easy, lazy choice. (It does just happen that it is, though.) I made the choice chiefly because I love the way courses usually introduce you to basic nouns and simple verb phrases at first. Instead of the usual hackneyed ‘hello’, ‘how are you’ and ‘goodbye’ phrases, you get a better picture of how the language works straight off. By the end of it, you end up with a mini dictionary in the mind – a great foundation to continue more serious study if the mood takes you.

Also, if you wind up doing several Duolingo courses, you can start to spot patterns between languages, since the first words taught are largely the same (people and food nouns and such like). It paints a nice picture of how cognates differ between them, and how sounds with the same proto-roots came to be articulated differently and so on.

It builds a kind of etymological overview of languages, and etymology is a big way into languages for me.

Duolingo Ukrainian – how does it measure up?

Whenever I start a new Duolingo course, it’s a fascinating opportunity to compare how the different language options measure up against each other. Ukrainian turned out to have some nice surprises.

Although I know the Cyrillic alphabet very well from Russian studies, I loved the facility to type transliterated, Roman alphabet answers in the absence of a Ukrainian keyboard layout. Cheating? Perhaps a little. But if you are just dipping a toe in, it allows to you start running in the language very quickly.

Using the Latin alphabet to type Ukrainian answers into Duolingo.

Using the Latin alphabet to type Ukrainian answers into Duolingo. Maybe cheating a little, but so convenient if you are just after a taster!

The recordings could perhaps do with a little TLC in the Ukrainian section. That said, the voices are bright, clear and cheery. What more could you ask for, really?

And the trusty Duolingo approach of basic, stock words and simple sentences was in full force. Within the first couple of lessons you get a sense of basic sentence structure and some initial grammatical concepts like plural formation. In fact, the course reminds me a little of the excellent Polish course which I golded up last year. Thumbs up!

Making connections

As for the Ukrainian language itself, it was as expected. It turns out to be a goldmine of intrigue for someone with experience of both Polish and Russian. Admittedly, I was left with lots of questions. Where, for example, did the /v/ sound creep in from in the words for ‘he’ and ‘she’, він and вона? Polish has the v-less on/ona and Russian он/она (on/ona).

And the surprises kept coming. What happened to make the vowel in Ukrainian хліб, сіль, їсти (chlib, sil’, isty – bread, salt, eat) so different to Polish (chleb, sól, jeść) and Russian (хлеб, соль, есть – chleb, sol’, yest’)? Similarly, ‘city’ is місто – compare Polish miasto, and ‘horse’ is кінь (Polish koń). The word for ‘cat’ is кіт versus Polish kot. That ‘і’ pops up everywhere, and gives the sound of Ukrainian a very distinct, endearing flavour to an ear attuned to the other two.

Add to this special mix a tendency to have softer-sounding, fricatives in initial position where Polish has hard ones, and you start to collate a list of tell-tale signs to listen out for when discerning Ukrainian from its neighbouring Slavic languages. For example, compare Ukrainian це, хто (tse, chto) to Polish to, kto (it, who). Sometimes, building this skill of telling what a language is from its sound shape, even if you don’t speak it, is almost as socially useful as knowing one or two basic phrases.

For me, Language Jam has been a treat just for these comparative adventures. It widens the mental map of how words vary across space. Sometimes, as with Spanish and Portuguese, you can learn certain sound relations and ‘convert’ your knowledge of one into the other. At first study, it seems that Polish and Ukrainian are not quite close enough to do that, thanks to a greater number of vocabulary differences. For ‘animal’, say, Polish uses zwierzę, but Ukrainian тварина (tvaryna), etymologically completely different. But the ‘conversion rules’ at work here are certainly enough to act as a hook when learning one from the other.

Spare parts

When you view a group of related languages together like this, it can almost be like seeing machines that have been put together from a big bucket of parts. Each machine produces the same results in similar ways, but not always using exactly the same pieces.

For example, two Proto-Slavic roots for ‘to see’ have been reconstructed: *vìděti and *obačiti. You could consider these two different spare parts for the notion of ‘seeing’ when we build our Slavic language machines. Polish uses both of them in different aspectual parts, with widzieć (imperfective) and zobaczyć (perfective). Ukrainian uses a cognate of the latter for both perfective and imperfective (бачити / побачити – bachyty / pobachyty). Russian, on the other hand, uses the former for both (видеть / увидеть – vidyet’ / uvidyet’).

Ukrainian, geographically placed as it is, variously uses pieces with a sometimes more ‘Polish’ and sometimes more ‘Russian’ twist. ‘To work’, for example, is працювати (pratsuvati), akin to Polish pracować. On the other hand, Russian goes with работать (rabotat’).

And the ‘spare parts’ idea works within words at the syllable level too, and not just with whole roots. As a case in point, I just love the variations on the word ‘bear’ across the three languages. It seems like each one concocted a different flavour from the same syllable soup. We have Polish niedźwiedź, Ukrainian ведмідь (vedmid’) and Russian медведь (myedvyed’). Possibly the sweetest triplet of cognates ever. They sound like characters from a folk tale!

The stuff I excitedly share here, as if it were some kind of novel discovery, is undoubtedly elementary par for the course for students of Slavic Linguistics 101. But that has been the beauty of using Language Jam as a comparative introduction – exploring and deducing these things in isolation, all by myself. And spotting those relationships and connections is uniquely rewarding as a language lover.

Goal achieved? You’re jam right

These are just a few observations after my very brief exposure to the beautiful and fascinating Ukrainian language over the weekend. The experience has given me a little of that comparative scaffolding for Slavic that has already helped me get a grip on the Germanic languages. And in particular, it has broadened my experience of how phonologies diverge over time and place. For those reasons alone, it has been a truly enriching exercise, and another wave of the flag in support of endless dabbling.

Of course, with just a weekend to jam, the aim was never really to gain any degree of functional fluency. Instead, I was hoping to learn a little about the language, along with a handy couple of words to impress Ukrainians with should I ever bump into some. On that score, it is goal achieved. That said, the little I have learnt would serve as a fantastic springboard if I come to study the language again in the future.

I hope these wide-eyed dabbler notes have given other Ukrainian newbies a taste of the language, aroused the curiosity of speakers and learners of other Slavic languages, and prompted others to check out the fantastic Language Jam.

As far as conserves go, it was pretty sweet.

Christmas is coming! Make it a language learning one.

Last Minute Gifts for Language Learners

Yes, Christmas is just around the corner! And, if you’re anything like me, you enjoy a healthy (and very human) mix of perfect prep and last-minute lunacy. However well I plan, there are always a couple of things that sneak onto my to-do list in the last couple of days.

Never fear: if you still have language learning friends and family to treat, these are our top gift picks for linguistic stocking fillers.

Teach Yourself Tutor Series

There’s nothing more exciting to a linguist than a brand, spanking new language learning book. This year, Teach Yourself have really come up trumps with their ever-growing Tutor series of graded grammar lessons and drills.

The fact that these tomes are aimed at “Advanced Beginner” and above makes them particularly appealing to polyglot hobbyists, who often approach grammar with a ton of existing knowledge that can make basic primers boring. Add to that the fact that they’re available in some  lesser-studied languages with fewer available resources, and the series is a real winner. Props to Teach Yourself!

I’ve already invested in a couple, and am impressed at the clarity of explanation and usefulness of the exercises. I’d be smiling if I woke up to any more of these on Christmas Day, let me tell you.

My only request for the Teach Yourself Santa: please, an Icelandic version next year?


Virtual Chinese assistant

This tech project has been catching fire recently on funding site IndieGogo. It’s a virtual, conversational assistant designed specifically with the goal of learning Chinese in mind. Hěn hǎo!

It’s possible to pre-order Lily as a backer right now, which is a pretty exciting way to get in on ground level as an early adopter and supporter.

It is just available in Chinese for now, sadly (well, sadly for those of use who haven’t tackled Chinese – yet!). However, there is a hint that further languages will be added in future. Definitely worth bookmarking that page!

Otherwise, alternative virtual assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home have a slowly growing selection of language learning utilities, too. Amazon even introduced software for you to teach Alexa new languages in 2018, underlining a commitment to making the device more polyglot-friendly.

iTalki credits

Books and gadgets are ace, of course. But good old, human, face-to-face contact will add some real-world shine to someone’s Christmas language baubles.

There are few platforms as effective and reasonably priced as iTalki for online lessons. Whether your friends and family are already familiar with it or totally new, you can boost their learning with the gift of iTalki lessons credits.

I burn through mine at a rate of knots, so like-minded linguists will really appreciate some gifted learning time!

App Store credit

Similarly, we language learners can end up spending money like water when it comes to subscriptions for learning platforms. Babbel, Duolingo, Memrise… Premium tier access all adds up.

And it’s not just language-specific services, either. General productivity utilities like Evernote are fantastic learning tools with monthly or annual price tags. Netflix and Amazon Prime also have burgeoning collections of foreign-language viewing that linguists can devour.

As most such platforms are app-based, users can usually pay with app store credit directly on a mobile device. That makes gifting credit for app stores like iTunes or Google Play a great way to support your linguistic loved ones in their online language quest.

You can even acquire app store gift card codes for free through survey sites like Swagbucks. Surveys for pressies? Sign me up!

The gift of time

I’ve said it many times before, but the greatest gifts don’t have to cost anything. Solo learning can be a lonely business, and a bit of people power goes a long way. Why not commit to partnering a friend in their learning?

It’s not just about being a study buddy at the same language level, either. Studies repeatedly support the notion that we learn by teaching. In light of this, why not volunteer your time to your nearest and dearest as a peer student? That’s a gift to them and to you. Win-win.

However you celebrate this year, a wonderful Christmas to one and all. Good tidings of language learning joy – have a great one!

Metalanguage helps you to talk about the cogs and wheels of language

Metalanguage : learning to talk *about* your target language

One of the biggest challenges for language students is to maintain a 100% target-language environment during lessons. Holding everyday conversations is one thing. But when it comes to discussing the language itself, we often lack the tools. We need metalanguage.

Metalanguage refers to the set of terms for describing and analysing language. You probably learnt such terms at school in your native language lessons: verb, noun, pronoun and so on. But typically, these aren’t presented in the target language when you are learning from foreign language course material. This makes chatting about your learning incredibly difficult.

Keep the target language flowing

I recently noticed what a positive effect metalanguage can have in my Polish lessons. With my teacher, we’ve been covering noun cases lately – always a tricky topic for English-speaking students of the language. My attempt to keep speaking Polish was constantly thwarted by having to switch to English: “ohhhh, that’s genitive plural“, “does that take the instrumental?” and so on. It was getting tedious.

Quick fix: I learnt the names of the Polish cases in Polish. For fans of tongue-twisters, they are: mianownik, biernik, dopełniacz, celownik, narzędnik, miejscownik and wołacz (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, locative and vocative). Some quite challenging vocabulary in one go, there!

Metalanguage: unlocking further vocabulary

Of course, language lesson is the environment where knowing these will help prevent breakdowns in the 100% target language flow. However, you might think that metalanguage is of limited use beyond teacher talk.

However, learning words like these helps you to do more than just talk about language. They can be keys to new and extra vocabulary in themselves. Through spotting links between the names of the cases and other Polish words, for example, they have also consolidated my own expanding neural network of Polish words.

How does this work? Well, let’s take the word for dative in Polish, celownik. This derives from the word cel (goal, aim), and in turn, relates to celowo (deliberately, on purpose). Quite natural, then, that the noun case for direction, or doing something to someone/something proceeds from this family of words. Instantly, these terms are no longer in isolation for me, but in a group. Crucially, grouping of related terms strengthens recall, something borne out by memory research.

Several (overwhelmingly European) languages, rather annoyingly, stick to Latin terminology for analytical grammatical terms. German, for example, uses Verb and Präsens (Present Tense), amongst others. But often, there are alternative ways to describe language phenomenon, which are not simply borrowings. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that you can also use Zeitwort (verb – literally ‘time word’) and Gegenwart (present – in the grammatical and literal sense of ‘being present’) instead. It pays to persevere with your dictionary.

See your own language differently

Finally, learning these terms, and what they refer to, not only helps you become a better speaker of your target language; you also come to know your first language on much closer terms.

As a case in point, I grew up in the classrooms of the 1980s, where the grammar of my own language barely featured in English lessons. It was only after switching on to foreign languages that I began to understand how my own worked. Learning terms like passive voicevalency and indirect object opened up a whole new world. My English improved along with my practical language skills. Getting to grips with metalanguage is a vital step on the way to earning the label ‘linguist’.

It’s certainly worth researching metalanguage in the languages you study. Whether to keep your native language lapses to a minimum, or unlock and consolidate further vocabulary, talking about your language in your language is an effort that pays off.

Polish words in a dictionary

2000 words and still not fluent? My Polish Anki experiment 🇵🇱📱

Would you be impressed if I told you I know over 2000 words in Polish? What about if I told you that I still can’t actually speak Polish?

As crazy as it sounds, it’s true. At least, it was true – I’m working on the speaking part now. But for some time, I’ve been exploring ideas of what fluency really means in language learning. Common sense dictates that, of course, fluency isn’t just knowing hundreds of words in a foreign language. But sometimes, you have to try something to confirm what common sense tells you. So I set off on a little Polish experiment: what if I just learnt all the words first?

Away with words

The language-canny amongst you might already see where this was heading. I should add that I never expected to reach conversational fluency this way. Rather, it was a trial to see just how far mass vocabulary learning can take a learner. There are plenty of courses that focus on rote-learning of vocab (Vocabulearn Polish, for example). Just how effective is the approach on its own, or, at least, as a springboard for more rounded learning later on?

Also, a disclaimer: I wasn’t completely new to Polish. I’ve had a casual interest in the language and culture ever since this formative TV moment at the age of 17. I’d learn a little Polish before, and knew the fundamentals of grammar. But fundamentals is perhaps an overstatement – I knew a handful of set phrases, a couple of noun cases and one verb conjugation.

The process

The whole thing was done pretty much on the cheap. I set about building a list in Anki based on a really old Polish text that I picked up for 50p in a second-hand bookshop: the 1948 edition of “Teach Yourself Polish”. Chapter by chapter, I’d strip the pages for new entries, and add them to Anki, tagging for parts of speech and topic. After I exhausted that (it contains maybe 1500 individual vocabulary entries or so), I turned to other texts I had at home (but never completed), like Routledge’s Colloquial Polish.

As I built the lists, I cross-referenced carefully using tools like Wiktionary, to check for mistranslations, obsolete terms and so on. That’s a pretty important step when using a text from 1948! However, the core vocabulary of a language doesn’t typically change drastically in any 70-year period, so I ended up with a pretty solid list of everyday words in the language (as well as some nice little oddities like jaskółka – a swallow, and borsuk – badger). 🐦

Input, test, repeat

I started doing my daily Anki routine right after my first words had been input. That meant that, for some weeks, I was learning words from early chapters, while typing them in from later ones. I found that helped, in fact; I’d become familiar with words for the first time when entering them, and then have an ‘echo’ of them when they came round in Anki. I certainly had a lot of success with recall that way.

Thankfully, there’s no damage that can’t be undone when learning languages. I’m back on track now with a structured textbook and regular one-to-one lessons with a Polish teacher. Those months learning the entire vocabulary of “Teach Yourself Polish” weren’t wasted – I now have a massive word bank at my disposal (even if learning to put them together is taking a lot of effort!).

Lessons learnt

So what did I learn, besides 2000 words, and how to be a walking dictionary?

Well, it clearly demonstrates two distinct mental processes when it comes to linguistic memory. There is the mental dictionary. And then there is the rule book. They can be learnt in isolation, but to really speak, they need to be learnt together.

Also, without learning them together, your power to retrieve words from memory can be a little mechanical and clunky. I had never practised firing off reams of words in the flow of conversation. I could answer like lightning if asked “what’s the Polish for apple?“. But when the time came to try and speak, my retrieval was just too slow to be useful.

It’s necessary to practise your vocabulary in the full stream of everyday speech; your brain must get used to pulling words quickly from memory as soon as they are needed.

By way of comparison, I notice a huge difference between my Polish and Icelandic. For me, the two languages are approximately at the same level on paper. However, speaking Icelandic in full sentences from the start, I come to a complete, faltering stop much less often.

Curating your own lists in Anki

It was also a great lesson in vocab organisation. Because I’d diligently tagged all of the entered words, I could leverage Anki’s search and filter to pull up custom vocab lists based on topic, or even parts of speech. What are all the adverbs of time I’ve learnt in Polish? Search the deck on ‘tag:adverb’ and ‘tag:time’, and hey presto. What about all the words for colours I’ve learnt? Pop in ‘tag:colours’ and there they all are.

This is important because of the power of ownership in language learning. These were my lists – they have particular salience to me, as I create and curate them. When entering them, I thought hard to think up tags that might be useful for sorting later. It’s quite satisfying to interrogate a mass of words in this way, and see the patterns and orders in them. And it works wonders for helping them stick in memory.

Interrogating lists of Anki words by tag

Interrogating lists of Anki words by tag

Gist king

Even in the absence of full syntax, it is now much easier to get the gist of most Polish texts.  Words alone are certainly not useless; they just serve the user better in a passive capacity.

The boosted banks are also a fantastic advantage now I am learning Polish in a more rounded,  systematic fashion. As I learn new structures, I have a ready-made treasure of words to drop into them.

Incidentally, it gave me a wonderful bird’s eye view of certain differences between Slavic languages, too. As a former learner of Russian, it was fascinating to see where Polish completely matched, or totally diverged from Russian.

An experience to repeat?

Has the experience been useful? Incredibly. Would I do it again? Certainly not with a completely new language that I knew nothing about in terms of grammar.

However, the sense of purpose and diligence it gave me was invaluable – I felt very actively engaged in the process of learning Polish. Not only that, but it was a masterclass in how to use Anki and take ownership of your vocabulary. As such, I shall definitely incorporate the same approach into further learning – only as a complimentary, rather than a principle, strand!

Polish Verb Blitz for iOS

Change may be accelerated by societal pressures.

Change, society and the language learner

Language never stands still. As learners, we study a moving target. The only constant is change.

It’s something that hits you when you learn from old textbooks. Many old, forgotten language courses still have mileage in them, especially if you like learning the nuts and bolts of grammar early on.  You do have to keep one eye on the relevancy of the language learnt, though.

For instance, I’ve learnt a lot over the last couple of months from a Teach Yourself Polish edition that was originally published in 1948. It’s no longer available in print, but it really suits my learning style; I’ve not found a gentler, clearer introduction to Polish grammar in anything newer.

Language reflects social change

Saying that, the world, and the vocabulary that reflects it, have changed a lot since 1948. I won’t find the Polish for computer or mobile phone in there, for example. Neither will I be able to talk about my job (developing language learning software). I can’t even talk about recent political events (what’s the Polish for Brexit or fake news?).

These sweeping and rapid changes tend to affect the content words of a language. Generally speaking, the function words – those nuts and bolts like articles, conjunctions and pronouns – are slower to change. It has taken centuries, for example, for English to whittle down the pronouns ‘thou’ and ‘ye’ to a single ‘you’.

Brave new world

However, we live in times that see status quo smashed and long-held tendencies bucked. One explanation for this may be the increasing speed of information flow through society. Social media facilitates this flow,  catalysing societal change; language, mirroring society, reveals these changes in an ever quicker pace of change.

Recent developments in Sweden, and more recently, Norway, illustrate this society-language two-step nicely. With the emergence of new gender categories such as trans and non-binary, language was left wanting. Swedish han (he) and hon (she) no longer reflected the reality many want to talk about. Broad support to plug this gap led to the adoption of a new, gender-neutral pronoun, hen. The Swedish Academy finally recognised the word in its official word list in 2015. Today, Norway’s Labour Party leads calls for the same in Norwegian, continuing a pace of language change that does not even leave function words untouched.

It’s worth noting that there is nothing truly new about gender neutrality in language. Languages like Finnish and Turkish have long lacked a marker for gender in the equivalent of he/she. The difference is that their systems, presumably, evolved over millennia of language change; Swedish and Norwegian hen have emerged in just a few years, testimony to this new world of rapid change.

Stay ahead of change

So how can the language learner cope in this world? Well, sweeping functional changes are still rare in language, despite the hen example. Changes in usage and convention can happen from generation to generation, like shifts in the Swedish use of ‘you’. Still, these changes won’t make you unintelligible (and nothing a few days in the country won’t cure!).

Otherwise, there are a few tactics you can keep in mind to protect your language skills from becoming outdated.

Be on the lookout

It is important to arm yourself with cultural awareness when using slightly older materials. With old texts, bear in mind that the political world may have shifted; my 1948 Polish course, for example, is littered with military terms, doubtlessly useful to friends and relatives of Polish service personnel settled in the UK post-war. Less useful to me, I’m aware of the vocab I can probably ignore for now.

The names of countries may even have changed; pre-1989 German materials are historical documents in themselves, attesting to a still divided country. The terms for languages themselves may be different; texts on Serbo-Croat for learning the language of Yugoslavia have been swept away in favour of separate texts on the Serbian and Croatian of now independent countries.

Actively build vocabulary

Be aware of how the world has changed; actively seek to plug gaps your learning resources. Google Translate is being updated constantly, so great for finding single terms on modern life. Use tech / computer / lifestyle magazines in the target language to mine for new terms (Readly is a useful subscription service featuring many foreign titles).

Keeping ahead of language change with Google Translate

Keeping ahead of change with Google Translate

Read all about it

Read current affairs in your target language as widely as possible. Online news is (generally) a cost-free way of doing this. Here is a nice list of foreign language outlets to start with. Expose yourself constantly to the topics of the day, and note any new terms for learning. I use Evernote and Anki for adding terms to my vocab bank.

Intimidated by advanced news texts as a beginner? Some media outlets cater for learners of the language. German learners might like to try this podcast by Deutsche Welle, featuring the news of the day in deliberately slow, uncomplicated German. A similar service for Spanish learners is provided by NewsInSlowSpanish.com.

Embrace it

Finally, don’t see language change as a hindrance. Rather, be intrigued by it, and strive to follow developments in your target language country. Learning how a language has changed / is changing can increase your familiarity with both the language and the society it belongs to.

It illustrates perfectly how language should never be studied in isolation on a textbook page, but ‘in the wild’ as a living, breathing creature.

Thanks again to the brilliant NRK radio programme Språkteigen, who recently ran the story of ‘hen’ in Norway, and provided the inspiration for this post!

A duck on a riverbank

Papping your horn at Greek ducks

I’m sitting here imagining a duck in the middle of a big Greek road, as we drive ever closer towards it in our hire car. “It’s not moving!” I shout, panicked. “Quick! Pap ya horn and scare it out of the way!”

No, I haven’t gone mad, and it isn’t some strange nightmare. It’s an example of keyword vocabulary learning, popularised from the 1980s onwards by Michael Gruneberg and his Linkword system. It’s the reason I haven’t forgotten the Greek word for duck – πάπια (papya) – since I learnt it from one of his books in the late 90s.

The idea is simple. You find a word or phrase in your native language, which sounds similar to the foreign vocabulary item you’re learning. You then build a vivid mental scenario, including both the native and the target language word, like my duck example above, and spend some moments visualising it to create a strong association. If you use it for several languages, you might like to add a ‘cultural marker’ too, like setting the scene on a Greek road in my example – it helps to avoid polyglot confusion!

Do be daft

A good rule of thumb is the sillier the better, and this is for quite sound psychological reasons; memory researchers refer to salience as the degree to which certain information stands out in the mind, facilitating learning, and daft yarns like “pap ya horn at the duck in the road” fit the bill (pun intended) quite nicely. For a bit of added razzmatazz, you could try sketching out some of your funnier scenes, too, either digitally or the old-fashioned way. Anything goes to make them more memorable!

I’ve personally had a lot of personal success at vocab learning using this method (maybe because I have a slightly madcap imagination – it helps). What’s more, I’ve recommended it to family and friend, many of whom place themselves in the “but I’m no good at languages!” camp, and they’ve been impressed at how well it helps them remember, too.

Nonetheless, the technique hasn’t gained universal acceptance, and is certainly not particularly visible in formalised language teaching, such as the modern foreign language classroom. This is despite some promising results in studies such as this one from a UK school in 2002, which found that student progressed more quickly than expected when using Linkword courses as part of their language studies. In fact, Gruneberg and others have sometimes felt it necessary to defend the approach, for example, in this article from the Language Learning Journal (Aug 2007). From being quite common sights on bookshop shelves some years ago, you won’t find the original books on sale any more (although a range of apps is available on the website), making the approach a bit of a forgotten gem.

One tool amongst many

The issue is, as with all language learning techniques, that it’s not a complete system, but rather another useful tool in the array that you’ll need to learn a language. Brilliant at building stuck-fast vocabulary memories, there are a couple of obvious drawbacks:

  • It doesn’t lend itself well to grammar learning (although you can use it to learn some sentence-building items, such as conjugated verbs like ‘is’, for example)
  • It depends on finding good sound analogues in the native language to work – for instance, can you think of a good English keyword to build into a story for the Polish word zwycięstwo (victory)?

Nonetheless, I’m still convinced that this is a great way to build a modest vocabulary when you begin a new foreign language, supplementing the rest of your learning. Those memories I formed back in the late 90s are still holding fast!

Combine moves to power up!

What I like to do is combine it with our firm favourite flashcard software, Anki, for a double whammy. You can add a custom field to your language note types – I like to add a ‘Hint’ field, which will contain a brief ‘silly story’ to help me remember the word. You can then make this field visible in your test cards, so you get a reminder of the association every time it pops up:

Anki screenshot showing custom fields in a user-defined note type

Anki screenshot showing custom fields in a user-defined note type

Anki screenshot showing a test card with a custom field added

Anki screenshot showing a test card with a custom field added

There’s a decent YouTube tutorial on doing the above at this link. You can also see more about how and why I style my Anki cards in this earlier post.

So, if you’ve not come across keyword vocab learning techniques before, give them a go; they may just be the hook that you need to remember your first few hundred words in a new language. And a bit of silliness is always welcome!