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.

How many languages should we learn at once? How many pieces of the jigsaw do you need? Image by Gary Fleischer on

How Many Languages Should You Learn At Once? [Spoiler: it’s up to you!]

Every so often there is a ripple in the polyglot ocean, and that old, bebarnacled behemoth “how many languages should you learn at once?” rises to the surface again. A couple of social media posts on that perennial debate caught my eye recently, with passionate punters in both camps.

The conundrum is this: do we concentrate on a single language project at a time, maximising our efforts to progress more quickly and efficiently? Or do we indulge our love of languages, learning several at a time, aiming for the same goals but over a longer period of time?

Spoiler: there is no single, right answer to that question, however much the pundits claim!


The accepted wisdom currently seems to have swung in favour of “resist the temptation” when it comes to multiple languages. Narrow focus is the key to success. Now, I must admit to a pang of guilt every time I hear this nugget. As much as many, many of my polyglot friends, I am guilty of full-on Aladdin’s Cave mode. I am a veritable magpie with shiny new languages. If I really want to reach fluency quickly, so the recommendation goes, then I should probably drop a few for now.

Although concrete advice like this errs on the prescriptive side, it does mean well. And as a guideline for the goal-oriented learner, it is sound, too. If your language journey has a very well-defined, practical purpose, such as preparing to live in another country, or pass an exam, it is certainly the safe path to travel.

But are utility and economy of time really the alpha and omega of language learning for pleasure?

The explorer approach

The danger of prescriptive advice is that it selects a single path out of many – black or white, right or wrong. It is exclusive. Specifically, it sets up the end result as the only meaningful objective.

The reality of language learning is much more nuanced. The point for many of us is in the process, as well as the result.

Does a multilanguage process slow down progress compared to a one-at-a-time approach? In terms of pure mileage covered, it stands to reason, yes. But in other ways, not so much. It depends on what you are measuring the progress of. Chiefly, learning multiple tongues simultaneously takes some beating as a big picture approach to developing a deep understanding of language.

I like to view all my language projects as part of this much larger whole. What I learn in one helps carry the others along, too. Most obviously, this yields dividends when studying quite closely related languages, such as German, Icelandic and Norwegian. In this case, it is less about how many languages you learn, and more about which ones. Learning within this group helps to develop a keen instinct for the shared history, shape and feel of Germanic languages.

But even zooming out to more distant leaves on the tree, we can deepen our understanding of language at another level of abstraction. You develop a feel for what language, in a much more general sense, is trying to do, how humans perform communication. In particular, you start to see recurring patterns in how information is coded across very disparate groups.

What is a subject, and how is it given precedence in the sentence? How does language encode time and space, and what commonalities are there between far-flung groups? How are individuals and collectives represented in different ways by different languages?

All these question relate to how human beings package up and present information to carry out specific social functions. Studying a plethora, rather than just one at a time, opens the eyes of learners to the human jungle in glorious technicolour.

Incidentally, the ‘big picture’ argument for polyglot learning has a lot in common with the ideal of the polymath ‘all-rounder’.

Incremental and cumulative

Perhaps, too, we are asking the wrong question when making a choice between quick and slow learning. The most generally applicable piece of advice is simply this: make your learning incremental and cumulative, whatever the speed. Just keep building. And fast is not always fantastic.

This more ambling, strolling path to fluency reminds me of Dawkin’s explanation for the slow evolutionary development of eyes. As he explains, the eye did not simply flash into existence, fully formed. Instead, it evolved over aeons, from an initial small cluster of photosensitive cells on an early life-form, to the complex organ we see in so many incarnations today. At each stage, what was to become the eye was still useful and functional, even though it lacked the finesse of its current form.

Slow language learning is the same. Even if it takes longer to reach high-functioning fluency, the interim skills are nonetheless useful at every step. Just like evolution, language progress is incremental and cumulative, at whatever speed you take it.

A joy, not a chore

We should also remember what brings us to languages in the first place: the sheer joy of it. Too much rigidity can take the edge off any pleasure and turn it into a chore, and this is no exception. Of course, regularity and habit are crucial to ensuring progress. But we should be careful not to deny the place of flexibility in our passion, too.

For instance, I completed my first 30 Day Language Challenge in October. I tackled that one in Polish, and am now into November’s event using Icelandic as my challenge language. The daily speaking topics give me some structure and focus, but I maintain the freedom to use a different language in each challenge.

That’s a great compromise for me and fellow shiny-object fiends. We all have times when we are drawn more to one language than another, and that is absolutely fine. Basing our routines around short, sharp, fixed-term projects like the 30-Day Challenge gives us the best of both worlds: variety and structure.

What’s more, there is nothing to stop you switching modes with the ebb and flow of your own life. Sometimes an exam or a foreign trip will require a change in gear. Stay flexible; what is right for you now may not be in a month’s time.

How many languages? You decide.

I personally strive not to view my learning as a race against time. Nor as a sprint, or even a jog. I prefer it to be a glide, giving me the leisure to take in as much of the view as possible.

But this is not a personal manifesto. What works for me may well not work for you. But it is a friendly nudge to listen to what you want, rather than worry about the many shoulds and shouldn’ts whooshing past us on social media.

Joy should never be prescriptive. Although the booming edict ‘Learn But One Language At A Time’ is well-meant advice, the peer pressure it carries, coming from the mouths of experts, is powerful. One size never fits all. We are a rainbow of different circumstances. Consider at your leisure and select the answer that suits you.

Clontarf, Dublin: achievement is often about the journey, not the destination.

Achievement on our terms: language learning as the joy of exploration

If ambition drives you to excel in a field as (traditionally) academic as languages, chances are you are achievement-oriented. Striving for success – however we choose to measure it – is part and parcel of loving the polyglot craft. Achievement gives us a buzz.

As independent learners, however, we are free to define achievement however it works best for us. It’s something that occurred to me on a trip to Dublin this weekend, a break that prompted me to dip my now-and-again toe into the Irish language once more.

Strictly casual

You might have a similar relationship with one of your languages. Irish fascinates me. It is both somehow familiar, yet so different from the Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages I usually work with. It fills a missing piece in my understanding of the Indo-European family. For all that, I love dabbling in it through the odd couple of lessons on Duolingo, or a leaf through a basic Irish grammar.

That said, me and Irish are involved on a strictly casual basis. I have no particular goal in mind. No exams, no trip to the Gaeltacht to chat with locals. I just enjoy exploring when the mood takes me.

The way I approach Irish reminds me of the ‘down the rabbit hole’ experience many have with encyclopaedia site like Wikipedia. Browsing a single article can lead the reader to click link after link, hopping from one article to another. Exploration is the end in itself, the achievement won. Whatever the content, however idle the amble, we are just that little bit richer at the end for it.

The result? Walking around public spaces in Ireland is now a series of ‘aha!’ moments. This weekend, it chuffed me to pieces to recognise the occasional word and structure in the Irish language signs  in and around Dublin.

My proudest (and geekiest) achievement: recognising eclipsis on a sign for a men’s swimming area. It’s a lovely moment when you realise that even the most superficial amount of learning can help make sense of the world around you.

Tantalising tangents

Achieving via the tangential route is nothing new for me, and you have likely experienced it too. At school, I was a diligent and effective student. But regularly, my teachers would drag me back on course as I’d drift off on some off-the-beaten-track knowledge expedition, away from the prescribed curriculum and onto (for me) exciting, uncharted territory.

In language classes, I was eager to express what had meaning for me – usually what I had been up to lately. Without fail, I’d thumb straight past the pages on “a strawberry ice cream, please” to the appendix reference on the past tense. That was where my spark of interest lay. Learning by personal detour meant that my sense of achievement was so much greater.

As my language journey progressed to college, one route led me to ‘collecting’ terms for birds and other wildlife in German. Useful for my A-level exam prep? Perhaps not. But fascinating and fun to the nascent language geek in me? You bet!

It hit homes in this lovely tweet I spotted recently, which neatly sums up our freedom to learn:

 Achievement on your terms

The fact is that the polyglot community has already uprooted language success from its traditional environment of formalised, assessed learning. Freed from the shackles of exam performance, there are as many reasons to learn and enjoy as there are methods to learn.

We are incredibly lucky to be part of a learning community that minimises achievement pressure like this. Even if that achievement is simply the joy of exploration and wonder, it is no less valid than acing written exams on a university course.

We are our own measure of success. Learn what, and how, you love. And let that be your achievement!

Impostor syndrome can leave you feeling exposed and anxious. (Picture from

Impostor syndrome? Prescribe yourself some polyglot community!

This week, I’m blogging from the grand hall of the Union Hotel in Ljubljana, Slovenia, as an excitable, kid-in-a-candy-store, first-time attendee of the annual Polyglot Conference. As expected, it’s been a bit of a language wonderland. I’ve been stuffed full of fresh ideas and inspiration for new projects.

But one concrete lesson it has taught me is this: impostor syndrome, that fear of not being good enough, is pretty much ubiquitous. However, more importantly, community is the antidote for it.

The sumptuous hall at the Grand Union Hotel, Ljubljana, venue for the Polyglot Conference 2018.

The sumptuous hall at the Grand Union Hotel, Ljubljana, venue for the Polyglot Conference 2018.

Now, I am naturally quite a shy person. A shy polyglot – what a frustrating thing to be. All those languages, and all that extra anxiety speaking to new people! Needless to say, it was quite a leap to book my conference ticket. But it was completely worth it, not least for the “people practice”, as I like to call it. An especially valuable observation has been a tonic for my confidence as a passionate polyglot.

Impostor alert

You see, imposter syndrome is BIG. We all feel it from time to time, even the most outwardly confident people. The phenomenon of internet celebrity plays its part – sometimes it’s hard to feel good enough when our heroes and idols appear to be such runaway successes.

It is that feeling that you are not on the same shelf as all those other impressive people. You’re a pretender to the throne, just blagging, a bit of a fraud. You can’t really speak all those languages. You know just a bit at best, and would crumble under scrutiny. In short, you aren’t really a fully-fledged polyglot – just a wannabe who can say a few words.

But let me tell you two things. Firstly, you are absolutely not alone in feeling this. Secondly, none of those fears are based in truth.

Look yourself in the face

One wonderful thing about the polyglot community is that it acts like a mirror. Be bold enough to look into it, and you see yourself reflected back multiple times. You realise the universality of your experience.

Put a few hundred language enthusiasts in a room, and it leaps out at you. We are all achieving, succeeding, thriving. In different ways, at different levels, yes. But nobody is a fraud. Revelling in a love of language learning is all it takes to be part of this club. There is no such thing as the fully-fledged, perfectly shaped polyglot.

Something quite sweet happened to me at the conference, which confirmed the truth of this.

Anti-social security

At the best of times, socialising with hundreds of unknown people is daunting. Very few of us are natural schmoozers. And so it was that I found myself, lunch plate in hand, hovering alone around groups of people that seemed so much better at small talk than I am.

Serendipitously, my forlorn wanderings were noticed. I was rescued by a kindly (and similarly floating) delegate, and naturally, we got chatting about our language journeys. It was an easy point of conversation; all delegates bore self-decorated name badges, including sticky flags representing our languages and proficiency.

A little push…

The thing was, my conference friend started to mention her experience of languages not on my name badge. Each time, I piped up: oh, I know a bit of that! And each time, the reply was the same – so where is your flag? Exasperated by my explanation that I just don’t know enough of it!, she dragged me to the table of flags and insisted that I add them.

Shortly afterwards, we found ourselves in the language room, an area with designated tables for a common ‘big’ languages to encourage speaking. Thanks to the extra flags, I ended up having conversations in old / discontinued / parked languages I never expected to use.

And guess what? I coped!

What’s more, nobody else was the perfect, native-fluency wizard I built them up to be. We simply shared the joy of language. I spoke to people who shared my fears, felt too shy to speak, but once prompted, just couldn’t stop communicating. Understanding each other’s common experiences, polyglot friends were patient, kind and encouraging. All it takes is a bit of self-belief to get going (and sometimes, a little push from someone who can spark that it in you).

You are good enough. Be sure of it.