|Scientifically proven to improve pronunciation of rz and szcz.|
And even after that it hurt. I can still remember long hours of toil in the one very handsome hall at Boston College, working away at translating St. Augustine. Christian Latin was my favourite class, and 100% heresy free. Oh heavens, and there was some Early Church Father I elected to study whose work on the Holy Spirit was available only in Greek, Latin and French, so that meant sitting down and reading pages and pages of theological French. What a killer.
Now that I am out of school, the two languages in which I am immersed on a regular basis are Polish (every day for at least an hour, usually more) and Christian Latin (Mass). Polish has a reputation for being the most difficult language for English-speakers to learn, and that may be well-deserved. I suspect that if I put this much effort into my Italian, I would be fluent in Italian by now. It would help that I have been studying Italian, on and off, since I was 15 years old, of course. Taking up Polish at the age of thirty-nine was wonderfully optimistic.
For, alas, I have been reading an interesting book called How Languages are Learned, and if you want to speak a language without a foreign accent, you really need to move to that country as a child and learn to speak it there. However, this can stunt the adult development of your native language, depending on how much interest your parents take in it. That said, the very best, most efficient learners of a foreign language are teenagers.
I cannot go back to being a teenager, so I am heartened by the news that adult learners can indeed achieve fluency in a language through sheer hard work. Says the book:
some of history's most successful learners of multiple languages...their unusual talent was also associated with a willingness to work hard at tasks that many would consider too boring or difficult, such as using word cards to study vocabulary. (p. eighty-three).
My dad, who teaches linguistics, told me that this book was an easy read, which it undoubtedly was for him. However, even a non-linguist can profit from its amusing and heartening information. For example, the ridiculous letters I send off to amuse Poles are not written in pidgin after all but in something called an "interlanguage."
Polish is the "target language", and what I am creating as I learn Polish is my own "systematic" and "dynamic" interlanguage. It is dynamic in that it changes and becomes more like proper Polish the more data about Polish I absorb. And what is very neat is that interlanguage follows the same stages for almost everyone.
Interlanguage involves "bursts of progress" and also plateaus. One can expect to hit a plateau eventually, and then something "stimulates further progress." Sadly, the book did not suggest what the something might be, although in my experience getting a new email in Polish is a great boost.
The book is very hot on vocabulary, although one needs only 1,000 - 2,000 words to get by in ordinary life. However, you may need as many as SIXTEEN "meaningful encounters" with a word before it is "firmly established" in your vocabulary.
The best source of vocabulary growth is reading for pleasure, although the book argues that to learn words passively, you need to understand 90-95% of the text already. This is bad news for me, diligently reading Harry Potter in Polish while understanding perhaps 50%. However, eventually I will start making flashcards out of Harry'a Potteriego, and then we will see. Meanwhile. "vocabulary development is more successful when...fully engaged in activities that require [students] to attend carefully to new words and use them in productive tasks." This is where writing letters, stories and mini-essays comes in handy.
The book recommends keeping a notebook, looking up words in a dictionary and reviewing what has been learned. And this very much reminds me of when I was a child of eight, diligently keeping a diary, writing stories, looking up words in the dictionary (with some prodding by my mother) and rereading what I had written. I was also a terrible bookworm and constantly read storybooks. And I had many people to whom to speak English, as my parents kept giving me new brothers and sisters.
That was an advantage of childhood I don't have now, for I am gravely inhibited in my speaking of Polish, whereas very little could stop me from chattering away to my family in English. Inhibition is indeed a serious problem, according to How Languages are Learned. Fortunately, it turns out that inhibition can be lessened and pronunciation improved through the drinking of small amounts of alcohol. Larger amounts of alcohol, however, ruin pronunciation, and I am disappointed that the book did not suggest how small is "small." I suspect that one cocktail is not enough and two cocktails are too many, but I will research this when Polish Pretend Son arrives tomorrow.
One advantage I have now that I did not have as a child or a teenager is the ability to take, and even welcome, correction. I used to show teachers extra writing in a "look at ME" kind of way, in English and in Italian, and be greatly distressed when instead of simply admiring my efforts, they covered them in red ink. Naturally they were just doing their job, but instead of learning from corrections, I wept or sulked and never showed them anything extra again. And that's too bad, for if I had kept on writing in Italian from the age of 16, I might be a Joseph Conrad by now--or a second-rate imitator of Alberto Moravia, whose work we were reading at the time. On ne sait jamais, as we did not say in Italian class.
Truly, there is no room for ego or hurt feeling in language learning. You just have to face up to the fact that it took you at least six years to speak your native language with any sophistication and it is probably going to take you just as long to speak your second (or third) language as flawlessly as a native six year old. But fortunately you are more intellectually developed than a six year old, so you will at least be having adult conversations, even if you sound like the anglophone version of Balki Bartokomous. And everyone liked Balki anyway.