Monday 1 December 2014

Hope of Language

It's the most wonderful time of the year: Advent! I know it is a penitential season, but that's hard to remember when I love Advent hymns, and the decorated high streets, and writing shopping lists of exciting ingredients. This year family is coming for Christmas, so that is marvellous, too.

There are many Catholic blogs that will discuss the reason for the season, so I will just focus on one of the themes of Advent: hope. For the rest of Advent I will write about hope, and what do I hope for very much, eh?

Yes! To become fluent in Polish!

"Yer obsessed," typed Hilary the other day. Hilary was gloomy about her chances of becoming fluent in Italian as she is not obsessed or, rather, as engaged in her target language as I am in mine. However, as Hilary actually lives in the land of her target language, she is almost guaranteed fluency. She just has to speak to Italians in Italian and/or watch a lot of Italian TV. And in my experience, Italians are very nice to foreigners who attempt to speak Italian to them. 

But there are other language learning strategies that should be taken into consideration, and I found some listed in a helpful little volume called Second Language Learning and Language Teaching (Second Edition) by Vivian Cook (London: Arnold, 1996). This volume is not what I would call an easy read, but it is easier than the last book I read (skimmed, really) on the subject. And on Page 106 is a handy chat about the strategies of a GLL, which means a Good Language Learner. 

GLL Strategies 

1. Find a learning style that suits you.
2. Involve yourself in the language learning process.
Three. Develop an awareness of language both as a system and as a communication.
4. Pay constant attention to expanding your language.
5. Develop the L2 [second language] as a separate system.
6. Take into account the demands that L2 learning imposes. 
Vivian Cook, Second Language Learning and Language Teaching, Second Edition. (London: Arnold, 1996), 106.

One. Learning Styles

Well, we all know about this one. Some of us are more visual, and some of us are more auditory, and some of us learn by doing. And classroom work should cover speaking, listening, reading and writing. with grammar lessons, introduction to new vocabulary and forced conversation practice.

Frankly, I do not know whether I am a visual, auditory or tactile learner. But I do know that I only grasp things through sheer repetition. I suspect this is why I learned so much from the Canadian Jesuits: the Ignatian teaching technique of repetition, plus a curriculum which engaged Ignatian and Lonerganian ideas again and again. So what I find most helpful is reviewing the same material in several ways-- different textbooks, different dictionaries, difference flashcards--and memorizing songs and poems by repeating them again and again.

Two. Involve Yourself in the Language Learning Process. 

I have not yet finished this book, but I underscores something I figured out last year, and it is that it is impossible to become fluent in a language just by going to an evening class once a week. FORGET IT. Two hours of lessons plus a half hour of homework (if that) simply is not enough.    

However, night school class is a great supplement to your own self-directed learning.  If you are fortunate, your teacher is a native speaker who is well-trained in pedagogy, knows the ins and outs of her language's grammar, is open to answering questions and makes you chat with your classmates in the target language. She is a living encyclopedia of your target language, and you get to see her once a week. Meanwhile, your classmates are your linguistic guinea pigs. They are your captive audience. If your teacher says they have to talk to you in Polish, they have to talk to you in Polish. And you get to practice all the vocabulary you've ever learned on them, as two of my classmates discovered last week when I told them the Sad Story of the Two Bad Little Boys on the Bus.  

To do anything at all well, you have to do it every, or almost every day. So if you want to learn a language, I strongly recommend you do it for at least an hour, preferably two, every day. If you really can't do an hour, review flashcards during some half-hour break, or think out a paragraph on the bus. 

Three. Awareness of Language as System and Communication.

This basically means that you have to see language BOTH as a puzzle to be pieced together AND as something you can speak and write to others. The system is the grammar, and the communication is, basically, the pronunciation and the vocabulary. 

Although one prefers to sound like an educated woman, and not like a cave-girl, when push comes to shove, you can get away with the communication bit and, in my experience, you have to, because when I have to speak Polish (e.g. in Poland), grammar treacherously flees, leaving me with a bagful of vocabulary. Fortunately, I now have a lot of vocabulary, so I would never starve:  I am hungry. I want something to eat. I have money. Please give me some soup, and then pierogi, and then apple pie. This fork is dirty. The spoon is also dirty. I want a clean fork and a clean spoon. And a big beer.  Here is my husband. He also wants a big beer. How much must I pay? Really? You must be joking. 

Language-as-system becomes necessary when you read and write. I am doing my best to stop writing Polish as if it were just like English. A helpful thing to do is to memorize whole sentences, so as to memorize whole linguistic conventions, e.g. Polacy obchodzą pierwszego listopada, gdyś jest to dla nich specjalne święto. This is literally, Poles observe the first of November, because is it for them special holiday. They don't have articles, and sometimes they put subjects after their verbs. Madness.

Four. Pay constant attention to expanding your language.

Constant is right. Attention is right, too. I write Polish letters and essays and then ask kind Polish friends to circle the mistakes and give me corrections. Then I rewrite. This all takes a long time, as B.A. would be the first to point out.

Five. Develop the L2 as a separate system.

I am not sure exactly what this means, but if it means not getting the L2 and one's native language confused, that's not hard. There's a big linguistic difference between a pumpkin and a dynia. Of course, if it means speaking and writing according to Slavic sentence structures, that is indeed very hard. (See Three).

Six. Take into account the demands that L2 learning imposes.

Yeah, as everyone who manages to make it to the University of Edinburgh's 2.5 level has figured out, if your first language is English, Polish is really, really hard to learn. And what does it demand, eh?

a. training yourself to pronounce rz, sz, cz, ż, ż, dz, dż, dź, ś, ć, ń, ą, ę, etc.
b. training yourself to hear the differences among rz, sz, cz, ż, ż, dz, dż, dź, ś, ć, ń, ą, ę, etc.
c. memorizing thousands of words from scratch, no helpful likenesses to English
d. learning a grammar very much unlike English grammar, French grammar, or Latin grammar
e. sounding extremely stupid to yourself and like a stammering foreigner to others
f. constant patience with yourself and those more fluent than you
g. reliance on kind Polish friends to help you out
h. sheer courage
i. 1-2 hours of work every day
j. getting along with Poles (see g)
k. either accepting defeat in all arguments or bursting into tears (see j)

Interestingly, a student's attitude towards the culture where the target language is spoken strongly helps or hinders his or her ability to learn it. And, sadly, a student's attitude towards the teacher is also an important influence. So it is a good idea to like your language teacher, and if you don't, to get another one. When I got an Italian teacher I didn't like last summer, I dropped his course faster than a hot potato and picked up one with a much more sympathetic, and therefore much more effective, teacher.  

Fortunately for me, I really like my Polish teacher and all my various Polish tutors. Getting myself to fluency is, I see, largely a Polish group effort, only it is my job to constantly engage elements of the group. Thank heavens Poles are so nice about foreigners trying to learn Polish--even nicer than Italians about foreigners trying to learn Italian. This may be because Poles are even prouder of their tricky language than Italians are of their easy-going one.  

Oh, and speaking of the group effort reminds me that my dear friend and fellow blogger Calvinist Cath sent me a HUGE book which arrived in the post today. It is called The Study of Second Language Acquisition, Second Edition, by Rod Ellis (Oxford: OUP, 2008). It looks incredibly difficult, but I am absolutely chuffed (British for delighted). Even if I don't understand it, my dad will, and he can explain bits to me. 

Thank you very much, Calvinist Cath! A very kind thought! 


  1. Dobry wieczór. Jest pani przemiłą osobą, a blog jest arcyciekawy. Życzę powodzenia w nauce polskiego. Pozdrawiam.


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