Friday 25 September 2015

Waiting for my Brain to Flip

Being underemployed gives me a lot of time to spend on my quixotic goal of becoming reasonably fluent in Polish. (Yes, it's Polski Piątek once again.) And for three weeks I have been doubling my efforts because on October 1st I am going back to Poland. This time the occasion is Polish Pretend Daughter's wedding, and as I have never been to a Polish wedding, I am very excited.

My month-long goal has been to review  Polish in 4 Weeks, Intermediate  in four weeks, memorize as many of the dialogues as I can, and learn some of the Polish songs to be played at PPD's wedding. I looked up a slew of them on Facebook yesterday and copied the lyrics into my pretty notebook.

Of the 28 lessons in Polish in 4 Weeks, I am on Chapter 22. And of all my activities, the most effective one is writing out the dialogues from memory. It turns out that I learn best not from pictures or single words but from whole sentences in context, e.g. "Nudzisz się ze mną?" ("Are you bored with me?"--Polish in 4 Weeks is relatively hot stuff.)

My inspiration is the thousands of Poles in Edinburgh who speak English. If they speak English, I surmise, then surely I can speak Polish. It is true that English is much simpler than Polish, but its conventions must be as unfamiliar to the Polish-speaking mind as Polish conventions are to the English. I am particularly impressed by the students, who come to Edinburgh thinking their English is perfect, discovering it is not, and then spend all their time reading English-language academic works.

But my biggest inspiration is a "worker Pole" (one of my Polish friends mentally categorized Edinburgh's young Polish migrants as "worker Poles" or "student Poles") who came to Britain at the age of 17, not knowing a word of English. Believe it or not, he got a job in a Great House as a footman--I did not know there were still footmen, but apparently there are--and was given English lessons in the kitchen by the cook.  Although he had absolutely no interest in actual study and had done as little as possible at school, he eventually came to understand and speak English perfectly. He says his brain just flipped.

Now, naturally he was in the target-language environment and he was also 17, which were two advantages I don't share. He is also a naturally gregarious man, and not self-conscious, whereas self-abasing embarrassment seems to be my foreign language default mode. However, I am hoping and working towards the day when my brain just flips. Benedict Ambrose pointed out some time ago that this would have been easier if I had picked Italian. But it was too late. I picked Polish, mostly because PPD said I'd never be able to learn it, and I thought, Oh yeah?

That was four years ago, and I completely understand why PPD thought I would never be able to speak it. PPD has almost all my sympathy on this point. Almost. Bo studiuję codziennie żeby móc mówić biegle po polsku and I am now at the point where I can understand at least the gist of a random song. Yesterday I had a bit of a shock while copying the lyrics to "Rudy się żeni" by Big Cyc because I understood almost all of it.

Rudy's Getting Married

Today a pal rang me
and reported that Rudy's getting married.
Although I don't know the woman 
who would want to be with him.
Rudy [klnie--swears], loudly [chrapie--snores
but she is changing him.
Because [possibly indecent] fruit
the wild lion changes.

Rudy, Rudy's getting married. 

And so on. It's a very funny song. Incidentally, a closer translation of "się żeni" is "getting wived" because there's a different phrase for getting married if you're female: "wychodzi za mąż".

This does not count as a "brain flip" as much as a "marked improvement." I see that I understand another song, "Prawy do Lewego", much, much better now than I did when I first copied down the lyrics. No, I will know my brain has flipped when I am in a Polish city and I understand what everyone around me is sazing, and I am able to post a parcel with no problem. I once posted a parcel from a Kraków post office, and it was quite the undertaking.


  1. This happened to me in the Gaeltacht. I couldn't understand whole sentences, it just wouldn't click for me, never mind string a sentence together myself. I was 16, had spent over ten years studying Irish at school and 1academic year with a teacher and my friend in her higher level Irish class and it still just wouldn't come together.

    I went to the Gaeltacht (3 weeks immersion) and realised halfway through that I could understand pretty much everything compared to my previous SpongeBob face when people spoke Irish. At the end of the 3 weeks on the way home my friend and I spent about 3 hours chatting in Irish, all the way from rural Galway to Dublin. We didn't even realise it. An acquaintance of mine, his father was Dutch and went to the US in his twenties for 3 months to learn English. When he came it took him a couple of weeks to speak in Dutch again, he had forgotten his native tongue. Go for an immersion course/holiday and don't be proud enough to think you're the worst to mangle their language. There's always worse, but it's hard when you're an adult to realise you speak like an infant. Sure we have to start somewhere.


    1. Sinead, as soon as I have the money, I will certainly go on a month-long immersion course. I am hoping to go next summer.

  2. First footman or second?

    Great work with your polish!

    1. The whole thing boggles my mind. I get that some people still have butlers, and certainly some people have cooks, grooms, stable boys/girls, et alia, but footmen? Who wants to bother with footmen nowadays? Other than the Royal Family, of course--they probably need them.


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