Friday 6 November 2015

Wolno, Szybko (Slowly, Quickly)

In pondering the difficulties and rewards of language learning, I have turned to one of my favourite essays by the philosopher Simone Weil, "Reflection on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God."  I wish there had been a picture book edition for me as a child, for it might have provided me with a much needed kick in the pants:

"The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention...

"Of course school exercises only develop a lower kind of attention. Nevertheless, they are extremely effective in increasing the power of attention that will be available at the time of prayer, on condition that they are carried out with a view to this purpose, and this purpose alone."

Read the whole thing. (The translation I have--and I suspect has been borrowed by the site I link to--is by Emma Craufurd.)  It is genius. And although I make no claims for the improvement of my spiritual life, I have to say that it is almost painful concentration that has improved my grasp of Polish. (Oh yes, it's Polski Piątek today.) As I try to write out whole textbook dialogues from memory, I comfort myself with the knowledge that what matters even more than remembering the vocabulary is TRYING to remember the vocabulary. Because for some reason, the more I fail and try again, the easier it is to understand the Poles on the bus, to say nothing of coming up with complex (if quirky) sentences in Polish class.

Some people are naturally gifted by God with a facility for learning foreign languages, and some have to work like a slave, and I belong to the slave class. A Polish friend sent me a link to a man-on-the-street interview he participated in, and the first time I heard it all I could make out was "change" and "finally." So I listened to it again and again and again and again, and eventually I made out that one of his sentences was: " live and study." No, bo tutaj mieszkam i studiuję--super-easy first year stuff. What this tells me is that I really have to listen to more Polish without the handy script of Polish in Four Weeks Intermediate. And listen and listen and listen.

The staggering fact of the matter, when one is seriously trying to learn one language as an adult, is that the language learner has to learn four different languages. In my case, these language are Polish for reading, Polish for writing, Polish for hearing and Polish for speaking.

Polish for reading is the easiest, believe it or not. But it's a bit like code-breaking when you have the cipher right beside you. If you know the fundamentals of Polish grammar and vocabulary, and you can look things up in the dictionary in a painstaking way, you can read Polish. The more you do it, the easier it gets. A summer of painfully reading Sienkiewicz, feeling almost overwhelmed almost all the time--wolno-- meant a pretty good grasp of articles in Polish news magazines in October--szybko.

Polish for writing is next, on the same principles. I am lucky in that I have generous Polish friends who occasionally correct what I write and add helpful comments. I started writing my own compositions in the summer of 2012 and what a slog it still is. My first task is always to peer through the fog of panic. I recommend always starting with a happy thought, e.g. My favourite X is (Mój ulubiony X jest...)

Polish for listening is very, very hard for me, especially if it is A) recorded B) spoken very quickly by Poles C) spoken very badly by my classmates. This is where I really must force myself to concentrate. It doesn't help that I have trouble catching even the lyrics of recorded songs sung in English; I'm not sure if this is unusual or not. Both my brother Nulli and my husband B.A. have incredibly quick and accurate hearing. B.A.--the fiend!--is a natural mimic and can reproduce an authentic Polish accent without having a clue what the words mean.

Oddly, despite this deficiency, I understand more and more of what Poles say on the bus.* Minor improvement, minor improvement, minor improvement....sudden vast improvement.

Polish for speaking is usually the hardest. I think. Actually, to tell you the truth, it may have switched places with "Polish for listening" because I am now at the stage where I can just say stuff without worrying too much about how wrong or stupid I sound. This is probably thanks to my friend's October wedding in Kielce, where I spoke and sang more Polish in 24 hours than I had for the past twelfth-month all together. It is also thanks to my night school Polish class where we all sound stupid or wrong. The most important thing about "Polish for speaking" is constant sacrifice of one's dignity. Again and again, one must take one's sense of oneself as an articulate, literate adult human being, lay it on the altar of Polish and stab it to death. ("What has happened if Mama will not have enough sugar?" was last night's linguistic masterpiece. Mad props for attempting the conditional, however.)

Of course what I want is the magic of the "flipped switch"--the sudden realization ("insight", Lonergan would call it) that I understand spoken Polish and that I automatically respond in good Polish. I am honestly not sure how long this is going to take. But I am sure it will take me much more work. As I wish I had known about learning when I was 14, it's not about "brains" when it comes to rewiring the brain. It's about work.


*And also what Poles say in phone conversations in my sitting-room. Uwaga! Proszę iść na pole.


  1. Just a note to say that I, too, decided a while back to start studying Polish. This was likely due in no small part to your influence, although I don't totally remember the whole thought process that led up to the decision.

    So far I have used a combination of Rosetta Stone, some books, and a Polish language learning podcast. Is there any resource you would especially recommend?

    --Rachel, the American girl who came from France to the retreat in Poland in May 2012

  2. Hello, Rachel! My two favourite tools are Pimsleur Polish, for pronunciation, and "Polish in Four Weeks". It's pretty well impossible to complete "Polish in Four Weeks" in four weeks, but they make for 28 interesting chapters and then there is the sequel to look forward to.

  3. Thank you!



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