A comedy of errors: learning Polish

A comedy of errors: learning Polish

A comedy of errors is a completely accurate way to describe the process of starting to learn a new language. There is laughing – and there are many, many, many mistakes.

The only way to start learning a new language – especially one that is unlike any language you’ve studied before – is to fail, a lot. I mean, that’s the only way to learn literally anything new, but there is something particularly acute about making mistakes in another language. It’s almost like being reduced to a small child, unable to communicate intelligibly or express yourself the way you want to. While true proficiency involves gaining skills in speaking, reading, listening and grammar, speaking is definitely the priority for me.

Hanging out in Poland
Being able to order gingerbread (‘piernik’) is an important skill

I don’t want the languages I learn to be theoretical, used only when I’m alone, painstakingly reading a book in French or doing a quiz on Polish grammar (yes, this is how I spend my free time. Say nothing). I want to use them! I want to be able to communicate with people when I travel, not just to make travel easier, but also to open up more opportunities and show respect to the people I meet abroad. Nothing makes me cringe more than watching English-speaking tourists brashly speaking English to people in other countries, without even a hint of ‘sorry I can’t even utter a word in your language even though I’m in your country’ or, even worse, getting aggravated by someone who can’t understand English in a non English-speaking country. It is so rude and entitled and borderline xenophobic. I’ll move on because this topic is guaranteed to turn me stabby.

Polish is perhaps generally less useful than French or Spanish (though I try to make progress in both of those languages too, especially French, a language which I can speak decently well) but it lets me connect better with Jake’s family and family friends, many of whom prefer to speak Polish, and I have a built-in teacher who I can force to teach me new words and correct my pronunciation at all hours of the day.

Free language tutoring: the goal in any good relationship

Polish is hard, guys. It’s full of sounds that we don’t use in English (every language will have its own unique sounds), which my feeble monolingual mouth struggles to make. For example: ‘ci,’ ‘cz’ and ‘ć’ are all basically an English ‘ch’ sound (like in cheese). However, ‘ci’ and ‘ć’ are actually more like ‘ch-ih’ and ‘cz’ is more like ‘ch-uh.’ When words with these different combinations of letters are spoken, the difference between these sounds is so unbelievably subtle to me, whereas Jake can immediately tell the difference. Our impromptu Polish lessons mainly consist of Jake saying, “that’s not right” and me yelling “THEY SOUND THE SAME.”

Gabriel Wyner’s book, Fluent Forever, explains that babies can hear all phonemes (sounds that we use to form words) and gradually lose the ability to recognise the phonemes they don’t hear as a very young child. That’s why the best to time to become multilingual is when you’re a baby.

Well, I am distinctly not a baby, but I am determined, have a knack for languages and am not afraid to make an idiot of myself trying out new words and sentences.

So far, I’ve been using a beautiful book (designed for kids) that teaches you the first 1000 words in Polish via wonderful illustrations and specific scenes. I would include a picture but I’m writing this from a plane on my way to Bulgaria and don’t have a photo to insert. Just trust me that it is totally brilliant and any Polish child or well-meaning twenty-something would be lucky to learn from this great book.

Some of my favourite words so far:

  • Marchewka – baby carrot. (This was one of the first words I learned and it has nestled its way into my heart. Baby carrots forever).
  • Poduska – pillow
  • Małpa – monkey
  • Krowa – cow (this word has helped me start to learn to roll my Rs properly so I am forever in its debt)
  • Skrzypce – violin
  • Pyszne – delicious (another incident of the tiny subtle details in pronunciation, you need to press your tongue to the roof of your mouth to say it right).
  • Książka – book (because I am SO PROUD that I can now pronounce this word. I found it so hard at first).

I have learned some very basic sentence structure (Polish has this annoying thing where every noun, verb, adjective and pronoun has to agree with the gender, case and tense being used and it is A LOT) but I can order food – as I did in Poland – and say useful sentences like, “lubię pływać w morzu,” which means “I like to swim in the sea,” a sentence I, shockingly, did not have an opportunity to use in Poland in December.

the Wawel complex, Kraków

I tried to describe Jake as my boyfriend (chłopak) and ended calling him my ‘chleb,’ which means bread. I can’t say a bread-based boyfriend would be the worst thing in the world but that sentence did make people laugh.

I can count to twenty, provide the names for surprising number of animals and offer basic important phrases like ‘hello,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘more pierogi, please.’ Seems as good a place to start as any.

Glorious parcels of wonder, pierogi

I still struggle with the subtle differences between similar sounds, like between ci, cz and ć and z, ź and ż. The best method for improving has, so far, been obsessively practising until Jake offers to be my life-long interpreter if I’ll stop repeating the word ‘barszcz’ thirty times a minute. Also the plain ‘c,’ which is not the ‘see’ sound, like in English, but instead ‘ts’ like in ‘pots.’ I make that mistake almost every time, but I am slowly, slowly improving. If there ever was anything that was a marathon and not a sprint, it’s learning Polish as a monolingual English speaker.

I need to knuckle down and start putting some actual sentences together, lest my Polish be limited to basic greetings and the things you might find in the ‘sklep’ (shop) or ‘szpital’ (hospital).

I love the thought of one day being able to speak enough of a large variety of languages to get around smoothly in a number of different countries. Life is long. As long as I keep chipping away at them, I think I can do it, and for now Polska is the place to start.

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