Although my first brief foray into the Slavic languages was with Bulgarian, I basically only learned a few phrases to say to my friends, as it seemed too intimidating at the time to try and really learn it. Since then, I’ve become a lot more experienced at learning languages, but Bulgarian still suffers from a lack of decent materials; the opposite is true of Polish, though.
Polish draws me for several reasons. My father’s father spoke Polish as a boy, and his parents (my great-grandparents) immigrated to Canada from Poland in 1909. Although no living member of my family speaks Polish, it’s still part of the family history. Beyond that, I have several friends at home in Vancouver who are native Polish speakers, so I’ve thought about learning it several times.
So, here I am, starting something new. This month I’m planning to divide my time amongst several languages, and part of that will be a little bit of work on Polish. The internet is absolutely full of excellent Polish materials. There are dozens of interesting books that I want to read, some translated, and some native to Polish. A lot of them seem to have both audiobooks and ebooks available, which is perfect for me.
Today I’m starting with a translation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. I’ve given myself a vocabulary “pre-test” using another book, and I’ve discovered that I understand about 1% of the words on an average page of Polish. This is much different than Dutch, where I could at least figure out a bunch of them. Polish is pretty much opaque to me at this point, and I only recognize the obvious “international” words, such as those related to science.
Despite this, I’m diving right into real texts. No stupid textbook dialogs for me, thanks. In the first few minutes of listening to the audiobook as I read the parallel text (English/Polish), I’ve learned several things right away. First, I synch myself according to the capitalized words, which are usually place names. From those, I can recognize the other words that occur near them. What follows here is a running description of what I’m seeing and learning as I read a book like this in Polish.
In the case of Earthsea, I see the proper noun “Gont”, which is the name of an island. Nothing really learned from this, since it’s a made-up name. But it always occurs with “the island of” in English, and wyspa in Polish, so I guess that that’s “island”, perhaps with a possessive case. Shortly after that, I got confirmation when I saw “from isle to isle” corresponding with od wyspy do wyspy.
I also easily found the word for wizard, which seems to be czarnoksiężnik, and it looks like the plural of that might be czarnoksiężników, and from this I could conclude that czarami was probably “magic”. I sort of stumbled upon the word braci for “brothers”, since it sounds similar. Then another thing from capitalization: Doliny Północnej for “Northern Vale”, although I’m not really sure which of those corresponds to northern and which to vale.
I’m not only looking for vocabulary. I’m also trying to get used to the phonetic inventory of Polish. Before starting to read, I read the wikipedia page on Polish phonetics. I found out that there are several sounds that English speakers usually perceive as the same, but which Poles consider distinct sounds (specifically, cz and ć, sz and ś, etc). So I’m paying very close attention to which sounds are where, and how they are different from the sounds I’m familiar with.
This relates back to the idea of plateaus. As babies listen to the language around them, they slowly adapt to which sounds are present in their developing native language, and they lose the ability to distinguish those from other similar sounds that might be distinct in other languages. In a sense, as they adapt they also create a plateau beyond which they can no longer reach. Automaticity allows them to learn to understand and speak their first language, but becomes a hindrance later if they want to learn another one.
Overcoming this is just like busting through the plateau of typing speed or whatever else, as I mentioned in a previous article. You need to learn how to notice those differences, perhaps by reading a description of them and where to find them. Then you need some exposure to them that challenges you. You need to seek them out, sometimes making mistakes, by listening to something that is not easy. Push yourself a bit. And then you need a way to get some feedback. I usually use a text transcript for this. I listen to audio to try and find the different sounds that I’m not used to, and I use the text transcript to give the answers of where they were. This allows me to train my perception of those sounds.
This is something I can do immediately with Polish, despite knowing basically zero vocabulary. Working on my perception (and then production) of sounds is something that will help me throughout my learning process, and will later be a great help when I want to read some books that no longer have a corresponding audiobook, so that I have the right “voice” in my head as I read. This is not only a matter of knowing the sounds, but also the orthography, so that I know what sounds go with the letters in something like wykrzyknął (which at this point looks like total gibberish to me, honestly).
I’ll leave it at that for today, but I’ll make some more notes about my discovery process as it develops. Basically I’m just trying to follow my curiousity wherever it takes me, and learn any polish words I can through any method that’s interesting. I need to make sure that I have a variety of source materials, so that I can switch to another one if I get bored of one of them, and I’ve installed a firefox plugin called “BabelFish” that does popup translations of words that I hold my mouse over. Other than that, I’m just doing whatever feels fun 🙂