Bootstrapping yourself – how to start a hard language

This week I’ve been working on Polish on and off between my other projects, and I’ve been trying to figure out what it really means to study a language that’s in a different difficulty category. The last 4 languages that I’ve seriously worked on have been German, Swedish, Dutch, and Esperanto, all of which are in the category of “easy for English speakers”, and in fact Esperanto is in it’s own category of easiness. But what is it that makes these easier than say, Polish or Chinese? This was one thing I wanted to figure out, and this week I definitely got a taste for it.

In my experience so far, I’ve found that there are certain things you want to do at the start in order to give yourself a sense for what exists in the language, so that as you continue exposing yourself to examples of the language, you already have some hints in your mind about what to look for and what to notice. With Polish, there were a whole series of things that I couldn’t just assume like I could with Dutch or Swedish.

One thing was the ability to recognize which words were adjectives, verbs, or nouns. It’s really hard to make any sense of a sentence when you don’t even know which type a word is. With Dutch, I could tell right away which words were nouns and verbs and adjectives because they fit the familiar Germanic language patterns. From there, if I compared an English sentence and its direct translation in Dutch, I could figure out which words corresponded. The word order was also quite familiar, which helped me figure out the type of word based on its place in the sentence.

Polish, on the other hand, is pretty much the opposite. There’s a very free word order, where subject and object can go pretty much anywhere, and anything could potentially be the verb, and even adjectives could be before or after nouns. And because there are very very few obvious similarities between the vocabularies, it was almost impossible for me to figure out which word was which even if I have the exact translation of a particular sentence.

So, that became my task this week: to look through a bunch of examples to find out the answer to “what does an adjective/noun/verb generally look like in Polish?”. This is the sort of basic concept that I wanted to gets hints for, in order to enable me to puzzle my way through the rest of it.

To do this, I browsed through books like “Teach Yourself Polish”, and other such instructional books, purely because they come with a lot of simple examples, along with some explanations of what to expect grammar-wise. I didn’t bother spending any time trying to memorize any words, or memorize the (horribly confusing) tables of noun endings based on the grammatical cases, or any of that. I merely looked at what was possible.

I learned that nouns have different cases depending on their purpose in the sentence (like in German or Latin or Russian and many other European languages), and that there are certain ways that the noun endings change. They’re not always exactly predictable, but there are definitely patterns to it. There are also different adjective endings that make them match up with the corresponding noun that they modify.

I learned about some of the verb conjugations, and what a past tense verb generally looks like, and I found out that there are a lot more categories of verbs. There are also prefixes to verbs to indicate whether it’s the “perfective” version or the “imperfective” version of that verb, and this is something else that’s not predictable, but you just have to get used to it.

So, as I looked through this, I separated the ideas into “what to pay attention to when it comes up”, and “what I’ll just get used to as I read”. There was no reason for me to memorize which ending happens for masculine genitive singular nouns yet, because a lot of it you just have to know for each particular noun. Instead, I know to pay attention when certain endings happen, and that’s it. I’ll get used to them as I encounter them in my reading.

I now know some of the endings that indicate an adjective, adverb, or noun, and I know some of the ways that verbs are conjugated. I’d fail a school test on it all, but at least I know some of what’s out there.

I also learned a bunch of basic vocabulary. This is something that I might actually spend some time with flashcards or something. It can be really helpful to have a bunch of the basic words available in your head for when you encounter them in a book, even if you don’t remember their full meaning. Just being a little bit familiar with them will allow you to better guess them when you actually see them.

My general theme here is that I want a very broad sense of familiarity with the types of things that exist out there in the land of Polish, and some experience with what some of them look like. I don’t have to memorize any of them yet, I just want that vague sense of them so that things sort of “fall into place” as I read my parallel text.

Something I’m thinking of, but haven’t tried yet, is scanning through the English version of my current book, and picking out the really common verbs and nouns, and learning their Polish equivalents. In the beginning of “The Alchemist”, this will be words like shepherd and sheep, book and read, king, world, travel, etc. The main themes of the first chapter. Then when I go through it again in Polish, those words will serve as anchors, and I’ll be able to spend more time on the other words surrounding them.

Overall, I’ve spent about 10 hours this week investigating the general features of Polish in order to form a baseline to build from. This small amount of time has now enabled me to pick out some adjectives and nouns and recognize a few words when I listen to Polish audio that was previously totally incomprehensible. I’m happy with this progress so far, and I think this should allow me to make much better use of my time while I read my parallel texts.

11 Responses to Bootstrapping yourself – how to start a hard language

  1. durak says:

    You might find it useful.
    book2PolishEnglish – it is a parallel text of about 2000 words and phrases, with line-by-line audio, two voices: male and female.

  2. Chuck Smith says:

    I’m still going through Pimsleur Polish… currently on unit 7. I know some of you may scoff, but I just really want to get up to speed for real conversation, even if it’s just something simple, like asking for directions. I agree though that I should augment my Pimsleur with at least some reading. Good luck and it should be interesting to compare our results!

    I was amused once, because I visited Poland with another Canadian who had studied L-R for quite a while and could read quite obscure words, but couldn’t ask something as simple as “How much does that cost?” which is something I really wanted to know at the time. 🙂

  3. Randy says:

    Personally, I would use personal pronouns and possessive pronouns as my anchor. For example, it’s not terribly difficult to recognize words like moj=my, twoj=your, etc. You can almost certainly expect the following word to be the item possessed, and you can watch how endings on the pronouns match endings on the nouns. This also gives you a baseline for recognizing other adjectives both by what you’ve learned about those endings, and also by the actual nouns you will have learned.

  4. Aaron says:

    This is the sort of stuff that is not taught in school! How to go about learning yourself. Now more than ever what is need is not language classes, but classes that teach/help/train how to go about learning a language on your own. Some of us have figured out how to do this on our own. Some of received a bit of training. But the great majority of those who would want to learn another language are not there yet. You and Randy and others are making a huge contribution though. Thanks.

  5. I love the title, and it’s also nice to hear about what it’s like to jump headfirst into the polish language.

    I did the romance languages from 15-25, and then wanted that challenge as you mentioned. I spent 3 years in china, and still can’t speak half as well chinese as I can after just a year in mexico. And yet, what an amazing learning experience. Such a rich language.

    Thanks for the post. I’ve subscribed and will enjoy the next read, I’m sure.



  6. realpolish says:

    Please check out my Real Polish blog. You can find there a lot of free stuff.
    Your blog is pretty interesting for me, I really like it!

  7. Tore says:

    One thing I plan to do for bootstrapping in the future is to make a table of the different declinations for the most common twenty verbs – be, have, want, will, can, say, &c. Apart from being common, they are also often irregular, and since a lot of them are used modally they are very important for understanding. My French suffers a lot for not drilling them in the beginning.

    • Randy says:

      First, nouns are declined, not verbs. Second, it’s declension, not declination. Third, French doesn’t have them. Fourth, you’re talking about conjugation.

      • Tore says:

        I stand corrected. Of course I was talking about conjugation…

  8. Jerry says:

    I have no problems with Polish.It’s my native language.

  9. Peter says:

    Have you been learning Polish yet, or you gave up?

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