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.

Studying Polish, day 2: getting familiar with some grammar concepts


So I spent a few hours playing with parallel texts, trying to solve the puzzle of Polish. I tried to stay curious, and pretended that I was searching through the text of a secret language that I had to figure out. One of the tools that I used for this was a firefox plugin called “Babelfish”, which allowed me to hold my mouse over a Polish word and have it pop up a translation. I can also highlight several words at once and get a translation of the phrase. This is just an additional tool to the parallel text, which already gives me the proper translation of the full sentence, but in a language like this that is really different from the ones I know, it helps to break it down even further to a word-by-word translation.

I gained some familiarity with the language – what it looks like and sounds like, and some of the words. I’ve started today with a different approach, though. I looked online for collections of example sentences that show the structure of Polish. I’m briefly reading about the different cases, genders, verb tenses, and all that sort of stuff. I’m not trying to memorize the tables; I’m focusing on finding easy example sentences that illustrate the concepts, so that I’ll be able to recognize some of them when I go back to reading my books.

I think it was important to try the books first, because it gave me some questions that need answering. As I read through the grammar examples, I’m not seeing the concepts for the first time. Instead, they are explanations of things that I’ve already seen in the real language, and therefore it’s more of an “Aha!” moment of realization when I see something. This helps to cement the concept in my mind, because I’m relating it to something that is already in there.

The same idea will help when I go back to my books to try and read more. When I see a certain case ending, or verb conjugation, perhaps I’ll be reminded of one of the example sentences that I read this morning.

My emphasis is always curiousity and enjoyment. If I’m finding the grammar examples interesting, then I’ll continue. If they get boring, I won’t feel any guilt or pressure to continue; it just means I need to go back to my books and find something that’s fun. To keep up the motivation to study, you just have to follow what’s fun. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you should or shouldn’t do.

After that brief overview of Polish grammar, I’m finding it much easier to pick out which words match with which, in my parallel text. Although I don’t necessarily remember which ending means which case, what I do remember is enough to indicate that a certain word is a noun and the word beside it is an adjective, and another word is a verb in past tense. This allows me to match up the words with the English equivalents much faster, which means I have to spend less time investigating each word.

My book for today is Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”, called “Alchemik” in Polish. Earthsea is a rather challenging book in comparison, and I decided to try something simpler. I really enjoyed reading The Alchemist in Swedish, and I know the story quite well, so I figured it’d be fun to try in Polish. It uses simple language, but still has a deep and interesting plot. There’s lots of very simple dialog between the characters. I like the way that he conveys interesting ideas without using too much flowery language, which also makes it ideal for learning languages.

Because I’m very familiar with the book, I also know which words will be repeated often in the coming pages, so I try to focus my attention on those. Hopefully I’ll recognize them when they come up again. I’m also trying to pay more attention to sentences that have a really common verb like read, eat, drink, walk. I know that those sorts of words will come up again everywhere, so I want to focus more on them instead of the more obscure verbs.

I find it fun to give myself a small task when I read too. It could be paying attention to certain sounds, or looking for common words, focusing on endings, etc. It just gives some extra meaning to my activity, along with enjoying the story. At this point, I’m not getting any of the story from the Polish side, so that’s another reason why I find it helpful to have a small sub-task to work on too, which keeps my attention focused on the Polish words, even if I don’t understand them yet.

My first experiences studying Polish with parallel texts


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 🙂