My Latest Attempt to Teach Myself Polish

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10.01.2020

I am three weeks in to my latest attempt at teaching myself Polish. I first tried to learn Polish ten years ago while studying for my PhD. My research was based out in northern Poland in and around the city of Gdańsk, and so I put myself on a sort of crash course to learn the very basics so that I could get about the city, order a cup of tea, buy a ticket on the metro, that sort of thing. I worked with translators from the University of Gdańsk for my interviews, but I had to manually translate documents and newspaper articles myself which meant that the progress I made was in a very small, technical area of the language. I knew the words for ‘nuclear power’, ‘electricity’, ‘local government’, ‘international’, ‘solidarity’, but I couldn’t hold a simple conversation with the hostel owner’s six year old daughter.

As part of my research grant I was obliged to take Russian lessons which were tailored for social science vocabulary so there was a small amount of overlap between the two languages, but time was short and I never progressed very far. I just assumed that I am crap at learning languages as it was the fourth language I’ve attempted – and failed – to learn.

These days I don’t need Polish for work, but I want to learn the language for different reasons. My paternal grandfather was Polish, though he died before I was born and because he split from my grandmother when my dad was very young, the language wasn’t passed down through the generations. My dad even changed his name in the 1960s as having a Polish surname in the military was frowned upon during the Cold War, so my French surname can be traced back to his step-father rather than his father.

I feel a connection to Poland and Polish which is probably illogical given how tenuous it is after all these years, but it motivates me nonetheless. I would like to get my Polish language skills to a level where I can comfortably read newspaper articles, blog posts and novels in Polish, and hold simple conversations when I visit. I would also love to visit Zakopane one day as it’s where my grandfather lived before he fled to the UK in 1947.

Step one of learning Polish | Vocabulary

My biggest hurdle with any language is vocabulary. It’s hard learning a language from scratch as an adult because children’s books aren’t very interesting. I want to read in Polish the equivalent level of what I can read in English. Obviously this is trying to run before I can even walk, but it is what it is. I know that learning a language is much more involved than simply memorising a dictionary or phrasebook but, initially at least, a lack of vocabulary can be very limiting. I can’t simply pick up a book or a magazine, or find an article online to read if I don’t know the majority of the words.

At the moment I am focusing on building my vocabulary by learning the most frequently used Polish words from Polish to English and from English to Polish, and I’m doing this using Anki. I’ve built myself a custom deck and I’m adding words from a simple 3500 word phrase book I bought ten years ago when I was first learning Polish and visiting Poland regularly. I’m using a type of card in Anki that requires me to manually input the word to check that I know it. This keeps me fully engaged with the process, and keeps me honest. If there’s a spelling mistake in my input I hit ‘again’. When I first tried to use Anki a few years ago I just used the simple cards that show you one side and you think or say out loud what’s on the other side.

I have also put together a custom deck based on the IPA for Polish so that I can learn how words are supposed to sound. Many people think that Polish is a complicated language to speak, and it can be for English speakers. That said, Polish has an advantage over English. Each combination of letters can only be pronounced in one way. Once you’ve learned the pronunciation rules, you’re good to go. You can’t say that about English with combinations such as ‘ough’ which can be pronounced in different ways depending on whether the word is ‘Loughborough’, ‘through’, ‘though’ or ‘thought’.

I initially set my new words limit to 20 words a day, but two weeks in I ramped it up to 40 words a day including verb conjugations. I do my ‘first pass’ learning on paper as well as in an app called Polish English Dictionary by AllDict. This app is brilliant as it speaks the words and contains a built in feature that lets you test yourself on a custom list of vocabulary including the old fashioned show, cover, reproduce method that I used to learn words for spelling tests as a child.

If I practice every day then by the end of March I should have built up a vocabulary of around 3,500 words which I think is the equivalent of around B1 though it’s hard to be precise with active vs passive vocabulary and I also need to spend time learning the case endings. I have used an app called Loop Habit Tracker since December 2018 to monitor existing habits and help establish new ones, and I’m using it for Polish too. It’s like a digital gold star chart and very addictive, I really recommend it. At the moment I’ve set my target for seven days a week because I think intensity is helpful in the early stages of developing a new habit, though I may revise it down to five days out of seven once I have been going for a few months.

I’ll share how I’m getting on at the end of March.

Edit | 20th January

I have moved my daily new words limit back down to 20 as I was making too many mistakes with 40.

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