Tuesday 10 February 2015

What I've learned from learning Polish

This month marks the one year anniversary since I started learning Polish. Considering that I've never consciously had to learn English, I think the next best thing for us natives is to try and learn another language and let that inform our teaching practice. This is what I've learned.

1. Learning a language is difficult

I hope I always knew this. But the thing is, I started out learning Italian when I first got into teaching. And I found it really easy. I may have sounded like a bit of an eejit, but I was having garbled conversations in no time. Did this make me less sympathetic to students struggling with English? I hope not. At least now, after a year of Polish, I have much, much, much more sympathy for people who don't get it as quick.

2. Vocabulary is important

When I read something I don't understand, it's not because my skimming/scanning/predicting skills aren't up to scratch, it's because I don't know the words. When I am unable to say something, it's because I don't know the words. I need words. Give me words.

3. Grammar is boring

This is a bit harsh but there is so much of it in Polish. I started off thinking I would learn it properly but after I almost had a stroke trying to correctly say "My brother is a sporty man", I decided that accuracy was getting in the way. Now I don't ask my teacher is it correct, I ask is it correct enough. Keeping my motivation for the language is more important than speaking only when I'm sure it's correct.

4. I like being corrected (but only in a certain way)

If I make a mistake, I don't mind if someone points it out to me. What I can't stand is when someone explains to me why it is a mistake. If I didn't use the masculine form then chances are my priorities were somewhere else. And if you try to explain it to me, I'm afraid plenty of other people have tried and failed. Just tell me the correct version and hopefully it might stick.

5. I get embarrassed easily

I constantly tell my students - come on, speak, who cares if you make a mistake. When I speak in Polish, I can get embarrassed at the drop of a hat. If someone does that scrunched up, what was that face, after I say something then I get anxious. If someone says something I don't understand, I panic. Funnily enough, this doesn't happen when I speak English.

6. I'm not listening to you as much as you might think I am

I'm sure we've all had that student who never seems to listen. You tell him/her a hundred times and they keep making the same mistake. Each time you explain something, they nod sagely, say ah and then carry on regardless. I am that student. When you're talking to me in Polish, chances are I'm preparing the next thing I want to say. Or maybe I'm stressed because you used a word that I know I know but I can't remember it and now I'm thinking how stupid I am, how I'll never learn, how I'm too old, how.........oh sorry, did you say something?

7. I love boring stuff

I recently chatted with teachers and we were complaining about how creative, fun homework is often met with a lukewarm response from students whereas they lap up gap fills and match ups. As a Polish student, I gobble this stuff up like its ice-cream. Give me ten sentences to translate into Polish and I'm in heaven. Give me a paragraph with words taken out and I'll put them back in with a tear of joy in my eye. I love them because they are quantifiable. I know when I'm done and I know when to pat myself on the back.

I suppose the two main things that I have learned is that, number one, I am a shockingly bad student. Instead of just studying, I spend ages trying to come up with new systems that will help me study more efficiently or writing blogposts that try to add heft and significance to my Polish classes. The second is that Polish really is a stunningly beautiful language (less so when it's me doing the speaking), worthy of the fabulous people that speak it .

Still, I think there is something to be said for getting into your students' shoes as much as possible. Would love to hear other teachers' language learning experiences.

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