Leaps and Boundaries in Language Learning


I just returned from six weeks in Poland. The first four I spent studying Polish at the summer school at KUL—the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin. I’ve been trying to learn Polish on and off for years but must admit I have not worked at it systematically. This time I was quite motivated as I will be spending a good chunk of time in Poland soon (more on that in another blog post or in a BTP newsletter or on Facebook). I love learning languages and speak a bunch of them—Hebrew and Spanish fluently, French very well and I get by in Italian. And I have taken courses in many others: Yiddish, Portuguese, Arabic, ASL, German, Russian—and that list does not include the ones I have fiddled around with on Duolingo. But Polish is really tough. There have been times in the past few years when I wondered if I would ever master all the cases—nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, locative, vocative and instrumental. If you don’t know what cases are the easy way to explain it is that nouns take on different endings depending on what they are doing in the sentence. For example Polska is Poland. But Bridge to Poland is Most Do Polski. But if you want to say, “I am in Poland,” you say, Jestem w Polsce. Polska, Polski, Polsce. All the same word, but different cases. And that’s an easy example! Suffice it to say Polish grammar is a bear, but the combination of determination, having an amazingly wonderful teacher in Małgosia Prześniak Bolechowska, and being there for an extended period of time, helped propel me off the Polish plateau I had been lingering on for several years. For me language learning is like weight loss—you plug along doing exercises (in the grammar book or maybe just talking to native speaking humans) and one day you turn around and you’re far above—as opposed to below when it comes to weight!—where you had been for so long. How can I tell I’ve made progress? Here’s how 1). I can have a sustained social interaction with someone in Polish even about serious topics. We might have to consult dictionaries a few times, but we manage. A couple of years ago when I met the parents of a Polish friend who did not know English there were a whole list of topics were unable to delve into due to my limitations; 2). Strangers are actually willing to maintain a conversation with me in Polish even if they know English. I’m talking about clerks and waitresses, et al. and 3). Several times I have been asked how long I have been away from Poland, the implication being that I was born here and left, and that my Polish kindof sucks because of it. I take that as a great compliment!