I have been busy. Not writing posts (yes, it’s been a while) but I’ve been working hard, catching up with family, travelling, doing my tax returns (wow I’m becoming really German), getting ready for Christmas ….the list is endless.
So, what about my language learning? When I am supposed to find time to do that? Tricky. According to a lot of books and websites out there, I have nothing to worry about. They are all happy to tell (sell) you a system. “Learn a language in 24 hours!”, “Learn while you sleep!” Funny you never see many books out there titled “Learn a language in 3 years”. That’s approximately how long I’ve been learning Japanese and I still feel like a beginner. Not exactly a bestseller title, I guess. Let’s face it, nobody wants to hear it’s going to take them 3 years to learn a language. It’s gotta be 3 months or 3 days or 3 hours for goodness sake.
So, I started to wonder, is there anything to this idea? How much can I really learn in a short time? Let’s put it to the test. Enter the 24-hour Polish project! Rather than sign up for pricey classes or an online system or buy a book, I came up with my own plan. And here is how it worked:
- First of all, why Polish? There’s a guideline created by the US diplomatic service which rates how difficult foreign languages are for a native English speaker to learn. This ranges from category 1 (easiest) to category 3 (most difficult). I already speak a category 1 (Spanish) and a 1.5 (German) and some 3 (Japanese) so I decided it was time to turn my hand to a 2, which Polish is. More challenging than say French (a level 1) but not as mind-boggling as Chinese (a level 3). In addition, I wanted something totally different from all the languages I have ever learnt before. And, importantly, a language where I was a COMPLETE beginner. What I mean by that is I really couldn‘t say anything at all. No hello, no goodbye. No one white wine, please. Nothing. When I wracked my brain for anything I possibly knew in Polish, the only word I came up with was vodka. That was it. And I wasn‘t even pronouncing that right (as I now know).
- Duration. I settled on 24 hours (to test the “learn it in a day” theory) but split the 24 hours of learning over approximately 6 weeks to make it manageable. In total, I spent 11 hours with my “teacher” and 13 hours learning on my own.
- Tools When it comes to starting a new language there are so many methods and systems to choose from it can be pretty overwhelming. I’ve tried a lot of them in the past but this time I decided to go back to basics. No fancy memory tools, no bank breaking Rosetta Stone systems, no boring evening classes listening to Bernhard bang on about his trip to Warsaw and no, not even an app (gasp)! That’s right, I completely ditched the digital and went old school. Just, one second-hand dictionary, a small phrasebook, blank cards to write my vocabulary on and an empty exercise book. AND of course, a (relatively) willing Polish native who also speaks English to give me “lessons”.
- How? So, Irek (my native speaker) was rather apprehensive. I explained to him over a couple of vodkas how I planned for this to go. That he would need to do nothing, no preparation, just answer my questions and help me with pronunciation. Even after the third vodka, he was still somewhat sceptical. Happy to help but confused about how it would work in practice (him not being a teacher) and how I would learn such a terrible language like Polish (his words not mine!) but in the end, he agreed. And for the next six weeks, our lessons went something like this:
Me. How do I say “I’d like a table for two people, please”
Irek: Stolik dla dwóch osób, proszę
Irek: I’m sorry. Polish is such a terribly difficult language.
And that’s basically how we continued for 6 weeks. I asked questions, he gave me examples and I wrote them down in a way I could read them and understand them (rather than using the Polish spellings). In each lesson, we would review what we had done in the lesson before. We used the phrasebook to select useful phrases that I wanted to learn and worked our way through general vocabulary topics like numbers, days, weather, colours, food, drinks, household objects etc. After a few lessons like that, we went on to the scary world of conjugating Polish verbs (11 different conjugation groups plus irregular verbs!) and some basic adjectives. Not too much kill-joy grammar but a bit to help me start forming my own sentences. During the 13 hours on my own, I learnt the phrases/words from my cards or wrote up my lesson notes to repeat them/tidy them up and see if I still had questions.
- Result After my 24 hours I went from a vocabulary total of 1 word (vodka) to 200 words (and only a few of those involve alcohol). I have a basic grasp of some grammar and in my opinion most importantly, I know 60 useful phrases. 60! That’s quite a lot. It means I learnt around 18 new words each session and approximately 5 new phrases. And when I say learn, I don’t mean “wrote down to learn at a later date”, I mean words and phrases I now really know and can reproduce. Of course, you’ll get the language bulimics reading this who “learn 500 words in one day” and pass their test tomorrow. But that wasn’t my aim. Learning a language is not a contest to see who can learn the most, the quickest and then spew it out the next day in a test. It’s about learning something that will stay in your long-term memory so it will be of some use to me in the future. And I feel confident that I’ve done that and the experiment was a success.
So, what have I learnt from this experiment?
1. It is REALLY good to speak from day 1
This is one of the biggest challenges for everyone learning a language and one of the best things about learning with a real native speaker rather than simply using a book or an app. There is nowhere to hide. No matter how bad you sound, no matter how much of a muppet you feel, you are forced to speak out loud, right from the start. This is a huge help when it comes to pronunciation and getting used to your “new language” voice. And it’s fun. You deal with the shame right at the start, get over it and start to make progress.
2. Phrasebooks are a great learning resource
One of the biggest mistakes people make when learning a new language is, they start by focussing on grammar and vocabulary. While both are important, it can take a while before you can really put a useful sentence together. I play tennis (which I don’t), she plays tennis, we are playing tennis etc is all very nice but of no real use to me. That’s why when it comes to being a beginner, the phrasebook is your friend. After just one lesson I could already say, Hello, How are you? I’m fine, My name is Rebecca, What’s your name, 2 large beers please, Cheers! More importantly, after just one lesson, I had an immediate feeling of “success” and felt completely motivated to continue. I can’t emphasise enough how important that is when learning any new skill.
3. Creating your own course has benefits
Of course, there are benefits of taking lessons with a qualified teacher (I have to say that being a teacher!) but there are also benefits of not. First of all, it’s cheaper or maybe even free (a lot of native speakers are happy to help you in exchange for some practice in your native language). And, I basically built my own course. I focused on the words and phrases I wanted to learn e.g. “Another white wine please” rather than “When does the next ferry leave?” (I hate boats!)! Rather than getting bogged down by a language programme or a teacher’s personal agenda, I made sure that what I was learning was relevant to me. A very important factor to keep motivation levels up. And of course, doing a one-to-one course rather than a group course meant I could steer things the way I wanted (sorry Bernhard!) and ask as many questions as I liked without feeling stupid or under pressure if I didn’t immediately get something.
4. Learning with a person rather than an app is much more fun
Moving away from an app and YouTube and having face-to-face lessons with a native also increased the fun factor. Not only did I learn about the language, but also we talked a lot about Poland, the culture, food etc. That was great.
Learning from apps can be very mechanical. Having a laugh together (not sure he has yet recovered from my Babka mistake) is much more fun than getting something right and a cartoon character waving at you with a thumbs up.
However, I also found out that…………
5. Not all digital is bad
After just trashing digital learning, I now have to admit that I did miss my YouTube videos just a little bit. When I’m learning a language, I find podcasts and videos really helpful for learning pronunciation. Once I was at home, learning my cards on my own, there were a few times when normally I would have looked words up online to check the pronunciation. I missed not having that option. What’s more, while writing my own cards was good for learning, it wasn’t so great when the stack of cards got really big and I dropped them all over the floor of the number 12 tram during rush hour! Having all my vocabulary stored in one place on my phone suddenly became very appealing.
6. It’s important to write out/spell things properly from the start
Pretty obvious when you think about it but when I started off, I was impatient to get going and decided to only write down the words as I heard them (rather than using the proper Polish spellings which take some getting used to). While this got me off to a good start from a speaking point of view, it became a problem later on. Every time I wanted to look up a new word in the dictionary, I suddenly had no idea how to pronounce the word written in front of me or even find the word I was looking for. So, around halfway through the project, I rewrote all my cards with the proper spellings. It took a lot of time but I realised it would be worth it in the long run. Nevertheless, I did still keep my own personal pronunciation notes written under the words to help me out.
So, what’s the takeaway here?
All in all, the Polish Project was
- Successful: I’m pretty happy with what I am now able to do in Polish.
- Informative: I’ve learnt more about language learning methods.
- Inspiring: Although I’ve been focused on my Japanese for an exam recently, I’m totally inspired to keep up my Polish and really improve. And I am definitely planning a trip to Poland next year to practice.
- Fun: I can honestly say I enjoyed it. It was sometimes tough to fit it into my schedule but I genuinely enjoyed every step of the way.
So, what’s the plan for 2019? After the success of this project, I’m keen to do a comparison. Enter the 24-hour Turkish Project! 24 hours of Turkish. It’s also a level 2 language and I’m a complete beginner (the only word I know is Döner). BUT……. this time ONLY digital. The Duolingo app and nothing else. Already excited to compare the results!
Did you start any new languages this year? As always, feel free to comment below and share your experience.
Dziękuje za przeczytanie!