01 lutego 2011

Gratifying Language Lessons I: Method

I'm finally back to Warsaw and settling into normal life again after an extended and very busy time home in Alberta for the holidays. While in Canada I admit I didn't work on my Polish at all. As you noticed I have also been neglecting the blog! Unfortunately, now my main computer is in pieces and waiting for a replacement fan so I'm working on a backup system for the time being. A good reminder to all to back up your data.

Family parties in December and January provided great opportunities for both sides to practice both English and Polish. My Polish family visited Canada for Christmas and New Years, and my Canadian family came to Warsaw for 10 days in January. The jovial spirit of our gatherings fostered an atmosphere free of fear and hesitation. More important than a lesson in vocabulary or grammar, I learned a lesson in courage. If my Polish family can speak to me in English then I can certainly grow the courage and confidence to do my best in Polish. It's an inspiration to learn more. Attempts at communication are perfectly demonstrative in exposing those gaps in language one wants to develop. Who wants to learn the language they teach you in schools?

I know lots of people need language skills to book appointments, meet friends, exchange business information, etc. However, I always think it's rather silly to teach 'business' language skills at a beginner level. Making appointments, planning conferences, etc. is deadly boring, and more importantly, these aren't the skills most needed by beginners. I think beginners need to make basic introductions, buy things with confidence in markets, shops, and restaurants, and so on.  Beginners need to learn to gossip, not how to negotiate a mortgage or buy a car. Serious things like this are best done with a translator!

I have had some incredibly gratifying language lessons here in Warsaw over the last few days. My recent mission has been shopping for new glasses. Most people think they don't know how to teach language, but my interlocutor has proven to be a very effective teacher! She provided me with a phrasebook type template of useful sentence fragments to use while out shopping.

The method is simple and it is a great way to learn vocabulary and 'chunks' of useful language. I interviewed my interlocutor over lunch for some phrases I expected to use, and wrote them down on a slip of paper (in my experience, pen and paper is better for memory than a computer keyboard!). Writing the words yourself seems to be critical in remembering them. Next, vocabulary. Whatever words suit the topic. Keep the list short . . . some research shows that our short term memories are only really effective at remembering 6-10 things at a time. My limit is considerably less! Take this opportunity to test your pronunciation of the word/phrase list and emulate your teacher. Keep the interview short and sweet and don't abuse your interview privileges.

Using this simple process you can turn any willing participant into a language teacher. Keep the phrases simple and don't overwhelm them with never-ending grammar questions. In my experience, Poles don't know their grammar any better than we English speakers know ours, and it makes them uncomfortable when they can't answer your grammar queries. Save the grammar interrogation for expert teachers and research in textbooks.

Armed with your slip of phrases and vocabulary - go for it. You have to practice this stuff if you want to remember it. I went to the first optical store with my interlocutor and let her speak for me. I listened carefully. Next, I got rid of her! Today in the city I was completely on my own - no English speaking translator and no opportunity to chicken out. I still feel a little nervous speaking Polish in public with my interlocutor (ok, ok, she's my wife!), so going it alone solves this problem.

Every single salesperson today was extremely gracious, patient, and helpful with my attempts to shop in Polish. I never asked if they spoke English. Instead, I fumbled and forged ahead in Polish the best I could. Keep that slip of paper handy, take your time, and remind yourself the words you have forgotten whenever you need. If you catch a new word or hear one you don't understand, ASK the salesperson what it means! ('Proszę powtórzyć' and 'Proszę mowić wolniej' come in handy). Remember, anyone can be your teacher. These lessons conducted completely in Polish are the best way for me to remember bits and pieces. I remember the shop, the smell, the setting, and I remember looking at W-I-D-E glasses when I learned to say 'too wide' ('za szeroki').

By the end of the day, I still hadn't found the glasses I wanted, but I had practiced my Polish in countless shops and my confidence and proficiency grew at every step. By the end of the day I even went into two shops I didn't think would have good glasses just to practice and reinforce my new skills. It's really gratifying! One small lesson at a time - keep those slips of paper and build topic after topic. I had a blast doing it today!

Next post, I'll share my notes from glasses shopping. What phrases did I carry for the day and what vocabulary did I use? What did I learn on the spot and what did I screw up? I'll tell you in detail tomorrow. It feels good to blog again after such a long break.

I want your comments. What real world topic should I practice next in Warsaw? What do I need to learn to say? I will make a list of future topics to work on in the city. No more picking oranges from baskets at Społem - I have to go to the market and talk to real people. They really are patient and kind when they see you trying your best in their language and they're invariably happy to help.

What topics do you suggest? Choosing a tie? Buying fruit or meat? Going to the post office? Add your comments below.

4 komentarze:

  1. Good to see you back and in good blogging form!

  2. Thanks, Michael. It's been too long!

  3. Living in a 'Wielka Płyta' block, I make a habit of trying to say "Dzien dobry" to all my neighbours. As we go up and down in the lift, I've had a few situations where a conversation (of sorts) has been struck up, and because it's unscripted, it's not easy.

    However, I find that it's great practice, as they talk away in everyday language about the weather, dogs, how slow the lift is, and it's a great way to learn, as well as fostering some good feeling with neighbours. The unscripted manner means you have to be quick on your feet and try to grab a piece of vocabulary in order to keep the chat-flow going.

    (I know that sounds a bit cheesy, having read it back - but it works!)

  4. Thanks for the comment, Decoy. I make a habit of trying to say "Dzien dobry," if my neighbours will look at me. I guess maybe about thirty percent! Unfortunately we don't have a very busy elevator so I don't get to exploit trapped audiences like you do.

    Kids playing outside in the summertime are the most fun. Last summer, before I spoke much Polish, I used to tell the kids "Nie mowię po polsku," when they asked me complicated questions. The crazy looks they gave me, not understanding how I could say that I don't speak Polish - (in Polish) were fantastic.


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