The language monkey
If there is one thing that language learning has taught me, it is that aping the people around me is the most effective way to speak like them.
Sometimes we can feel self-conscious about putting on an accent. Perhaps we’ve heard other people do it badly in our own language. Perhaps you have been told you’re Welsh accent sounds more Pakistani. Whatever your experience, languages use accents, dialects and even idiolects to create that certain je-ne-sais-quoi. The ability to mimic this is what people tend to admire in near-native speakers of a language we’re learning.
People bang on about their favourite method for learning a language. Mine is simple, do what helps you remember most, and keeps you engaged, and do it often. Studying a little every day for even a short time is better than missing days at a time. This continued exposure is the key to really breaking into a language and making it your own.
As I write this, I am into my second week in Poland, learning Polish. I did a week of study before I arrived with “Polish in The Months” and busuu.com – not on commission . When I arrived in-country, I always like to search out local materials for learning the language. They often contain more relevant structures and idioms than their international counterparts. For Polish I still read through “Polish in Three Months”, but I now also use:
* English-Polish thematical dictionary (groups words ordered by subject area are easier for me to learn)
* English idioms (with their Polish translations and explanations)
* Polish in 4 weeks (A1 – B1)
* Polski bez problemu – Intermediate level (B1)
* Polski bez problemu – Advanced level (B2 – C1)
In addition to that I listen to some of the Real Polish podcasts and listen to people and speak as much as I can.
So what’s important for my learning?
Well, I do a two or three hours a day of reading through my materials. Let’s face it without the grammar and some active vocabulary study, I am not going to get far. Besides I only have a month and I speak Czech, which is quite closely related to Polish anyway.
I listen for patterns in the language, words that are the same and very different to other words I know. For example, I know that “kot” is “cat” and “pies” is “dog” because they are common Slavic words. I also take note that “małpa” is “monkey” because it is so different. Some words take forever (at least that’s how it feels) to stick and become active. I have that problem at the moment with “książka” (book) for some reason. I keep wanting to say “kniga” because it makes more sense to me. This getting used to the language, it’s rhythm, vocabulary and grammatical structures is what I call the bedding-in time.
The bedding-in time for a language related to one you know can be shorter than for a totally new one. There are simply more connections to be made in your brain to remember things when everything is new. This is where listening to and trying to ape the melody of a language come into their own. If you can think of the language like a musical piece, moving from note to notes as a monkey glides through the trees grabbing branches and vines to make seamless swings from point A to reach point B. This is how patterns in the language work too.
This basic idea is used in many courses to get people to use phrases and elements to combine together to create ever growing conversations in the target language. It’s no secret why we do it this way. It is how we all learn language. We copy from what we hear around us. It is corrected to become more standarised by our parents, teachers or peers so we fit into that social group.
We learn patterns, phrases if you will, which we slot together to make longer and more complicated conversation. Getting as much practice using the language as possible is key to repeating the same old phrases over and over until they become automatic.
No tricks, no magic, just hard graft and a desire to achieve.