The language monkey

August 18, 2011 by 6 Comments
Copying what's around

Copying what's around

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 – 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.

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This post was written by Richard


  • Johan Colmenares says:

    Thanks for sharing your knowledges Richard!! I have a question, in your experience, how long does it take to learn a new language or how long does it take to speak it fluently? Thanks in advance!! By the way , I would like to go to Poland, who knows? maybe someday!

  • DinoLingo says:

    Very interesting. One thing though, language learning is like skin care, there is almos no one size fits all as each person has different receptive and expressive skills. Your special non-verbal observation and the associative learning methods seem like pretty effective though.. cheers…

    • Zhaofeng says:

      salam fahimvaghean chera hame chi tahkle hawij tahkle , khargoosh tahkle, zeraat va keshawarzi tahkle, ab dadan be baghche tahkle. va az hame badtaaar shirin tarin khateraat tahkle , chera be naslemoon sha ..?chera?,فکر نمیکردم گذرت به اینجا بخوره:)

  • Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m glad that what are the important things in learning languages.

    And above all, your last sentence rocks : “No tricks, no magic, just hard graft and a desire to achieve.”

  • Jarek says:

    Drogi Ryszardzie ! Zachęcam Cię do biegłego opanowania języka polskiego. Jeden miesiąc nauki to czas żeby zakochać się w polskim, jeden rok wystarczy by mówić nim biegle.

    Sądzę, że wbrew pozorom nie jest on trudniejszy niż angielski dla Polaków, którzy chcą biegle mówić po angielsku. Alfabet jest łaciński, a wiele głosek jest obecnych w innych znanych Tobie językach np. “ą”, “ę” są obecne w językach francuskim czy portugalskim.

    For example “en France” is pronounced in polish – “ą Frąs”. “Sz” Polish is similar to French “ch” in the word “chat” . Your lips are held like in French “ch” in “chateau” not like in English in “shut”.

    As you are an english native speaker and you know French and Tcheque my tip is to learn Polish directly through French rather than from English ( French consonnants like m,n are pronounced pratically in the same way in Polish, English m, n and others consonnants are pronounced in a different matter). Koń (horse, cheval) pronounce comme Pologne (cologne… cogne=koń) Except for “r’. This sound is similar to a Spanish “r “.

    And You can use your tcheque to learn polish words.

    Język polski jest językiem obecnie niedocenianym ale w ciągu najbliższych 20 lat będzie stawał się coraz bardziej popularny na całym świecie, moim zdaniem będzie językiem dużo bardziej popularnym niż rosyjski.

    Jest takie znane w Polsce proroctwo, które o tym mówi: “Bóg wyleje na was wielkie łaski i dary, wzbudzi między wami ludzi świętych i mądrych i wielkich mistrzów, którzy zajmą poczytne stanowiska na kuli ziemskiej, języka waszego będą się uczyć na uczelniach na całym świecie”.

    Gratuluję znajomości tylu jezyków i serdecznie pozdrawiam,


  • Alberto says:

    Perhaps you have been told you’re Welsh accent sounds more Pakistani.
    you mean:
    Perhaps you have been told “your” Welsh accent sounds more Pakistani.

    Or am I misunterdanting it?

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