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October 28, 2010 6:03 AM   Subscribe

I am toying with starting Polish/English conversation group in London and I want it to be a success. What can I do to make it work?

I’ve been learning Polish for years and I need to practice more outside the classroom. I’ve been thinking about starting a conversation club for a while and last night I got talking to another student on the tube home who said he’d be interested in taking part. So I've decided to think about it a little bit harder.

The problem is, I’ve got lots of ideas of how it could be run, but I’m not sure what will work. I know that to a great extent it will depend on the people in the group and what they want to do, but I want to have an idea in my head on how to structure it before I get in contact with people and invite them along.

I’ve taught English (to Polish speakers) before, and I’ve been involved with English conversation clubs, but they were either groups that were imposed on students by their school, so were pretty formal, or were groups of friends that had evolved naturally. I know I don’t want this group to be too formal, I already go to a class each week for that, but I’m worried that without some structure we’ll all sit around with nothing to talk about or that people will loose interest and it’ll fizzle out after a couple of meetings.

I can’t decide on having a group of mostly Polish learners with one or two native speakers to help us along, or a language swap with an equal mix of English and Polish speakers and divide the time between the two languages.

And then I'm not sure if it should be weekly/fortnightly/monthly, where to hold it, pay for a room, or meet in a pub or coffee shop, or how big a group I should aim for?

Have you got any ideas or advice on how I can get a group of semi-strangers to talk in a langauge they're not that comfortable with?
posted by Helga-woo to Education (3 answers total)
Hmm. It won't work very well (I suspect) unless it's in Polish (for learners of Polish) or in English (for learners of English), with the other language used only as need to explain something. If it's an unstructured Pinglish group, it will get messy and the lazy or shy learners will always fall back on their native language rather than make the effort to work in the language they want to learn. If you need the language going both ways, maybe you could have two separate groups, and you could be a learner in one and a native speaker in the other. Mondays, you teach English. Thursdays, you learn Polish.

Groups ought to be at least weekly or people will forget what they learned from session to session. And it would be very nice if it had some semi-formal structure, such that someone took at least informal notes that you could mail to everyone in the group afterwards -- vocabulary and grammar you covered, so people could look things up, verify and practice spelling and grammar, etc.
posted by pracowity at 6:54 AM on October 28, 2010

As a learner of Polish who pretty much exclusively speaks English at work and socially (I'm still elementary/post-beginner in Polish, but am better at the language than my fellow Anglophone expat colleagues and friends here in Bydgoszcz!), I have to say that a key thing for developing my confidence was ignoring exact grammatical accuracy when I speak, and focusing on vocabulary to express meaning as much as I can.

Now, I *know* that my word order is messed up and that my case endings and genders are a disaster, but I try as much as I can to get a lot out of conversational encounters, and I've been able to accomplish almost everything I need to do on a daily basis. I can also understand far more than I can orally produce, and I read magazines and websites to try to expand my language abilities as much as I can. I spend close to four hours a week either in Polish class or doing independent study, but it's often not enough to make me feel like I'm making enough progress.

In your conversation group, then, there may be a need to talk about expectations at the outset: your Polish native speakers may be keen to help people choose between mianownik and narzędnik, but as that's a bit of a conversation killer, you'll need to help them work on helping Polish learners get things like pronunciation and word stress, which can plague even more advanced learners. At the same time, I have found my Polish colleagues and friends to have a far keener sense of their own language's grammar than native English speakers have of theirs, so your English speakers will probably need to be a bit more mindful about why things are said the way they are and perhaps even "grade" their speech to be more understandable for lower-level learners. You may even need to "divide" the group into more "basic" and "advanced" levels to preserve everyone's sanity and avoid making group members feel intimidated or annoyed with each other.

I also think a topic-based approach to things can help motivate learners of both languages find common ground (and relax). Imagine that this week's group is all about recipes...the English speakers and the Polish speakers each bring in different local/family foods, talk about how they are made, what the ingredients are, and perhaps even help each other translate recipes into each other's languages.

Good luck!
posted by mdonley at 11:26 AM on October 28, 2010

Thank you, all really useful stuff, especially the stuff about expectations from the native speakers. And I absolutely agree it should be one language at a time. What I meant about the swap was one session we'd speak English, the next Polish and so on, or spend half a session in English and then the other half in Polish.
posted by Helga-woo at 1:26 PM on October 28, 2010

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