How do I develop conversational Polish?
March 17, 2011 3:04 PM   Subscribe

How can someone who understands a language start learning to speak it?

I have been in a relationship with a Polish woman for ten years now. Throughout that time, I have picked up A LOT of Polish. I can understand 75% of conversations that happen around the house. I can ask easy questions and describe simple things. It gets a little tough when I listen to Polish on the television, specifically the news.

However, I am unable to engage in a full conversation (half of it is confidence, the other half is lack of technical knowledge). I am told that my pronunciation is near natural with minimal accent.

How can I take what I understand and start conversing in Polish? I feel like I can't communicate because it is jumbled in my head. It's kind of like how babies start to understand words before being able to speak them. I'm just not sure how to correctly get it off my tongue.

Any tips or tricks I can start using to better interaction with the Polish people around me? What steps can I take to become fluent?
posted by ieatwords to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You've just got to start speaking. There is no way to get to fluent without making a lot of mistakes. Just keep talking to them, let them correct you, and gradually get more and more complicated.
posted by Caravantea at 3:13 PM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Take lessons to learn the grammar, or do it yourself from a book. It will probably come very quickly and be a pleasing experience for everyone involved (unless you happen to be allergic to grammar's presentation of formal rules).
posted by squishles at 3:46 PM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've always said I learned Spanish in school, but I never spoke Spanish until I started traveling. That was when I was really forced to be in situations where I stopped thinking about proper sentence structure and just began to talk. I did a lot of apologizing and a lot of asking people to speak slowly, but really, I just got out there and started to talk. Over the years, while having conversations, I've paid closer attention to accents and certain phrasing for local phrases, and that's been great for me.

By the way, I will talk to anyone. Taxi drivers. Maids. Hotel staff. Museum guides. Sometimes I'll jokingly say, "Teach me something fun in Spanish and I'll teach you something in English!" It breaks the ice a bit. Great way to meet people, by the way.
posted by HeyAllie at 4:01 PM on March 17, 2011

Sounds like you need to switch your household to Polish. No English. You're stuck? Figure it out with other words and gestures or however, but you may not use English. It'll be hard, since it's very easy to switch, tell your partner to ignore you! The only way is practise. You will suck, but then you will get better, probably very quickly in your case, since it's all in your head already.
posted by defcom1 at 6:35 PM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

In the same vein as "Mistakes are your friends!" (and they really, really are), try to have someone around who feels comfortable correcting you. Oftentimes, either your well-intentioned interlocutor feels reluctant to point out your toddler-speak or he/she is too impressed by the fact that you speak a lick of their tongue to take on a (constructive) critical role.

To switch gears a bit, I'll also add, as someone with a background in linguistics, that much evidence indicates that adults do not learn languages like babies learn their first, so try not to take that approach. Adults are analytical, so analyze what you're saying, which runs counter to the "Make mistakes!" message, but, like most things, it's a balance.
posted by stroke_count at 6:45 PM on March 17, 2011

Best answer: Try a multi-pronged approach. Seek to immerse yourself in the language. Read it, with a dictionary handy. Watch Polish movies with subtitles on (in Polish, not in English, so that you can try to put words with sounds - this is key!). Listen to Polish music and read along with the lyrics. Memorize key phrases and repeat them again and again.

These are all ways to simulate immersion, assuming that you aren't able to spend time in Poland, which beats all of these put together.

posted by unintelligentlydesigned at 7:03 PM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

2nding the use it. It's like a new excersize: It's awkward, poorly performed, and can be hugely discomforting, but it's really the only way to build up the capability. It does get easier, and lots of people, you will find, are very positive and supportive when confronted with fledgeling speakers. You may never achieve the flawlessness of a true bilingual, but you will get to the point where the words flow easily and you can make yourself clearly understood on complicated subjects by most people.*

*there are assholes in every community who won't meet a non-native speaker halfway. Just ignore them.
posted by Ys at 7:07 PM on March 17, 2011

Best answer: Sounds like you need to switch your household to Polish.(defcom1)

You can start out by designating a specific day of the week to be Polish day and see how it goes. Add more days as you get comfortable. And really, tell everyone in the household that NO English should be acknowledged on that day.
posted by CathyG at 7:48 PM on March 17, 2011

Ditto on the forcing yourself to speak, but the hardest part is the forcing. Sounds like you're around people that speak both Polish and English, so when you get frustrated with speaking, you know switching back to English is always an option. (We all do that.) If you live in an area where there are Polish people who don't speak English, find them! And, as someone else suggested, if you can buy a ticket to Poland. Spend a few weeks in a small town, preferably in someone's apartment or house. would be very handy in a situation like this. There has to be a few people in Poland who can host you. You can ask your girlfriend to write messages to potential hosts to find someone who can't speak English.
posted by msk1985 at 8:12 PM on March 17, 2011

Grammar lessons or books. From what I've learned in linguistics, stroke_count is right - immersion gets you to a point but no farther without grammar (which you can get by doing a certain amount of analysis in your own mind, or from being corrected by people). Get a basic "How to learn Polish" book - it may be hard for your wife to point out the places where you're saying something that's understandable but not the way a native speaker would say it, but a language book will start with what the native speaker would say.
posted by Lady Li at 12:01 AM on March 18, 2011

Find a third-party to do it. If you've still got major questions about grammar, get a teacher. If you feel pretty comfortable about how to make a sentence and just need practice getting the words out of your mouth, find a conversation partner (much cheaper, too!). The conversation partner should be someone with a good grasp of the technical aspects of the language (not all native speakers do!). Meet with them on a regular basis to talk. It doesn't really matter what you talk about (sports, your childhood, tv, whatever) but just do your best to carry on a conversation. Let your conversation partner know that you don't want every mistake corrected but to tell you if they notice you making the same mistake or the same kind of mistake repeatedly. They shouldn't interrupt you to correct you; this can get intimidating and hamper your fluency.
posted by wallaby at 3:50 AM on March 18, 2011

One thing to look into in terms of learning materials might be something geared for "heritage speakers." These are usually the children of native speakers who have grown up outside of that language's native country. They often grow up being able to understand the language very well, but speak it with varying degrees of fluency and usually have fairly low literacy. It may be somewhat harder to find these materials for a less common language like Polish, but you may be able to pick up some generic tips by searching around using the term "heritage speaker." Columbia University also teaches some excellent Slavic language classes geared towards heritage speakers so that department might be a good place to contact for text recommendations, etc.
posted by Polyhymnia at 9:14 AM on March 18, 2011

Since you mentioned the news - try this: Download a Polish news podcast and listen to it as you go about your day - make it a point every night to talk to your partner about what you heard in the Polish news that day. This may help build your confidence.
posted by jardinier at 11:26 AM on March 19, 2011

Best answer: Would you like to merge brains? I've been learning Polish for 4 years, and I'm getting a handle on the grammar, but my vocab and fluency is terrible.

If you are interested in books, there aren't that many Polish textbooks, so choice is limited. But I think Basic Polish by Dana Bielec is really good, and I use it a lot to work through exercises by myself. I think it would help if you want to get up to spead with grammar, especially if you know a lot of the vocab already. It covers verb conjugations and noun cases with easy to understand explanations. The main thing it’s lacking is perfect/imperfect verbs (e.g. jem vs zjem) which would be useful.

Most classes I’ve seen use the Hurra!!! Po Polsku! textbook, which is really good, but it’s all in Polish. If your partner or another Polish speaker is willing to help you out with explanations then it might also be an option, but I don’t think you could use it for self-study, at least not to begin with.

The Polish Blog is also good for explanations of grammar and vocabulary, as well as info about Polish culture (although you probably don't need that so much!
posted by Helga-woo at 6:35 AM on March 21, 2011

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