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Language Experiment: 12 Days of Russian Lessons

I heard about the Polyglot Gathering 2020 from a student of mine before the pandemic was a thing. Sigh. The silver-lining is that the gathering moved online and therefore I was able to attend it. I’m still going to comment on some speeches but I’m waiting for the organizers to upload them on their channel so that you guys can also access them.
Okay, so to get to the point, which is something I always have a problem doing (you see!) in preparation to this gathering I decided to give my Russian a quick boost. As you can learn from the post Lessons on My language Failures I’m up and down with my language learning. This means that in a year and a half of “learning” Russian I perhaps did two months of study with months on end of not doing ANYTHING with it.
Nonetheless, the gathering was there on the horizon with its language practice opportunities and I knew that “Извините пожалуйста, где находится банкомат?” (Excuse me, do you know where the nearest ATM is?) was not the best conversation starter. I decided to try an experiment and do a lesson of Russian every day for the remaining 12 days. I used professional and community tutors on italki and only stayed with a teacher, if I liked them. Below are some of my findings.

1. Some Teachers Are Great, Some Are Hopeless

Instant enlightenment. I guess it’s something that I learnt a long time ago but somehow forgot about it because I was lucky with teachers for a long time. Community tutors or professional teachers alike can be great or totally not.
During my experiment I had lessons where teachers expected ME to lead the lesson. This means there were uncomfortable silences and prolonged pauses. Sure, anyone can be in a situation when they need to gather their thoughts but if your teacher makes you feel it’s your job to lead the lesson, they suck.
I enjoyed the following mixture of teacher’s characteristic:

  • Nice

    I’m not kidding, just a nice person who smiles from time to time makes it much easier for you to learn. When they don’t make you feel judged and encourage you it’s really important for your progress. We all know we sound silly in the beginning when learning a new language so someone who can put us at ease is gold.
    And yes, unfortunately not all teachers think it’s important. I literally had a teacher roll her eyes at me when I was struggling with telling the time in Russian. NOT cool!
  • Prepared

    If a teacher comes for the lesson unprepared it’s a bad sign. Even if you’re just doing informal conversation practice and they have no questions/activities prepared for when the conversation dies out this means they’re not prepared.
  • Good at explaining the language

    This is one thing at which non-native speaking teachers are often much better than native ones. It’s simply because they’ve been through the process. Teaching courses are theory and somehow they don’t really really understand certain problems of learners.
    Having said that, I find native teachers fluent in at least one foreign language with a lot of experience really good at it too.

2. Progress Sometimes Comes Later

This is something I heard Lydia Machova saying during her speech at the gathering and I can totally relate to. For the most part of my twelve day experiment I couldn’t see much progress. Sure, I could introduce myself much better after doing it 9 times (I’ve tried 9 different teachers) but other than that I didn’t feel like my Russian was getting any better. This was obviously very frustrating. I started doubting myself.
Weirdly, the progress came only a week or two after the conference, when my Russian was downgraded to two lessons a week, homework and some vocabulary learning. One day out of the blue I was able to use vocabulary and structures learnt during the experiment. I guess the take home message here is that you just have to be persistent and the results will come.

3. You Need That Homework and You Need It to Be Good

You’ll spend so much more money on your lessons, if you don’t work on your own. Still, not all homework is equal. It was drilling what I’d covered during lessons that really helped me not some random exercises.
Don’t move on to anything else before you feel more or less at ease with a new topic, otherwise you’ll be repeating your mistakes and they will fossilize. Ask your teacher to slow down. That’s what 1-on-1 teaching is made for and that’s why it’s much more efficient than group work.
You can also create you own homework by expanding to weaknesses that came up during lessons. I’m, for one, a bit cavalier with Russian cases because my native language has given me quite a good intuition about them. The intuition can only get me so far, though. I can’t get away without drills for the cases that I find counterintuitive and these are really difficult to work on.

4. Personality Differences Can Hinder Your Progress

I mentioned a number of things when it comes to teachers in point 1 but this one needs a separate paragraph. As much as someone can be a good teacher there are certain issues that may hinder your progress, namely, major personality differences. If you’re supposed to be getting frustrated with your teacher or your conversations won’t flow because you’re very different, rather change them.
During the experiment I would decide whether to stay with a teacher or nor after one lesson. This doesn’t mean 7 teachers I rejected were bad teachers but it means that their teaching style and/or personality and/or beliefs would not make us a good match longterm.
For instance, for many people it’s surprising that I’m Polish and I live in South Africa. Add to that that I moved here for work (as a woman!!!) and you may get into certain conversations you don’t want to be having.
I understand genuine interest. “How come did you end up in South Africa?” and similar are just good conversation starters. However, I can’t deal with what I’d call interrogation driven by someone’s lack of appreciation for all kinds of diversity. I’m not interested in explaining my life choices to people who are there to teach me a language.
This experiment did cause me a bit of fuming but actually, more sadness about how some people see the world. Still, I ended it walking away with two great Russian teachers whom I gladly share with you: Anastasia and Marina.

5. Your Attitude Is Crucial

Did I manage to have a lesson every day for 12 days? Sure! This doesn’t mean that these lessons were equally effective, though and I was to blame too. Particularly on the weekend I really had to push myself to even attend a lesson and my attitude was just wanting to be done with it. A great teacher can help you with motivation but when you’re very tired or low the learning process is much less effective.
When not participating in an experiment book a lesson for when you know you can concentrate on what’s being discussed. Don’t add a lesson to a day that you know will be long and frustrating.

7. There’s Something About Kickstarting

When you struggle with language learning motivation it’s a good idea to kickstart your progress by making an intense effort like I did in my experiment. The thing is, life’s busy and language learning can be slow when you just put two hours a week into it. A crash course is a great idea to start with and whenever you feel like you’re getting nowhere you can just do a challange similar to the one I just did.
My 12-day Russian marathon has certainly improved my vocabulary and knowledge of important phrases A LOT. I advanced from using Polish words and hoping for the best to actually knowing basic Russian words, phrases and structures beyond my survival travel vocabulary. More importantly, my motivation to learn Russian has been high ever since I completed the experiment.

PEP Talk

Learning a language is a commitment and sometimes it may feel like a chore but whatever your goal is you’ll feel amazing, if you achieve it. You’re reading this blog so you’re probably a person who values their time and money and wants quick and sustainable results.
To do better in a language you must learn better. To learn better (= smarter rather than more) you need motivation. You can spend years and years in language courses and schools putting your progress in someone else’s hands or really commit and become intermediate or higher in a year. These are completely achievable goals with the right tools.
I know it, because I did it before and I’m trying to crack the code of how one can do it over and over again. This is because I also know that trying to optimize your language learning process means going against years if not centuries of old school and ineffective language teaching. If you don’t fight for yourself you’ll loose your motivation, money and perhaps even the interest in learning a given language. We can do it!
Bonne chance à vous et a moi ! À bientôt !

The Difference Between “Podobać Się” and “Lubić”

The first time someone asked me about the difference between “podobać się” and “lubić” I understood the curse of a native speaker teacher. Now, this was new to me because before I started teaching Polish, I taught languages I learnt myself, which made it much easier for me to explain certain concepts to others.
Unfortunately, telling someone that things should be used in a certain way because “they feel right to you” is about as useful as parents telling their children “because I said so”. Meaning: it’s not useful at all. Fortunately, I pondered this question and now I have a better answer.

Podobać Się

The idea behind podobać się is that you find that something appeals to you in some way. Here are some examples of where we’d use podobać się:

1. Podoba mi się ten mężczyzna. – “I like this man.” (I find this man appealing/attractive).

2. Podoba mi się to, co mówisz. – “I like what you’re saying.” (I find what you’re saying appealing)

3. Podoba mi się ten dom. – “I like this house.” (I find this house appealing.)

We often have a specific feature in our head, when we use this verb. For instance, in sentence number 1 the person means the man’s looks, in sentence number two content of what’s being said and in number 3 yet again the look of the house. You could also specify what exactly you like with this verb:

4. Podoba mi się głos tego mężczyzny. – “I like this man’s voice.”

5. Podoba mi się przekaz tego, co mówisz. – “I like the message of what you’re saying.”

6. Podoba mi się kolor tego domu. – “I like the color of this house.”

Lubić

Lubić is much more strongly associated with people’s feelings about something.

1. Lubię Marka. – “I like Marek.”

If you say a sentence like this it just means that you have friendly feelings about someone.

2. Nie lubię biegać. – “I don’t like running.”

3. Lubię zwierzęta. – “I like animals.”

Only lubić can be used with verbs! When you speak about our general likes it’s a more obvious choice:

4. Lubię gotować/śpiewać/czytać. – “I like cooking/singing/ reading.”

You’d also use lubić for food preferences:

5. Lubię polskie jedzenie. – “I like Polish food.”

6. Bardzo lubię sushi. – “I really like sushi.”

Battle of Verbs: Podobać Się vs Lubić

Sometimes seeing the two verbs put together is the best way to understand the difference between them:

1. Lubię Anię, ale mi się nie podoba. – “I like Ania but I don’t fancy her.”

2. Tomek lubi zwierzęta, dlatego nie podoba mu się przemysł zwierzęcy. – “Tomek likes animals, which is why he disapproves of animal husbandry.

3. Zazwyczaj nie lubię spódnic, ale ta mi się podoba. – “I don’t usually like skirts, but I like this one.”

4. Czy ci się to podoba czy nie, ja lubię tatuaże. – “Whether you like it or not, I like tattoos.”

5. Lubię biegać, ale ta trasa zupełnie mi się nie podoba. – “I like running but this trail is not my cup of tea.”

Last but not least, if used with a noun podobać się is followed by the nominative case, while lubić by the accusative case.

5 Easy Language Learning Opportunities

Thinking about language learning as a game is a great way to go about it. Sure, you’ll need to put some hard work too but to succeed it really helps to have fun. When you think about learning a new language in that way, you start to see opportunities in many different place. Here are some things that’s been working for me:

1. Social Media in Your Target Language

Did you know that an average user spends almost 2 and a half hours on social media in 2020? Even if you’re not a heavy social media user, setting your social media in your target language will give you everyday exposure.
It’s also pretty easy to learn vocabulary that way because you’re dealing with an interface you already know. If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can set your phone to your target language too.
I’ve been mostly successful with this technique apart from one dreadful episode when I was having a go at Arabic (you can read about lessons from my language learning failures here). I was unable to do anything on my phone because I was so confused. It took me a few hours to set my phone back to a language I could actually understand!
You can also use social media to learn languages by following certain accounts. I’ve written about it in my post “How to Use Instagram to Help You Learn a Language“.

2. Sticky Notes

Whenever my student struggles with a particular word or expression for a long time I ask them to write it down and stick it to their fridge. They laugh but they do it and it helps. If you’re dealing with a number of words you’re trying to remember, you may spread them around the house too.
Looking at a given expression a few times a day, will help you remember it. Stubborn expressions are, well, stubborn so you need to defeat the enemy with their own weapons.
Sticky notes are also super useful for learning household vocabulary, when you stick names of items in your house in your target language on these items. Are you worried about the environment? Most sticky notes are recyclable (have a look at the FAQ section of Post-It, for instance).
A fair warning: this method has its limits. The more sticky notes around, the more likely you are to stop paying attention to them. You should also change them regularly because feeling that you “know” a word will make you overlook it.

3. Labels

This is a trick that I discovered on a toilet once when I had nothing to read so I started to study labels on the toilet paper packaging. Labels for cosmetics, cleaning products, medication, packed food and similar are usually translated to a number of languages. It’s easy to understand what it says in your target language as you can compare it to the language you know.
Labels are a cool tool because they give you naturally sounding words and expressions and not just a translation without the context, which is often the case with dictionaries. You can also squeeze this trick in quite easily, when doing your household chores or waiting for a cup of tea to brew.

4. Podcasts

Language learning podcasts such as coffee break languages or news in slow… are great for beginners and intermediate students, while more advanced students can benefit from actual podcasts in their target language.
You can listen to podcasts when shopping, commuting or cleaning the house. You can also add them to you runs or dog walks. In other words, whenever your hands are free you can squeeze a bit of listening comprehension in.
Just a note to working with language learning podcasts: make sure there’s not too much banter in a language different to your target language. Some podcasts can be very entertaining to listen to and teach you a lot about the culture of a given country, but if there’s not enough of the target language you’ll unlikely to see any progress.

5. Daily News and Content

If you follow the news, you can switch to listening to it or reading it in your target language. I’d recommend reading at lower levels, unless there’s an “easy news” option you’ve found.
You don’t read the news? Try reading about things you’re interested in, in your target language.
In the beginning shorter articles work better, you can even just have a look at the headlines daily. The point of building habits like this is that they will be more and more helpful as your understanding increases.
A good way to work with news and content is also reading about the same topic in two languages which significantly increases your understanding. Spend 10 minutes a day doing that and you’ll see for yourself what I mean.

I hope this list of language learning opportunities will be helpful to you. If you don’t know how to use a method for your level, let me know in the comments section and I’ll gladly help. Do you have your own tricks? Do share!

Adiós por ahora, queridos amigos! Hablamos pronto!

“To jest…” Structure in Polish

Ask learners of Polish what’s the worst thing about the language and they’ll tell you it’s the Polish cases. That’s the reason why it’s nice to have some tricks up your sleeve. One of them is the use of the To jest… (“This is…”) structure that requires the nominative case mianownik, instead of the locative case narzędnik usually required by the verb być (“to be”).

Co to jest? – What is it?

This construction can be used in many situations such as:

  • Presenting people

    To (jest) moja żona. – “This is my wife.”
  • Expressing feelings

    To (jest) okropne! – “It’s horrible!”

    To (jest) naprawdę ekstra! – “It’s really cool!”
  • Indicating things

    To (jest) komputer. – “This is a computer.”

What’s So Cool About It?

The cool thing about this construction is that it requires the nominative case, which means the standard form you get in a dictionary. Compare the two sentences below:

1. To (jest) wysoki mężczyzna. – “This is a tall man.”

Nominative!

2. On jest wysokim mężczyzną. – “He’s a tall man.”

Locative 😦

Note that if there’s no noun to describe the adjective remains in the nominative:

3. On jest wysoki. – “He’s tall.”

These two sentences as well as similar one that you could create are interchangeable in most contexts.

Don’t Get Confused

The verb być “to be” triggers the need for the locative case. However, “jest” is only optional in sentences in the “to jest” structure. It may be easier for you to imagine it’s not there or simply omit it in the beginning. That’s why I put it in brackets in the sentences above. Yet again, it’s also totally acceptable to drop the verb and say:

4. To wysoki mężczyzna. – “This (is) a tall man.”

Nevertheless, “to jest” requires a noun. You can’t use it with an adjective only. No need to get greedy with omissions:

5. To (jest) wysoki [add a noun]. – “This is a tall [you see, you do need that noun]”

Let’s have one more example to make it even more clear:

1. To (jest) niska kobieta. – “This is a short woman.”

To jest + nominative. No funny business.

2. Ona jest niską kobietą. – “She’s a short woman.”

A typical sentence when the verb “to be” (być) triggers the locative case, narzędnik.

3. Ona jest niska. – “She’s short.”

No noun, the adjective stays in nominative.

4. To niska kobieta. – “This (is) a short woman.”

Just a reminder that you can omit the “jest”.

5. To (jest) niska [add a noun]. – “This is a short [again, you really do need that noun]”

No noun, no sentence with this structure, sorry.

Your Turn! – Tocca a Te!

Rather than give you an exercise, today I invite you to try to make your own sentences in the comments section. Questions and doubts welcome too. Cheerio!

Is it a Polish Adjective or a Polish Adverb? Przysłówki and przymiotniki.

One of the areas that cause problems to students is the distinction between adjectives and adverbs in Polish. Occasionally, Polish adverbs align with English adverbs in meaning but it’s not always the case. Hopefully, this article will help you with whatever doubts you may have with the topic.

Polish Adjectives

Polish adjectives undergo declension, which means that they change their form depending on the gender of the noun they describe and the case required. That’s why we say:

To jest inteligentna kobieta.

but

Nie widzę inteligentnego mężczyzny.

You can learn more about Polish adjectives here (and if you can’t click on it, it means I haven’t written this post yet ;)).
The most important things for you to remember today is that adjectives describe nouns and undergo declension.

Polish Adverbs

Good news, folks! Polish adverbs, unlike adjectives, always keep the same form. They describe verbs and often finish with an -o (eg. wolno – “slow”) or and -(i)e (eg pięknie – beautifully). Such adverbs are usually formed from the singular masculine form of an adjective (in the case of examples provided: wolny and piękny).
There are also some irregular adverbs that are easier recognized by their meaning and role. Good examples of such adverbs are wczoraj (“yesterday”), wtedy (“then”) and tam (“there”).

Polish Adjectives vs Polish Adverbs

How to tell the difference between a Polish adjective and a Polish adverb? Sometimes it’s quite easy:

Paweł jest kreatywny. – “Paweł is creative.”

Who is creative? Paweł. It’s pretty clear here that the adjective kreatywny describes the proper noun Paweł.

Paweł myśli kreatywnie. – “Paweł thinks creatively.”

We can’t ask a question about Paweł in this sentence, but we can ask about Paweł‘s thinking. How does Paweł think? Creatively. Here we’re dealing with an adverb kreatywnie describing a verb.

Many cases are straightforward. Verbs are described by adverbs, while nouns by adjectives. The end of the article… NOT.

Things Get Tricky

Unfortunately, Polish sometimes requires an adverb, when English would use an adjective. Here’s a number of more challenging examples:

Jest zimno. – “It’s cold.”

When you speak about the weather or outside conditions you often should use adverbs in Polish. Note that this isn’t an exception, even if the choice of adverb here may not sound natural to you. You could ask a following question:

How is it (outside)? It’s cold!

The “it” here, present in English and implied in Polish is a dummy subject. There’s no “it”, to really speak about (no person nor object) and if you look at the Polish sentence it literally translates into “Is (=Jest) cold (=zimno)“. What’s the conclusion? The adverb still describes a verb. Compare it with the sentence below:

Dziś jest piękna pogoda. – “The weather today is beautiful.”

In this sentence, we describe the noun “weather” (pogoda), hence the use of an adjective beautiful (piękna).

Another good example is when you talk about how someone looks like. In Polish you would say: Ania wygląda młodo. (“Ania looks young.”) using an adverb. Yet again, the adverb describes the verb here. Namely, the way she looks like.

You’d also use adverbs to speak about how you feel:

Czuję się świetnie! – “I feel great.”

Źle się czuję! – “I don’t feel well.”

Last but not least, here are some examples that are predictable based on both the rule provided and your intuition of an English speaker once you think about them:

Poproszę duże/małe piwo. – “A large/small beer, please.”

Piję dużo/mało piwa. – “I drink a lot of/little beer.”

Summary

Adjectives describe nouns. Adverbs describe verbs. If in doubt, form questions to see which part of the sentence a given word should describe. For some more help with a related problem area, have a look at one of my posts to help you see the difference between two adverbs, bardzo (very) and dużo (a lot).
Remember, practice makes perfect or as close to perfect as you can reasonably expect to get!

Check Your Understanding

Here’s a short exercise for you to check whether you understand the difference between adverbs and adjectives in Polish. Change the form of the provided adjective as required, either into an adverb or an adjective in the appropriate form:

1. On jeździ ______________ . (szybki). – “He drives fast.”

2. Jesteśmy _________ . (miły). – “We are nice.”

3. Czytam _________ (duży) i ______________ (szybki). – “I read a lot and (I read) fast.”

4. ___________ (miły) mi cię poznać! – “It’s nice to meet you.”

5. Ten pies jest _________ (stary), ale wygląda __________ (młody). – “This dog is old but it looks young.”

6. _________ (piękny) śpiewa! – “(He/She) sings beautifully.”

7. Ten film nie jest __________ (dobry), ____________ (zły) się go ogląda. – “This movie isn’t good, it’s not easy to watch (literally: it watches badly.).”

8. Ufff, ale ____________ (gorący)! – “Ufff, it’s so hot!”

9. Anna jest ___________ (dorosły), ale zachowuje się ____________ (dziecinny). – “Anna is an adult but she behaves like a child.”

10. Zwykle nie piję ___________ (duży), ale zamówię kolejne _____________ (duży) piwo. – “I usually don’t drink a lot, but I’ll order one more large beer.

Would you like to know how you’ve done? Give me your answers in the comments section and I’ll tell you 🙂 Totsiens!

Forgetting Things in Polish: How to Use the Verb Zapomnieć


The funny thing about being a native speaker is that you don’t realise certain things can cause difficulties, until you hear foreigners struggling with them. I experiencex such an epiphany when I heard some of my students repetitively misusing the word “to forget” zapomnieć. This probably has to do with the fact that you can do different things with this verb in different languages (for instance, “forgetting your phone at home” is acceptable in some but not others). Anyway… here’s what I have to say about it.

Zapominać czy zapomnieć?

First of all, we have two verbs in Polish to express the idea of forgetting: zapominać and zapomnieć. They differ in aspect, which is one of the things to watch out for when learning Polish. Brief, zapominać is used for repetitive or unfinished actions. It can be used in all tenses. Zapomnieć, on the other hand, is used to speak about the completion of actions. It doesn’t have a form in the present tense. Here are some examples for zapominać:

Ciągle zapominam telefonu! – “I always forget my phone.”

On zawsze zapomina o moich urodzinach. – He’s always forgetting about my bday.”

Kiedyś niczego nie zapominałam, ale teraz mam słabszą pamięć. – “Back in the days I didn’t forget anything but now I have a weaker memory.”

And for zapomnieć:

Cholera! Zapomniałam portfela! – “Shit! I’ve forgotten my wallet.”

Helena nie może o nim zapomnieć. – “Helena can’t forget him.”

Zapomnij o tym! – “Forget about it.”

Allowed Structures for Zapomnieć


There’s a number of structures allowed for the verb zapomnieć:

  • zapomnieć, że – “to forget that”

    Zapomniałam, że dziś mam pilates – “I forgot that I had Pilates today.”

  • zapomnieć + gdzie, czy, jak itp. – “to forget where, whether, how etc”

    Zapomniałam, czy dziś mam pilates. – “I forgot whether I had Pilates today.”

  • zapomnieć o – “to forget about”

    Zapomniałam o pilatesie. – “I forgot about my Pilates.”

  • zapomnieć + czasownik w bezokoliczniku – “to forget + infinitive”

    Zapomniałam pójść na pilates. – “I forgot to go to Pilates.”

Useful Phrases with Zapomnieć

There’s also a bunch of useful phrases and idiomatic expressions with zapomnieć:

  • zapomnieć na śmierć – to forget “for death”, meaning entirely (Polish people aren’t usually dramatic but here you go)

    Na śmierć o tym zapomniałam! – “I’ve completely forgotten about it.”
  • kompletnie zapomnieć – to forget entirely

    Kompletnie o tym zapomniałam! – “I’ve completely forgotten about it.” (I know. Two ways of saying something are better than one)
  • zapomnieć języka w gębie – to lose one’s tongue

    No co? Zapomniałeś języka w gębie? – “What’s wrong? Have you lost your tongue?”
  • zapomnieć o całym świecie – to forget about the whole world

    Przy nim zapominam o całym świecie! – “Around him I forget about the whole world.”

Hope this has been somewhat helpful. Any suggestions? Doubts? The comments’ section is waiting for you!
Btw the Polyglot Gathering is happening online this year so I can attend it after all (yay!). You can still get your tickets, if you’re keen. Hurry up, though it starts this Friday! There’ll be speeches by polyglots, crash courses and language tandems. I’m excited and I hope to see you there!

What to Watch Out For When Learning Polish

A lot of people say that Polish is a difficult language to learn. Honestly, I don’t think its matters whether it’s true or not. The reason why you’re learning the language in the first place is because it’s somehow important to you to know it (unless you’re a polyglot and language enthusiast and then whether it’s difficult or not is even more irrelevant because surely you’re just up for a challenge).
The point is that whether it’s because of family reasons or because of career prospects, you want to know it. And yet, your perception of it as being difficult only serves as a deterrent from actually putting the work in. What you do instead of repeating to yourself that what you’re trying to do is difficult (when has that ever helped anyone?) is focus on potentially challenging areas to hack the learning process.

The Dreadful Cases

If there are no cases in your native language you may find the idea weird. This is true for any concept you encounter in a new language or in life in general so just try to be open-minded. Believe it or not, there are some things in your language that someone learning it finds equally weird.
What are grammatical cases and why do they cause so much trouble to students? In brief, cases give nouns, adjectives and pronouns, different forms according to the context. This means that we say Jem kolację (“I’m eating dinner”) in Polish but Nie zrobiłam kolacji (“I haven’t made dinner”) and Poczekaj z kolacją (“Wait with dinner.”).
There are 7 cases in Polish (actually 6 that you really have to worry about). Each of them has different endings. What’s more different parts of speech often have different endings. It’s a bit of a nightmare to wrap one’s head around them initially but you can really overcome difficulties with time and these tricks:

  • Don’t learn all cases together. Learn them one by one and practise a lot with written and oral exercises. Create easy phrases and sentences working with grammar tables.
  • Try to understand what each case is used for, apart from just memorising rules
  • But DO memorise the rules, not only endings for different parts of speech but also which prepositions and verbs require a given case

The Hardcore Pronunciation

Polish pronunciation is a bit hardcore for speakers of many languages. There are many sounds that are somewhat difficult to pronounce as well as clusters of consonants. My short Polish teaching experience tells me that Hungarian, Arabic and Italian students seem to struggle with the pronunciation the least.
The thing about pronunciation is that if you have certain sounds in your language, they’re not a problem. If you don’t, then you have to work on teaching yourself to produce such sounds. Your mouth will go to whatever it thinks is closest in your native language to whatever it is that you’re trying to pronounce. This is why “accents” are somewhat predictable and why people have ideas about how, for instance, a German speaker or a French speaker pronounces certain things in English.
How to learn Polish pronunciation then, seeing that many languages don’t have many of the Polish sounds? By practising the sounds as well as repeating phrases and sentences. Over and over again. You can also try recording yourself, if you can stand the sound of your own voice. Alternatively, pay someone to listen to you during lessons.

The Awkward Aspect

Grammatical aspect isn’t a specifically Polish feature but aspect coding in Polish is different to what you see in English. To show the focus on completion of and action as opposed to the “doing of it“, Polish has produced verbs. The perfective aspect is the one that focuses on completion. The imperfective, on the other hand, on performing.
Almost all verbs in Polish have their counterparts in the other aspect and some of them have more than one. A good example a simple pair are two verbs for “to buy”: kupować (imperfective) and kupić (perfective). Have a look at the difference between them:

Kupuję gazety. – “I’m buying newspaper.” (kupować – imperfective)

Focus on the action that I’m performing, not its completion.

Kupię gazetę. – “I’ll buy a newspaper.” (kupić – perfective)

Focus on the completion of the action that I’m performing – the fact, that the newspaper will be bought once I’m done with the action.

That may seem a bit abstract in the beginning but one really gets a hang of it with time. One thing to remember that’s pretty helpful is that the perfective aspect doesn’t have the present tense (which totally makes sense as I can’t make the action completed as it’s happening). However, I could still form sentences with other verbs in the present tense and a perfective verb:

Chcę kupić gazetę. – “I want to buy a newspaper.”

In this sentence I’m saying that I want the result of buying, that is, to have the said newspaper. If I said Chcę kupować gazetę. I’d be saying that I want the experience of buying the newspaper. As you imagine it’s unusual to hear this sentence in Polish.

Another important tip for aspect learning is learning them in pairs. This is something I’ve picked up when learning Russian as Russian has the same use of aspect in Polish. If you learn the verbs together with examples of their use, chances of you succeeding in using them appropriately increase. Alternatively, you’ll be more aware of mistakes you make which is still better than nothing!

The Final Words

I’ve given you today an overview of Polish problem areas, which hopefully will make your learning process a tad easier. It’s worth focusing on these topics because they predictably cause problems to most students of Polish. Anything else that you find particularly difficult in learning Polish? Let me know in the comments’ section!

Lessons from My Language Learning Failures

I’m usually a pretty productive individual but I must say that I’ve been struggling with having things done in the last two months (because COVID). My workload is the same (touch wood) as before and if anything I have more time for doing cool things such as working on my Russian. And yet, I haven’t even done a Duolingo lesson in over a month.
I don’t think I have to tell anyone that life is tough at the moment, even for those fortunate enough to still have jobs. All I’ve been really doing is reading a lot and playing computer games, which are both coping mechanisms I’ve been using since childhood.
I think this is a perfect opportunity to speak about my language failures. I’m fluent in four languages but I could have been fluent in at least 7 had I been more consistent, motivated and productive. Why would I talk about these failures? Because there are lessons there to be learnt there, of course.

The Unheimlich German

German was not my language of choice. In the early 90’s German was THE language you learned as a second foreign language after English in Polish schools.
I was definitely not excited about learning it. I liked school but languages weren’t really my thing back then plus I didn’t find German particularly appealing. Also, my father’s wife at the time was a German philologist and she never failed to remind me how little of German I knew and how many mistakes I made. The school experience was full of grammar exercises, memorising vocabulary and little speaking practice. After 3 years of German and knowing only the bare essentials I was thrilled to move on to French traumatising my parents outraged at my decision of abandoning what I started. Their reaction was nothing else than sunk cost fallacy and I proved them wrong quickly.
Learning French in high school taught me I loved learning languages. After 2 years of learning with a group of beginners, I realised that by ACTUALLY learning what’s assigned you can get to an intermediate level in that time. While others still struggled with the basics, I decided to spend three weeks of my summer on a French course. When I got back to school I asked to be moved to a more advanced group of people who had 3 years of French ahead of me. The teachers didn’t love the idea and everyone expected me to fail. I was stressed, I was shy but I ended up being completely fine. I finished the year with a B in French and concluded it with the matric exam (A-levels equivalent) on both the basic (CEFR B1) and advanced (CEFR B2) level. I got 98% on B1 and 78% on B2.
What was different between my German and my French? In both cases we’re talking about 3 years. In high school I had 5 hours of French as opposed to 2 hours of German in middle school, but this doesn’t account for the difference. Most people who started with me as beginners in French spoke little French towards graduation, not more than I spoke German after middle school. Similarly, as much as there was no evil stepmother to discourage me from French, I had a number of teachers against me and the population of Paris during my course.
What really differed was: my motivation, my determination to succeed, my eagerness to show that the system is outdated and my genuine interest in French.

The Evasivo Spanish

If you google my name, you’ll find some bios of mine saying that I’m currently learning Spanish (to be fair you’ll find some saying that I’m learning Russian too, sighs). Spanish has been on my wishlist for years and years and I’ve had numerous attempts at learning it. I had two language partners during my studies I’d see regularly (it didn’t help with my Spanish that I made out with one of them and then he told me he wasn’t ready for a girlfriend!). I tried studying with books and with apps later but without much success.
In the meantime I became fluent in Italian by attending two intensive summer courses with two girlfriends and doing some annual courses in between. I took my first intensive summer course in Italian in summer 2008. In summer 2010 I took the B2 exam at my university and got a B+, leaving my examiners on the oral exam with their mouth agape.
What was the difference here? For Italian I had the structure and girlfriends to share my passion with (all hot Italian boys didn’t hurt either). For Spanish I had a liking for the language, for sure but no real structure. Also, by the time I was fluent in Italian between my French and Italian I understood a lot of Spanish which made me additionally lazy.

The Onoorkomelike Afrikaans

When I first came to South Africa, the social circle I ended up hanging out with was predominantly Afrikaans-speaking. That meant that whenever they got drunk (and we got drunk A LOT) they’d switch to Afrikaans, the language that I didn’t understand. I got an exchange partner I saw four times a week and within few months I was able to understand quite a bit of Afrikaans and have basic conversations. When the group and I drifted apart I just lacked the motivation to keep going and today I can only tell people that I speak Afrikaans a bit (n bietjie) or not at all (Ek praat nie Afrikaans nie!), depending on whether they look like someone I want to make the effort with or not.
What went wrong here? It’s complicated. There are millions of reasons why I’m no longer learning Afrikaans. One is that the people who speak it usually also speak English. The other that I feel that maybe a different South African language such as Zulu or Xhosa would be a better choice. Last but not least, my life wouldn’t really change in any positive way if I spoke it.

What about Russian?

I think it’s too early to count Russian among my language failures. The first time I tried to learn was two weeks in high school one summer with a book and CD recordings. Thanks to that experience, I can proudly say “Excuse me, does this train go to Minsk?” (Извините, пожалуйста. Этот поезд идет в Минск?) to this day!
The second time was a month before our trip to Azerbaijan in March 2019. I learnt to read Cyrillic and important survival expressions during a self-made crash course. The third time was three or four months ago when I decided to give it a try again and as you know I failed to build on my newly regained enthusiasm because COVID 19. And also, because I’m myself which means that I tend to have too many irons in the fire and apart from learning Russian I was trying to prepare to my C2 exam in Italian and make myself sound British.

Lessons From This TLDR Post

I’m certainly capable of learning languages and learning them fast too (and so are YOU and anyone who’s willing to put in the work) but the learning process requires the right circumstances to happen:

  • You need something you’re excited about that has to do with the language you’re learning, in other words, you need a strong WHY for choosing a given language in the first place
  • You need motivation and determination
  • You need structure, ideally not entirely self-imposed (get a motivated exchange partner or even better a language tutor or enroll on a course)
  • Strike while the iron is hot – maximise on your initial excitement with learning a new language and get as much done as you can then

Good luck on your language journey and good luck to me too!

Preparing Meals in Polish: Robić and Gotować

In my last post I’ve discussed the family tree of the verb robić. You can check it out to learn words from this verb’s family. Today, I’ll discuss the use of this verb for food preparation. What’s the difference between robić (“to do/to make”) and gotować (“to cook”)? You’ll find out today! (And I’m sure you’re as excited as when you’re about to find out who the wrongdoer in Scooby-Doo is).

Cultural Note

A lot of people will tell you that robić is used for not hot/uncooked meals and gotować for the ones that require warming up. This is true to vast but it won’t make much sense for a person who comes from a different culture.
Of course, the way Polish people eat has been changing to accommodate the modern workplace. Lots of Poles have breakfast, lunch and dinner like other Westerners. However, the language has been around for a while and when certain expressions were created they reflected reality.
Polish people less recently used to eat an uncooked breakfast śniadanie (often sandwiches), second breakfast drugie śniadanie (yet again, sandwiches, this time packed), obiad (a cooked meal around 4 o’clock), podwieczorek (an afternoon snack) and dinner kolacja (and yes, yet again, often sandwiches).
Obiad is very often translated to English as “lunch” but as you can see from the description above it doesn’t really carry the same idea.

Robić or gotować?

The main question is whether we “cook” (gotować) or “make/do” (robić) something. Robić can be used even if something is cooked but it doesn’t work the other way round. That’s why we would say:

  • robić śniadanie – “to make breakfast”

    Tata robi śniadanie dla dzieci. – “Dad is making breakfast for children.”
  • robić/gotować obiad – “to make/cook lunch (for lack of a better word)”

    Robię/Gotuję obiad, oddzwonię później. – “I’m making lunch, I’ll call you back later.”
  • robić kolację – “to make dinner”

    Co robisz na kolację? – “What are you making for dinner?”

Robić AND gotować

Just like in the example with obiad we can use both gotować and robić for some things. There will be a difference in meaning, though so choose wisely.

Robić pierogi means to form them out of pastry. You can also use the verb lepić (literally: “to glue”) here. The verb gotować should be used for pierogi, when you’re making them ready to eat by boiling them in hot water.

By the same token, we say robić makaron when describing the activity of cutting and shaping pasta and gotować makaron for cooking it.

Check Your Understanding

I hope that the difference between these two verbs is clear to you now. Just to make sure, do the test below. Remember to comment with your answers below so that I can tell you, whether you were right or not:

  1. Mama _____________ pizzę. (Mom is making pizza. Hint: forming the dough not baking it)
  2. Karol ____________ śniadania, a ja ___________ obiady. (Karol makes breakfasts and I make lunches.)
  3. ___________ pierogi już od godziny. (I’ve been making pierogi for an hour.)
  4. Zaczęłam ___________ pierogi, będa gotowe za 10 minut. (I’ve started to boil pierogi, they’ll be ready in 10 minutes.)
  5. Po polsku nie mówi się _________ kolację tylko ___________ kolację. (We don’t say cook dinner in Polish but make dinner).

A Family Tree: Verb Robić

I consider “family trees” a very effective method of learning vocabulary. A “family tree” are words related to one another. They look similar but are used in different ways. An example of a small family tree (should I say a shrub?) in English is: comfort (noun), discomfort (noun), to comfort (verb), comfortable (adjective) and uncomfortable (adjective).

Robić is a super important verb in Polish. This is why today, we’ll discuss the robić family tree.

Robić – Verb

Robić means “to do/to make” and is the most commonly used word in Polish to express this idea. It’s an imperfective verb, which means its focus is on the action and not on the completion of a given activity. It’s used with the accusative case, biernik.

Robię zupę na kolację. – “I’m making a soup for dinner.”

Robisz swoją pracę domową? – “Are you doing your homework?”

Paweł nic nie robi całe dnie. – “Paweł does nothing all days.”

Zrobić – Verb

Zrobić also means “to do/to make” but it’s a perfective verb and its focus is on the completion of an action. We can’t use this verb in the present tense as it can merely refer to something we will complete or we’ve already completed. It’s used with the accusative case, biernik.

Zrobię zupę na kolację. – “I’ll make a soup for dinner.”

Zrobisz swoją pracę domową? – “Will you do your homework?”

Paweł nic nie zrobi cały dzień. – “Paweł will do nothing all day.”

Wrobić – Verb

Wrobić kogoś means “to frame someone” or “put someone in a situation when they have to do something they don’t want to do” in Polish slang. It’s used with the accusative case, biernik.

Jestem niewinny! Wrobili mnie! – “I’m innocent! They’ve framed me!”

Nie wrobisz mnie w to! – “You won’t put me in a situation when I’ll have to do it.”

Wrobiła mnie w organizację spotkania. – “She’s put me in a situation when I have to organize the meeting.”

Przerobić – Verb

Przerobić means “to turn something into something else”. It’s often used to speak about clothes. It’s used with the accusative case, biernik.

Przerobiłam moje zasłony na sukienkę. – “I’ve turned my curtains into a dress.”

Przerobić can also refer to material studied at school or at university. In that case it translates as “to cover”.

Nie przerobiliśmy jeszcze tego zagadnienia. – “We haven’t covered this topic yet.”

Przerobić is a perfective verb. An imperfective form is przerabiać. Compare:

Przerabiamy salon na jadalnię. – “We’re turning the living room into a dining room.”

Przerobimy salon na jadalnię w przyszłym roku. – “We’ll turn the living room into a dining room.”

Zarabiać – Verb

Zarabiać means “to earn”:

Wiesz, ile on zarabia? – “Do you know how much he earns?”

Pracuje i pracuje, a zarabiam grosze! – “I work a lot but I still earn peanuts!”

Nie zarabiasz tyle, ile powinieneś. – “You don’t earn as much as you should.”

Zarobić is a perfective counterpart of zarabiać.

Kupię samochód jak na niego zarobię. – I’ll buy a car when I earn enough money.

W przyszłym miesiącu powinienem zarobić więcej. – I should earn more next month.

Zarobiłem na wszystko co mam. – I’ve earned everything I have.

Robota – Noun

Robota is a slang word for work or job. It’s used in many handy expressions such as:

Dobra robota! – “Good job!”

Robota nie zając, nie ucieknie. – A loose translation: “Work can wait.” Literally: “Work isn’t a hare, it won’t run away.”

Mam dużo roboty. – “I have a lot of work.”

Robot: Noun

Do you know what a false friend is? It’s when a word that looks the same or similar in two languages but differs in meaning. Fortunately, robot in Polish is your real friend (or a so-called cognate).

Rumba to robot sprzątający. – “Rumba is a cleaning robot.”

Myślisz, że roboty przejmą panowanie nad światem? – “Do you think that robots will take over the world?”

Robotnik: Noun

Robotnik is a word used for a physical worker. The female version of this word is robotnica and it can also refers to bee workers. There’s also a vulgar slang expression for a physical worker robol.

On jest świetnym robotnikiem! – “He’s a great (physical) worker!”

Robotnice pomagają królowej. – The female workers are helping the Queen.

Nie lubię słowa robol! – “I don’t like the word “robol”. “

Robienie: Noun

Robienie is a noun that translates to “doing” or “making”.

Robienie sobie żartów ze starszych ludzi, nie jest okej! – “Joking about the elderly isn’t okay.”

robić sobie żarty – “to joke”

Robienie własnego chleba nie jest łatwe. – “Making your own bread isn’t easy.”

Nic nie robienie jest super. – “Doing nothing is amazing!”

I hope this post has been useful. If you’re looking for a way to organize your vocabulary use AnkiApp or Quizlet (I have a BIG preference for the latter).

Check Your Understanding

Here’s a short test for you to check your understanding of the difference between these words:

1. Ten _____________ ciężko pracuje. (This worker works very hard.)

2. ____________ więcej niż na początku mojej kariery. (I earn more than in the beginning of my career.)

3. Zachowuje się jak ______________. (He’s behaving like a robot.)

4. Co ___________ ? (What are you doing?)

5. Co ____________ jeśli ona nie wróci? (What will you do, if she doesn’t come back?)

6. ___________ bigosu strasznie długo trwa. (Making bigos takes a very long time.)

7. Adam mówi, że go _____________ i ja mu wierzę. (Adam says he’s been framed and I believe him.

8. _______________ ten temat jutro. (We’ll cover this topic tomorrow.)

9. Ta _________ jest głupia, ale dobrze mi płacą. (This job is stupid but they pay me well.)

How did you do? Remember to comment to get your answers. Adieu!