My Conversation in Polish After One Hour's Learning

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My Conversation in Polish After One Hour’s Learning

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

[I already have another mini-language challenge for a brand new language I've never learned before for another trip in a week! I'll announce it first on the discussion board on my Youtube page, so be sure to subscribe to my Youtube channel to see it in your Youtube  feed when it happens ;)]


As you saw last week, I challenged myself to take five hours to learn enough Polish to help me get by on my brief visit to Warsaw.

In the end, I didn't actually do that as planned… because I was so busy preparing for my TEDx talk (which will be completely different to the other one I gave, but still with the same topic of encouraging adult language learners – online in the next month or two), and working on my secret 3-month contract, that I only had two hours total time to invest into learning the Polish language!

Despite having even less time than I initially planned, I was pleased to learn what I needed and can even share the results with you on video. Let me go through this incredibly intense project, and remind you that it is never too early to start speaking, even if you are learning a language that is notoriously difficult (but please trust me on this when I say that people exaggerate difficulties in all languages to discourage you and inflate their own egos).

First check out the video of the results of my first hour of studying. After this one hour, I got straight on Skype to Ewelina, who I found on italki (our review is here)

Getting ready in the first hour

For that first hour, I spent a few minutes first focused on learning the phonetic pronunciation rules of Polish, to help me read anything I'd see in menus and signs aloud. This was an important priority for me because even if I understood nothing I was reading, being able to say my address correctly to a taxi man or read something off a menu that I found a translation of, would mean that people would understand me better.

It also meant that during the live Skype call, I could use an online dictionary if I got stuck, and not have to worry about pronouncing something incorrectly. I got through this very quickly for a very good reason: Esperanto helped me a lot.

In Polish for instance, you have the c sound representing ‘ts' (like in cats) as in Esperanto, and the ć works the same as Esperanto's ĉ. Same for ś in Polish reminding me of ŝ in Esperanto (sh sound in English). Polish also has a question particle Czy, which looks and acts the same as Esperanto's Ĉu (Sort of like a “do/does…” as the start of yes/no questions in English – incidentally, this is also similar in Quechua), so I was comfortable using that immediately.

As always, I can definitely recommend dipping your toes in Esperanto to give you a head start in other languages! Finally, Portuguese gave me a little head start too! There is a letter in Polish, Ł, which looks like an L with a line through it, but is actually pronounced like a ‘w'. Treating an L like a W is typical in Portuguese at the end of syllables, such as “Brasil” being pronounced Bra-zeew, so even though they do it between vowels and at the start of words too in Polish, it wasn't too bad to get used to it.

Polish also has lots of nasal sounds, that I found sounded somewhat like in Portuguese ão etc., so I emulated this where I could. I only flicked through this phonetic explanation briefly to get the gist, because the phrasebook I was using had a phonetic equivalent under the original Polish so I could be more sure. This phonetic equivalent was actually made for Germans, because the phrasebook I was using exclusively to study what I needed is in German.

The material is not the priority though – so if you think that selecting just the right book was in some way a major factor for any progress I made, I really think you are missing the point completely. I just walked into a local bookshop and bought the most interesting affordable thing I could find without wasting too much time analysing precisely the right course to use. The best course is overshadowed by the fact that you spend less time choosing courses and more time just using whatever you have and being active in your language. So I found the phrasebook you see me use in the video.

Next, I learned some words and phrases that I knew I would want to say. Ultimately, in both videos I was only using one or two dozen words over again, and was sticking to a specific script that I knew I was likely to follow. When you start to learn a language, sticking to a script makes everything easier. I found the sentence for “Could you repeat that please” to be too long for me to remember so easily, so I just used the word(s) “again (please)” most of the time.

My teacher was being spontaneous though, so I had to try to keep up. When I didn't understand, she'd type the word to me and I'd sometimes copy and paste it into Google translate, so I could keep up. She used a little English, but apart from a couple of words stuck almost entirely just to Polish. Hopefully you can see how I managed that in the above video.

Keeping the conversation in Polish for such a long time despite just starting to learn it was not down to some magic skills I have that you don't, but a pure stubbornness to refuse to use English, and to try to stretch the very little I knew as far as I could.

Speaking when you know next to nothing

As well as the above video, this next shorter one may be much more interesting because it's an in person chat with a friend of mine who had no idea I was going to record her until she saw the camera, so the whole thing was entirely spontaneous.

This was after 2 full hours of exposure to Polish (the first hour studying, plus the half an hour Skype lesson, plus another half an hour studying the phrasebook a little more just before I met her):

As you can see, I tried and somehow managed to keep the conversation somewhat flowing! This involved saying my prepared sentences some of the time, and trying to wing it the rest of the time. For instance, I flicked through a conjugation table and saw that -im or  nasal -e is usually first person, and that a sh sound at the end is usually second person. This was important to be aware of in a direct one-on-one conversation like what I was going to have.

I also saw that I could have glanced at Polish's grammatical cases, but what would the point be? People can figure out what I'm saying fine, as they know I'm making mistakes anyway. It would be like saying “for he” instead of “for him” in English. Incorrect, but understandable. Such matters were immediately discarded as very low priority for my current stage. It's not perfect, but luckily for me I was speaking to a human being and not a robot that spits out error messages with any mistakes it encounters.

Humans can extrapolate what you mean when you make mistakes, so if I messed up a conjugation or pronunciation, it's easy to guess from the context what I might mean. And most importantly, I did a LOT of extrapolation myself when the other person was speaking. I hope the thought bubble graphics that I added to this video represent this OK. For instance Goshka said “I will drink coffee with Benny and then there will be a meeting of readers of the blog Fluent in 3 months”, and I was only able to pick up “coffee… Bennygo (guessing my name with some preposition or grammatical feature)… blog Fluent in 3 months”.

In fact, apart from the word coffee, which I had indeed learned since I expected to use it in this specific conversation, the other words I recognized are the same or very similar in English, so this wasn't even from my 2 hours study time (remember, it's impossible to truly start any new language from scratch because of common words!), and most people should recognize such common words in a host of languages if they are focused enough.

Based on the context of me having just asked her what she was doing today, and the fact that I actually already knew the answer since I had invited her out for a coffee and then to join me in a meet-up of Fi3M readers, some good guess work means that I filled in the gaps and did indeed understand. This wasn't because my Polish was so great but because context always gives you tonnes of clues. Guesswork is essential in the early stages of language learning, and a hugely under-appreciated skill by those obsessed with perfectionism. You simply can't understand everything, so work around it and be imaginative!

This is  why I think us adults have a huge advantage over children learning languages. I have three decades of CONTEXT experience in life in general, that help me understand many situations regardless of what vocabulary I happen to hear. This imagination and use of extrapolation is beyond the ridiculously oversimplied input-output model most people have of language learning, is precisely why you can and SHOULD speak from day 1. You know way more than you think you do, to try to keep a conversation flowing, even if you have only actually learned a couple of dozen words like I did.

You will also notice that I laugh and smile during the process. This is great for giving a much more relaxed and comfortable impression, than having body language that screams nervous. This relaxed look you try to maintain is contagious and helps the other person be more flexible while communicating with you.

Using it for real

Apart from what I recorded for these two videos, the actual point of learning Polish was to help me to get around better while I was there. I was indeed able to tell the taxi man where I wanted to go, order food, ask for directions, and exchange basic initial pleasantries with people. In fact, since I spent most of my time with the other English speakers from the TED conference, I was the “designated Polish speaker” for when we sat down to eat, or to give taxi directions for the post-conference party, since I mostly shared taxis with them.

Why would it take you more than an hour or two to learn these in any language? I mean, I know why – for six months living in Spain, and for 5 years learning German before I tried to use either, I had my mantra of “I'm not ready yet”, “What if they laugh at me?” and all sorts of other absolute and utter nonsense for reasons why I shouldn't use what I had sooner. Using English while you travel for even these simple phrases is indeed nothing more than laziness!

Learn off some phrases and spit them out, come on! Some Poles who saw me do this with others were very impressed (those I was actually speaking directly to just replied as normal, since speaking a little of their language is really no big deal), but I don't see the big deal in learning off a tiny number of very specific phrases, and then paying attention when they speak to me to see if I understand anything I can work with (rather than giving up when I don't understand the entire sentence, which is going to happen anyway).

Although, I imagine they were impressed by a combination of this and the fact that my accent is OK, as I've learned sounds we don't have in English that they do have in Polish, while learning other languages. Most English speakers can reach this stage very easily by focusing on their R, which is the biggest giveaway of all. I found that I shine best in natural situations, rather than when someone is listening out specifically for how my Polish is. So I did indeed talk to waitresses only in Polish for instance, but if someone who heard of my blog came up to me after my TEDx talk and said “Speak Polish to me!!” it felt way too forced for me to feel as comfortable.

When put on the spot like this, being listened to specifically for how my level is, I feel like it's a dancing monkey request. It's one reason why I think academic situations and forced tests are such terrible ideas for language learners, and it's why I try to make my focus about natural conversations as much as I can. Natural conversations don't have this awkward feeling of being put under a microscope and being judged, and I suppose that the biggest lesson that I've learned of all that has allowed me to use languages sooner has been to realize that this judgement is all in my head, that native speakers are actually incredibly patient pretty much everywhere in the world, and that it's OK to use the language as soon as possible.

If you are in the absolute beginner stages of your language, learn off some phrases and start using them! Stop thinking yourself out of making good progress, try your best to stay positive, and you may surprise yourself with how much you can communicate! Let me know what you think of my Polish project in the comments below, but please do try to emulate it yourselves if you haven't started speaking your target language yet!! I'll do this again with a completely different language next week 😉

Once again, details on that for subscribers to my Youtube channel first!

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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