WHY LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE?
One reason for creating the Random Embassy Papers was to explain why learning languages has been so important to me, how it has broadened my perspective, kept my mind sharp, and allowed me to connect with people all over the world. I also hope my writing here will encourage you to learn a new language if you aren’t already. Today I’m going to focus on the Polish, but first some context about my relationship to foreign languages.
At the moment there are three languages that I am actively learning - Polish, Dutch and Farsi. Then there is my native English, and also German, which I had put a lot of effort into learning a few years back. I’m still proficient at German, although I am afraid that it’s degrading because of my daily exposure to Dutch. I sometimes find myself mixing German, English and Dutch all together, but that’s a separate problem.
So why Polish, Dutch and Farsi? It’s simple – those are the languages that I need to know, at least to some degree, to communicate with people that are important in my life. I’ve been living in the Netherlands for almost 4 years, so having a working understanding of Dutch is important. My girlfriend is Iranian, so besides being able to slowly understand Farsi so that I can know what she is saying about me when she talks on the phone to her sister, I’d like to be able to speak with her grandmother when we visit Tehran one day. But what about Polish? Besides Nasza Biedronka, the shop down the street from me which reminds me of the Polish shops back in Port Richmond, I’m not communicating in Polish on a daily basis. But learning a language isn’t always a practical matter. In this case goes deeper into my past.
I remember when my Uncle brought me to Polish Sunday school at St. Adalberts. The letters on the worksheet of basic nouns and verbs were not the letters I had learned on Sesame Street: ł, ó, ą, ż. I was simultaneously intrigued and scared. Sadly my 10 year old brain made a decision that I regret to this day. I didn’t continue the lessons, and more than a decade would go by before I began to learn the language of my grandparents and great grandparents.
In my early 20’s I visited Krakow for the first time with my friend Roman. Certain words and letters whispered to me, like acquaintances I had met once in passing, a long time ago. The syllables, nasal vowels, and palatal consonants came back from their dormant state in my brain, awakening memories of relatives speaking around the dinner table, the voice of the priest at mass, or conversations I overheard in the New Wave Cafe. “Dobry wieczór, Miło mi Panią poznać”.
Some phrases were more familiar than others. I had seen them on the signs of the shops and restaurants on Allegheny Avenue, or had actually used them sparingly around the neighborhood. Zapraszamy, Księgarnia, Piekarnia, Piwo. Of course there were the more familiar words for food. I recalled my mother and grandmother making Gołąbki, Ziemniaki Placki, Babka and Pierogi. These were fond memories, but because I did not take the opportunity to learn Polish as a living language when I was young and in an environment where it could be spoken everyday, I was still closed off from a deeper experience with the Polish tongue.
In an attempt to rectify my mistake, I took group classes at the Polish Cultural Center in Philadelphia. I found them too cumbersome and limited by the slowest person in the group. It wasn’t until I discovered Michel Thomas that I began to make progress. His method focuses on teaching broad generalization from basic language principles, contextual diversity, and learning self-correction in an environment that attempts to be stress-free. It really worked for me. I felt that I made immediate progress with none of self doubt or struggle that came with my language classes in High School. The method enabled me to quickly take the small amount of Polish that I knew as a kid, and begin to quickly build on it and make sentences and communicate basic ideas. I was speaking Polish.
Then I found Piotr of Real Polish. For me this find was groundbreaking. Piotr’s methodology of listening and reading based learning with little or no focus on grammar gave me contact with the spoken language on my timeline, and trained my ears and tongue to embrace the language in a natural way. I was able to connect with a more contemporary Polish that was relevant to what was actually going on in Poland and around the world.
To ramp up the speed of my learning, I decided to take private lessons. I’ve been studying with Paulina from Your Daily Polish for about 3 years. Originally from Krakow, Paulina also has a great podcast. Polish is a tough language, and it’s especially hard because I don’t have the opportunity to speak it in a natural setting, but by working with her online once or twice a week, I’m able to put into practice the things I’ve learned and truly push my skills further.
BENEFITS OF LANGUAGE LEARNING
I’m always concerned with keeping an open mind. Thanks to neuroplasticity, the ability of my brain to change throughout my life, learning a language helps me to keep an open mind by literally transforming the structure of my brain.
Through the process of learning, my brain is constantly challenged and being used to the highest capacity. Besides the immediate benefits that I get from enjoying the feeling of speaking and listening to languages that are not my own, there are many other long-term positive effects on my mental and physical health. For example, researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that language learning often staves off the development of dementia. Other studies show that learning a language, especially as an adult, utilizes parts of the brain that are also involved in decision making. Think about it - when speaking a new language, we are using new parts of our brain in new ways, effectively exercising it, keeping it active, and ensuring it doesn’t become out of use and degenerate before it’s time.
PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE
About five years ago I also reconnected with my family in Poland. I visited the villages that my Great Grandfather and Great Grandmother on both sides of my family immigrated to the United States from just before the beginning of the first world war.
As my Polish improves I am able to learn more about the cousins and relatives that live in Widełka and Adamówka. I wanted to connect my life to theirs, as well as the history of the family of both sides of the Atlantic ocean. I wanted to tell the stories I always heard about my great grandfather Karol, my grandfathers Kazimir and Anthony, as well as learn new ones about what it was like to live in Poland through World War Two and the Communist era. I’m also able to read and listen to other sources of historical information about Poland during the interwar and postwar periods.
UNDERSTANDING CULTURE THROUGH LANGUAGE
In certain parts of Poland in the vicinity of Krakow, including the one where my family came from, to go outside you say “Na pole,” literally translated to “to the field”. The rest of the country says “Na dwór” which means “to the mansion.” There is an interesting class distinction here, as the area of Krakow and Subcarpathia has been perhaps the poorest area in Europe, and the assumption is that the peasants used “Na Pole” since the are going out to work in the fields, and the rich in the rest of the country went to the fancy mansions. Of course it’s not that simple, but it is an interesting insight into how language can shape our perceptions of ourselves and of our neighbours, even those that speak the same tongue.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE PERFECT
The most important thing about learning a language is understanding that it is ultimately about communication. It’s not about getting the grammar perfect or eliminating your accent. In my opinion, learning grammar isn’t the way to start at all. Do you think that famous Polyglots spent hours by themselves behind books studying grammar? I’d bet they spent hours talking to people, and not being embarrassed or afraid of making mistakes.
Ben Franklin was often criticised for his poor french, but it didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most celebrated Americans to spend time in in the salons of late 18th century Paris, becoming extremely popular with French women and diplomats alike. Be like Ben, learn from friends, strangers, TV, Radio, old books, whatever you can get your hands on. Take advantage of the internet, this unprecedented ability to connect with others and learn.