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Even though my methods for learning Polish have been successful, there are still a lot of things that I would do differently if I could turn back the hands of time.
Strangely, I’d have spent less time with my useful tool – Anki. I’d have had less conversation partners too. I would trade the media that I consume for Polish equivalents, and I would have chosen a different order to learn vocabulary. I’d have been more selective with the vocabulary that I did learn too. I would have set specific goals and I would have learned grammar using cloze cards from the start. I wouldn’t have bothered looking at Pimsleur, Michel Thomas or any other course. I’d only use the few resources listed on my resources page.
Unfortunately, I can’t turn back the hands of time, but you can benefit from my mistakes.
I would avoid skipping days of studying Anki and avoid studying it for more than 15 minutes
I actually do use Anki pretty much every day (95% of the time, according to my statistics). If you want to know how to learn Polish the easy way, this is it. However, if I had known it would actually work when I started, that number would be 100%. Having said that, I wouldn’t spend more than 15 minutes a day studying with it. Not because it becomes less effective, but because it becomes boring.
Even now I tend to yo-yo with the number of new reviews that I do each day. One day it’s 5 and the next it’s 65. However, by the sheer nature of Anki’s spacing algorithm, if I’d kept a consistent number of reviews that I knew that I could do each day, I would always have a consistent number of reviews that I could do each day.
I am a huge fan of Anki and know that my Polish would be non-existent without it. That doesn’t mean to say that there aren’t more interesting ways of learning Polish. I’d cap my daily usage to just 15 minutes and then spend the rest of my time having fun.
I would avoid having more than two conversation exchange partners – one male and one female
I wouldn’t get rid of any of my conversation exchange partners, but sometimes I do wish I had a few extra hours a week to accommodate them all. Having had as many as seven partners at the same time, I know how speaking Polish often will inevitably improve your spoken Polish. That doesn’t mean that I recommend having a partner for every day of the week!
If I’m honest, I felt like my relationship was suffering. I was spending all of this time talking to strangers on the internet and not to my girlfriend in the room next door. Something had to give, so I cut down the number of partners that I had and shortened the amount of time that we spoke for.
In hindsight, I’m now recommending to you the bare minimum: One male partner and one female partner. You can always speak to them more often, if they’re available. I’m sure they’d appreciate the extra practice.
I would avoid having conversation exchange partners in general
Somehwat controversial. I’ll be the first to say that I’ve made some great friends through conversation exchanges, however to learn the language it makes so much more sense to pay a teacher. I switched from conversation exchanges to paid lessons in September 2017 and it’s made a huge difference having someone who:
- is definitely going to show up
- will speak to you in Polish for as long as you want (and pay them for)
- has a vested interest in your progress
When no money is involved like during a conversation exchange, people lose interested and just stop showing up. While I’ve never stood anyone up, I know that I’ve certainly lost interest in speaking to certain people or am not willing to have exchanges as often as they want to and I have allowed myself to drift away. The big change came for me when I started taking lessons and realised that my teacher would show up whenever I booked them for; wouldn’t be offended if I didn’t book a lesson with them ever again; and has an interest in helping me improve my Polish because if they don’t help me, I’ll stop paying them.
So while I would still say you should stick to one male conversation exchange partner and one female one too, if you can afford it, just get a teacher. The pros vastly outweigh the cons.
I would avoid doing anything in Polish that I don’t do in English
I have listened to countless hours of Tok FM and not understood a word. Radio Kraków too. I kept listening and listening in the hope that eventually it would all make sense. It didn’t. (It still doesn’t.) However, when I started listening to RMF Maxxx, suddenly I was able to understand significantly more. Pretty much everything, in fact. What happened? I was more used to the topics and vocabulary that they were talking about. RMF Maxxx is virtually identical to the types of radio stations that I (used to) listen to in English. When they were talking about Justin Bieber’s new single, I understood everything. It was comprehensible.
Although I still listen to radio stations and podcasts where I can barely catch the gist, I’ve found significantly better results by translating my life. That is, swapping the media that I would usually consume in English for its closest Polish equivalent. I don’t do it for everything, but where possible I try and live the life that I was already living through Polish. Polish hasn’t become a part of my life, it is my life.
I remember reading people talking about incorporating the language as part of their lives and thought that they were slightly insane language learning die-hards. Now I know that it’s as simple as changing your radio station or what you watch on YouTube, I think I’m one of them!
I would avoid learning words haphazardly and avoid learning useless vocabulary altogether
Firstly, I would get a phrasebook (preferably an English phrasebook written in Polish) and would add every single sentence in there to Anki that I would either use myself or expect to hear in conversation. For example “Hello” would be in, and “How many fishing rods can I use at any one time?” wouldn’t make cut. You may think the latter is an extreme example, but I actually have that sentence in my Anki deck. While sentences like this are very good for learning useful sentence structures, you don’t need to know them straight away.
I would only add full sentences, not phrases. Once I had those sentences in, I’d then start adding sentences containing any vocabulary that I didn’t know from the 1,000 most common words. If I couldn’t find an example sentence on Tatoeba, I’d check out Twitter instead.
By this point I would almost certainly have started speaking to natives, so I would also be able to add in any vocabulary from our conversation exchanges too. I would also take any opportunity to practise talking to myself in the shower, in the mirror or whilst walking around to see what vocabulary was missing.
Once the list from the 1,000 most common words were in, I would just start reading around subjects that I was interested in. I like reading about learning languages, so I’d probably start there. Once I found a blog post or article about learning languages, I’d read it to see how much I understood. Every sentence that I didn’t understand would be added to Anki with a translation from Google. Anything Google Translate couldn’t make sense of would be something I would ask my conversation exchange partners about.
I would avoid learning other languages until I’d reached my goal with Polish
I was taught Spanish at school and college and French before that, but I can’t speak either of them. Arguably both are more useful languages for a Brit to learn, so I dabbled in them both whilst learning Polish. As well as Swedish. And Italian. And Persian. Estonian too.
As you can guess, I didn’t get particularly far with any of those languages, as I wasn’t dedicating enough time to them. The novelty wore off, the momentum slowed to a halt, and I achieved nothing. In hindsight, I should have just stuck with learning Polish until reaching my goal and then taken on my next challenge.
I would avoid unclear goals
Do not underestimate the importance of having a goal, particularly a SMART one. My initial goal in Polish was “to be able to make conversation with Anna’s family”. Terrible goal. Nothing specific about it whatsoever. Not really measurable either. Despite it being outrageously vague, I did achieve it (I think!). So what, was I supposed to just stop learning? No – I was supposed to set another goal to aim towards.
Goals do very little apart from keep you focused. With no goal, there’s no end game. You keep studying and talking and reading and listening…but for what? Why? Set a goal, smash it and then set another goal. Progress is quick as a beginner, but as soon as that intermediate plateau sets in, you’ll be grateful you have something tangible to aim for.
The intermediate plateau
The intermediate plateau is like walking along a long road, not knowing how far away the nearest town is. You know that if you stick your thumb out for long enough, one of the occasionally passing cars might give you a lift, but as each car passes, your faith dwindles. Why did you start walking this road anyway? How did you even get here? Where are you going? Is this place you’re heading to any better than where you are right now? How much longer do you have to walk?
You’ve run out of water and you have to make it to the next town in order to survive. Stopping is not an option. If you stop, you’re finished. Every step that you’ve taken to get this far will have been wasted. If you stop, you’ll never know what the town at the end of the road was like and why you started walking towards it in the first place.
You have to keep going.
Long story short, you’re going to need a goal. To see my goal, check out my language log.
I’d avoid grammar mistakes, by making cloze cards
I experimented with cloze cards in French in the middle of 2016. For this experiment, I only studied cloze cards to see both how much and what I could learn. After three months, I realised that although I could guess the clozes correctly on virtually every sentence, away from Anki I could only (re)produce about three of the sentences fully and correctly – the ones which I’d repeated out loud a few times to test my pronunciation.
Why am I telling you this? Because, as great as cloze cards are, there are better ways to learn vocabulary. However, a 2015 study of Iranian English students by Farzad Mashhadi and Akram Bagheri suggested that “both individual and cooperative cloze practice improved grammatical accuracy of participants in experimental groups. That is, cloze test practice had a positive effect on grammatical accuracy…” What that means is, cloze tests improve your grammar. So while anecdotally I have witnessed that cloze tests did very little for my production skills, i.e. speaking and writing, the science hints that they may have been responsible for the “sudden improvement in grammar” that my conversation exchange partners noticed in my speech just a few weeks after I started using them.
I’d avoid Pimsleur, Michel Thomas and that book that I bought that I have looked at about three times
In fact the only resources I can recommend to you are the ones that worked for me. I have books gathering dust because of how useless they were.
Unfortunately, I got bored of Pimsleur because it kept teaching me how to say useless phrases. For example, “Jestem Amerykaninem” (“I am an American”). Great if you’re American, useless if you’re British. The spaced repetition was incredible, hence how I found out about Anki afterwards.
Michel Thomas’ course was good, even though it wasn’t him teaching it. I got a bit fed up with listening to one of the students though. I found the mnemonic-like lessons great at the time, but now, years later, I still can’t forget them. Now I end up doing some sort of language algebra in my head just to say sentences with certain words. Not cool.
Why you can learn much more efficiently that I did
In hindsight, I think I could have learned Polish with things that I already had. There are online phrasebooks, online grammar books and you can get language practice and Anki for free. If you need more material, you can just search the internet for articles either to add them to Anki or talk about them in conversation exchanges. I wasted money and time on resources that I haven’t used and didn’t need. The ones I did use have made learning Polish significantly easier and more convenient.
When I started learning, there wasn’t a website where I could just download Anki packs, so I had to create all of my cards from scratch. As each deck took months to build, I’d recommend you take the easy option and download something ready-made. If you make cards yourself, it might make things stick easier. However, you can get started immediately if you download. Making your own cards is a ball-ache, but you can still add your own cards if you download an Anki pack. The best of both worlds!
It’s a trade off. Could you learn Polish completely for free? Yes. Will it be easy to do so? Probably not – and it’ll be time consuming too.
What would you have done differently?
I have wasted plenty of time doing inefficient things. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Let me know below what didn’t work for you as well as what did. What would you have done differently?
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