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Learning to speak Polish is pretty much exactly like boxing. (No, seriously – speaking is like boxing! This is pretty much as good as analogies get.)
Before I get into why, first of all, I have to reference two fantastic blog posts:
- “How To Learn Conversation By Ear” by Idahosa Ness, the man behind the Mimic Method. His post is a big eye-opener and well worth reading
- “The Biggest Language-Learning Lesson I’ve Learned” by “Smart Language Learner” Noel van Vliet. There’s one nugget of absolute gold in there which will save you years of heartache with your Polish. Don’t worry – I’ve highlighted it below
These posts are brilliant and I’ll be referencing both of them in this post.
Why speaking is like boxing
You know when you speak to Polish people? That is a boxing match. (Sometimes, it might feel like it too.) You’ll probably go in with your guard up, try out a few things and see how well you do. When you’re in the ring, you have no choice: If you don’t try something, you’re going to get punched in the face.
If you don’t have people cheering you on from the sidelines, it’s going to be tough, but you can still do it. Is your opponent more experienced? Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t hold your own. How fast is your opponent? Obviously the faster they are, the more difficulty you’re going to have. You can win this though, especially after all of the conditioning that you’ve been doing.
That conditioning, in this case, is the groundwork: The flashcards you’ve studied, the books you’ve read, the YouTube videos you’ve watched. You’ve been working on your technique for months, building up to this big fight. Jab, jab, uppercut. You’ve got a few combos that you can pull out when the time is right. Sure, you might not be able to execute them perfectly against a live opponent, but if you time it right, some of your moves can have quite the impact. You don’t have to be the fastest, nor do you need to be perfect. You just need to be effective. A few mistakes here and there don’t matter as long as you live to fight another day.
Speaking is like boxing – and unless you prepare appropriately for the fight ahead, you’re going to get knocked out. Fast.
Two peas in a pod
Jumping in the ring without mastering the basics is dangerous. You’ll have your mouthpiece smacked out of your head within seconds and even if you do fully recover, you won’t be in a rush to get back in the ring anytime soon. Similarly, there’s no point doing all of that training, putting yourself through all of that gruelling effort if you’re never going to try it out for real. You don’t train for training’s sake, you train to compete. After all, you only know how good a boxer really is when you put them in the ring.
Having a conversation in Polish is just like boxing. Teachers, like boxing coaches, can help you correct your technique. Language partners, like sparring partners, can give you a taste of how effective your skills are, but in a safe and controlled environment.
After a few practice runs, you need to have some real-life conversations, get punched in the face a few times and then realise that you don’t like getting punched in the face. That’s why doing the groundwork properly is so important. You need to put in the time to train for a range of situations before going to test them out for real in the ring. The last thing you want to do is rush your training, but you can’t wait around forever without trying it out for real. Of course, once the fight is scheduled, there’s no turning back.
So, you see, speaking Polish is just like boxing. In that case, let’s get ready to rumble!
You know enough to start speaking already
I can’t be any clearer than this. This is the punch in the face that you need and the one that I needed.
You spend all of this time preparing, yet you don’t speak to natives. You’ll tell yourself how you just need to learn “a few more words”, how you “haven’t quite got the hang of the grammar yet”. These things may well be true, but none of them are a good enough reason to not be speaking with natives. So what if you don’t understand everything that everyone is saying yet?
Any reason you are currently using to avoid having conversations is an excuse.
No ifs, no buts, IT’S AN EXCUSE.
There are only three exceptions to this:
- You have a mouth injury
- You’re physically incapable of speaking due to a medical condition
- You don’t actually want to learn how to speak Polish
What’s stopping you from hopping on Skype with Google Translate open in another window and trying out a few phrases? Nothing – except your ego. Stop kidding yourself that anyone cares if you say something wrong. Darren accidentally proposed to a Polish girl and even she got over it! What’s the worst that can happen?
As my mother would say, “get a grip”. You’re not offending anyone with your bad grammar, especially someone who has agreed to help you correct it.
THERE IS NO OTHER WAY.
To learn how to speak Polish, you have to speak Polish. Everything else that you are doing is just groundwork…to get you to a stage where you can speak Polish. You will have to do it eventually and you will still not know enough words, you will still not know all of the grammar and you will still probably not understand all of what people are saying to you. Sometimes I don’t understand everything that people are saying to me and most of the time, they’re speaking to me in English!
What you’re doing is coming up with an excuse to hide the fact that you are a big, fat chicken. You’re scared – I get it. I’ve been there. The only way to get over that is to commit to speaking to a native speaker. Find a language partner or a teacher and actually schedule some time to talk. Then talk to them. Then do it again. And again. And again. Each time, you’ll get a little better and your confidence will build. This video explains everything you need to know:
Replace “running” with “learning Polish” and you get the idea. You don’t necessarily have to speak Polish every day, but you should definitely try and practise your Polish in one way or another on a daily basis.
The more you do and the more often you do it, the easier it gets.
Those words you think you know, you don’t actually know
I didn’t believe this. You might not believe it. It’s still true.
Sure, you might recognise lots of words sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them. If you’re in Estonia, you walk into a hotel and the receptionist greets you in Estonian, you might know it’s a greeting and that it probably means “Hello” or “Good day” or something like that, but you probably still couldn’t repeat it if you had a gun to your head. In fact, seconds later, you’ll probably already have forgotten what it was.
“Truth is, you don’t really ‘know’ the words and phrases until you use them in a conversation.” – Idahosa Ness
There are two types of vocabulary – active and passive. Flashcards mostly help you build your passive vocabulary – the words that you recognise. Your active vocabulary consists solely of the words in your passive vocabulary that you actually use while speaking and writing.
The difference between active and passive vocabulary
To give you an example, the word “time” is a word that I imagine you’ll know, understand and use often. It’s in your active vocabulary.
On the other hand, you might know what an “oesophagus” is, but rarely use that word in conversation (if ever). In that case, it exists in your passive vocabulary.
Finally, there are other English words like “jentacular” which you’ve probably never even heard of. That means that it’s not in either vocabulary. Well, at least it wasn’t in either vocabulary…until you read it a few seconds ago. Now “jentacular” is in your passive vocabulary.
To make “jentacular” a worthwhile addition to your passive vocabulary, you need to also understand what it means, otherwise it’ll just be a word that you recognise. (It means “a breakfast eaten early in the morning or immediately after waking up”. You’re welcome.)
Long story short, your active vocabulary is a subset of your passive vocabulary which is a subset of all of the words (however useless) in the language.
You can only build your passive vocabulary by encountering and understanding new vocabulary and you can only build your active vocabulary by using your passive vocabulary via speaking and writing. It’s as simple as that.
You won’t learn how to speak Polish by reading about it in a book or on a blog. You’ll learn how to speak Polish by actually practising it.
Bang. Left hook.
Speaking alone isn’t enough
A while ago, I asked a (pretty stupid, now I think about it) question on Reddit: To become proficient at speaking a foreign language – and only speaking a language – is conversation alone enough?
Someone commented that Indian speakers do this all the time. Others didn’t see it as particularly efficient, but said it could be possible. Despite this, Noel’s blog post has highlighted two reaaaaally important things that I have overlooked and should have known after reaching the intermediate plateau with my own Polish.
“The fluency of what you already know how to say will definitely improve. The same goes for listening comprehension of what you already know. But…[the] amount of new vocabulary and grammar structures you pick up by just conversing is surprisingly disappointing.” – Noel van Vliet
Thwack. A right hook there from Noel.
He’s so right. In fact, you’d be surprised at how little you learn from conversations once you hit the intermediate levels of Polish. It seems like we just use a small set of words over and over again. You really don’t need that many words to have a conversation and because of that, you don’t tend to learn many during them. For proof, see my language log. As time goes on, the number of corrections that I receive gets smaller, while the complexity of the corrections becomes more advanced.
In short, you need conversation to practise what you’ve learned, but you also need constant input to make sure that you continue learning new things.
For the umpteenth time, speaking is JUST LIKE BOXING. You can’t rest on your laurels. You have to train hard and often to give yourself the best chance in the ring. If you don’t, someone is going to knock you out.
If speaking is like boxing, how have you been preparing for the big fight?
The only preparation that I do for the Polish conversations that I have on Skype is study as many Anki flashcards as possible. That means I’ve increased the size of my passive vocabulary and have more options of what I can say during the conversation. Sometimes I’ll also read over any corrections that I’ve been given in the past.
What do you do to prepare? Let me know what you’ve found effective in the comments below.
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