This is part two of a four part series on how to learn a language:

How I learned a language interview

How did you learn Polish—and why?

I originally became interested in Polish after visiting the country as a child.  My grandparents lived in Warsaw and I still have a grandmother there today.  Mom was born and lived her first 20+ years in Warsaw, and Dad was technically full Polish too, his family having originated from near Lwow (or rather L’viv as it is now a part of Ukraine).  But my father, immigrating to the states at age 4, did not have the strong Polish foundation and began to lose it in American society.  He met my mother when they were in their 20’s and she was visiting on a trip from then-communist Poland.  Since his Polish wasn’t strong and her English was excellent, English was the language spoken at home (with a few Polish words thrown in here and there).  Occasionally I would hear Polish when relatives would call and I’d hear one side of the conversation, with my mom talking, but little of it stuck.

Perhaps it did help a bit for knowing what Polish should ‘sound’ like on some subconscious level, but other than some rudimentary vocabulary like the word for “ice cream”, and being able to count to 10, I really had zero Polish knowledge when I signed up for a Polish language course at age 20 while a student at UNC-Chapel Hill.

After 2 years of studies, I was definitely the weakest in my class of 7, though I was able to pass the courses and move on.  At this point I really did not have more than a functional command of the language, still struggled greatly with conjugations and declensions, and to be frank, lacked a burning desire to learn more.  Though I wanted to return to Poland for a period of time, there was just not an immediate need to be good in Polish, and thus I lacked the level of motivation to really throw myself into it.

But I did have a strong desire to return to Poland for awhile, and I will say that I really began to learn when I arrived in the country.   And it turned out my 2 years spent learning I the States was really a good investment, as though I did not have a strong active command of the language, I had acquired a good bit of latent knowledge and when I began learning in Poland my mind was able to fill in some gaps and begin to build on what I had learned at studies.

After about six months of self-study as well as attending a further Polish course in Krakow, I hit a point where I remember things began to click.  Like a switch had been turned in my brain.  I still remember it well;  perhaps this is when I began to “think” in Polish.  Responses and words just seemed to flow better, the words I was looking for and struggled to find before began to appear, and life got sunnier.  I continued to build from there over the next few years with continuing self-study, reading newspapers and articles, and so on.  I did not do too many more courses, in total I took perhaps 2 or 3 semesters worth when in Poland.

So I think there is a definite place for language courses, but they function best by providing a foundation, and then when you are in the environment you have to swim or sink with the language.  That gives you the motivation that you may lack otherwise.

Continue reading here to find out: What prevents language learning?