How did I learn a language and why?

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?

Author: Mark Biernat

I live in with family between two worlds, US and Europe where I create tools for language learning. If you found my site you probability share my passion to be a life long learner. Please explore my site and comment.

3 thoughts on “How did I learn a language and why?”

  1. Thank you for this encouraging article. I am currently on my own language learning adventure, living broad in Italy with an Italian family. I hope to become fluent enough in Italian to enroll into a degree program at an Italian university.

    My heritage is Italian, but the language was not spoken at home growing up. However, I was enrolled in a basic Italian language course as a child. A few years ago, I spent a semester in Florence and barely learned any Italian, besides how to order food at a cafe. As you mentioned, this is because Florence is a city full of tourists, and I was studying with fellow American students with whom I spent most of my time.

    However, I truly believe that I am now taking the best approach possible. I am working as an au pair with a family, and their two young children do not speak a word of English. This has truly been forcing me to exercise my minimal knowledge of Italian, otherwise communication would be impossible. I am also learning new words from them all the time. The parents do speak English, though only to me at times of important instruction for clear communication.

    I have also been figuring out a lot on my own. When go out into the city, I will read words that I see and associate them with their meaning (for example, from taking the bus I associated “fermata” as the word for “bus stop”). Unlike Florence, I am living in a city where there are barely any English speakers, so I am completely immersed and surrounded by Italian. Sometimes I repeat words out loud to myself that I here people say on the street, just to practice the sound. I also find that people do appreciate the effort when I speak their language. Approaching conversation fearlessly is the way to go.

    I have only been here for four days out of 243, and though they have been challenging, the rewards of this experience are already tremendous.

    1. Italy is a great country you are lucky you are Italian. You know you could get an Italian citizenship with a little work. If you love learning Italian it might come in useful. See you have a European roots and in most countries this will allow you, with some work, to get a citizenship. Would that not be cool to have two passports? I do.

  2. i studied italian to professional level, have a professional job, but i have been trying to get citizenship, huh! never. know why? guess

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