The Journey of Learning Other Languages

… and a review of one method in two languages.

In anticipation of my first European Research Trip, I have been trying to learn Polish. I actually started with Russian, but switched pretty early, realizing that I would probably be in Poland longer. How am I learning to speak Polish? I’ve tried a few things.

First, I went with Pimsleur. The problem is that I don’t do listen and repeat learning well. I need to be able to read what I’m saying. In addition, while Pimsleur starts by teaching some useful things, it then gets into the more ridiculous. It teaches how to ask for directions, but the only answers it teaches are “here” and “there”. Not helpful. When it gets into food and drink, it teaches beer and wine. Um, no water? It also takes either three or four lessons until it teaches how to say “I am an American”, for a female. Seems a little sexist there, since it teaches the male version right away.

Second, I tried Rosetta Stone. This taught some general vocabulary, then went into a few phrases with no explanation of the grammar — Polish words change depending on where they are in a sentence, and I need real instruction. When it insisted that I learn how to say “the boy is under the ball”, I knew it was teaching me some very useful phrases. Yeah. I did learn that flash card-type learning actually works for me though, because I did remember a few of those words for a very long time.

I didn’t know where to go from there, so I turned to the Internet. I found some videos on YouTube that taught the numbers, the months, and just some general how to speak in Polish lessons, including conjugating verbs. I typed in some sentences I thought would be useful to me in Google Translate, and I loaded all of this into Quizlet, downloading those flash cards to my Android. I worked with those for a while, but it kind of faded away. was brought to my attention next. I started learning vocabulary in Polish and I even went into French for a refresher. Well, refresher might be an understatement. I am still using the site, but no amount of vocabulary was going to teach me the grammar and how to put together sentences. Having learned French in school, that one wasn’t the problem. It was still the Polish I needed.

My final destination was another audio method of learning. Again, like with Pimsleur, I needed to read, so I typed as I went.

I had briefly listened to a bit of the beginning of the Michel Thomas Polish Foundation some time ago and thought it was also teaching useless vocabulary. This time, I listened longer and realized that it was actually a terrific way to learn a language. Because I’d been trying to learn for so long, I already knew some of the words it was teaching.

And here is where I begin my review.

The Michel Thomas method involves listening to a recording between a teacher and two students. The teacher teaches a few words then asks the students to compose sentences from them. As the third student, they suggest you pause after the English to compose the word or sentence in the new language before the other students answer. Groups of words that are similar to English are taught together. Grammar rules and sentence structure is explained. You are not supposed to read or write, though there is a booklet with the vocabulary.

The Polish Foundation course was wonderful. The teacher was a native speaker, the students were intelligent, there was time to pause before they spoke the answers. It went into conjugation, future tense, and paste tense all in the eight hour foundation course. It did not mention the cases in Polish, which still confuse me. I did not have the booklet when I started, so since my only Polish background was in reading vital records (and the previous attempts to learn), I typed as I learned.

By the third CD, I felt like I was falling behind and not remembering things, so I began to repeat. I did the first three again, then after completing each CD, I would play it back a second time. I really wanted to learn the language well.

As I began the Polish course, and realized how much I was learning so quickly, I looked online to see if there was more. Among other things, I came across a site that gave the French course a bad review. But since I was going to France on this trip, I decided to try it too.

The Polish course was by far superior to the French.

Having taken French in high school and college, I had a head start. I had also been working with French in Memrise, though not as much as the Polish. I had the booklet for this one before I began, so I could read as I went.

The French teacher was Michel Thomas himself, who is a native Polish speaker. He pronounced words oddly to teach them, over-exaggerating constantly. He also pronounced English oddly, and a few times, I couldn’t understand what he wanted me to say. On many occasions, he had to stop and think about what sentence to ask next, as if he hadn’t prepared the lesson. Especially in the later lessons, he would just spew off a list of vocabulary words or sentences, not even asking the students to respond. That is not the way you are supposed to learn with this method, so it didn’t do much for me.

The French students were terrible. The students often jumped in with the French so there wasn’t time to pause the recording before they began. The female was especially dense, and French is much closer to English than Polish, so it should be easier to learn. She often repeated things after the male student and the teacher, many times. As the lessons continued, there were fewer and fewer times when I heard her voice, until she came back again near the end. She did not listen very well, struggling right at the beginning.

Probably because the students were doing so badly so often, when asking for a sentence with more than just a few words, the teacher often repeated the English while the student was trying to translate, one or two words at a time. The Polish never repeated like that, except for very long sentences with multiple phrases.

Because I mentioned it about the Polish, I’ll point out that the French lesson taught the future tense in two different ways, just barely touched on the past tense, and did not complete the conjugation lessons. The informal “you” does not exist in the French Foundation.

Even with the drawbacks of the French version, the method is still valid for learning another language. Because I had that school background, it made the French easier for me. Someone learning from scratch might have a slightly harder time learning some things correctly the way he taught. I completed the Polish Foundation before beginning the French Foundation. I went on to the French Foundation Review, which was the Foundation chopped up, just the teacher without the other students, stating the English, then pausing before stating the French. I enjoyed it much more without waiting for the other students, but the full course is still needed first, unless you already have the vocabulary and grammar rules it teaches. Upon my completion of the Review, I have just returned to the Advanced Polish.

After that, I don’t know if I will go on to any of the other French lessons. There are Advanced, Advanced Review, Builder, and Vocabulary; I believe they should be played in that order.

I also have the Russian lessons ready to go, but I’m not sure if I want to get into them before this trip. Russian and Polish have many similarities and I will likely confuse them a lot. Maybe I’ll listen on the plane, or the trains; I probably won’t get much else done on the long journeys.

Uczę się mówić po polsku.

Je peux parler français un peu.

Now that I’ve learned how to type those Polish characters, and got them working in WordPress with a bit of nudging, I’ve got to figure out the French ones too.

Anyone else out there bilingual or trilingual or more? How did you learn the other languages? Any other tips for me when I’ve run out of these lessons?

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