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Learning a Language Can Help You Teach a Language!

Admin - Aug 21 2015

Amanda took her TEFL certification all the way to Poland.  Aside from a beginners class in Polish that she took before leaving, Amanda did not know any Polish.  After arriving in Poland, she started taking private classes and was surprised to find how much learning the native language of her students helped her become a better English teacher.

“The Polish language is hard, no doubt about it. When I first decided to move to Poland in April 2011, I was in the middle of a beginner Polish class. We learned the alphabet, the letter sounds, and the first round of verbs and declinations. Polish has 7 declinations (cases).

I didn't even know what that word meant before I started Polish classes – and I didn't fully learn what it meant till I moved here.

After I finished my beginners course in late May, I didn't touch a Polish book until Sept. 18, 2011, when I arrived in Warsaw. I figured that Warsaw was a pretty big city (1.7m) and that Wroc?aw was a pretty big college town (600K total / 100K students), and I”d be fine with the limited Polish I had. I was completely wrong. On Monday morning, I waited outside the bookstore for a Polish-English dictionary and gladly paid my 25 z?otych for it.

If I could give anyone advice, I'd tell them to be wary of moving to a country where you can't ask for the basics. I was completely overwhelmed and depressed in the first three weeks and resigned myself to the fact that I would never learn anything. Very defeatist. Sometime in November, I finally recovered, settled down, and started studying. Smart move.

Studying Polish has helped me understand my students' struggles. I understand why they make the mistakes they make as I make corresponding mistakes in Polish. I understand why they call things “funny” when they mean “fun”; there”s no word for “fun” in Polish. The word for “happiness” is the same as the word for “luck”; I've decided this is why people don't smile on trains. And “ewentualnie” doesn”t mean “eventually”; it means “alternatively.” What a set of false friends!

Furthermore, the language doesn't have articles or the present perfect tense. But, they do have perfective and imperfective forms of verbs and, what's possibly worse, 16 forms of the past tense, based on the gender of the speakers and of the group you're in. As someone who used to make a living making sure people's articles and verb forms were correct, it's painful for me NOT to use these forms correctly when I speak.

What I enjoy most about learning Polish is the challenge of recognizing patterns. I've been learning Polish mostly via conversation – I go in for 1.5 hours every week and I talk, and my teacher corrects me verbally, and I repeat the sentence until I use it correctly. Later, when I do study from my book, the concepts crystallize much faster because I've intuited the pattern from speech. I think the concepts also are clearer because I realize that I hear my students making direct translations when they speak.

For instance, if you take an action for a purpose in English, your preposition depends on what you're doing: Do you want to go for a coffee? Let's go to a concert. I'm on a date. But in Polish, your purpose is always na + your noun, which will be in the accusative case. So my students often say “I'm going on studies,” or “on coffee” or “on a concert.” It was a great day when I realized this.

My next challenge is incorporating these personal lessons into my teaching lessons and, in particular, determining a form of correction that will help my students remember their mistakes. I've been doing verbal corrections, but they aren't always retained. I know that I remember my mistakes and corrections best if I write them down. One of my co-teachers uses a small Post-It; another goes over mistakes on the board. I'm still determining my best strategy. All I know is that learning Polish has driven home the importance of learning through speaking and I'm excited to build on this experience in my second year.”

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