I have very vivid memories of each stage of my Polish so far, and have noticed fairly clear boundaries between one CEFR level to another. My writing is pretty much non-existent as I haven’t made any effort with it at all. I guess I could probably produce something at about A2 if I spent a lot of time and concentrated on it, but I wouldn’t want to put money on it! The following descriptions are therefore based on speaking, reading and listening, all of which I’m B1 in now.
I already had a grounding in Czech and Russian when I started out with Polish. This meant that I could understand a fair amount of what was happening around me when I first arrived. However, my speaking was definitely A0 at the beginning, and I went through a silent period of about a year. I think it was because when I did try to speak it came out in a weird mix of Czech, Russian and Polish, and nobody could understand me. I ended up avoiding situations where I would have to speak Polish, and always using English unless I couldn’t get around it. I was worried about speaking and felt a real block. This had never happened to me in any other language, so really surprised me as I’d always been pretty confident when it came to using what I knew.
I have a few other languages which I’ve started out with and which are still A0, for example Mandarin, Thai and Greek. In all of these, I am also largely illiterate, though I can pick out a Greek word if I take my time, without necessarily having any idea what it means. Thai script was beautiful, but too much for the short time I spent on it – I think I can remember one or two letters now, but not much more. When I started with Russian, illiteracy was also a problem. There was no Roman script around in my day-to-day life outside school in Sevastopol, so I really felt like a child all the time. I would sometimes spend ages picking out the letters of a word then realise it was basically the same word in English (like ‘toilet’ or ‘lift’), which was both frustrating and motivating! Some letters are similar, which helped, and some are a Roman letter that works differently in Cyrillic – for example see George R. R. Martin’s name on the book below. This took a good couple of months of being surrounded by Cyrillic to really get my head around.
When listening, A0 feels like a wash of sounds flowing past. Periodically I hear a word that I recognise, mostly a number or two, a pronoun (usually ‘I’ or ‘you’), or a form of ‘be’. I grab onto these and am super happy whenever I can pick them out. To feel positive about this, I’ve had to learn to not put pressure on myself and relax, letting the sounds wash over me. This is something I think we can help our learners to do by making them aware that they shouldn’t expect to understand everything, and should feel good when they can pull something out of the stream of speech – they should find motivation and positive feelings wherever they can. s
I haven’t had much exposure to full texts when I’m at A0 level, but again the hunt for a word or two I recognised could feel quite demotivating until I decided to stop letting it bother me.
At the end of my first year in Poland I went for a flamenco weekend in the country. I’d been attending weekly classes for the whole year, which I’d been able to follow through a combination of body parts being fairly similar in Polish, Czech and Russian, and my teacher being excellent at demonstrating and very patient. She can also speak English and Spanish, so could often explain to me in another language if I couldn’t understand. The weekend away was something completely different though: there were about twenty of us, and four or five couldn’t speak English at all. When they tried to speak to me, I had no choice but to use my Polish. The conversations were all fairly similar, giving me lots of repetition in answering questions like ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Why are you in Poland?’ and ‘Do you like it here?’ The fact that I could successfully participate in these conversations and that my interlocutors were patient with me ended my silent period.
Receptively, the weekend helped me to realize I could now understand whole chunks of conversation, though rarely fast enough to chip in. Conversations I participated in were very one-sided, as I couldn’t really formulate questions with any speed or confidence, meaning they tended to resemble the Spanish Inquisition somewhat! The person I was speaking to also needed to be very patient as I formulated what I wanted to say.
A couple of weeks before that weekend I decided it was time to start reading in Polish. I bought the first Harry Potter, and ever since then I’ve read in Polish for ten minutes before bed every night. When I first started, I could probably understand about 10-20% of the words on the page, and it took me the whole ten minutes to read two pages. I decided that I was going to read to read, not to learn vocabulary, so I only look up one or two words if they’ve appeared a lot in what I’ve just read and I feel like they might be important for that point in the story. I don’t write down the words at all. I kept working my way through the book without worrying about how much I understood, just feeling happy whenever I could pick out events successfully. I chose Harry Potter because I was familiar with the stories, but not so familiar that I would be bored. Again, I think this is something we could encourage our students to do, letting the new language wash over them without worrying too much about understand.
Another year, another flamenco weekend. This time I could instigate conversations, and I started to be able to ask some questions myself. During dinner it was a huge challenge to follow the thread of what was happening when there were lots of competing conversations going on, but if I really concentrated, I could follow a conversation close to me and even chip in occasionally. By this stage in lessons, I was able to understand pretty much everything, and if I couldn’t understand normally nobody could! It was a flamenco thing, not a Polish thing 🙂
Away from flamenco, when I moved into my new flat I was living with the old owners for the first six weeks and they don’t speak any English. We had lots of similar conversations which I felt increasingly confident with, especially as they supplied high frequency words like ‘tired’ and przeziębiona (an adjective meaning you have a cold, which we lack in English!) My household vocabulary increased a lot, and I started to speak a little more fluently and confidently, but still had a lot of trouble with grammatical forms if I tried to produce them accurately. I stuck to basic forms: present, past simple, and future with być + infinitive – Polish has two ways of forming the future depending on if verbs are perfective or imperfective.
Listening was fine on familiar topics, and I could pick out bits and pieces of unfamiliar conversations, usually enough to know what the general topic was but none of the detail. When reading Harry Potter, I could understand about 30-40% of what was on the page, and sometimes had a whole page where I felt like I knew exactly what was going on. Equally, I sometimes had whole pages where I had no idea! Usually that was tiredness though, and if I re-read them the following night a lot more went in, helped by the repetition. In both listening and reading, I could pick out more complicated grammatical forms like conditionals and relative clauses, though this often involved re-reading sentences a couple of times if I really wanted to understand them.
Around this time, I also distinctly remember a conversation with one of our school caretakers about types of cheese and which were good to eat from different countries. This was the first time I remember chatting about a random subject in Polish and being able to keep up with the conversation, even if I couldn’t always express what I wanted to say. That felt pretty good!
I reckon I tipped into this stage about 18 months ago. With speaking, the turning point was being able to participate evenly in a conversation, formulating questions fast enough to keep up with a patient interlocutor. Familiar topics are no problem for me, and over time my fluency has increased so that I think I talk at almost normal speed on familiar areas. Unfamiliar topics are problematic, mostly due to vocabulary rather than grammar, but if I’m with somebody who speaks English I’ll code-switch instead of trying to get my head around the grammatical forms I want to produce, especially conditionals or time shifts like future in the past. I tend to start in Polish, then change to English as soon as I can’t say something that’s more complicated than a missing word or two. I’ve never done this with another language, and I find the process of going backwards and forwards fascinating to be inside 🙂
I can keep up with most things when listening, enough to be able to respond on topic about 80% of the time if I’m in a conversation. I can follow about 60-70% of what happens in kids’ films dubbed into Polish, and sometimes find myself understanding more of a Polish subtitle than a French/German/Spanish spoken line if there are two foreign languages simultaneously. In more unfamiliar situations, such as an impromptu tour of a nunnery that a group of us had when visiting Chełmno a few weeks ago, I can pick out enough key words to attempt to make meaning out of what I’m hearing, but I have no idea how accurate that meaning actually is. It sounds impressive to the uninitiated when I can translate but I know it’s full of holes 😉
My reading is much faster now. In ten minutes I can read four to six pages, depending on how tired I am, and understand around 80% of it. I’ve just finished reading Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, which I either haven’t read in English, or read so long ago that I don’t remember it. That took me quite a lot longer than Harry Potter to find my feet with, but by the time I was used to the writing style I was up to a similar speed and rate of understanding as with Harry Potter (I’ve now finished four of them, and waiting for book 5 to arrive). I read a couple of summaries in English of Death on the Nile at certain points early on to work out what I’d missed – I knew there was something important but felt like I couldn’t get it from the Polish, though was pleasantly surprised at how much I had understood. The main challenge was the number of characters – because I was reading quite slowly, it was hard to keep them all straight. I feel like I fully understood the final two chapters when everything was revealed 🙂 At school I sometimes pick up magazines left in the kitchen and read the cartoons and short articles. I have a 50-50 hit rate with understanding the cartoons, normally depending on how culturally bound they are. With articles, if I’ve chosen something with a headline I can understand, I generally get almost all of the story itself.
At this point my confidence is fine in most situations, and in the past month I’ve had lots of interactions which lead me to believe I’m at the higher end of B1 now, and possibly on the tipping point to B2. I’m not quite there yet, but I don’t feel like I’m far off.
I’ve started to experiment with producing more complicated forms myself, rather than automatically switching to English. This includes attempting to produce conditionals, trying to use verbs of motion correctly (Slavic languages have lots of them and they have their own grammatical features which don’t apply to any other verbs!), and noticing imperfective and perfective forms in action, occasionally using them in the correct situations myself, normally by imitation within the same conversation. I know that there are lots of case endings which I now use consistently correctly. I learnt them as chunks, but am starting to apply them to new words which I’ve never declined before. I’m using a much wider range of prepositions spontaneously, my descriptive language has widened, and I listen actively, particularly using the word ‘No’ as a response. Chunks play a huge part in my fluency, a lot of them having come from my reading – I’m definitely an advocate for the vocabulary + reading approach to language learning now!
Last week, I spent three and a half days in hospital for routine tests to get the next drug for my colitis, with only a couple of conversations in English with the doctor when I said that I wasn’t sure I understood towards the end of the stay – it turned out I’d actually got of more what she’d said than I thought. Everything else was in Polish, including long conversations with my neighbour on the ward about all kinds of different things, and 5:15a.m. conversations with the nurses when they came in to give us medicine. The third person in the ward was an old lady, and this was probably the first time I’ve heard ‘old person Polish’ (!) for any length of time, so it took me a little while to get used to the different cadences of her speech, but I managed in the end. She’s fairly deaf, which didn’t help smooth communication, but it was an interesting challenge to overcome and hospital gave me time to pursue it!
I’ve just spent a few days in Wroclaw and Lower Silesia, and in quite a few situations I started an interaction in English and changed it to Polish myself because I realised it would be easier, something I wouldn’t have done a couple of months ago.
Most motivating of all, I’ve just spent over two hours chatting only in Polish with somebody I met on the train, covering a huge range of subjects, including managing to communicate some unfamiliar ones with patience and just three or four words in English throughout the whole interaction. I feel like I was talking at the same speed he was, and there were only a couple of miscommunications, which I was able to identify immediately though needed help to resolve. I could ask for that help in Polish, as my circumlocution skills have started to improve. It felt like a ‘normal’ conversation that I could have had on the train in England, and that feels fantastic 🙂