Monday 4 February 2019


Ah, the stuff of nightmares. Imagine that you are in a hotel dining room in Poland, surrounded by the friends and family of a Polish friend who has recently passed his PhD dissertation defence.

"Speech," you call out cheerfully.

"YOU make a speech," says your friend.

"Sprobuję" ("I'll try"), you say, and then go absolutely blank. Seven years of Polish studies vanish from your brain.

Naturally you fall back on English because it is easier and everyone in the room under 40 has a very good grasp of English anyway. Fortunately I have no anxiety about speaking English to groups.

That happened to me last week, and instead of beating myself up or deciding that Polish Pretend Daughter was right and I will never speak Polish because it is too hard, I am attempting to find out why I blanked.

For the record I also blanked when I was upbraided by a security guard in the Stary Browar mall and, most humiliatingly, when a young man asked me at a bus stop when the last airport bus had left. (Both times, however, I fell back on "Przepraszam" [I beg your pardon]."

Also for the record, before we travelled I promised B.A. I would not freak out if I couldn't speak Polish correctly or if people insisted on speaking to me in English. I broke this promise at least three times, most flagrantly in Sołacz Park after losing my glove and being attacked by the self-cleaning coin-operating loo. At that point I decided I was really too stupid and clumsy to live, and my mother was right thirty years ago when she said I wasn't very good at languages.

At this point you may be thinking that my money would be better spent on cognitive behavioural therapy, not Polish lessons, and you may be right. This is why I am now reading about panic and anxiety and their relationship to speaking foreign languages.

So far this article is quite interesting and more relevant than a book I got from the library which seems to be for people who are anxious almost all the time. The insight that what bedevils many language learners is performance anxiety rings true.  I also like the advice to memorise situations. The most important thing I have to say in Polish is literally, "My husband cannot go through the x-ray because he has a shunt in his brain" and so I memorised that and have trotted it out with great success twice now.

The cheerful side of my broken Polish-speaking is that, even though I often murdered case endings, I always got the job done and my mistakes made Polish strangers smile--which is in itself an accomplishment, as Poles are not given to the shallow simpering the Anglo-Saxon peoples deem common politeness.

"I cannot get this stamp to stick," said the lady in the post office, attending to my postcard to France.

"It doesn't matter," I said, illogically, and the post office lady fought back a giggle.

"Embrace sloppiness," says Donovan Nagle, who is working on Arabic, probably the trickiest major language for native English speakers, so massive respect to him. I embrace the smiles--which are always nice smiles, by the way, the smile of people who are trying not to laugh and hurt my feelings.

Another thing to remember is that English is now the world language, and anyone born in Europe who wants to get ahead in academia or business has to learn it. Therefore, European children start learning English when they are quite small and thus have something like ten years of lessons before they are unleashed, at 16 or 18, say, on an English-speaking country for further studies. That gives them quite an advantage over the 40-something native English-speaker who has been studying a less "practical" language for only seven years.

But Donovan Nagle is quite right: if you want to learn to speak (not listen, not read, not write), you have to speak. And as he says elsewhere, improvement takes time.

1 comment:

  1. My American aunt, who lived first in Denmark for many years and now in France, told me that her best recommendation for speaking a foreign language without anxiety is to take half a glass of wine before doing so -- it's enough, she says, just to take that edge off! (Your mileage may vary, of course.)