Saturday 18 January 2020

Musing over Languages During Cold, Busy January

Personal writing is the one New Year's Resolution I haven't been able to stick to.  Abstaining from eating out more than once a week and from buying any clothes or books turns out to be easier than finding time for blogging. This may be because I am also furiously reviewing Polish for a February trip and working on Italian for work. I'm also eating lots of vegetables and am back on the "Blood Sugar Diet," which for me entails reading a lot of recipes. Then there's the spinning studio.  

This morning I dragged myself out of bed at 7:30 AM and to spin class. I was very tired because B.A. and I went to see "A Hidden Life" in the Edinburgh Filmhouse last night, and we didn't get to bed until after  midnight. I was also crabby because "A Hidden Life" is about Franz Jaegerstaetter and therefore very sad. However, I managed to cheer up by the end of class.  

Edinburgh was very sunny and cold when I emerged from the studio. Because I had forms to fill in and post, I popped into a nearby cafe and ordered a cappuccino. A cappuccino is an exciting luxury when you don't eat out and you're on the "Blood Sugar Diet." When I finished filling in forms, which I had shoved in a puzzle book, I did a puzzle. The puzzle book, a Christmas present from my dad, is a  volume of Polish word searches. It is great fun, and the sort of thing I've been wanting for awhile. 

Anyway, it seemed quite a treat to be sitting in a sunny window of a stylish Edinburgh cafe doing a Polish word search. It was relaxing and gave me a chance to meditate upon the Polish word "wrzesień", which means September, and I usually forget it. For some reason "czerwiec" (June) and "wrzesień" are the hardest names-of-the-month to remember. 

The thing is, I'm going to be the godmother of a Polish baby, which is why B.A. and I are going to Poland in February. I checked online to see if Polish godmotherhood is as big a deal as French Canadian godmotherhood used to be, and jasne, it is. Dozens of Polish women could have been chosen, but the honour has fallen to me. Thus, I had better get my skills in order so as to prove to any doubters that I can be a good Polish godmother despite being, you know, not Polish.  

I have about 40 days to get my Polish in order---which will mean terrible damage to my Italian skills since, try as I might, I can not keep them separate, and last week my Italian tutor opened his eyes wide when I reported on an impreza I had had to celebrate Epiphany. 

The issue, as people who don't know languages don't know, is usually one of vocabulary. Once you have the ordinary everyday grammar down, you're away to the races. However, to participate in the race, you need vocabulary. And to keep vocabulary, you need to USE the vocabulary. In fact, I have learned that it is impossible to learn a language without speaking it as often as possible. This is why after 13 years of mandatory Ontario (non-immersive) French classes, I was still unable to speak French. I could, of course, pass written exams in French, but that was it. 

The same thing went for Italian: three years of Italian classes, and I couldn't speak Italian. Never shall I forget the first time I had anything like an oral exam: a high school Italian competition for non-Italophones. I tanked. I was miserable. I was also miserable when my Italian class went to a performance of Dario Fo's Non tutti i ladri vengono per nuocere. 

In both situations I was miserable because I thought I must be awfully stupid. I now know that it was because I hadn't heard most of the vocabulary before, the vocabulary not being in my Italian textbook or any other text I read for class. By then I was the only student in the class who was not growing up speaking one Italian dialect or another, so it probably never occurred to my Italian-Canadian Italian teacher that I would be utterly overwhelmed. Also, when I turned up at my Edinburgh Italian tutor's door, I knew almost no kitchen words. Coltello (knife), forchetta (fork), cucchiaio (spoon), bicchiere  (glass), bottiglia (bottle) and piatto (dish)  was the extent of it. My theory is that my classmates all knew those words already and were only taking Italian class for an easy A. 

Anyway, when studying a language, or practising a language, it is a very good idea to plan ahead for the kind of conversations you are going to have so that you can master as many vocabulary words pertaining to these conversations as you can. It's good to know general conversation words but also specialist words which, for me on this and work occasions, are theological. 

Therefore, based on past travels to Poland, I know that I will be having the following conversations:

Getting through Poznań airport passport control; buying bus tickets to Poznań Główny railway station; answering people who ask me if that or that bus has left; buying train tickets to a small village; explaining to a hotel employee why we are not paying; ordering dinner; ordering breakfast; making small talk with Poles my age and older; potentially answering questions of a Polish priest regarding my grasp of Catholicism; making more small talk with Poles my age and over; getting the keys to our AirB&B in Wrocław; ordering coffee or meals in Wrocław cafes or restaurants; buying museum/gallery/boat cruise tickets from clerks my age or older;  buying groceries; apologising for egregious mistakes like pushing an automatic door; buying our bus tickets to Wrocław airport; explaining why B.A. can't go through the X-ray; and getting through Wrocław airport passport control. 

The reason why my small talk conversations are geared to the over-45 set is that the vast majority of university-educated Poles, which which this christening will abound, under 45 speak English. They began studying it as tiny children. Those older than 45 had to study Russian instead.  

Anyway, I will be meeting my Polish tutor tomorrow, and I hope she is not daunted by my list. 


  1. Diaper issues, baby food, crying/not crying, rashes, sleeping/not sleeping, swaddling/not swaddling, smiling, burping...

  2. Fortunately, as an obvious non-expert, I will not be called upon to have those conversations. But I think I may actually have to have an opinion on how much clothing babies have to wear. The evil of draughts around babies is so feared that Polish grannies in Toronto will approach complete strangers to ask them to wrap up their children more warmly.