Question of the day (22nd September).

Did you ever study a foreign language by yourself?

My answer:

Sure, I think that’s the best way of learning a language if only you can manage to do it this way because no one knows what works for you quite as well as you do, and no one knows as well as you do what things you enjoy so only you can make your language learning thoroughly enjoyable. I’ve been learning English by myself since I left the blind boarding school when I started hanging around the Anglophone Interwebs and realised what I was already beginning to think years earlier, that school, any school really (at least I haven’t encountered a school over here that would be really good with languages unless it specialises in it but even then it’s no guarantee) isn’t going to teach me a language, and if I want to communicate in English and understand people I’d have to do it by myself. What school had done so far was it only managed to discourage me in some way, but thankfully more from English as a subject, which I found infinitely boring, rather than English as a language, but it was very close to it as well. I was pretty good at English at school most of the time and that was part of why I disliked the subject, that a lot of the time I had little to no constructive stuff to do in class.

Sometimes I feel like a kind of jerk when I say that I’ve taught myself English, first because I was going to school for so many years so surely it must have had some impact, and also I don’t really feel and never did like I put a whole lot of effort into my English learning, like most people do when they teach themselves anything. And yes, I did get the beginnings from school, as I wrote in the last post, I’m absolutely sure it all wouldn’t go as smoothly as it did if I had to start from scratch completely on my own. And I am extremely grateful for the bits and pieces that school did give me. But with what I got from school, while I had very good grades at English and could have a very basic conversation with someone with a lot of good will on both sides, I wasn’t really able to communicate effectively nor comprehend English very well either when reading or listening. I also don’t think it’s something fully due to my own merrit that I’ve managed to learn English to the extend that I did and as smoothly and easily as I did. I don’t believe in a “linguistic talent” because if it was the matter of talent we would have much more mute people or people with all sorts of language/speech disorders than we do, we also wouldn’t have had as much migration because people wouldn’t be able to learn another country’s language. But there are certainly some traits that people may or may not have that may make it easier to absorb languages, like a talent for catching the phonetics which I seem to have. And I think that has simplified the whole thing for me a whole lot, I also like learning languages and if someone does not, it’s typically going to take more time.

But even if I do have some particular language skills, I still feel like my English learning was kind of miraculous and insanely speedy given how little conscious effort I put into it. I immersed myself a lot into English, listening to different accents and just a lot of stuff in English and wanted to learn to distinguish different accents better than I could, and possibly also imitate them. I read a lot in English on the web so that it quickly became my habit that if I was googling something I did it automatically in English rather than Polish and still do. – I changed the interfaces of the devices/apps I used to English. I wrote my journal at least partly in English. Later I started penpalling which was at first very strenuous indeed for me to understand people and write in a comprehensive way, writing to a pen pal would take me ages but after that my brain would be buzzing in English for the next 24 hours so it was clear that it was doing me a lot of good, and over time, not very much time at all, it became less of a chore and much more of a pleasure and I think it’s penpalling and blogging that has been helping me the most. Then when I was already able to communicate quite well I also started this blog which had been my dream for years. Later yet, I started to read some books in English when I got access to them, and nowadays, I think the amounts of books I read in Polish and English are quite equal, and it has also been a very smooth transition, although it still requires more concentration from me to read books in English, but not the point where it would be uncomfortable or something.

While in my final year of college/high school I had briefly English classes with a private tutor, I thought it could be more helpful to show me what exactly my level is and what I have still to do, or at least help me to prepare for my finals. It did only one good thing for me. My teacher was super chatty and we talked a lot, so my conversational skills have improved. That was good as generally my daily, serious use of English evolves around writing, reading and listening (by “serious” I mean excluding talking to myself and conversating with Misha). I was already good with accents and such but nevertheless not particularly confident in speaking, and talking to him helped me to feel more at ease with it, at least in terms of language skills, as of course there’s also the whole socialising and peopling stress involved which is a totally different thing and can also affect things no matter in which language. Thanks to this, he certainly helped me to prepare for my oral English final exam as well. But other than that, it didn’t really take me anywhere further than I was and my general English level didn’t change because of it. So yeah, I think with English, I learned the most by myself. It’s been about six years since I left the boarding school and thus since I seriously started to learn English on my own, and I’ve learnt more in these 5 years than I did during English classes.

I am also currently learning Swedish by myself, although I started out with a tutor and, unlike school and the English tutor, he did a whole lot for me and I’m sure that if I didn’t meet someone like him, I wouldn’t be able to learn Swedish nor any language on my own now. He worked with me for two years first since I was 10, then we had a long break when I had to go back to the blind school as the integration school didn’t work out and that meant there was no way for us to meet up really. I avoided even the slightest contact with or any mention of Swedish as fire while at the boarding school because I felt like if I couldn’t learn it anymore it was pointless to think of it and it only made me feel extremely depressed, frustrated and angry. I forgot most of what I learned at least on a conscious level. But then I got the faza on Cornelis Vreeswijk when I was 17 and I couldn’t hold it in any longer. The more my faza developed, the more I felt almost literally how all the stuff I forgot was flooding my brain again, and I kept accidentally learning new, sophisticated words from his lyrics and poems, then I even managed to translate totally spontaneously a few of his poems with the little Swedish I had and these translations were really quite damn good as for my generally very poor Swedish skills by then. As it happened, the year I got that faza also turned out to be my last year at the boarding school, and in the autumn of that year I reconnected with my Swedish teacher. During our first lesson, he asked me to just say a few sentences in Swedish, whatever I was able to say, and neither of us was expecting much but I was actually able to express myself fairly coherently. He was very surprised and at first thought that I was learning by myself at school somehow or managed to find another tutor there after all, but then I told him that I was only kind of learning since about May but not really in a very serious way, and he said my brain must have somehow skipped over the most basic stages in no time because I actually knew more than what we’d covered in the past when I was in the integration school. That was weird, but that’s fazas for you, make your brain do strangely intense things without feeling like you’re doing much at all. 😀 I loved it and I kept skipping like that for a while yet.

But, skipping or no skipping, I certainly wouldn’t be able to be where I am with my Swedish and with other languages where I am now if he wouldn’t take up the challenge and try to teach me even though he had no idea about teaching blind people and even though back then when we were starting I didn’t even have an idea about any technologies or stuff so it all was really complicated. Most language teachers I’ve encountered are much more of scaredy cats. I just wouldn’t have the confidence that I am actually able to do it.

Now I’m no longer having lessons with him since a few years and I can learn Swedish on my own. With the help of emails from my Swedish pen pals, the Swedish Internet, some Swedish books, mostly children’s, that I can get, and loads and loads and loads of listening. That trip to Stockholm I once went for has also tremendously helped me, as well as my friendship with Jacek from Helsinki and meeting different people through him. I get very little practice in form of writing or speaking these days and somehow can’t figure out how best to change it, at least in terms of writing where it is more doable, in a way that would feel good and not like a chore, which makes me feel that my Swedish is kind of clunky and that it could be better, and I somehow feel like it has regressed a little bit since when my English has started improving so rapidly but I am definitely able to communicate with people and understand everything I read or hear unless it’s extremely sophisticated or someone speaks very fast with an accent that I don’t really get, like Scanian for example. 😀

And now I’m also learning Welsh by myself as there’s no other option, as for many of my other languages. I’d actually like it if there was someone in my area who could teach me so I wouldn’t have to think about resources and stuff but it could be just as effective as all of my English classes in the past so perhaps it’s better that I’m dealing with it oon my own. The biggest problem is that there aren’t overly many resources but since I’ve found a website for Welsh learners with a lot of courses and stuff it’s become much easier and structured for me and I don’t have to constantly be on the look out for new things in case I run out of the resources I have now or they stop being helpful. It’s also fairly accessible. Listening is definitely my main way of learning Welsh as it’s kind of a priority in my courses, I’m terribly slow at reading and my vocab could be better but at least with the latter I’m sure I’ll get there in time. I’d also really really like to be better at listening as my brain is kind of sluggish when processing auditory input in Welsh haha. So far, despite I’ve had a Welsh faza, I haven’t had such a speedy jumping like with ENglish and Swedish, with Welsh it would be even better because it’s more difficult, and I’ve actually found learning it much more strenuous than the other two languages, but no less exciting.

And with all of my other languages, I think I’ll also be learning them by myself.

How about you? 🙂