Monday, July 31, 2017

Post 2: School of Learning of the Impossible--a.k.a. Polish Language School

April 2017: Getting to Poland can be kind of a hassle. If you look at a map, you'll see that it's a long way from America. If you come from the west coast like I did, it's even further away. Nine time zones away to be exact.

Marjorie had some distant Polish relatives who were helping me study Polish. =)

Actually, the timezone in Central Europe is absolutely enormous. Both Spain and Poland are in the same time zone despite being nearly 2,000 miles apart. Imagine if you will the contiguous United States operating under a single time zone. That's basically what happens in Europe--with a couple of small exceptions (like Portugal and United Kingdom). So Poland might technically be only nine time zones away from Seattle, but the sunrise and sunset is off closer to ten hours.

Anyhow, it's a long way away, and I hate traveling. I like seeing new places, but I hate getting there. When I travel a long distance, I want to spend some quality time there to make it worth my while, and I decided instead of a long-distance walk, this time I'd learn Polish. I'd need something to keep me occupied while spending two to three months in Poland, so why not learn Polish?

I signed up with a local Polish language school for five weeks in the charming town of Sopot. And I'm going to tell you a little about the school and how it works.

The classes are typically fairly small. While I was there, class sizes ranged between 1 and 2 people. I think April might be part of their off-season, though. Summer months, I'd imagine, are busier and perhaps class sizes might be four or five students.

I already knew some Polish from studying on my own so I didn't have to start at the very basic courses. I took a placement test before arriving and they figured I wasn't a complete beginner, but that my Polish was dreadfully terrible. =) Actually, they told me that my Polish was amazing! But I knew the truth--it was dreadful. They knew I knew this as well, but they were genuine in their assessment about my Polish being amazing because they were absolutely astounded that all of the Polish I did know I learned completely on my own. Apparently, it's very unusual for someone to know the amount of Polish that I did having never stepped foot in Poland before and learned it on my own.

But, let's face it, I was still a beginner student and while I could say things like "Good day!" (Dzień dobry!) or "I'm learning Polish" (Uczę się polskiego), that's a far cry from expertise.

My school for five weeks was this small, two-story building. My classroom was (usually) on the second floor in that bank of windows on the far right. (The building on the side and behind this building wasn't attached or part of the school.)

The school was located in a small, two-story building behind a bigger building off a busy street. Through the windows, we could hear trains coming and going into the nearby train station. Downstairs was the office, a bathroom and a classroom. Upstairs were two small classrooms and a small kitchen with free coffee and tea available, but since I'm not a big fan of coffee or tea, I stuck with water.

For my first day of class, they put me in a class with one other student, Steffi from Germany. She looked to be in her 20s and was learning Polish because her husband was from Poland. That, I would learn, was a common reason for people learning Polish: their significant other was Polish. Other common reasons for learning Polish were for work (I met two different people who were learning Polish to become translators while others worked in companies that worked with Poles) or because they had a Polish heritage. I was kind of an anomaly and didn't have any particular reason for learning Polish except it was different and gave me something to do while I was hiking the Appalachian Trail a couple of years ago. I had trouble expressing that in Polish, however, and usually told people it was a "hobby." (Hobby, I'll have you know, is also a word used in Polish, so I could say "Jest hobby" which would mean "It's a hobby.")

Our teacher was Agata. Steffi had been learning Polish for two or three months now, and I struggled to keep up with the lesson. Steffi was able to speak and understand Polish far better than I could, but I had almost zero experience actually speaking and hearing Polish. I knew a lot of Polish, but it was book Polish. Reading and writing I could do. Speaking was slow and laborious, and hearing seemed all but impossible. Often times, Agata would say something that I couldn't understand, then she'd write the word on a board and I'd be like, "Oh, yes! Why didn't you say so?!" I knew the word--I just couldn't hear the word among all those other words.

The lessons were broken into 1 1/2 hour chucks with a half hour break between the two, and at the end of the three hours of lessons, I was a little tired, but they asked if I felt up for another set of classes in the afternoon. This one would be with a guy from Norway named Andreas who was learning Polish because he married a Polish woman. His level of Polish was a bit behind Steffi's level so they thought maybe I'd have an easier time in that class and wanted me to try them both to see which was the better fit for me. So I had another half hour break, then dived into another set of lessons.

This is Andreas from Norway! We aren't in class, though. We stopped to have lunch together one afternoon.

The class was a lot easier for me to keep up with. While I felt like Steffi was above my skill set, Andreas seemed closer to my level. At least in terms of hearing and speaking Polish. My knowledge of Polish--the grammar and vocabulary was at a much more advanced level. But I was okay covering grammar and vocabulary that I already knew because I wanted to practice speaking and hearing them, but I think it frustrated him a little that I seemed to know more than he did.

My entire time in Poland was like this, and in all of my classes, I always felt like I was a little behind the class average when it came to speaking/hearing Polish, and a little ahead of the class average when it came to reading/writing Polish. There just weren't any other students who came into the language like I did as a self-taught student.

At the end of the first day of classes, I decided I liked the pace of the afternoon class with Andreas better and I'd take that class with him for the rest of the week. Both him and Steffi would be leaving at the end of the week to go home for several weeks, and the subsequent three weeks I would be in a class of one--just myself!

I felt like I thrived in this setting since I could focus on my weaknesses (speaking/hearing), and move through the lessons quicker since the grammar/vocabulary I was often already familiar with.

There were always other students in the school, but for three weeks, none of them were considered at the same level as me so I didn't share a class with any of them. One week there were three new students who knew absolutely zero Polish, and I'd quiz them at the end of the day to find out what they were learning. (The numbers 1 through 10? You don't say?!) Another student who was studying Polish to be a Polish-to-Portuguese translator was considerably more advanced than my level. 

In my fifth week, Steffi came back to the school after three weeks of vacation with her family, but she was put into a different class than myself so we didn't talk much except during breaks. I know my last week at the school I shared a class with another student, but for the life of me I can't remember who it was! And for some bizarre reason, I never wrote the information down in my journal.

We weren't assigned any textbooks, but exercises were photocopied out of several different texts which is what I worked off from.

Inside my usual classroom. (Just one day of my five weeks did I have class in a different classroom.) You can see my backpack and gear at the far end of the table.

My first two weeks at the school I had Agata as a teacher, but then she took a week-long vacation during Easter break so I changed teachers to Gosia for the last three weeks. There was one day when I had another teacher when both Agata and Gosia were gone for the day, and for half of a day I had a teacher-in-training give us a lesson with Gosia in the back to observe.

The teachers, as a whole, generally were young women. I'm not sure why, but that was true at my Spanish language schools in Central America as well. I would have one male teacher later in Kraków, but I'll write about that school in another post.

But Gosia became my longest-running teacher at this school, and for two weeks I had one-on-one lessons with her. Early on she had given me a homework assignment to create sentences out of a list of about 40 words. I wanted to create interesting sentences--not something like "I am learning the word fill-in-the-blank" 40 times! I wanted to make every sentence entirely unique and interesting.

But it was tough. For instance, one of the words to use was "in a cake", but I couldn't really think of anything that was "in" a cake. Maybe a finger if someone was tasting it.... and then I thought it would be funny if my sentence was that someone found a severed finger in the cake. "Look, there's a finger in my cake!"

My teacher thought this was hilariously funny and it become somewhat of an ongoing joke the rest of the class. I'd try to work a severed finger into all of my homework assignments after that. =) She said that most people use some sort of ingredient. "There's flour in the cake" type of thing. I don't know why that didn't occur to me, but a severed finger in the cake leaped into my mind instead. Might say something about my mental state!

My other sentences had drama, told stories and she was so amused by them that she asked to take photos of my homework so she could have a copy to show others later. "Sure! Why not?!" =) There would be several times she'd take photos of my homework.

I'd encourage my teachers to give me lots of homework. The more, the merrier! I was here to learn Polish, after all, and class usually got done by around noon so I had plenty of time in the afternoon to study. Give me homework! They had started giving me short assignments that rarely took more than maybe 20 minutes to complete, but especially during my one-on-one lessons when other students weren't a concern, they'd give me a lot more knowing I wanted it.

On my last day of class, although I wouldn't be running the next Monday, Gosia gave me about ten pages of homework to work on anyhow. I rather liked that. She knew I wouldn't be coming back and that nobody would ever check whether I did the homework or not, but she gave it to me anyhow knowing I'd want it. I did it too, and I figured I could always have my new teachers at my new school in Kraków check it for errors as needed.

After class, I'd usually go out for lunch somewhere and try speaking Polish to my waiter or the counter person and read a little before heading back home. Back at the house, I'd check email, make sure Atlas Quest and Walking 4 Fun were running well and take care of other related business as a break from Polish.

My teachers seemed to think that I was.... unusual. Can't imagine why! =)

With that out of the way, I'd go back to my Polish studies and go through a list of new words, grammar and any sentences I wrote incorrectly and turn them into electronic flash cards for my phone which usually took a couple of hours. In a typical week, I'd add about 200 to 250 new flash cards for studying. Then I'd do my homework which might take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour depending on how much was assigned and how ambitious I felt.

Then I'd go into the front room and watch television with Barbara. The "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" game show (the Polish version, of course) was among one of my favorites to watch because they would display the question as text at the bottom of the screen (along with possible answers!) and the contestants and game show host would read them out loud. I usually didn't understand enough, but sometimes I could understand the question and on even more rare occasions, could even figure out an answer. And I did learn a bit watching the shows. For instance, I learned that the word 'hel' was 'helium' in Polish. (It was a question about the composition of Jupiter. I could understand "Jupiter is about 90% _____ and 10% what?" And although I didn't know the word for 'helium' in Polish, 'hel' was one of the multiple choice questions and seemed like it might be 'helium' in Polish. And it was! I didn't know the word for hydrogen either, but already knowing that Jupiter was about 90% hydrogen and 10% helium, it was enough for me to figure out the question and the answer. Score!)

I'd also chat with Barbara asking her about the meaning of specific words.

And then it was late and time for sleep, which I'd do and repeat the process the next day.

Not really exciting, but it kept me busy and left me feeling like I had a full, satisfactory day. =)

One afternoon, after class a few days before Easter the school set up a "traditional Easter breakfast" for us to try. Teachers and former students who still lived nearby were all invited, and a group of us showed up at the restaurant where we were served all sorts of traditional Polish foods like bigos, kiełbasa, barszcz, etc. I'll talk about food in another post, but I mention this instance because a news crew arrived to film the event and I wound up on the local news. =)

I don't have any speaking parts in the video, but you'll see me in the background starting around 27 seconds into the video. =) You'll also see some of the other students and teachers in the background, but none of the people I mentioned in this post took on speaking roles.

In Poland for less than two weeks and I already make the news!

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