Dekalog : 10 ideas for language learning

David Walker (the handsome guy in the photo above), former staff interpreter at the European Parliament and language learner par excellence, gives us 10 installments on language learning. David interpreted from 6 languages, 4 of which he learnt as an adult. He also learnt several others along the way and has tried out (and invented!) a number of innovative approaches to language learning.

This set of 10 pages, a Dekalog, (inspired by Kieslowski’s series of films of the same name, and of course their biblical parent, the ten commandments) David gives some insight into language acquisition and suggest some great ideas for varying the methods you use. 

There may be a certain Polish bias to what you find here, but don’t be deceived. This is only because David was learning Polish when he wrote these pages. He has used the same techniques to successfully learn Greek, Turkish, Dutch and a few others besides. And the ideas described are certainly applicable regardless of the language you are learning.

Dekalog 1 – Crosswords for vocab acquisition

At some stage people always ask the question, what do you do when a word comes up and you don’t know it? Which would be a problem, obviously, especially if it came at the end of a sentence and it was the key term. But actually you tend not to hear words you don’t understand, there’s a little blind spot where the optic nerve meets the retina and afterwords your colleague asks you, what was that thing about Proporz, or mise en demeure or ziwerom and you say, did they say that, I didn’t hear it. But actually it’s like when you go to a party, and you’re a bit apprehensive, there are lots of people, but it’s OK, because you know everybody, oh, not quite everybody, there’s one person who’s a complete stranger, but that’s not a problem. 

Crosswords are a relatively painless way of getting to the stage where you very occasionally bump into somebody you don’t know. Polish crosswords especially, because they list the answers at the back grouped by three-letter words (gnu) all the way down to twelve-letter words (nonszalancja) which means that even if you didn’t understand a single thing you could still do it by trial and error, in fact there are diagrams which use numbers and not letters. When I get a new book of crosswords, I read the word lists out loud, there are about three thousand five hundred of them in the Krzyzowka z Usmiechem series, and it takes a little bit more than an hour at normal speaking speed. Afterwards you start with a long one, for example obraz, portret (nine letters) and you read all the nine-letter words at the back. Once you’ve read through the fifty possible candidates you can usually narrow it down to a short list of likely suspects, say dalajlama, stetoskop or wizerunek, which at least gives you a chance. 

In any diagram there are at least a dozen clues which fill themselves in without any effort on your part, like Brigitte, slynna aktorka (Bardot), raj ziemski (Eden), klasyfikacja wynikow (ranking), and you think to yourself, maybe it’s difficult for the Poles if they don’t have the Latin. Or the geographical ones with z, for example z Valletta (Malta), famous historical figures, Cook, odkrywca Hawajow (James), the Bible (ojciec Salomona, Dawid), meteorology (staly wiatr rownikowy, pasat) and on and on and on w te klocki (Lego). 

When I’m in Poland I’m always struck by the number of people who are doing crosswords, when you go to a kiosk, often the person will put down a crossword book to serve you. It took me about a year to be able to finish one, but the funny thing is that when you can do one, you can do them all. Not that that’s the end of the story, filling in crosswords is such a mechanical thing, anybody can do it, but at least it means that afterwards you don’t need to lug the two volumes of the Wielki Slownik Polsko-angielski around with you at all times, and then you feel like you’ve taken off your rucksack. 


Dekalog 2 – Song lyrics

The great thing about the pre-accession thing was that I got to go to Poland once a year at someone else’s expense and got to know Empik intimately. [Empik is the Polish Virgin, or Fnac. Magazines, music and books sold in large quantities]. The ground floor is crossword territory, upstairs is book heaven, and upstairs again is audio bliss. 

It was just when Napster was the big thing and I happened upon two slim volumes [about Polish music and musicians], Podwojna linia zycia by Kora and Gwiazdy polskiej sceny by Witold Filler which was the prelude to six months of intensive music downloading. This was a bizarre experience because I had previously thought that the Eastern Bloc was an elephant’s graveyard and then suddenly, there was all this incredible music. My friend Darek kept sending me these CD’s, which he claimed were the best Krakowian rockabilly bands, as if there were millions, which of course there are. I always thought of Poland as a square country, like France, and then Germany, and then Poland, three peas in a pod, with Poland as the stamp on a postcard. And then you realise that all the surrounding countries are collective plurals, not just for the Poles but for the Slavs, and you’ve got the Germans, and then the Italians, and the Hungarians, and the Indians and the Chinese (the western border is half the length of the eastern border, making the country a kind of funnel). 

Maanam [a Polish punk rock group] is famous for having imported the punk ethos into Poland, in the early eighties, but it’s not an exact comparison, you have to imagine the Sex Pistols as performed by the London Symphonic Orchestra, because the musicianship is incredible, whether it’s them or Ascetoholix, Hey, Budka Suflera, Edyta Gorniak, Perfect, Cieslaw Nieman… a very long list. 

Lyrics are a real acid test [of whether you know your language or not] because lyrics are not easy. Listen to Rammstein or Nora Jones, you get the occasional word, but I defy anybody to do it word for word. But all you need is a couple words, stick them into Google and you’ll find it, thanks to and and kopalnia tekstow (sites with Polish lyrics), but actually all you need to do is put in the band and the word for lyrics in the appropriate language and Bob’s your uncle. 

It’s the weirdest thing to listen to a song and not understand a word and then find it and you realise that it’s the easiest thing in the world. For example, there’s a song by Lombard called Adriatyk, which I listened to for a while, without understaning a word, in the car, many happy mornings, making my way up the Chaussee de Wavre (towards the European Parliament in BXLs), being overtaken by pedestrians, que dis-je, classes of schoolchildren, two by two, and it seemed like a very complicated exercise, but actually it was bog simple.

To brzeg pulsujacy , to rak ocean goracy

To mrok, cierpki mrok , i noc, noc

Wolania coraz mniej, w wolny odplywam sen

Adriatyk zamknal sie

I szept slonej ciszy, i nagle blask, ostrosc kliszy

I biel, gesta biel, to sen, sen 

but believe me, it seemed more difficult, even now it seems incredible that I couldn’t have got it a bit better, maybe I wasn’t paying attention, or maybe I was worried about being late, and I wasn’t thinking properly. Every so often, there’s a litle thing that you know you should be understanding, and you’re sitting there, and it’s Place Jourdan, and you think, bugger, I’m not getting anywhere, and you play it to yourself a hundred times, and it’s so tantalising. I had that experience recently with a duet by Kasia Nosowska and Dezerter. There’s a spoken intro and the guy says “Do jasna cholera ja lubie Dezertera”, but I was hearing “ja snach olera”, which of course was meaningless. I asked somebody what it was and they said “Do jasna cholera ja lubie Dezertera”. The Poles are very gentle, they don’t make you feel bad. 


Dekalog 3 – Noting stuff

I try to keep away from Portuguese newspapers, especially the ones I find lying around the bars, because I know that if I open one, I’m going to think, “how come it just leaps off the page at you?”, when Polish always make me feel like a monk settling down to a session of textual exegesis in the scriptorium.

I remember my first visit to Croatia, thinking that Zagreb put me in mind of Bierkellers I’d been to in Vienna and how familiar Turkish food, music and fish-names seem when you’ve lived in Greece. I think that’s maybe one of the reasons, when you first approach the foothills, Polish seems like a mighty mountain to climb, but when you look further afield, you realise it’s one of the lofty peaks of a great mountain range. Like most Brits I’ve had a lifetime to get used to the Romance languages and the Germanic languages and it never really occurred to me that any of them could be viewed in isolation without the rest of the family looking on. Usually people get to know them over a long period, which is fine providing you have the time, but ars is lunga and vita is brevis, (except sometimes in the booth, when time can weigh heavily on your hands and when you look up after a full day’s work it’s still only ten in the morning). 

I like to spend those acres of time writing feverishly, copying out notes scribe-like from pad to pad, a very edifying exercise which has the great merit of being useful, mechanical and untiring. Occasionally I tune in to listen to the Polish booth and start scribbling away. It starts out as an intriguing exercise, you’re quite happy to spot anything you recognize or understand at the beginning, but after a bit of time and effort, the meeting beings to emerge from the mists, like when you begin to see the road after staring yourself blind at the windscreen. If you look at your notes after an hour or so of this, it’s interesting to watch the progression. To begin with, it’s individual words and phrases…

na mapie

podmiot prawny

tylko i wylacznie

strategiczne wytyczne

which somehow stick in your mind, but as time wears on the phrases get longer and longer

w obszarach malo zaludnionych

kluczowy element w tym obszarze

aby zagwarantowac ten okres przejsciowy

…and then a funny thing happens. There seems to be a natural limit to the number of syllables you can keep in your head and from my experience it seems to be twelve and there’s often a caesura between the sixth and seventh syllables, like in Racine. So much so that if you just jot down the first letter of common words, j instead of jeszcze, you end up being able to write down great cantilevered chunks. There’s a kind of cruising speed you get to where everything you write down is twelve syllables long, with the added advantage that when you next have to work, you start to hear it dodecasyllabically, it must be the minimum number of syllables you need to express a thought or form a mental image, zwlaszcza ze [particularly because] you always seem to start at a natural break. But it still doesn’t explain why I have such trouble with Polish numbers and why so many of my Polish friends have this puzzled look when you spell words to them in English.


Dekalog 4 – Vocab by Association

Before coming to work in Brussels I toyed briefly with the idea of giving the UN a go, but they took one look at me and drew their own conclusions. I thought I’d done quite well at the tests but it was probably my schoolboy Spanish that let me down, or possibly my schoolboy French, or maybe it was the smirk and the catapult sticking out of my back pocket. In any case, they sent me a nice letter which I left on the mantlepiece for a day or two before daring to open it. You can read a letter in one of two ways. You can start at the top, admiring the letterhead and working your way methodically down to yours sincerely. Or you can go for option two, which I did, ripping the envelope open and scanning it as if you were trying to get the number of a getaway car. My eyes fastened instantaneously on the operative word, unfortunately, which was all I needed to know. In an idle moment I calculated that if I took the pages ouf of my Wielki Slownik (Great Dictionary) and laid them end to end, they would stretch dazibao-like the kilometre from Merode metro to Montgomery, which is bad news, because on every page there are little nuggets unconnected to the words immediately before and after, bearing no resemblance to anything in any language known to me, and you think, slow down, this is going to take time. At random, page 414, nothing to write home about except maybe the word szlaban. Immediately before it, szla, from szleja, a breast-harness, but that’s obviously like a one-horse open sleigh, it’s the same exact word. After it there’s szlachcianka, from szlachta, with four column inches of cognates, so it’s an important word, but it’s obviously from the German Geschlecht, like select, as in the chosen people, like elite, elect, the chosen few, the famous szlachta, with their liberum veto, their tassels and their Sarmatian kingdom from sea to sea. But strange to relate there’s nothing much else to worry you. There’s szkola which together with cognates takes up a whole half page. There’s szkwal which is obviously squall, there’s szlafrok, which you can just imagine. There’s szkorbut, which is obviously scurvy. There’s szkrab (tot, mite, chick), but you could guess that from a scrap of information. There’s also szkuta, meaning a barge, which could conceivably scud across the water, or scoot if it was going fast. Uh oh, and szkopek, a milk-pail, but you could probably scoop things up with that, or perhaps use it for excavations. But the problem is szlaban, with nothing before or after it to help you. I’m often accused of making up my own etymologies, which is probably a fair charge. Szczuply probably didn’t give us souple in French, swietny is probably not related to chouettepiekny no doubt has nothing in common with pequeno in Spanish, even if petite is not exactly a term of abuse, and a posse in the westerns no doubt does come from posse comitatus, which you’d expect from cowhands who are notoriously laconic, and not from poscig, although who better to turn to than a group of Polacks if you wanted to run a no-good sukinsyn outlaw out of town. But szlaban is a common word, meaning the barrier that has to go up before you can get through the toll plaza on a motorway. 

I’ve yet to find a decent etymological dictionary in Polish, because they usually refer you to the Slovenian or Russian equivalents which is like a course in Slavonic studies and I’m used to neat little paper trails taking me through Norman French to German or ultimately Greek and Latin. But my guess is that it comes from Schlagbaum, which may not be accurate, but it’s a dead ringer (w sam raz). So I’m pretty happy with page 414 and szlaban, szkuta, szkrab, szleja and szkopek will be winking at me in fluorescent green when the dictionary next opens at that page so next time that page won’t detain me and I can go straight on to page 415. Oh bugger, how am I going to remember the word szlupbelka (davit)?


Dekalog 5 – Google as a dictionary

Want to know how to spell something? See which of your two versions has more results in Google. Take a very basic example, “dissappoint” or “disappoint”. The first gives you 23,600 hits, the second, 1,800,000. Democracy comes to the world of spelling! Below David takes the idea a step further. Cross-referencing terminology, latin terms and pictures in Google creates the biggest and relatively infallible dictionary/encyclopedia in the world.

Just a word about Google, which is the secret of meeting preparation, indeed of embedding any little nugget of knowledge, in the sense that you can push back the boundaries of ignorance in a way that was impossible in the old days, when you had to rely on reference works like the excellent Quid as a source of information. These things are not easy to describe, so before sending off the latest version I’ll do a little tidying-up exercise, using a few queries that people have brought to me recently. 

I was on the Armenia delegation, they were talking about a lake, I thought maybe it was Lake Van in neighbouring Turkey, although it seemed unlikely. If you need a map, go into Google and as your search string put Armenia space CIA. The first match is the CIA Factbook where the map is sufficiently detailed for most practical purposes, and it was Sevana Lich, or Sevana Lake. 

There was a debate about the EMEA and paediatric medicines and the word “mice” kept coming up. Put in EMEA mice paediatric medicine and the first match has “Medicines Investigation for the Children of Europe (MICE) is proposed”. 

Somebody asked me how you say jemioluszka in Hungarian, jemioluszka being a bird, which jak sama nazwa wskazuje (as the name suggests) eats mistletoe. Go into Google and put in “jemioluszka” and look it up in images. If you see the word Wikipedia anywhere in the addresses you’ll get the Latin name, which is Bombycilla garrulus. I didn’t know an unfailingly Hungarian word so I tried adding “magyar” to the search string and it turned up csonttollú in the first four matches so I tried that in Images and it was obviously the same bird, so jemioluszka is csonttollú.

Alternatively, for other languages, go back into Google and type in Eurodicautom. Type in the Latin name, setting the source language to Latin, usually I set the search to all fields and all languages, just browsing through the results is useful, and you’ll find the English equivalent, waxwing.

The entry on Cambodia in the Committees Guide is at least five years out of date.

I only update things on a need-to-know basis, if I’m going to be doing a delegation or if it’s coming up in a plenary debate. If you only have five minutes, which is often the case, go into Google, put in Cambodia space BBC. The population is now 14.8m, so I’ve just changed that in the file, and in a page or two you get a real sense of the current situation in the country. There’s a section called Timeline which gives you a potted history.
Google is especially good in Polish because only Polish has the word chrzaszczami and you don’t have to use the diacriticals (although it’s better if you do). Bizarrely, there are things you can’t find easily, like lyrics from the band Republika (although “Republika” space “teksty” gets you there), because the word also exists in other languages, but if you use the simple ploy of adding the word czy to the search string you’ll always find it.
A refinement of this trick is to add the word czyli (i.e. or its equivalent in the language you are looking for) if you’ve not been able to get any joy elsewhere and it’s something specific and un-Eurodicautom-friendly, like for example “moral hazard”. Scanning the matches you’ll quickly find Pokusa nadu¿ycia, ryzyko moralne, nonszalancja wobec ryzyka.
When a phrase is obviously technical but couched in general terms, use brackets before and after, for example in the budget control section “all revenue has been received”, looking for some euro-reference in the address. The second match has in the address and the text gives you the remainder of the formula, “The examination by the Court of Auditors of whether all revenue has been received and all expenditure incurred in a lawful and proper manner shall have regard to the provisions of the Treaties, the budget, this Regulation, the implementing rules and all other acts adopted pursuant to the Treaties.”
I’ve yet to find anything I couldn’t find in Google, in any language, which has freed up a good deal of space on my shelves.

Dekalog 6 – Analyse to understand

If you are having trouble using a particular grammatical structure in a foreign language, try identifying examples of where it is used in, say, newspaper articles or books, and ask yourself at each instance why the native speaker uses one form rather than another. 

When you don’t grow up in a country the grammar doesn’t just come naturally to us. We have to make an active effort at identifying and reproducing it.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Irhan, my Turkish teacher, for his invaluable assistance and pointers on the finer points of Turkish grammar dispensed over many pides in the restaurants of Schaerbeek. “What is it like to speak a language which is so succinct?” I would ask. In Turkish you say “anladim” whereas in English we say “I see what you mean”, five words. Blank expression. Or “anlamadim”, where we say “I’m not sure what you’re getting at”. Nothing. Or “anlayamadim”, “how could I possibly have known?”. “Anlamam”, he said (“What do you mean?” )

My own view is that for every subtlety in Polish, a notoriously fiendish language, there is an equivalent difficulty in English, (wiadomo) a very easy language with no grammar to speak of.

I have long been puzzled by the genitive of masculine nouns, some of which end in –a and some in –u, with no rhyme or reason that I could detect. When I inflict my Polish on a native speaker I have a little question mark in my voice when I attempt a masculine genitive, “do koncu”, I will say, only to be told “-a”, or “Watykana” half expecting to be told “-u”, which of course it is. Tossing a coin would probably be a better bet.

It’s not fair, of course, because even if there are only two possibilities there must be some profound principle involved. If I’m capable of getting it consistently wrong why can’t someone just explain the rule to me in words of one syllable so that I’ll never make the same mistake again, but when I hear the rule my eyes glaze over, despite myself.

Over the summer I was reading Od Berdyczowa do Lafitow by Jerzy Stempowski, a travelogue around post-war Europe, all 544 pages, and I resolved to look systematically for instances, so I drew a little line in the middle of the margin and put all the genitive masculines ending in –a on top and all the –u’s on the bottom, just to see. How many masculine nouns can there be? A million? Each of them ending either in –a or –u, each of them a toss-up.

You quickly realise, perusing the margins, that actually there are many more –u’s than -a’s, so if you took a leaf out of Pascal’s book, you could always try –u and you would more likely be right than wrong, which would be an improvement on my dismal fifty-fifty, although I have a sneaking suspicion that by some miracle of counter-probabilities I get them all wrong.

You can make a little list of the –u’s and put the words “do tego” in front of them, like so: do tego kraju, do tego tunelu, do tego pylu and do the same with rumianek, nocleg, brzask, koszmar, fenol, cement, prowiant, bagaz, smalec, ekstrakt, las, grunt, snieg, cel, dokument, brzeg, teren, system, powrot, plan, azyl, Olimp, lud, wierzch, spod, egoizm, przyjazd, zapas, faszyzm, przepych, kryzys, upadek, smutek, wagon, Mediolan, rynek, kurs, autobus, tabor, powod, most, wiatr, mechanizm, udzial, ucisk, bunt, okres, przebieg, strajk, strach . At all times, though, remember that these words are –u’s, in the sense that they are not –a’s. You will be guaranteed a little smile of bemused exasperation if you try nigdy nie mialem takiego dobrego noclega, azyla, Mediolana, Olimpa, albo tunela itd itp.

But actually you don’t need to keep a log of both groups and if you do you’re inevitably going to be asking yourself is it an –a or an –u in which case you’re back where you started. Luckily the –a’s have it, in the sense that there are fewer of them and they seem to conform to a logical pattern. (I’m reading through the pages.) There’s swiat, bunkier, zegar, przemytnik, koniec, przemytnik, sojusznik (people doing things), there’s chleb, sojusznik, gospodarz, grosz, Matuszalem (someone living a long time), szczur, Saturn (someone eating his children), koniec (again), swiat (again), Wergiliusz (Thunderbirds), Machiawel, czytelnik, przemytnik, sojusznik, pierscionek, zascianek (ending in –k), klient (a person), tygodnik, klucz (nie mam klucza, nie mam kluczuwould be ridiculous), swiat (as in do konca swiata ), hektar (as in ani hektara), mag, Berlioz, dyrygent, kosciol, podrecznik, technik, Ravel, dyktator, kardynal, skarbiec (skarbca), wachlarz, cielec (as in biblijnego zlotego cielca), nieprzyjaciel, Berlin, listopad (but also styczien, marzec, kwiecien, maj, czerwiec, lipiec, czerpien, wrzesien, pazdziernik, listopad und grudzien), dzien, Herkules, pieniadz, jezyk, aliant, dyktator, kucharz, wiezien, Judasz, Jezus, wachmistrz, przeciwnik .

A pattern? No, take out all the people doing things and you don’t need to worry about przemytnik (znam wspanialego przemytnika) , or dyktator, nieprzyjaciel, Herkules, Berlioz (dyrygent), mag, kardynal , and you can forget about the –ik’s as well, nie widze zadnego sojusznika, pierscionka, tygodnika, podrecznika, przeciwnika ). So actually you’re left with a select little band of –a’s you might not expect, but you can learn them easy peasy, swiat, bunkier, zegar, koniec, chleb, grosz, szczur, klucz (again), Berlin, dzien, pieniadz, jezyk. Which conveniently gets the number of avoidable choices down to manageable proportions. I hereby do solemnly resolve to remember that swiat, koniec, chleb, dzien and jezyk are all –a’s, they’re the ones I always get wrong.

Funnily enough, in Polish there’s usually a choice between two things, whereas in English, for example with the articles, there’s always a choice between a, an, a, the, the and nothing, which is six possibilities by my reckoning. I give my students the same incomprehending look when they pick the wrong one although I’m not sure why it is that you say Polish culture but the Polish economy. It’s just something you can’t get wrong if you’re a native speaker of English.

But if you read through a long book, say, Lend me your ears by Boris Johnson, all 539 pages, and make little notes in the margin, there’s a method to the madness. Take page 39 for example. You can take away all the a’s and the the’s and give it to an Englishman through and through and they’ll read it out to you loud and clear, supplying the articles, confident of their correctitude.

>>In chancelleries of Europe, it is nothing short of identity crisis. Mandarins mutter over their atlases; ministers are stumped. In few short weeks since final collapse of Soviet Union, glaring hole has been uncovered in diplomatic lexicon.

‘What is eventual size of Europe?’ one EC ambassador asked last week after Brussels commission announced delphicly that it would propose varying relations with ex-Soviet countries according to whether or not they were ‘European’. ‘Who is European?’ he asked querulously. ‘Where does Europe end?’

Britain knows, as it prepares to take over EC presidency in July, that question is central. Being ‘European’ gives country right, eventually, to participate in Community institutions in Brussels. After years of chafing at introversion of ‘little Europeans’ such as French government and M Jacques Delors, Downing Street is signposting ‘wider Common Market’ as key advance of British presidency. Foreign Office has been asked to provide position paper.

But while it is one thing to accommodate Poland, Hungary, even Baltic states, where does one stop? Mr Major has proclaimed new, wider Europe Community ‘from Atlantic to Urals’. Does he really mean it – that EC will one day embrace most of 150 million people of new Russia? And if so, what about Russians on other side of Urals?<<

Reading through this unarticled passage two things irresistibly spring to mind. Taking away the articles makes it sound like Lancashire dialect (there’s trouble down at ‘t mill) and like clipped military parlance, two boots, size ten, Corporal Higgins for use of, sah! But don’t take my word for it..

‘What is the eventual size of Europe?’ one EC ambassador asked last week after the Brussels commission announced delphicly that it would propose varying relations with the ex-Soviet countries according to whether or not they were ‘European’. ‘Who is a European?’ he asked querulously. ‘Where does Europe end?’

Britain knows, as it prepares to take over the EC presidency in July, that the question is central. Being ‘European’ gives a country the right, eventually, to participate in the Community institutions in Brussels. After years of chafing at the introversion of the ‘little Europeans’ such as the French government and M Jacques Delors, Downing Street is signposting the ‘wider Common Market’ as the key advance of the British presidency. The Foreign Office has been asked to provide a position paper.

But while it is one thing to accommodate Poland, Hungary, even the Baltic states, where does one stop? Mr Major has proclaimed a new, wider European Community ‘from the Atlantic to the Urals’. Does he really mean it – that the EC will one day embrace most of the 150 million people of the new Russia? And if so, what about the Russians on the other side of the Urals?>> 


Dekalog 7 – Facing up to difficult pronounciation

In this week’s image of the week is a particularly good one, it’s as if you were peering into an aquarium chockablock with multicoloured butterflies and tulips. When you first look at it all you see is a jumbled surface but when you relax your gaze it swims and you get the full benefit in 3 D. I like to copy it into word, change the orientation to landscape, expand the margins and go into full screen mode then wow, goldfish. Once you have the image you can move your head and the picture skews off in the other direction, you can carefully single out individual elements, the background, the rows of different motifs graduating from front to back and if you tiptoe around the perimeter, still keeping the image, everything gets clearer and crisper.

He’s been on the magic mushrooms again, I can hear you say, but I mention this visual feast because I’ve noticed that there’s an aural equivalent, if you hear what I mean.

Take this example, reading the Polish bits out loud, being careful not to rush the syllables and doubling the consonants where appropriate. It’s taken from Witold Gombrowicz’s Wspomnienia polskie. Incidentally, if you want to read his Ferdydurke this book is very good preparation, the way you might read James Joyce’s Dubliners before going on to Ulysses and then Finnegan’s Wake. 

Chyba tylko niewielu ludziom w kraju jestem znany z gruntownej lektury moich – trudnych dosyć i ekscentrycznych ekscentrycznych ekscentrycznych – utworów. Więcej jest takich co o mnie zasłyszeli i dla tych jestem przede wszystkim autorem “gęby” i “pupy” – pod znakiem tych dwóch potężnych mitów wszedłem do piśmiennictwa piśmiennictwa psimiennictwa polskiego. Ale cóż to znaczy “zrobić komuś gębę” lub “przyprawić pupę”? “Zrobić gębę” to – opatrzyć człowieka inną twarzą niż jego własną, zniekształcić go… gdy, na przykład, człowieka niegłupiego traktuję jak głupca, a dobremu podsuwam intencje zbrodnicze, wówczas robię im gębę. A przyprawienie pupy jest właściwie identyczną operacją, z tą tylko różnicą, że tu idzie o traktowanie dorosłego, jak dziecka, o udziecinnienie. Otóż jak widzicie, obie te metafory sa związane z aktem deformacji, której człowiek dopuszcza się na człowieku. I jeśli w naszej literaturze zająłem pewne odrębne miejsce to chyba przede wszystkim dlatego, że uwydatniłem niesłychane znaczenie formy w życiu, tyleż społecznym, co osobistym człowieka.

Before doing reading aloud exercises it’s a good idea to have read the book once quickly so that vocabulary difficulties don’t get in the way. What connotation does uwydatni³em have, how is it used? 

Canon PowerShot A70 troche uwydatnilem niebo w corelu

rzucisz monete to ona pojdzie do rzadow afryki na owa “pomoc”. czemu uwydatnilem ostatnie slowo.

miejscami uwydatnilem miejsca jasne a miejscami zciemnilem

No i uwydatnilem troche biust. Dodalem troche brzucha. 

poprawilem troche jasnosc napisu i uwydatnilem go troche, dajac czerwone obramowanie

So it means to bring out or highlight. (Was there Google when you were little, dad?) 

The other word that needs seeing to is przyprawienie 

uzyskany poprzez przyprawienie „Jenever” owocami, roślinami lub ich częściami 

Przyprawa o charakterze uniwersalnym do kiełbas parzonych; przyprawienie wg upodobañ smakowych regionalnych

za przyprawienie rogów Mojżeszowi zęp 6,00

teorię teatru – teorię czystej formy, której celem jest przyprawienie widza o metafizyczny dreszcz i zbli¿enie go do przeżycia Tajemnicy Istnienia. 

Czas przygotowania: 10-15 minut na przyprawienie, a reszta robi sie sama. 

ewentualne ponowne przyprawienie solą, pieprzem, i innymi przyprawami użytymi do tej potrawy 

So it means to season or to give, as in this will give it a nice tangy taste. 

It doesn’t need to be a long text but you can do things with it. I’m going to read it again, this time tripling the words I stumbled over the first time. 

Chyba tylko niewielu ludziom w kraju jestem znany z gruntownej lektury moich – trudnych dosyć i ekscentrycznych ekscentrycznych ekscentrycznych – utworów. Więcej jest takich co o mnie zasłyszeli i dla tych jestem przede wszystkim autorem “gęby” i “pupy” – pod znakiem tych dwóch potężnych mitów wszedłem do piśmiennictwa piśmiennictwa psimiennictwa polskiego. Ale cóż to znaczy “zrobić komuś gębę” lub “przyprawić pupę”? “Zrobić gębę” to – opatrzyć człowieka inną twarzą niż jego własną, zniekształcić go… gdy, na przykład, człowieka niegłupiego traktuję jak głupca, a dobremu podsuwam intencje zbrodnicze, wówczas robię im gębę. A przyprawienie pupy jest właściwie identyczną operacją, z tą tylko różnicą, że tu idzie o traktowanie dorosłego, jak dziecka, o udziecinnienie. Otóż jak widzicie, obie te metafory sa związane z aktem deformacji, której człowiek dopuszcza się na człowieku. I jeśli w naszej literaturze zająłem pewne odrębne miejsce to chyba przede wszystkim dlatego, że uwydatniłem niesłychane znaczenie formy w życiu, tyleż społecznym, co osobistym człowieka.

Second time round I can feel my jaw going into Polish mode, especially the word przyprawienie which is chuntering along nicely. Sometimes it’s not an individual word that wrongfoot’s you, sometimes it’s two.

Chyba tylko niewielu ludziom w kraju jestem znany z gruntownej lektury moich – trudnych dosyć i ekscentrycznych ekscentrycznych ekscentrycznych – utworów. Więcej jest takich co o mnie zasłyszeli i dla tych jestem przede wszystkim autorem “gęby” i “pupy” – pod znakiem tych dwóch potężnych mitów wszedłem do piśmiennictwa piśmiennictwa psimiennictwa polskiego. Ale cóż to znaczy “zrobić komuś gębę” lub “przyprawić pupę”? “Zrobić gębę” to – opatrzyć człowieka inną twarzą niż jego własną, zniekształcić go… gdy, na przykład, człowieka niegłupiego traktuję jak głupca, a dobremu podsuwam intencje zbrodnicze, wówczas robię im gębę. A przyprawienie pupy jest właściwie identyczną operacją, z tą tylko różnicą, że tu idzie o traktowanie dorosłego, jak dziecka, o udziecinnienie. Otóż jak widzicie, obie te metafory sa związane z aktem deformacji, której człowiek dopuszcza się na człowieku. I jeśli w naszej literaturze zająłem pewne odrębne miejsce to chyba przede wszystkim dlatego, że uwydatniłem niesłychane znaczenie formy w życiu, tyleż społecznym, co osobistym człowieka.

Or it can be a little chunk where you have to get the stress right to get the hang of the syntax. 

After a while the words start to tumble out in fact you can begin to slur. If this is happening, add in a few genitive plurals, the most effective braking system known to man. 

Chyba tylko niewielu ludziom w kraju jestem znany z gruntownej lektury moich – trudnych dosyć i ekscentrycznych ekscentrycznych ekscentrycznych – utworów. Więcej jest takich co o mnie zasłyszeli i dla tych jestem przede wszystkim autorem “gęby” i “pupy” – pod znakiem tych dwóch potężnych mitów wszedłem do piśmiennictwa piśmiennictwa psimiennictwa polskiego. Ale cóż to znaczy “zrobić komuś gębę” lub “przyprawić pupę”? “Zrobić gębę” to – opatrzyć człowieka inną twarzą niż jego własną, zniekształcić go… gdy, na przykład, człowieka niegłupiego traktuję jak głupca, a dobremu podsuwam intencje zbrodnicze, wówczas robię im gębę. A przyprawienie pupy jest właściwie identyczną operacją, z tą tylko różnicą, że tu idzie o traktowanie dorosłego, jak dziecka, o udziecinnienie. Otóż jak widzicie, obie te metafory sa związane z aktem deformacji, której człowiek dopuszcza się na człowieku. I jeśli w naszej literaturze zająłem pewne odrębne miejsce to chyba przede wszystkim dlatego, że uwydatniłem niesłychane znaczenie formy w życiu, tyleż społecznym, co osobistym człowieka.

As you can see, this is not a good exercise for doing when there are people around.


Dekalog 8 – Fiszki (flashcards)

Why use flashcards? Be they electronic or paper ones?

1. The benefits of repetition for learning;

2. the benefits of learning phrases rather than individual words (AKA The lexical approach to language learning);

3. a lesser known but equally useful trick: that of having your own ready-to-use target language versions of common expressions from the source language (all jotted down somewhere for reference) – these would be expressions that might not be that easy to translate on spec in the booth or in consec and which you don’t really want to render literally;

4. in encouraging you to work at 3. David is pushing you towards the necessary realisation that some things are just expressed differently in the other language (often because a different culture thinks about the same thing from a different angle); and for good measure

5. the knack (useful in consec) of noting one word that brings back whole ideas, sentences or expressions to your mind.

For some strange reason I find Polish phrases eminently forgettable and I’m not sure why that is. At the same time on the page they are instantly recognizable. Every so often an expression catches my eye especially when it fits the bill exactly and I set it as the password for my e-mail, the single most valuable piece of information to me. For six months or so I’ll sign on with Zesietakwyraze or Niemadrugiejtakiejzieminaswiecie and you would think that a phrase your fingers can tap out unthinkingly would be available for instant recall but they’ve never occurred to me when I was talking to somebody.

The only success I’ve had in the delicate art of pressing dead horses into service has been with flashcards or fiszki. After much experimentation I found that squared index-cards were the best, measuring seven squares by 13, which I hold in my left hand, pushing the top one up with my thumb and manoeuvring it round the back. If you shuffle them and get half of them upside down and the wrong way round, fiddling them back into order makes your fingers very nimble although for some reason it’s a left-hand thing, when I try the right hand it quickly degenerates into fifty-two card pickup. 

I’ll go over the set w kolko (again and again) for a couple of days, in queues, on the metro, in the booth until recall becomes automatic and the only limitation is how quickly I can physically move to the next one. Then I put an elastic band around them and start another lot. Here’s the current batch: 

from dawn to dusk od rana do wieczora 
brings home unaocznia mi roznice 
annulled uniewaznione za dyspensa papieska 
fan zapisane na wachlarzu 
squeeze drywyciskac jak cytryne
evoke wywolala wspomnienia 
flock do socjalistow walily tlumy 
fall to their kneespada na kleczki 
set the tone ale to nie one narzucaja ton
to this very day po dzis dzien 
like him podobnie jak on sam 
kinda cos na ksztalt
unchain my heart z historia spuszczona z lancucha 
different ma odmienny charakter
day after day dzien po dniu 
1:10 na jedna przypadalo po dziesieciu wzdychaczow 
KORKomitetu Obrony Robotnikow 
to no avail bez wiekszego skutku 
doomed to failure z gory skazana na przegrana 
in Siberia na Sybirze 
just for a short while chocby na chwile 
narks pogardzali szpiclami 
practical ze wzgledow czysto praktycznych 
rewarded cnota zostala wynagrodzona 
answer bym publicznie ustosunkowal sie do tych obelg
numbers w dostatecznej ilosci 
generalize nie chce uogolniac 
one condition pod jednym wszakze warunkiem 
thorn nie ma rozy bez kolcow 
haunt slowko wroblem wyleci a powroci wolem 
in a state chodzic wielce zaaferowany

Thoughts occur to you as you cycle through them: 

there is something offputting about a page filled with notes, they interfere with each other, like in a crowded lift, when one person gets out everyone shuffles around to give themselves more personal space, here the English version is stripped down to basics, like a note in consecutive and sits there in splendid isolation, looking at you, why did I write down pot, to pot a snooker ball, one for the pot, a potshot, not pot as in the Polish for sweat, it’s definitely an English pot, oh yeah, of course, the pot calling the kettle black 

if you read them out slowly and deliberately it speeds up the process of memorisation, you go through the possibilities, it may say trzasnał drzwiami but you’ll soon find yourself saying trzaskać drzwiami, trzaskam drzwiami, trzaskasz drzwiami, trzasneły drzwiami until you’ve gone through the entire gamut your morphological powers allow, like a goldfish growing to the size of its aquarium 

just for a short while comes from The Jean Genie by David Bowie, but importantly it’s not an exact translation, so after a few repetitions I don’t know which one was the original, they become definitions of each other 

the word suffice comes complete with connotations and register, suffice it to say, who could say that, repeat it a few times and you slip into an upper crust frame of mind, the stress begins to fall resoundingly on the second syllable of suffice, you would need a classical education, it would have come naturally to Bertrand Russell, simplifying a complicated demonstration, and doœæ powiedzieæ must have the same ring to it, it’s much more than the sum of its parts, there’s dość and there’s powiedzieć and then there’s dość powiedzieć, it would sound right coming from Gra¿yna Szapolowska, “dość powiedzieć, i¿ jest to jedna z najlepszych rodzimych komedii…”

to this very day is very good for po dziœ dzieñ (or vice versa) because it’s not just the words, it’s the sound and the shape, like Wolverhampton Wanderers, imagining how it could have been used and why, but what struck me then and what sticks with me to this very day is the image of a writer standing on principle in the face of overwhelming disapproval, or Po dziś dzieñ – mimo burzliwych dziejów tych ziem – zachowało ssi na Mazowszu całkiem sporo siedzib œredniozamo¿nych w³aœcicieli ziemskich. Eventually the images overlap and interact, what struck me then, and what strikes me now is that to this very day quite a few of those ancestral piles are still to be found…

why did I jot down seldom for rzadko który, it must have seemed like a template, I was thinking of rzadko kiedy, as in rzadko kiedy zdarza siê, ¿e 2 czêœæ filmu jest lepsza od pierwszej, but then rzadko gdzie must be possible too, Rzadko gdzie Wining & Dining to taka frajda, jak w Wiedniu, you hear the same thing in the street, gdzie kurwa, kiedy kurwa…

for some reason there are ones that go in immediately, the way there’s always an easy red, or at least one that’s easier than the rest (Ostatnia Wieczerza) and one that just refuses to cooperate, co przenikaly na wskros niebiosy, even though it must sound like na glos, and it has echoes of a-cross, I hesitate every single time, imagine if John Lennon had recorded a Polish version, how would he have phrased it…

for some strange reason is one of my favourite phrases and there’s virtually not a meaningful pause in conversation where it won’t slot in, I wonder if nie wiadomo z jakich pobudek could be used in the same way, or perhaps nie wiedziec czemu, which reminds me of my inability to use the word no, except one day when I was asked if I wasn’t cold without a coat and I said no (what do you think?) exactly the right way, but it was an accident, I was actually saying no (me cold? never) with a Glaswegian accent. 

I’ve just counted them, there are 61 fiszek, is that significant? 

in Scottish flit means to move house, but a bird flits from branch to branch, it’s onomatopoeic, like fleet of foot, flutter and flight, a million miles from przeskakiwaæ, but z galêzi na gal¹Ÿ has that same delicate feel of a bird alighting and darting around 

after a while, if you put your cards away, you can’t remember if you learned a particular phrase but things you come out with will have elements drawn from various phrases, in the same way that in your head certain ones form groups, od rana do wieczora, po dzis dzien, dzien po dniu, chocby na chwile, rzadko ktory, w cwierc wieku po, I hadn’t noticed but I must look out for time phrases, or na wskros niebiosy, mijac sie z prawda, wystawic na probe, Ostatnia Wieczerza, cnota zostala wynagrodzona, dyspensa papieska, znikly z powierzchni ziemi, pada na kleczki, that’s a group. Or phrases that are obviously versatile, cos na ksztalt, dosc powiedziec, nie chce uogolniac, ze wzgledow czysto praktycznich, bez wiekszego skutku, or concatenations of sesquipedalians, niespieszny neapolitanski przechodzien o nienagannych manierach towarzyskich wywolal wspomnienia od rana do wieczora ale to nie on narzucal ton… 


Dekalog 9 – Lech

Wiadomo, knowing you’re to be hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully but having a Polish test in the spring has much the same effect. At that point the honeymoon period will be over, no more walesania (loitering) on the Rynek in Krakow at the taxpayer’s expense, no more struggling with koncowki in the Borchette with fellow-sufferers on Friday afternoons to the muffled sound of merriment from the cafes terrasses on Place Jourdan down below. No more Kombi in the car. 

The trouble with my own preparation is that it’s been too leisurely by half, reading with a dictionary. I’m going to have to go up several gears. Probably the fastest delivery you’ll hear in the European Parliament is in the one-minute speeches at the start of business on a Monday afternoon. My own favourite is Ryszard Czarnecki (you can get all the speeches at Plenary on demand and after a couple of months you can get the translations into all the official languages) 

This is a typical speech (July 5, 2005), on the subject of the patentability of computer-implemented inventions: 

 Panie Przewodniczący! Ważny jest dzisiaj dzień dla Parlamentu Europejskiego, bo to dziś mamy szansę naprawdę udowodnić, że Parlament jest rzeczywiście reprezentantem milionów Europejczyków. Oto, bowiem teraz możemy bronić, i to w dużej mierze obronić, interesy milionów właścicieli komputerów, a także setek tysięcy małych i średnich firm – tego zresztą domagają się od nas, pisząc maile, listy, wystosowując apele.
Myślę, że oto nagle Europa obywatelska uznała, że Europie obywateli potrzebny jest Europejski Parlament. Nie bądźmy rzecznikami czy lobbystami wielkich firm, bądźmy rzecznikami oddolnego ruchu społecznej mobilizacji przeciw złym decyzjom unijnych instytucji, które może naprawić tylko inna instytucja unijna. Nie chodzi tylko, i nie chodzi głównie o patenty na oprogramowania komputerowe, chodzi o społeczną presję, która daje wielką szansę Parlamentowi Europejskiemu bycia reprezentantem obywateli nie tylko w pięknej teorii, lecz również w zwykłej praktyce. Wykorzystajmy tę szansę.

Which comes in at a leisurely 135 words a minute (although it seems that he regularly mails his speeches to the EP mailbox which means that you can get them in advance). After a couple of months they’re translated into all the languages but ominously in English it’s already 192. 

Mr President, today is an important day for the European Parliament, as we have a real opportunity to prove that this House does in fact represent millions of Europeans….

It’s 171 in German. 

Herr Präsident! Heute ist ein wichtiger Tag für das Europäische Parlament, da wir endlich einmal beweisen können, dass dieses Parlament Millionen von Europäern wirklich vertritt…..

I think the best language for learning Polish must be Finnish, because there it’s only 127. What would you do with all that free time? You could probably boil an egg. 

Arvoisa puhemies, tämä on tärkeä päivä Euroopan parlamentille, sillä meillä on nyt erinomainen mahdollisuus osoittaa, että parlamentti todellakin edustaa miljoonia eurooppalaisia….

Here’s one exercise I think might help to get up to speed although I can’t guarantee that it will work for anyone who doesn’t have a deadline.

Go into Google and put in radio space zetClick on Wiadomosci Radia Zet Under Gosc Radia Zet click on wiecej (Monika Olejnik is the one on the left). Scroll all the way to the bottom and go into the Archiwum Wywiadow. You can listen to the interviews while reading the transcript which is an absolute boon. The MP3 files go back six months and after that I suppose they get wiped. 

This is already quite rewarding but there are two problems because po pierwsze you need a computer and po wtore there are hundreds of these pieces so you tend to hop around from one to the other.

To break the link with the hardware you need to save the MP3 files and get them onto a CD that you can carry around with you and listen to on your Diskman when you have a minute. The interviews are about ten minutes long so you can get about seven on each CD. I use Roxio to do this, in CD music format. 

I then copy and paste the transcripts into Word and re-format them into columns so that they fit into two pages, like so: 

Thus armed, I can subject myself to the fastest Polish you could possibly find, anywhere, anytime, with no need for teachers, language laboratories or a free PC. 

I listen to each interview in a loop until I’m sick of it, chasing up little conundrums, looking up the words until eventually I can follow it from start to finish phrase by phrase. I suppose you could do simultaneous practise although I never have. If it’s not too fast you can parrot the original, the whole thing or just one voice. Having the text in front of you takes away any sense of urgency, you can read it separately or while you’re listening to it or you can put it down. 

I kept track of the thoughts that went through my mind while listening to the interview with Lech Kaczynski (17.10.2005) which for ten minutes and 1427 words works out at 142.7 words a minute, faster than anything you’re likely to find in real life: 

Lech was the twin with the mole (pieprzyk), he became the President, and was killed in the Smolensk plane crash in April 2010. 

He was the mayor of Warsaw, known as the Prezydent. Donald Tusk’s grandfather did something. Jacek Kurski was punished for doing something. If you’re quoted in an obscure journal it doesn’t really count. Somebody may have been in the Wehrmacht.If you bump into somebody in the street you say you’re sorry and if they have any manners you’ll hear no more about it. If they make a fuss it’s their fault. If they go on and on about it you’re perfectly entitled to throw a wobbly because you’re now the aggrieved party. It wasn’t so much Donald Tusk as his High Command. Nobody reads the rag anyway. 250.000 people read it. They may buy it but they don’t necessarily read it. Jacek Kurski wasn’t actually reported as saying that Donald Tusk’s father was in the Wehrmacht. Anyway he got his comeuppance. What they actually said was that his grandad was not in the Wehrmacht, and he was, and anyway they were really putting the boot into me. That’s not how it was interpreted in the German press. Aha, die deutsche Presse! First they say they’re going to build a Museum for the Expellees and now they’re the victims and not the aggressor. Anyway what business do they have meddling in our elections? It’s not about that at all, that’s just diversionary tactics, it’s really about Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz … I’m going to take a break and lie down in a darkened room for a few hours. 

Some time and many air-miles later I came back to this interview and thought to myself that there were several things which escaped me. If this happens to you try the “name” “space” “wikipedia” and you’ll get some useful information.. for example…

Kontrowersje Jacek Kurski 

Jest znany z ostrych antykomunistycznych pogl¹dów, twardego, nastawionego na skutecznoœæ stylu walki politycznej oraz z czêstych zmian sojuszników. Z powodu zawierania taktycznych sojuszy, w których partnerzy korzystaj¹ z jego zdolnoœci w zakresie agresywnych kampanii medialnych, jest nieraz postrzegany jako “polityczny najemnik” (jak okreœli³ go Jan Koz³owski) oraz specjalista od tzw. czarnego PR (tzn. opartego na rysowaniu negatywnego obrazu przeciwnika). Od wielu lat jest zagorza³ym krytykiem œrodowisk postkomunistycznych, jak równie¿ liberalnych (dawniej Kongresu Liberalno-Demokratycznego i Unii Wolnoœci, a obecnie Platformy Obywatelskiej). W wypowiedziach publicznych wielokrotnie sprzeciwia³ siê zawieraniu przez PiS jakiejkolwiek koalicji z PO. Krytykowa³ równie¿ œrodowisko Gazety Wyborczej, w której – co ciekawe – pracuje jego starszy brat Jaros³aw. 

At the bottom there’s a section called Wikicytaty, (Wikiquotes in English): 

Jacek Kurski (ur. 1966) – polski dziennikarz i polityk. Robienie kampanii już mnie nie krêci. Bêdê bulterierem Kaczyñskich. Żródło: “Kurski show. Walcie na czerwonym” (Gazeta Wyborcza, Du¿y Format, paŸdziernik 2005)
Wikipedia entry: O Jacku Kurskim: “Dlaczego ty trzymasz tego s…syna Kurskiego?” – “Mo¿e i jest s…synem, ale wolê go mieæ po swojej stronie” Opis: rozmowa miêdzy kandydatami na urz¹d prezydenta RP, Donaldem Tuskiem a Lechem Kaczyñskim, po debacie w telewizji Polsat (przed II tur¹ wyborów); bêd¹c cz³onkiem sztabu Kaczyñskiego Kurski informowa³, ¿e dziadek Tuska ochotniczo wst¹pi³ do Wehrmachtu. Żród³o: “Kurski show. Walcie na czerwonym” (Gazeta Wyborcza, Du¿y Format, paŸdziernik 2005) Who else was mentioned? Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz: (also from Wikipedia) Od 1991 cz³onek Komisji Kodyfikacyjnej Prawa Bankowego. W latach 1992-2000 by³a prezesem Narodowego Banku Polskiego, z której to funkcji ust¹pi³a dobrowolnie, w œrodku drugiej, szeœcioletniej kadencji, w latach 1998–2000 przewodnicz¹c¹ Rady Polityki Pieniê¿nej. W 1995 kandydowa³a w wyborach prezydenckich, uzyskuj¹c wynik 2,76%. By³a popierana m. in. przez Zjednoczenie Chrzeœcijañsko-Narodowe, Niezale¿ne Zrzeszenie Studentów oraz Stowarzyszenie Rodzin Katolickich, a sonda¿e przedwyborcze dawa³y jej nawet kilkunastoprocentowe poparcie. Do pora¿ki wyborczej prawdopodobnie przyczyni³a siê negatywna kampania prowadzona przeciwko niej przez Radio Maryja (m. in. sugerowanie ¿ydowskiego pochodzenia) oraz utrata poparcia czêœci ugrupowañ (m. in. ZChN). Od 2001 do 2004 wiceprezes Europejskiego Banku Odbudowy i Rozwoju (EBOR). Od 2005 dzia³a w Platformie Obywatelskiej, w której przyjê³a na siebie zadanie przebudowy struktur partii w Warszawie. Wczeœniej bezpartyjna. W wyborach parlamentarnych w 2005 zosta³a wybrana pos³ank¹ PO w okrêgu warszawskim. W Sejmie V kadencji przewodniczy Komisji Skarbu Pañstwa. 

I’m saying this now, with hindsight, so I’m not sure whether it will be of any benefit to someone who has, say, a couple of years of Polish under their belt. Maybe you need to spend a long time doing grammar and vocabulary, maybe it’s too daunting when you feel there are all these things that are going over your head, but then again maybe not. The other thing I would have done was to start with a couple of hours of conversation a week, however laborious and unsettling, but different strokes for different folks.

Dekalog 10 – Song lyrics

If you ever get the chance to work in the booth at the Committee of Regions the first thing you’ll notice is that there are TV screens everywhere. If you look at the ceiling you’ll see pods protruding unobtrusively from the ceiling. When someone switches on their microphone these Doctor Who-like contraptions home in on them and you have a perfect view on your monitor. Except of course that people play around with their controls so when you’re trying to work suddenly you get a shot of someone looking sheepish and frantically trying to undo. When I have a TV on in front of me I instinctively make myself comfortable and the word beer immediately suggests itself. Then I go into couch potato mode and start noticing things. I have Prosto w Oczy on in the top right quadrant of my screen this minute. Monika Olejnik is interviewing Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz on TVP. He’s very easy to understand, he smiles a lot and has a very expressive face, he does funny voices and then goes back into his gravitas thing. She follows a line of questioning. You can tell from the body language. Three or four questions go in the same direction then she changes her posture either because she’s run into a brick wall or because she’s winkled something out of her interlocutor and wants to move swiftly on. In the CoR I always switch off the screen because I find it a terrible distraction. Even now I’m not really paying attention. I’m writing this in Word in the bottom right-hand quadrant and the text of the interview takes up the rest of the screen on the left. Something else I find difficult is when I’m sitting at a table with Polish friends and I’m in passive listening mode but no, they don’t like you to just sit there like a wally dug. Every so often they wake you up by saying things like odezwij sie! (say something!) or zgodz sie! (say something!) or Halo, ptasie radio! (say something!). When you’ve been at a language for a while it’s just a matter of flipping a switch and you understand everything perfectly. It’s an illusion to think that after several years of reading the texts of interviews, annotating the margins of your books and walking around with a newspaper under your arm what you need to really understand is more reading matter. Obviously what you need is some way of snapping out of pot plant mode. Funnily enough just reading the transcript isn’t enough because you just read it. You can be sitting there looking at the images without understanding and you can then turn your attention to the transcript and forget that it’s in lock step with the talking heads. The two activities must occur in different parts of the brain. If you’re working, especially in plenary, you sometimes get a speech handed into the booth just before the speaker launches forth. If you’re lucky you’ll have had time to read it through to the end and then translating it is easy as pie. If you only got half way through everything goes swimmingly until you get to that section and then suddenly you lose the ground under your feet. I’m sorry if this has been all around the houses but I’ve been looking for ways to understand something I’m listening to as if I was reading it. It doesn’t seem to be something natural because you can’t just think about it. It can’t just be Polish because I have other languages and they can be going like the clappers on a subject I know next to nothing about and I get the gist. The difference is that I’ve been doing that for years. When it gets really hectic I close my eyes. Here as well that technique works. For some strange reason people think that looking at the guy will help or that reading what they’re saying will help but actually blocking out both things produces far superior results. But there are other things you can do. Monika and Kazimierz are still going at it hammer and tongs but I’ve maximised a little section from another interview, with Roman Giertych. 

Monika Olejnik: Roman Giertych, lider Ligi Polskich Rodzin i Monika Olejnik, witam pana. Roman Giertych: Witam serdecznie. Monika Olejnik: Panie przewodnicz¹cy, czy Liga Polskich Rodzin poprze poprawkê, fortel, który zastosowa³o PiS w ustawie o samorz¹dach, mianowicie tak¹, ¿e to radni bêd¹ decydowaæ o tym, czy powinny byæ wybory prezydenckie?Roman Giertych: Ja nie znam jeszcze treœci tej poprawki. Monika Olejnik: Ja panu czytam, to radni maj¹ decydowaæ, czy wybory maj¹ byæ, czy nie. Taka jest ta poprawka. Prosta. Roman Giertych: Zastanowimy siê, na pewno idzie to w lepszym kierunku, ni¿ by³o to dotychczas. To radni maj¹ decydowaæ o kwestiach wyborów prezydenckich, a nie Sejm czy rz¹d, dlatego, ¿e w Polsce od 16 lat jest samorz¹dnoœæ i warto tej zasady samorz¹dnoœci nie ³amaæ dla jakiœ tam wzglêdów koniunkturalnych, czy z powodu jednej up³ywaj¹cej kadencji jednego prezydenta.Monika Olejnik: Ale doskonale pan wie, ¿e chodzi o Warszawê, ¿e PiS nie chce oddaæ Warszawy innym ugrupowaniom i doskonale pan wie, ¿e w Radzie Warszawy wiêkszoœæ ma PiS. Roman Giertych: No nie. Ma 24 radnych na 60.

I’m concentrating on the bit in the middle, reading it and re-reading it, letting the other interview flow over me without actually blocking it out, just not paying attention. When you have to make a deliberate effort to focus on something, like with magic eye images, you know when you’ve succeeded because images start to pop up. If PiS has twenty-four seats on the Warsaw town council presumably they’ll need seven more to elect the mayor which is no doubt where the LPR comes in. I’m thinking about the arithmetic, half of sixty is thirty plus one is thirty-one, seven more than PiS has. Once you have that simple arithmetical notion in your head you can go back to the other interview and suddenly everything begins to make sense. In the process I feel as if I’ve tricked myself into using my normal thought processes for another language, so I hear the Polish with sub-titles (albo z lektorem) and the images supply themselves. The more often you switch the crisper the definition. Well it works for me.

What would happen if you had been reading something in English?

This is taken from John Prescott’s speech to conference this year:,13803,1055155,00.html
Mind you, chair, I should declare an interest. I’ve had an offer myself. Don’t laugh – it’s good money. All I have to do is write my memoirs. The Daily Mail say they’ll serialise it. And another newspaper wants a weekly column. All for six-figure sums apparently. But I looked at the small print. First, it said I have to resign from the cabinet. Second, no articles supporting Labour. To earn that kind of money I’ve got to do something else: I’ve got to slag off the government and my former colleagues. Then it says: “don’t worry if you take a different position now to the one you took in cabinet – we’ll just say that shows what an independent thinker you are”. Well conference, I haven’t been an MP for 33 years just to use the Daily Mail to attack any Labour government, let alone this one. So let me say to those in our party who claim that the government has betrayed Labour’s values. Our achievements would have been celebrated by our party at any time in its history.

They’re offering him more than a hundred thousand pounds to write his memoirs. He’s been an MP for thirty-three years. He would no longer be a minister. He wouldn’t be able to criticise the sitting government. These are the things that Marcinkiewicz is talking about. When you put it like that it doesn’t sound so daft.

If my head was a pumpkin with a clock face at the equator like Dali’s watch then when I read Prescott it all happens at ten o’clock, somewhere near Seattle (especially the words but I looked at the small print), but when I read the Polish excerpt (especially the nie ³amaæ dla jakiœ tam wzglêdów koniunkturalnych bit), it’s somewhere else, two o’clock or thereabouts, east of Germany). If I was doing it in English I would take lines from The Journey of the Magi by T.S.Eliot 

‘A cold coming we had of it,Just the worst time of the yearFor a journey, and such a journey:The ways deep and the weather sharp,The very dead of winter.’And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,Lying down in the melting snow.There were times we regrettedThe summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

… because the juxtaposition (zestawienie) of footsore bactrians and dusky serving wenches is so in your face.

I carry little bits of poetry around with me but for some reason I’ve never memorised a poem in Polish. If I wanted to remind myself where Polish was I would learn Slowka by Szymborska: 

S³ówka – La Pologne? La Pologne? Tam strasznie zimno, prawda? – spyta³a mnie i odetchnê³a z ulg¹. Bo porobi³o siê tych krajów tyle, ¿e najpewniejszy jest w rozmowie klimat.– O pani – chcê jej odpowiedzieæ – poeci mego kraju pisz¹ w rêkawicach. Nie twierdzê, ¿e ich wcale nie zdejmuj¹; je¿eli ksiê¿yc przygrzeje, to tak. W strofach z³o¿onych z gromkich pohukiwañ, bo tylko to przedziera siê przez ryk wichury, œpiewaj¹ prosty byt pasterzy fok. Klasycy ryj¹ soplem atramentu na przytupanych zaspach. Reszta, dekadenci, p³acz¹ nad losem gwiazdkami ze œniegu. Kto chce siê topiæ, musi mieæ siekierê do zrobienia przerêbli. O pani, o moja droga pani.Tak chcê jej odpowiedzieæ. Ale zapomnia³am, jak bêdzie foka po francusku. Nie jestem pewna sopla i przerêbli.– La Pologne? La Pologne? Tam strasznie zimno, prawda?– Pas du tout – odpowiadam lodowato.

Not the whole thing, just the bit about the walrus herders. 

David Walker 2005 Brussels