My first job teaching English was in Warsaw, Poland. I was there for two and a half years from 2000 to 2002 and it was an amazing experience. It also taught me a great deal about learning and teaching languages.
If you think learning English is hard, you should try learning Polish! I hope I don’t offend any Poles reading this but Polish is so difficult for English people! The grammar is complicated with so many word endings to learn and there are new sounds and letter combinations to learn to get your mouth around.
One of my favourite things to eat in Poland was the doughnuts. I asked a student what I should say in the shop and she taught me to say, “Poproszę jeden pączek.” (Don’t worry if you have no idea how to pronounce this! You’ll still see the point of the story!) So I went into the shop and tried out my new sentence. The shop assistant looked very confused and said, “Jednego pączka?” I thought that sounded close enough so I nodded and I got my doughnut!
I bought many more doughnuts in my two and a half years in Poland and I always asked for “jednego pączka”. In my very last week, I wanted to treat myself to one last doughnut. I said, “Poproszę jednego pączka,” and got that same confused look from the shopkeeper, who said, “Jeden pączek?”
So what did I learn from this? Firstly, my whole experience of living in Poland taught me to understand the difficulties and frustrations of living abroad and learning another language. It helps me to understand my students when they find learning English stressful.
I hate making mistakes and I want to get the grammar right when I speak another language but sometimes even native speakers don’t agree with each other about what is correct! So my second lesson is that there isn’t always a right or wrong way to say something.
Thirdly, perhaps we should worry less about perfection and focus on communication. I always got my doughnut even if my grammar was not what was expected!
Finally, spending time in another country is a great way to learn the language but just going abroad is not enough. I spoke English with my students in class, of course, and all my colleagues and friends spoke English, so I didn’t practise speaking Polish nearly enough. Once you have learnt the phrases you need for supermarkets, restaurants and cinemas (and buying doughnuts of course), you can very easily live in another country and not get better at the language.
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