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10 ideas for Language acquisition


David Walker (the handsome guy in the photo above), staff interpreter at the European Parliament and language learner par excellence, gives us the first of 10 installments on language learning. David has successfully learnt several languages to go with those he started his interpreting career with and in doing so has tried out a number of approaches that you might not have thought of.

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) promises to give some great 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 is learning Polish at the moment. 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


Dek2 Dek3 Dek4 Dek5 Dek6 Dek7 Dek8 Dek9 Dek10

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 leet 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.



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