David is a compulsive noter of interesting phrases and expressions and generally lots of the things he hears... be it on the radio, from the meeting room floor or from the other booths. In this part of his series he tells us why and how that can help you when you are learning a language.... regardless of what level you are at, touching more or less directly as he does so on issues of cognates and collocation, not using dictionary equivalants, thinking in terms phrases not words and the unexplained usefulness of mechanical repetition as a learning tool.
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...
tylko i wylacznie
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.
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