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First Snow; Notes On Teaching; Halloween

October 28, 2012

Winter has arrived in Silesia.

Looking out my window a few days ago.

Looking out my window this morning.

Personally, I like winter.  I was very happy in the American midwest, climate-wise.  I love scarves and hats and mittens and big, fat coats.  I love taking long walks in the winter.  So it’s no problem for me.  But I am a bit surprised at how soon it has come.  Last year I was riding my motorcycle through Pennsylvania on October 30th, when I was caught in a “freak” snowstorm.  It was the earliest snowfall on record in that state.

I walked to the grocery store this morning, passing the cathedral just as mass was letting out.  I knew that Poles were mostly Catholic, but still, I was impressed by the masses of them streaming from the doors in their Sunday best.  I wished once again that there was some way I could be invisible and take photos of people, because I finally got to see some of the classic European clothing styles I had hoped I would find here, but generally haven’t.  The hats, the vests, the ladies with gloves; it was like a movie from the 1940s.  Very cool.

Polish people strolling through the park after church.

One thing I like about pigeons is that they are not self-conscious around cameras.

It was a good week at work.  I didn’t make any colossal blunders.  I’m beginning to have a better sense of the trajectory of different types of lessons.  I can cover the bases and hit the relevant points.

And I’m becoming more confident in explaining rules of grammar.  Poles generally have years of English in school and, perhaps because Polish itself is such a grammatically complex language, they receive a very heavy emphasis on explicitly stating the rules.  I’m generally a fairly grammatical speaker, but I have had to learn to justify my assertions with something other than, “Uh… sounds right to me?”

There is, for example, a fairly common construction in English called the Third Conditional.  We use it  when we imagine changing something that happened in the past.  An example would be If I had known it would rain, I would have bought an umbrella.  I have no trouble grasping this in terms of its function—imagining a different outcome in the past—but when I asked one of my students why a particular statement qualified as the Third Conditional, the answer I got was along the lines of because it has ‘if’, plus the past perfect, plus ‘would have’, plus the past participle.  Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather.  I doubt one in a thousand English speakers knows that.  So now, when I am going to teach a complicated grammar point, I run over it quickly in Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage beforehand, just in case.

On the other hand, even advanced Polish students sometimes need very remedial instruction in spoken English, because their teachers have not been native speakers.  Very few pronounce a word like vegetable properly.  They tend to say vedge-ee-tay-bul, which would be logical if the correlation between spoken and written English was stronger.  I will sometimes cover a word with my hand, then have the class repeat after me until it sounds right.  When I uncover the word with my hand, however, they usually immediately revert to the mispronunciation.  This idea that speech does not derive from writing, but is actually its own system, running roughly parallel, appears to be difficult to grasp for those whose first language is more strongly phonetic than English.  (As many, including Polish, are.)  I’ve heard that it is especially vexing for speakers of Arabic, with their notion that the classical Arabic of the Qur’an—the lodestone of their culture—is unchangingly perfect.

Studying Polish helps me  to grasp just how difficult English is for my students.  I am continually impressed with how hard they work and how well-prepared they are for lessons.  They are certainly better language learners than I am.  My friend Stuart gave me some Pimsleur CDs, however, and they are helping me, because they go very slowly and have a lot of guided practice.  I think I’m probably up to 100 words of Polish by now, but they’re not all particularly useful words.  I know, for instance, that hurtownia means wholesale, because I kept seeing it on signs and asked someone.  But I don’t know how to say excuse me.  And I have virtually no grasp of the grammar.  My buddy Brian Cutean came across a great phrase that I hope I have the opportunity to use soon: nie moj cyrk, nie moje malpy. It’s a way of saying not my problem.  It translates literally as not my circus, not my monkey.

We had a Halloween party the other night.  It was a lot of fun, even though not a ton of students showed up.  (Halloween is not that big a deal here.)  I’m not very good at costumes when I’m single; it’s the years when I’m married or have a girlfriend when I tend to do it right.  So I just bought a cheap wig with devil horns at Auchan.  But I got into the spirit of it.  Until my cousin Buffy reminded me on facebook, I completely forgot that the heavy metal Satan’s-horns hand-gesture is also the “hook-em horns” symbol for the University of Texas football team.  It’s the closest I’ve ever come to expressing an interest in sports.

Satan and his hillbilly friend.

I think that will do for this week.  Next weekend I will have my first paycheck and I may go out of town.  We’ll see.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2012 3:33 pm

    How neat, your ‘that was then-this is now’ photos. The strolling Poles, well, exactly as I imagine only better. You probably wont be biking much now. It’s still sunny and temperate here. My tomato plants are thriving even after a month of neglect.

    Will the Goya play when I string it up with nylon, or does it still need fret work.

    Glad to see you are thriving. Love, Mom

    • October 28, 2012 8:47 pm

      I believe the Goya needs a nut and possibly some fretwork. A little TLC from any competent luthier and she should be good to go.

      Speaking of vegetables, you know what I have found truly amazing here? The cucumbers. They’re fantastic. I find myself just eating them for snacks.

  2. permalink
    October 28, 2012 4:24 pm

    very interesting observations about speech vs. language.

    Thx, Shawn

  3. October 28, 2012 4:59 pm

    When it comes to mispronounced words, I often write the word on the board in IPA. At least here in Korea everyone knows it and it makes it easier for them to remember the correct pronunciation. Also, for those words that can be accurately transcribed in Korean, I frequently do that in preference to all other methods since it gets almost immediate perfect results. I don’t know if that will work in Polish, or if you know enough of Polish yet to do such.

    • October 28, 2012 8:41 pm

      Hi, Scott! Poles do not know the IPA. I generally try to convey the reality of language as a spoken medium, rather than offer adapted writing, but I have had some good results transliterating, using Polish spelling, particularly when it comes to vowels.

  4. eroslane permalink
    October 28, 2012 10:22 pm

    I remember that snowstorm in PA you ran into. I believe you were attempting in your road trip at that point to make it to Cincinnati to see me! Alas, was not to be. You did send a nice Cap’n Crunch postcard shortly thereafter lamenting our meeting, which I still have.

    The Third Conditional? Wasn’t that a horror film? ::looks up in IMDB::

    A phrase I frequently use at work is “…that’s a decision made above my paygrade…”. However, starting Monday, I choose to use “…not my monkey, not my circus…” instead. Why? Because it is full of so very much awesome.

    • October 29, 2012 10:15 pm

      That’s right! I WAS on my way to see you. Along with the DiGioia sisters and an old buddy from Austin who has a record shop in your area now. I do greatly regret that I missed that last leg of the trip. I was really looking forward to having you show me one or two of your favorite films. Well, the future ain’t all used up yet; you never know.

  5. October 29, 2012 5:51 am

    Surprised that I hadn’t run across the word “hurtownia” yet, but just added it to my flash cards…thanks. Also found “hurtownik” in my dictionary while I was browsing (wholesale dealer).

    One of my Polish tutors told me that the most daunting thing about learning English was all the tenses because there are so few in Polish. To me, Polish has this intricate complexity that seems to make more and more strange sense as it soaks in more.

    Speech is definitely a different animal from writing, and utilizes a separate (though related) set of skills. I can see how Poles would stress the penultimate syllable in “vegetable” because penultimate stress is the general rule in Polish. One thing about speech is that there are really no pauses, or they occur at places that are not necessarily natural word breaks, so one has to be adept when learning spoken language at distinguishing the places where one word stops and another starts. I had seen “co ty na to” in writing (basically “what do you think”), and then hearing it spoken as “tsotinahto” it all sounds like one word that I couldn’t find anywhere in the dictionary…finally I had the epiphany that let me recognize it in speech.

    • October 29, 2012 10:31 pm

      One of my more advanced students said the exact same thing this evening, that all the different tenses are the hardest thing about English.

      Poles also struggle with articles, since, as you know, they don’t have any. (I saw a Polish paperback of The Hobbit in the grocery store the other day. The title? Hobbit.)

      Prepositions are also tough for them. They all want so say “call to home,” and can’t figure out when to use in, on, to, or at.

      I’ve had the same experience of not aurally recognizing a word that I know in written form. You do have to sort of let the written and spoken language run on parallel tracks in your mind. And it’s much easier for me than for Polish people because, not only am I accustomed to the great divergence between written and spoken English, but I’ve had my ears trained as an audio engineer, so I have a pretty good sense of the pure sound of spoken language.

      I bet once you get here, your language skills will accelerate rapidly. You’ve really done your homework!

      • October 29, 2012 10:44 pm

        I think prepositions are difficult in almost any language. It seems like every different language breaks those concepts up different ways…if you think of the preposition “for”, it could be (among other things) dla, za, na, or just a change in case ending, depending on which meaning of the word “for” you are using.

      • November 4, 2012 5:23 pm

        Probably for me the most difficult parts of speech in general to learn are verbs. It probably takes me about ten times as much study on the average to learn a verb as it does to learn any other part of speech. The first few verbs are not that bad, but when you get outside the twenty or thirty that are super-common, they become difficult. They seem to get retained like other words, and I move on seeming to have learned them, but then after I learn other words and they get buried down the chain, the retrieval paths just vanish. It takes a lot of usage for me to get a verb entrenched. This happens with many words to a certain degree; they get lost below the surface as more vocabulary is added, or they get confused with similar words, but it seems to be particularly prevalent with Polish verbs. Maybe it is partly because they have to be learned in pairs. But I think it is also that actions are harder to visualize than things, and active concepts get distributed in unfamiliar ways in foreign thought.

  6. October 29, 2012 5:59 am

    “Excuse me” is usually “przepraszam” in most contexts, which literally is “I apologize.”

    • October 29, 2012 10:20 pm

      Thanks, that’s in Lesson One of the Pimsleur Polish mp3s you sent me. It hadn’t quite stuck to my brain yet, but I think I may have it now. I got it conflated with zapraszamy, which I learned from signs in stores.

      • November 1, 2012 12:13 am

        “Zapraszamy” is “we invite (you)”. Presumably to take part in some trumped-up swindle which results in money being fished out of your pocket into the treasury of the entity issuing the invitation. But you might also hear a cashier in the check-out line say, “Zapraszam do kasy” (literally, “I invite you to the cash desk”), meaning “next in line.”

  7. norbertbeaver permalink
    October 29, 2012 10:06 pm

    Hey, you went to the party dressed as English people!

    This is why I wouldn’t be cut out for teaching English – when I was reading the explanation of the Third Conditional I caught a look at myself in the mirror and I was pulling the same face as the pigeon is. I probably understood it about as much as the pigeon would too.

    I can’t believe it’s snowing and the population isn’t in the streets panic-buying charcoal and croissants. You sure do things different there than we do here.

    • October 29, 2012 10:42 pm

      Turns out that even here, the first snow of the year is traditionally ushered in with a rash of minor traffic accidents. But not one lesson cancelled today. A hardy people.

  8. October 31, 2012 10:53 pm

    Halloween? I prefer to wish Happy All Saints Day. I may go looking for a cemetery in which to pull some weeds. In honor of the dead.

    • October 31, 2012 11:19 pm

      I’ll be going to the cemetery at dusk tomorrow. Everyone says it’s really something.

  9. Louis permalink
    November 8, 2012 11:52 pm

    Happy Birthday.

    In my high school Russian class, the teacher did not let us see any written Russian for a long time. It was all about listening to conversations on tape and learning them with the correct pronunciation.

    Don’t pass out if you celebrate your Bday.

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