Cheese is not a vegetable

By Liz Breslin | Posted: Monday August 26, 2019

With slightly less than a week until I depart for my Unesco Cities of Literature residency in Krakow, Poland, as a representative of Dunedin Unesco City of Literature - how many emotions can you pack into the start of one sentence?

I have realised I am woefully underprepared. Not in the suitcase-packing department. I'm a black belt in last-minute packing. Not in the writing department - I've got that many exciting thoughts and ideas and I'm not even there yet. No, in the language department. Woefully, woefully underprepared.

I've been playing around on a language app for the past couple of months. I signed up because it was free and my kids use it for school and it seemed like a good thing to do at the time. And I've been so caught up in clicking and typing and wrangling with Slavic spelling and waiting for the gratification of the ding-a-ling-green-light-smiley-thing that somewhere along the line I forgot to consider whether I was learning the sort of language that would be useful to me.

I am a poet. Where is the post office? A pint of your finest IPA please, bartender.

Maybe these phrases come along in levels yet to be unlocked. I'm getting somewhere though.

Ser nie jest warzywa. Cheese is not a vegetable.

Quite.

I can see how I've got to this situation. And I can see the grammatical structures I'm learning behind the vegan-differentiation-statements, because I can also tell you that a lion is not a cat - lew nie jest kot - even though, in fact, it actually is.

Since I feel the need to progress from cats to cafes and conversation and beyond, so I can hit the ground metaphorically running for my couple of months in Krakow Unesco City of Literature as a representative of Dunedin Unesco City of Literature (cue emotions), I did a bit of research along the lines of Dear Google, how do I get proficient in Polish in diminishing time with minimal effort and less cheese?

Apparently the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it, by watching TV shows, downloading podcasts, listening to songs or, for example, going to live and write in Krakow Unesco City of Literature for a couple of months as Dunedin's Unesco City of Literature representative. So it looks like I can look forward to progressing on that front.

But let's say I want to learn a bit more beforehand. Our brains, according to German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who studied brains in Poland in the late 1800s, learn words much, much more betterer when we space them out in small, interspersed flash-card dollops. Which means the daily five-minute app prompts are at least spatially on the mark. Little, then, and often.

Context, also, is everything. So learning from a local, if you can, is key. For example, though I made a concerted effort to memorise Jak sif masc?, I've since learned that, in Poland, you don't usually or necessarily ask How are you? as a casual part of a greeting. You ask if and when you really want to know. Which is good to know, especially when my Polish is definitely not up to understanding the answer, unless it is to do with the specific and relative statuses of dairy and legumes.

Learn the alphabet, learn to count and don't worry too much about grammar. The third of these I particularly like, since Polish grammar appears to contain seven things called cases, which are not the cases that I'm not packing right now, and which I really don't understand. I don't understand them in the same way that I don't understand how planes fly. You can give me explanations and show me examples and diagrams, but when it comes down to it, I just nod my head and marvel at the thing.

I marvel, also, that I get to fly off, next week, to Krakow Unesco City of Literature as a representative of Dunedin Unesco City of Literature to be a writer in residence. Did I happen to mention that?

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