polish_language

I decided to write a post about my native language, Polish. It is the second most used Slavonic language after Russian. It is mainly spoken in Poland and among Polish emigrants all over the world. It is not popular to learn by foreigners. For example there are 8,354 registered Polish native speakers on Lang-8 and only 1,444 learners of Polish.

Some time ago I wrote a post about the hardest languages in the world. Polish was mentioned as one of them in some articles and rankings I have found. The main reason given was that there are seven cases in Polish and that there are more exceptions than rules. Here is an example of the same sentence written in English and in Polish.

“I hope it will force them to finally give up.”
“Mam nadzieję, że to ich zmusi, żeby się w końcu poddali.“

There is the only one word in English which changed from it’s basic form: “them” is a form of “they”. How does it look in Polish? Here are the basic forms of Polish words in the sentence:

Mieć – nadzieja – że – to – oni – zmuszać – żeby – koniec – poddać się.

Six words changed their basic forms and there are two special words “że” and “żeby” which don’t have equivalents in the English sentence. Let’s take the first word in the Polish sentence, the verb “mieć” (“to have” in English). There are different forms of this word depending on the tense and the person: mam, masz, ma, mamy, macie, mają, miałem, miałeś, miał, mieliśmy, mieliście, mieli… Only the first letter “m” doesn’t change. There are similar problems with any adjectives and nouns and there is no such situation in English with any word at all, and remember there are more exceptions than rules in Polish.

One significant thing is easier in Polish than in English. That is the pronunciation of written words. In most cases you can read letter after letter to pronounce words correctly in Polish, but on the whole Polish is much harder than English, I think.

word

This is the question asked by many language learners. When will I be able to talk fluently and to understand native speakers? Of, course the answer isn’t easy.

There are two types of vocabulary: active and passive. Active vocabulary is a range of words you use in a conversation or in writing. Passive vocabulary is a range of words you can recognize reading a text or listening to the speaker. The average active vocabulary of English native speaker is about 20.000 words and there are about 40.000 words in his passive vocabulary.

I think that I reached the level of knowing about 6.000-7.000 words passively and about 3.000 words actively. I know it because I use “Learning with Texts” – program which is very helpful in reading texts. There are some statistics about the number of words used in texts which I put into the program. The numbers looks frustrating.

Every thousand words to learn is really hard work for me. Luckily 3.000 words provides coverage for around 95% of common English texts. Some of this few percent may not be possible to recognize from context, but these rare words very often are crucial in the texts I read or listen to.

I read somewhere that about 5.000 actively known words allow one to speak the language quite fluently. When I reach this level (if this happens) I will be able to recognize probably about 10.000 words.

However the way to native fluency looks infinite.

English podcasts

One of my methods of learning English is listening to podcasts. I take MP3 files from different websites, like British Council, Elllo and VOA Special English.

The British Council website has several different sections with different types of podcasts.
“Elementary Podcasts” is a section for beginning learners, the section named “Big City Small World” is a soap about a group of young people from different countries who live in London.
There are other sections like “Word on the Street”, “Britain is Great” and “Overcooked”.
The British Council podcasts I use are taken from the “Magazine” section of the website and there are short articles about different topics. Examples of topics I listened to are mobile phones, overpopulation, bilingualism, physics, gun control, etc.

The abbreviation elllo stands for English Listening Lesson Library Online. Elllo podcasts are dialogues spoken by people from different countries, so they speak using the different accents associated with where they are from. They talk about their life, for example about hobbies, jobs, adventures, travels, and everyday events.

VOA Special English podcasts are mainly news from all over the world. There are also some podcasts that are about the U.S. and its customs and history. Podcasts are spoken by the speakers very slowly, and they use limited vocabulary to allow a clear understanding for the intermediate learners.

I listen to the podcasts when I am outside my home alone, for example on the bus or tram. I repeat listening to the same podcast many times. Thinking about new subjects of posts for my journal on Lang-8, I got the idea to create posts based on the podcasts. I’m going to write synopses of the podcasts I am familiar with.

Now I must go… and I will take my MP3 player.

number billion

How many people live in China? How big is the US national debt? What is the age of the Earth? Answers to these questions are different in various languages and sometimes it is not only a matter of language. There is the matter of using different large-number naming systems in various countries and it is another distinction between the English-speaking and European world.

There are two systems:
- a short scale which is used in the USA and UK, where one billion means one thousand  million (1,000,000,000),
- a long scale which is used in most European countries, where milliard means a thousand million (1,000,000,000) and billion is a million million (1,000,000,000,000).

The whole world is divided by these two systems. The short scale is for example used in Brazil, Arabic countries, Russia and Australia. The long scale is applied in Spanish-speaking countries like in the South America (except Brazil) and in Mexico. Countries like China, India, Japan and some other Asian countries use other naming systems associated with their languages.

Some countries only switched to the short scale quite recently. The UK switched into the short scale in 1974, so they decided to join the system used by its bigger brother the USA than to use the system from closer countries like France, Germany or Spain.

From a strictly mathematical point of view the long scale is more logical. For example, “centi” in the metric system means “hundred” and centillion in long scale is 1,000,000 to the power of one hundered, and there are no such numbers in the short scale.

statistics about English language

My “facts” are taken from different sources all over the Internet. Many of them may be slightly outdated, because my sources were published in different years and all of these statistics change all the time. But I think that many of them are changing for the benefit of the English language.
English is the native language for about 380 millions of people.
English has the richest vocabulary compared to all the other languages in the world. There are 500,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, and there are about similar number of words, mainly technical terms still uncatalogued.
Three-quarters of all e-mails in the world are written in English.
More that half of scientific and technical periodicals are in English.
About 80% of data stored on computers all over the world is in English.
About 89% of schoolchildren in the European Union are learning English as a foreign language.

I searched for quite long on the Internet for information about the number of English learners in the world and I didn’t find the amount of current ones. The most frequently cited and reliable information was published on the British Council website. According to this information over 1 billion people were learning English in 2000. It is so outdated. I find some predictions that in last decade this number should have been doubled. So it is possible that there are 2 billion people learning English now. But this is only a presumption and I found other theories that said that 2 billion people will be learning English in 2020.

So there is a lot of information on English on the Internet, but not enough (or the information is too buried on the web).

cheeseburger

At the beginning of my post about systems of measurement I quote a famous scene from the movie “Pulp Fiction” where Vincent talks about his visit to McDonald’s in Paris.

Vincent: And you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Jules: They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?
Vincent: Nah, man, they got the metric system. They wouldn’t know what the f**k a Quarter Pounder is.
Jules: What do they call it?
Vincent: They call it a “Royale with Cheese.”

English civilization, especially American, conquers the world. So, that is a reason why English becomes the global language. But there is something spectacular which divides the English speaking world and non-English speaking world, and it is something where the European (continental) approach has won. It is a measurement system. The metric system is accepted globally, which is associated with European culture and science. The metric system comes from France and was first implemented during the French Revolution.

The US, UK and other English-speaking countries accepted this system in science, industry and commerce, but they did it partially and they still used their own systems. So, as an English learner I must learn something about these systems of measurement used in English speaking countries. Accustomed to the decimal system in mathematics I view these systems as a little bit weird.

There are two different English systems of measurement. The first is called “Imperial units” and originated in the UK and is widespread in British Empire. The second one is called “US customary units” which is used in the USA. There are some differences between these systems but I don’t understand them, so I treat both systems as the one. Both systems have the same roots – English units used in England up to 1824.

Usage of the metric system in the world is partial. There are many different areas of industry where the English system is used even in the center of Europe where I live, in Poland. So, the diameters of television sets, computer screens or car wheels are measured in inches. Many other things associated with technology and computers are measured in English systems, for example, the resolutions of pictures used in printing are measured in dpi (dots per inch). English measure units are also used in aviation and marine. A barrel is a unit for oil in international trades.

I’ve seen these “old-school” English units many times in various English books, for example, the height of the heroes in these books are given in feet (so I had problems imagining if the hero is tall or short). Of course, these heroes walked distances in miles and drunk pints of beer.

Now, very often, I see translations of these units into Polish, especially in many movies, for example in the science programs on the Discovery Chanel. So on the screen it is written that the patient was 102 degrees Fahrenheit and the reader said that he was 39 degrees Celsius, or a strongman lifted a weight on which was written 220 pounds and the reader said that it was 100 kilograms.

The wide usage of the metric system in the world doesn’t change the fact that the English approach dominates the world. So we can use another quote from Pulp Fiction:

Jules: What do they call a Big Mac?
Vincent: A Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it “Le Big Mac.”

SRS For Memorizing Vocabulary

SRS is an acronym for “Spaced Repetition System” and is a technique of memorizing information which is based on the action of our brain. Exposure to information that is being learned should be repeated several times for it to be remembered well. When initially learning a word in foreign language you should repeat reviewing it more often, but later you can repeat it less and less. You should repeat a word at the moment when the word is is close to being forgotten and time to this moment increasing with every repetition of the word.

This kind of repeating of words is used in some flashcards systems. You have flashcards with the native language word on one side and the target language word on the other and you use boxes for these flashcards. When you remember the word it is placed in the box to be repeated a day later. The next time it is repeated a week later and after that time a month later. So you repeat known word less and less.

An SRS is ideal to use in computer applications. This type of system can be more advanced than flashcards. An SRS application remembers how much do you remember the word and makes its appear for review in a proper, calculated day. So you don’t have to repeat too many words in one day. Everything is planned by the system with consideration as to how your brain learns new information. For example if you have several thousands of words in the system and these have been systematically entered, there should be only about one hundred words to repeat in one day. Other words will be waiting for the right time to be displayed, i.e. when the word is probably close to being forgotten.

Maybe the most popular application for SRS is Anki. This application is free and gives you the ability to use it on smartphones, so you can review your words every available moment. There are some other systems based on SRS like FullRecall, Mnemosyne or OpenCards. One of the most famous systems was created in Poland – it is called “Supermemo”.

You could say that the school system is something like an SRS. You have material presented in one class; you have homework to do for the next class and a week later it is possible that your teacher will organize a test. After that, the next repetition may be required at the end of the semester. But who works in school so systematically?

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