I once thought that if I stopped making mistakes, then my Polish would be better.
I employed a teacher for 1-2-1 lessons. At our first meeting, I told the teacher that if I made a mistake, she should interrupt immediately and correct me. She agreed and we started talking in Polish. I said two words, she stopped me and corrected me. I repeated the first two words again – this time correctly – and added a third word. She said stop, corrected me again… and so it went. It took ten minutes for me to finish the first sentence.
Hmm…I thought… maybe it was a mistake to try avoiding making mistakes. Were mistakes so bad? I had certainly made some good ones!
The first time I was invited for dinner in Poland, I wanted to buy some wine to give to my host. No problem, I knew the Polish word for wine was ‘wino‘, I just needed to know the word for dry and white so that I could buy some dry, white wine. I opened my English-Polish dictionary. White was biała and dry was suchy. I made a note on a scrap of paper – suchy biała wino.
I walked to local shop, took out my note and asked for suchy biala wino. The shop owner looked at me strangely.
„Białe wino…a wytrawne, półwytrawne, słodkie?
I switched to my standard emergency response ‘Nie rozumiem‘. He took down two bottles off the shelf. One said wytrawne, while the other was półwytrawne. Either wytrawne meant dry or sweet and pół probably meant ‘un-‘. I gambled that it meant sweet and bought półwytrawne.
I learned three things from this experience. One, that wine in Poland is wytrawne or słodkie. Two, that wytrawne means dry. And three that using a dictionary isn’t as simple as I thought.
Another time I was running a training session for a group of around 30 Poles. Holding up a clipboard, I asked if everyone had their podpaski (sanitary pads) so that they could make notes. The entire group burst into laughter. That was very powerful and immediate feedback. Ah-hah, I thought, I’ve used the wrong word and whatever it means, it’s pretty funny.
And one time, I used the verb to kiss (całować) rather than the verb to regret (załować). Instead of saying sorry and regretting what I’d done, I embraced my inappropriate actions by saying I wanted to kiss them.
Indeed, the more embarrassing the mistake, the more powerful the learning experience. There are load of Polish words I’ve learned because I got them wrong the first time.
I ended the 121 lessons after one meeting. I thought that if I stopped making mistakes, then my Polish would be better. But in the end I realised that if I stop making mistakes, my experience of learning Polish would be poorer….much much poorer.
English and Polish share an idiom – third-time lucky / do trzech razy sztuka – that sums up the process of learning through mistakes. In many cases, especially in language learning, you need to fail twice if you want to succeed the third time.