French progress. Feb 2016


Well one of my goals was to improve my (rubbish) French and reach a B1 level by the end of the year. The year hasn’t started particularly encouragingly, mainly because I’ve been very busy with work and you know stuff.

But, but, but it is very important to learn something new every day and maintain some sort of momentum. I haven’t done so as yet, but yesterday in a bid to do so, I bought a book for my kindle called:

365 days of French expressions 

(There  is a related website by the author  Talk in French which seems filled with all sorts of useful material).

There is a new expression for you to learn each day for … 365 days, and this really appeals to me. So for the days when I don’t do any other French related activity (most of them so far), I can learn a new expression.

I started today :-

The expression is de cochon and there is a sentence illustrating its use (as there is for each phrase or expression).

Il avait une haleine de cochon. ‘He had smelly breath’ or ‘the breath of a pig’.

Besos and baci,



My Polish and Italian (after another year)

It’s been some considerable time since I treated the internet to an update on my progress with these two languages.

I think in some ways, this blog is an antidote to the current meme sweeping the internet about how skills in general (and languages in particular) can be learnt at great speed. I’m not bitter or anything – OK!?

You might be able to guess that my progress has not been rapid.

Keep in mind that I’ve been learning Italian & Polish quite part-time and some might say perhaps uncharitably sporadically, while working, being a dad, husband, cleaning paws and so on and so forth.


I’ve been spending more time learning Italian than Polish. Considerably more, and I’ve been reading a lot.

I aimed to reach B2 on the CEFR by the end of this year.

My Italian oral and written comprehension is at B2 level or above (woop woop) – which is partly to do with the fact that I understand Spanish well and also because I’ve listened to a fair amount of Italian. I walk SWP every day, and normally listen to Italian or Spanish audiobooks. So I listen a lot.

Now speaking,  well my spoken Italian is still at a B1 level although I’ve spoken a lot over the year. I have fun speaking (mangling) Italian and can more or less talk about anything,  but still the fact remains that my spoken level is still assessed at B1. I make mistakes, and at times I  struggle for words. But still, I can more or less talk about anything.

Italian (and Spanish) are frequently described as ‘easy’ languages which I always find amusing. Easy to speak badly perhaps. Do these people who describe these languages as easy actually speak them well? Who knows. But being able to introduce yourself,  say a few basic sentences and not much else does not qualify in my view as speaking a language.  I like to talk about anything,  politics, day to day life, cost of living, going to the pub, literature (books to you and me), feelings, weather, climate change … In fact, I talk too much according to the boss.

It can be discouraging to hear people describe a language as easy and quick to learn when your personal experience shows the opposite. There are a lot of polyglot videos on the internet where some so and so states that they speak X languages, and then you hear a monolog roughly the same in each language. Normally it will be something like ‘My name is Z. I speak N languages. I’ve been learning Italian (substitute whatever language you want here) and I think it is a beautiful language’ and so on. This doesn’t demonstrate much, and I wonder how many of these ‘polyglots’ can have free flowing conversations about a wide range of topics.

How many people who describe Italian as an easy language do you hear actually conversing at any reasonable level?  You need a lot of words to discuss a wide range of subjects and it takes time to acquire these words. It takes even more time being able to use them in context. It might be different for you (and you), but this is how it is for me.  And this, my babbers is my blog and how it is for me. If you find Italian easy and have learnt fast (and are a native English speaker), then you are a shining star. Or deluded. Look into your heart and take your pick.


There is no doubt about it, I’m finding Polish difficult. There are reasons for this.

I’m disorganised. Who isn’t? Maybe I need to read ‘ten ways to be more effective in life’ or ‘five strategies for learning faster’? There is more chance of hell freezing over. But I digress.

Polish is difficult. There is no doubt about it. In relative terms it is considerably more difficult than Italian. Italian is described (not by me) as an easy language, but it is definitely more accessible (for English speakers) than the slavic languages. Anyone who describes Polish as easy has a screw loose. It is interesting, fun and has lots of consonants but it is not easy.

Polish is not particularly accessible. Once you move beyond basic sentences mam na imię … (My name is …), you have no choice but to understand the grammar or you will sound like a complete numpty. Slavic grammar is complicated, and it takes time to understand and internalise.

I don’t have a pressing need to learn Polish. I have a reason to continue it that I won’t go into here, but it is not pressing. I’ve reached the level where I could learn much faster, but I don’t have enough of an incentive and this is what is slowing me down. The language is difficult but my slow rate of progress is now down to lack of time spent with the language.

So what is my level? Low. Pretty low. Less low than twelve months, but still low. I know a lot of (unimportant) nouns and some bits and pieces but am far, far, far away from being able to impress with my Polish.

Where do I go from here?

I’m carrying on with my Italian and hope to reach B2 at some point next year. Fingers crossed.

Ditto with Polish. Really I should find a conversation partner, but I am (at the moment) too *ahem* lazy or perhaps inept.

It is lucky I’m a competent programmer.



Polish is more difficult than Spanish. The proof.

There is an internet meme regarding language learning, and is states ‘all languages are equally easy to learn’ with the inference that they all take a similar amount of time.

My experience of learning Polish for the last 18 months shows sme this isn’t true. Polish is not impossible, but it is more difficult to learn than Spanish for this english speaker. It is useful to know this and not be discouraged by slow progress.

What I am writing here is based on my experiences so far of learning Polish.  I’ve been learning Polish for the last year and a bit, and spend  exactly 30 minutes a day on the language. I freely admit that is not enough for fast progress, but I am talking relatively here.

I’m not fluent in many languages. I’m not a polyglot. I have no special gift or technique. (I’m not even selling anything). I can’t move to a country and magically speak the language by osmosis or having a few conversations at a bus top and so on.

So, I’m Mr language learning average.  I am   ‘the man on the clapham omnibus‘ as a wise man once remarked. In other words. ‘a reasonably educated and intelligent but nondescript person, against whom the defendant’s conduct can be measured.’ As can be inferred from the word defendant, this description came from a legal judgement, but it seems appropriate (although I’m not too keen on nondescript).

I’m going to show why Polish is more difficult than Spanish (for an English speaker) with an example.

I am at the pool with friends. (I’m not but this is my example. Clever huh!).

Firstly, we have the Spanish version, which is  Estoy en la piscina con amigos followed by the same version in Polish Jestem na basenie z przyjaciółmi.

The Polish version is more complicated because of the grammar needed to construct the sentence.

To construct this sentence in Polish you must deal with:

Jestem ‘I am’. In fact this is from of the easiest verbs in Polish. Irregular of course, and different depending on whether you are a man or woman in the past tense. But I digress.

The preposition na followed by the locative case means ‘at’.  You also need to know whether to use w (e.g. Jestem w domu) or na as this depends where you are ‘at’ – as it were. You also must remember to use the locative case, as na has a different meaning when followed by the accusative.

The Locative case. In brief the Polish word for swimming pool is Basen but when talking about ‘where’ something is located the locative case is used. You also need to know the appropriate ending for the noun in the locative which appears to be almost random. Actually there are rules but it seems easier to gradually learn the various locatives in situ.

The preposition z which has the meaning of ‘with’ or ‘from’ depending on whether the noun that follows is in the genitive or instrumental. This sentence requires ‘with’ and so the Instrumental case is needed.

The instrumental case. The word for friend is przyjaciel (I think – I wrote this from memory so errors are probable). The genitive plural of przyjaciel is przyjaciółmi (I’m fairly sure but not positive).

Now the Spanish version.

EstoyActually one of the more tricky areas of Spanish. You have to choose between one of  two verbs to use when saying ‘to be’ ser and ester. Anyway ‘Estoy‘ means ‘I am’.

En means in. You don’t need to worry about cases and the like as Spanish doesn’t have them. Nor does English.

La piscina means ‘the pool’.  Spanish nouns have a gender but almost all nouns ending with a are feminine so they are not particularly difficult to learn, and crucially there is not normally a big impact on the construction of the sentence.

So if I wanted to talk about ‘the pools’ I would just add an s on the end las piscinas. See. Easy. That pretty much sums up plurals in Spanish. Just add an s. The plural of Polish nouns are more complicated with a lot of irregular nouns to remember. So Polish wins here in terms of difficulty – certainly if you have a memory like mine.

Con is a preposition meaning with. Again nouns do not change just because they happen to follow it.

Amigo means friend and we add an s on the end to make friends. As an aside the Polish plural of friends przyjaciele and if your friend happens to be female it is something else again. In Spanish if your friend is female, just change the o to a resulting in amiga.

And so we have two sentences.

I leave it to you to judge which is easier.

Of course, I’m making a point here, and that is don’t expect to find Polish easy. I don’t think Spanish is easy either, but there is a lower barrier to entry certainly at the beginning. It is MUCH easier to construct simple sentences in Spanish than in Polish and have a chance of being correct.

I don’t know if Polish suddenly becomes more straight-forward later in the game, as I’m not there yet. I kind of hope so.

Besos etc,


Language plans for 2014

Sup doods?

Well, y’know that as I (at times I admit haphazardly) run, improve and generally work on SL, it seems only natural that I should have some language plans of my own.

They are (duh!) there for all to see under language goals. During 2014, I will continue to learn Polish and Italian.

During 2013, my Italian improved dramatically. I’m not brilliant, but I can communicate. So happy days, I’m not a complete language numpty. (Spell check doesn’t like numpty, but it is a word in these parts).

During 2013, my Polish didn’t. What? Why? Can you communicate?? Nie, no and no.

So why was this?

Basically, because Polish is about 1000000000000 times more difficult than Italian. This figure isn’t precise, but it gives you a general idea.

Actually, that was a joke. Did you get it? No. The real reason was that I’ve *cough* (and if I can’t be honest here …) not really spent that much time on Polish. I’ve been busy. Things to do, websites to run, *games* to program. Oh yes.

So I’ve set myself achievable goals.

1. I’ve set myself the goal of counting to 20 in Polish. I’m pretty sure that I can achieve this, and at least tick something off at the end of 2014 – although I still get dziewięć (nine) and dziesięć (ten) muddled up – which was part of my 2013 Polish challenge. Hmmm.

2. I’m NOT going to learn to tell the time. This is horrendously difficult in Polish, and anyway I always wear a watch or use have a phone, gadget or other lo-tech device.

3. I’m going to learn more of slimak, slimak …

OK. OK. That was another joke.

Apart from number 3. I really will do this. And number 2. I really won’t do this. And number 1. I don’t like learning numbers in any language. I happened to be chatting in Italian today, and it turned out I didn’t know the number sixteen (sedidi). So well, the likelihood of me learning this in Polish is small.

So, Moonface, enough of what you are not doing? What are you going to do to improve?

I will tell you all. It is not a secret. But it is raining, late, the battery is running out on my macbook (nine hours wtf??) and so it will have to wait until tomorrow. (Metaphorically speaking. Tomorrow might well be the day after, or a bit later even, but you get the picture. Soon. I will tell you SOON. I promise.

Love you all/besos/hugs and so on and so forth,



Assimil Polish. Lesson 100 and my thoughts

Due to the boss leaving early, I write this in bed along with a sleeping dog. Disgusting I know, and no doubt horribly unhygienic, but almost certainly good for a healthy immune system. And he isn’t actually under the dovet …

I wanted to have some neat link with ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ and Assimil but can’t think of one. Probably because it is too early. I am (by inclination) a games programmer after all. Cliches and all that.

Anyway, back to Assimil.

Firstly, an admission, I *cough* never reached lesson 100 and it could be sometime before I do, but I wanted Lesson 100 in the title. It gives me more credibility. Lists always include ‘ten ways to be highly effective’ *yawn* or ‘100 great ideas to …’ (fingers down throat).

So Assimil. Well, Assimil are a series (of highly regarded) language products comprising of 100 short dialogs, along with some grammatical explanations. The idea is that you spend no more than half an hour a day (or thereabouts) with each lesson, doing a lesson a day until you reach lesson 50. This is called the first or passive wave.

After lesson 50, each day you do the next lesson and revise previous lessons starting from the first. So on day 50, you do lesson 50 and revise the first lesson, and on day 51, you do lesson 52 and revise lesson 2 and so on …This is called the second wave, or active phase.

The key is that you are supposed to learn and reproduce the lesson being revised more or less by heart. So you should have memorised lesson one, two … This works because you internalize key language structres.

The idea is a good one … in theory kids.

Because there is, or certainly was for me a problem with this. I admit it could be that my memory is shot, or my brain is already full but …

… I found that the lessons rapidly increase in difficulty too quickly. I suspect that if you have some knowledge of a similar language this isn’t a problem, but I found it next to impossible to do more than skim the lessons in the half hour allocated in the passive phase.

The amount of new vocabulary added per lesson also increases exponentially, and many of the words only occur a few times within the dialogs. I discovered that it would literally take me hours to complete each active lesson. For me, the course would be much more useful if it covered less of the language but in more detail.

But, forewarned is forearmed, and knowing this I would still recommend Assimil because :-

1. The dialogs are good and clearly spoken.
2. I like the grammatical explanations and notes.
3. I found the shorter dialogs possible and useful to memorise.
4. The course provides a structure to learning.

but with the following caveats.

1. Use Assimil in conjunction with another course.
2. Don’t try and do a lesson a day – unless you are a genius or maybe your memory if better than mine.
3. Don’t use Assmiil as your first course, but spend some time with the language first.
4. Don’t bother with the low frequency vocabulary. An illustration is a lesson in a post office where the word ‘registered post’ is used. This is pretty far down my list of useful vocabulary.

For those who are interested, I’m now on Lesson 38 regarding the active wave, and have stopped the passive wave entirely. In the end, I found it unhelpful, and somewhat demotivating.

To sum up I would say, that using Assimil is like taking a dog for a walk (y ahoro tengo que sacar a pasear al perro incluso si va a llover).

L8r d00ds,



Put your hands up if you think Spanish is easy?

Shame on you if you raised your hand.

I’ve been looking at Portuguese just to get a feel for the language (I’m not trying to learn it as such), but in a similar way to the idea behind the 52 languages in 52 weeks blog (although not so ambitious), I’m keen to expand my language horizons.

The dude behind 52 languages in 52 weeks project aimed to cover 52 languages in a year. The idea appeals to me, especially as someone who has difficulty finishing projects, but I digress.

Personally I think a more relaxed timescale such as a month per language is more suitable, allowing time off for holidays, good behaviour, work? and so  on.

As I said, I’ve been looking at Portuguese which has in turn made me consider Spanish again.

In Portuguese, as in Spanish it is in fact straightforward to string together simple sentences, as you will see when the fruits of my labour are released onto Surface Languages.

You only need to know some easy grammar/constructions to make a sentence. Grammar that you can pick up over a few hours. Subject followed by verb followed by object. Plurals add an s. Etc. Only two genders. Feminine nouns mainly ending in an a and masculine nouns mainly ending in o. Lots and lots of regular verbs ending with ar. And so armed with this information, you can make a simple sentence!

I’m messing around here, but the idea is sound. You can not do this with, for example, POLISH. Sigh.

I think it is this that gives the misleading impression that Spanish (and Portuguese) are easy languages to learn.

But, they are not easy to learn well. The initial barrier to entry, to start speaking is easy to overcome. But  anyone can speak a language badly, so don’t be fooled. It takes time to learn to speak any language well.  Even, the so-called easy languages.

And what about comprehension?????

How many of you who put your hands up are able to understand Spanish radio? Or films? Or native speech when it is not dumbed down? Or even directions when you ask ‘donde está el bar’?

Or you ask someone Qué tal? and they reply Estoy de mala uva. He pasado la noche en blanco. Easy? No, it takes time to learn these expressions. Easy is the wrong word to learn with any language. It gives the wrong impression.

The reason people erroneously consider these languages easy, is that it is (in comparison) to other languages straight-forward to start making simple (and I mean simple) sentences.

But they are not easy.

They are not difficult either.

But they all need time.



Slow language learning


Slow language learning? You mean that it is possible to learn a language slowly?

Certain ideas spread through the internet like an epidemic.  In the language learning world, this particular idea is that it possible to learn a language fast and well over a period of weeks.

I don’t think it is helpful. If anything it is discouraging especially when you are starting.

The fundamental idea is that if you are confident enough to speak, and know a handful of words  you can overcome any other difficulties through context and using your few words imaginatively.

No-one seems to challenge this world view.

The biggest (and never spoken of ) issue with this is …


It takes time to understand native speakers talking at a normal rate. Spanish is often used as an example of an easy language. People claim to learn it in eight weeks or whatever.

Well, I didn’t.

Sure, you can learn to put basic sentences together, but you will not understand the replies.

Yes, you can guess a bit from context both from the conversation you are having and where you are. And yes, people are  often helpful and will try and explain and maybe slow down.

But comprehension takes time, which is maybe why it  is never mentioned in the ‘it is easy to learn’ scenario. It takes time and listening before you can understand normal speech. It is much easier to speak than understand.

Of course, it is possible to speak immediately (although not necessarily correctly). Learning to put basic sentences together in another language isn’t hard. (It may be complicated for some languages, but it isn’t difficult to say something).

I could say ‘dog over there’ instead of ‘the dog is over there’  and be understood.

But comprehension takes time once you move away from the simplest of interactions. 


there is another way!

Don’t rush. Accept that it takes time to become good at something. Enjoy the journey.


that if you are spending 30 minutes a day that your progress will be slow.




I’ve just added the initial parts of two new language courses to Surface Languages. These are Italian for beginners and Polish for beginners.

The courses are simple,  consisting of short sentences, made up  of a few words only and for absolute beginners.

The reason for this was partly based on my experience of starting to learn Polish, which was that I found the language overwhelming. I didn’t know where to start, and couldn’t see how to progress. This problem is particularly acute when you are looking at a language which is completely unrelated to any others you know.

I wanted artificially simple sentences so that I could build up a very basic idea of how the language functions, before moving onto more complicated materials.

I then looked around at other language resources on the internet, and discovered that although there is a vast quantity of information, a lot of it is too complicated for the initial stages of learning. Obviously, the length of time spent on these initial stages depends on the intensity of learning and how many hours you are putting in a day or week.

I then thought it would be useful to add courses which could be used as a starting point in language studies, before beginning to use more complicated materials.

This should speed up initial progress. At some point, I would like to learn Russian, but before I do, I will add Russian to SL, and eat (as it were) my own dog food.

This is a very long term project and I will add these additional languages, and extend the  existing language courses as and when I can. Time permitting.

I am in the process (although that doesn’t come with a particular time-scale) of adding the initial parts to both French and Romanian language courses.



The Secret Project Revealed …

Secrets revealed. Part 1!

I have wanted to expand the content in the existing languages on Surface Languages for some time. I have wanted dialogs and explanations making up language courses rather than groups of phrases.

I am only one person, with limited time and resources and so I’ve been considering the best way to do this.

The answer is to satisfice, which is defined according to the relevant wiki entry and is to use ‘a decision making strategy that attempts to meet an acceptability threshold’.

The decision I have made is to add courses bit by bit and incrementally improve and expand on them. To this end, I have written some code which will enable me to *easily* add, change and expand language courses on this site.

You can see it here, although with dummy data.

I am now in the process of obtaining my first set of translations and audio for Polish. These will illustrate some very basic concepts of the language. I hope with time, feedback and experience I will be able to obtain further and more extensive translations/audio and explanations to improve these free language courses.

I intend to do the same with other languages – starting with Italian.



Assimil. Polish in 100 lessons

I’ve been learning Polish since the start of this year, and frankly my progress has not been stellar.

The book I was vaguely using was called ‘krok po kroko’ , and I was using it for reasons which are now unclear to me. The astute reader will notice I’m using the past tense here. I’ve put it aside for the indefinite future.

I’m finding Polish is complicated and krok po kroku,  while no doubt having various strengths has in my mind one large weakness which is that everything is written in Polish.

This might be helpful in an immersive environment, but here in the UK has left me floundering in terms of speaking.

I’ve decided to change my approach and  so I have bought the Assimil Polish course. I’ve never used one of their courses before but have heard of them by reputation.

This particular course consists of 100 short lessons. You do one a day, and at the end of 100 days you have reached an intermediate level in the language. Each lesson is (up until day four ) based around a specific scenario, and has text in Polish and French. (I had to buy the French version as  Assimil is a French company and many of their courses only exist in French). There are explanations of how to use the course all over the internet. All slightly different!

I’m on lesson 4 and plan to do one a day for the next 96 days, at which point I’ll review the course thoroughly.

My initial impressions are positive but with some caveats:

I have a basic knowledge of the structure of Polish. Lacking this, the explanations given on each page would not make much sense.

The Assimil course is marketed as being for absolute beginners. Again, without any prior knowledge of Polish (or another slavonic language) the approach used might be confusing.

Each lesson is supposed to take around 30 minutes. I’m not so sure that this is sufficient time.

I’m only on day four and these points may be unfair but my hunch is that some sort of prior  knowledge is required (or certainly useful) before embarking on said course.

And back to Surface Language

Learning through short  bilingual texts (which is  essentially the strategy used by Assimil and other language products) is definitely a good way of improving languages. Assimil, Rosetta Stone and the old FSI courses etc all do the same thing. There are differences in presentation and style but generally you over-learn a relatively small amount of information.

I’m in the process of adding a similar learning mechanism to Surface languages. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, but because of the difficulty of obtaining content have decided that (to keep it manageable) :-

1. My bilingual sentences will not be based around specific situations.

2. They will not  cover greetings, nor formal/informal use of language.

3. They will only use the singular of the present tense.

4. The texts will be designed for absolute beginners.