This was 2016 in the blog

A new year has come along with new year’s resolutions such as reading blogs. Therefore, we start 2017 revisiting 2016. This way, if you’re new to the blog, you can learn what it is about. Conversely, if you’re a faithful reader, you can re-read the most popular posts.

The most popular posts of 2016 in pictures

The most popular posts of 2016 in pictures

These are the posts published in 2016 with more hits (posting month in brackets):

  1. Correct these mistakes for Christmas (December)
  2. 1st SETAC science slam across the pond (August)
  3. Chemists conspiracy: all drinks are the same alcohol (February)
  4. Science slam: Enjoy learning science (June)
  5. Posters at scientific congresses (May)

Interestingly enough, the last post published was the most successful. Either people care a lot about mistakes for Christmas or I’ve been writing rubbish for twelve months.

Additionally, the two most visited articles of all times were:

The most popular posts of the year and of all times were mainly about science and language, respectively. It seems that readers want what’s in the title of the blog. It’d be weird if you came here to read mostly about books and birthdays.

Let’s hope we keep on the right track this year.

Yes, I’m still studying Polish

And my Polish friends find it hard to believe.

I haven’t told you about my progress with the Slavic language since October. Before Easter I spent two weeks in Poland. But why? What’s in there? Apart from Poles, there’s my progress test.

Wouldn't you like all your exams to be like this? [foto©: Rafał Rzepeckl]

Wouldn’t you like all your exams to be like this? [foto©: Rafał Rzepeckl]

Once again some friends hosted me. Friends have, nevertheless, no educational obligation and Polish is used occasionally since English allows for proper communication, which is better than guessing each other’s message. However, I found a way to stimulate my friends to speak more Polish to me: meeting their friends.

At first everybody loves that crazy guy who’s learning their language and introductions and first contact are made in Polish. Thanks to that, the conversation continues like this and now I’m a lot more able to join in than last summer.

There are still lots of gaps, but my fake understanding face is convincing enough to keep the dialogue going so that I get immersed in Polish. At some point I’ll say more than three sentences in a row in English and they’ll swap to it to save me a headache.

So much have I improved that I understand radio announcers a lot better. Such is my progress, that back to Barcelona I went to a pub with a Polish friend and some Slovak acquaintances of him and I could even understand some of their sentences. I’m on fire.

Babbel: learning languages online

When I wrote about how I got my survival level in Polish, I mentioned the Babbel site to learn languages and promised to post an extended review that’s available now.

Babbel is a tool for learning up to 14 languages online (and on mobile devices)—but you might not want to go for all at the same time. It’s also my main tool for learning Polish and I survived in Poland with monolingual Poles, so it must be good. Let’s have a look.

Right after logging in, there’s the home page with the activities of the day and a menu bar at the top. The language of the interface and the lessons can be chosen and even changed, but that may affect the stored vocabulary.

Evidence that I do study Polish

Evidence that I do study Polish

There’s a warm up activity called Daily Challenge (below the welcome message). Some words are shown with proposed translations and the user has to agree or disagree. It’s simple and boosts your self-esteem.

My advice for a second step is to review vocabulary with the Review Manager. In fact, for short sessions that’s my only exercise. All the words, expressions and phrases in the lessons are added to the Review Manager. On the right of the home page there’s a button to review them in groups of 10. The Manager classifies them in 6 levels depending on your performance. Each level has its own frequency of revision: daily for level one, twice a year for level 6. All vocabulary items and their levels can be checked in the Vocabulary section of the menu above.

Select courses according to your needs and interests

Select courses according to your needs and interests

Courses can be selected in any order from the Courses section of the menu. The basic types are grammar and vocabulary, but there are others. Different languages may have different courses. The selected one will show in the home page with the appropriate lesson on display, but they can be taken in a different order and as many times as the user desires. Grammar lessons tend to start with short explanations with examples and vocabulary ones show the items to study together with a picture and with audio to learn how to pronounce them. Both situations are followed by brief matching or filling-in exercises. After the completion of every course a certificate is awarded—it’s up to the student to decide the real value of it.

Regarding quantity and level of the content, I’d say it’s directly proporcional to the popularity of the language. On the other hand, it’s enough for, at least, the first years of a new language or as a support. Babbel is not a tool for preparing official exams.

Finally, there’s a People section in the menu for interacting with other users, either for linguistic exchanges, group study, simply socializing or even fight for the top 5 scores (climb up the list by reviewing vocabulary and completing lessons).

Babbel is not for free; the quality/price ratio is, nevertheless, more than satisfactory for a committed student. Four subscription options are available from 1 month for 9.95 € to 1 year for 59.40 € (4.95 €/month). I bought and recommend the annual subscription, not only because of its wonderfully ridiculous cost, but also because if you’re not devoting at least 12 months to a language, you should find something else to do.

Were you curious about Babbel, you can take a course for free for each language. Additionally, for having read this far, here’s an invitation for a free week for one language without content limits. However, I don’t know if there’s a limit of invitations, so don’t hesitate. The only thing I’d ask for in return is a comment about your experience and, if you finally subscribe, tell Mr Babbel that I sent you—if I’m lucky, I might get paid a commission.

Linguistic experiences in Poland (2014)

A promise is a promise: here are the details of my summer experience with Polish in its country of origin.

After many months studying the language, I set of on that seventeen-day journey to visit my Polish friends in their country, learn about it and, especially, test my linguistic skills.

My first conversations were like reading this [Resio]

My monolingual friend—the one who provided me with my first conversations in Polish on his weekend in Barcelona—hosted me for the first days in Warsaw. Having spent some time talking, he knew my limits and adapted his speech to what I could understand and slowly introduced new vocabulary. He’s not aware of it, but he’s a great teacher. And in the end, we didn’t have a choice; we couldn’t speak anything else.

Moreover, the friends of his I met spoke English like I speak Polish. Dinners and Saturday night with them were pure linguistic immersion. Saturday night was also the one I spent introducing myself with ‘I speak Polish. I come from Barcelona’. There’s no way to resist a foreigner who fumbles with your language, yet they try even when it’s not a worldwide useful language? I should know; I’m Catalan.

My friend had to work a couple of days, which allowed me to experiment without mitigating circumstances because of friendship or alcohol. I first met a waitress with no linguistic empathy. When I addressed her in Polish, she spoke at native speed and I realized there might be something wrong with my pronunciation of slowly since she ignored my request. She probably saw the indignation in my eyes and decided to speak English instead of slowly. The guy at the bar was more helpful and even assisted me with some word that didn’t come out quite properly.

Unlimited journeys from Friday at 7 pm to Monday at 8 am [source]

On my other free day, I needed to locate a place to buy a transport ticket for the weekend as the closest tram stop had no machine. My enterprise led me to a newsagent’s where a boy gave me a puzzled face, the directions to the right place and a thumbs-up—of course he couldn’t resist my fumbling with his unpopular language.

Mi next host had been on Erasmus to Spain, so we swapped between his language and mine depending on the complexity of the topic. One member of the couple who took me in later could speak proper English and the other could just speak it. I got excited when the latter didn’t know a word and I was able to provide a translation for the Polish word he said.

The fun part was that afternoon when his parents visited with a couple of friends. I found myself in the middle of a family meeting, trying to keep up. I probably seemed to succeed because the mother’s friend looked at me the way you’d look to someone who’s following your story. Later, she and the mother commented on my black eyes and dark skin and the mother added—I’m not sure why—‘And he’s clever!’ and I replied ‘Yes, I am’ and they fell in love with me. Their flatmate wasn’t that talkative, but he helped with my education one evening.

The last days were less fruitful. My last host’s linguistic empathy was close to that of the waitress. I took advantage, nevertheless, of his working hours for my deeds. After all, learning a language requires practising, putting shyness aside and not fearing mistakes—which are necessary to learn—, because even native speakers start making them.

On achieving my survival level in Polish

I said I had studied Polish for some months and I dared practise it on the field. Soon I’ll publish the results of my experiment, but I thought it necessary to fill you in on how I reached my level—whatever it is—in Polish.

My dear (to someone, I guess) readers already know the reasons that drove me to study this language. Having Polish friends was among them. My first step was, therefore, asking a couple of Poles who live in Barcelona for help. They taught me their alphabet, the pronunciation and the basic expressions and vocabulary: greetings, introductions, days and numbers.

With that base I signed in Babbel, a web site—with its own application for mobile devices—where up to 14 languages can be learned. The levels in offer for each language are proportional to the language’s popularity. In any case, it’s a great tool for the first couple of years studying a new language. A post on Babbel is to appear in the blog in a not too distant future.

It's easier to find the best way when you know where you're going [photo:  Sylwia Bartyzel]

It’s easier to find the best way when you know where you’re going [photo: Sylwia Bartyzel]

With a very limited vocabulary (colours, 20 adjectives, 50 nouns and 15 verbs) and almost null basis of the grammar (able to manage number and gender and to use just one case in a specific structure) it was the time to put my knowledge to a use. I knew I was going to sound stupid, but even natives talk like that or worse their second year of life. My life in Polish was a few months, so I could afford the mistakes.

Fate wanted me to meet a monolingual Polish guy who was spending the weekend in Barcelona with friends. What happens when a Pole who can’t use any other language and a non-Pole who studies Polish doesn’t need saying. Introductions were relatively easy and helped me loosen up and him adjust his speech to my level. I spent that weekend on the beach and in bars practising his language.

Without neglecting my daily vocabulary session on Babbel, I used my native contacts—including the monolingual guy—to chat online in Polish. The features of that channel provided me with extra time to check the dictionary and Google Translate*, the reliability of which fluctuates.

From the beginning my objective was to travel in summer to put myself to the test and boost my motivation with some results. Aiming for perfection would have been stupid; I sought communication; and communication I had.

*While it’s not a professional tool, it is very useful for personal use—with a critical eye.