[For the Oxford Words blog:] Is Polish the most difficult European language to learn?

Krakow perspective

How ethical is it to start working in a country where you don’t speak the local language?

Before I started teaching English in Poland, this question didn’t trouble me in the slightest. When I taught in Sardinia, I spoke enough Italian to get by; and nobody in Cambodia expected foreign teachers to speak any Khmer at all. But Polish is inna para kaloszy (a different pair of shoes) for me as a British English speaker. On the one hand, it almost sounds vaguely familiar (Polish is now the second most widely-spoken language in England) and at first glance, looks deceptively approachable (unlike Russian, Polish is written in the Latin alphabet). On the other hand, its sibilant shushes shimmer past my ears without me being able to understand a single word. And when it comes to speaking, even common everyday words look like a collection of leftover Scrabble tiles: where do I start with wszystko (all), jeszcze (yet), or even cześć (hi)?

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This blog is a he: gender in foreign languages

He and she signs

Cast your mind back to your twelve-year-old self stuck in the classroom on a Friday afternoon in the middle of a French lesson. (Or German, or Spanish, for that matter.) If you grew up as a native monolingual English speaker, what was the thing you struggled with the most when learning a foreign language? Was it the convoluted concoction of verb conjugations? The weird and wonderful sounds you had to produce? Or perhaps the fact that téléphone was masculine and voiture was feminine?

This last point – getting the gender right – is one that perplexes many native English speakers, who scratch their heads at the idea that random inanimate objects could be thought of as masculine or feminine, perhaps because of all the cultural associations we attach to those terms. In fact, classifying nouns by gender is not unusual – around half of the world’s languages spoken today feature some kind of formal gender system. The English language itself used to be no different to modern German in this respect, as Old English grouped nouns into three genders. In Anglo-Saxon times, if you stood on a brycg (bridge – feminine) looking out to sea, you may have glimpsed a wifmann (woman – masculine, oddly enough) on board a scip (ship – rather interestingly, neuter). You would probably then realize you had been drinking too much ealu (ale – also neuter.)

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