Learning to Love your MistakesI’m proud of my mistakes; I write them down so that I can’t forget them, I tell complete strangers about them at parties and I long to make more. I’m not talking about serious accidents or grave errors of judgement but those linguistic errors that can bring comedy to a classroom and put a smile on a stranger’s face. I’m like you, a language learner, except I’m English learning Polish and I think it’s about time that we appreciated the mistakes we make as one of the most enriching experiences of learning a language.
One particular error I made has achieved an almost legendary status amongst those who know me (all of whom have heard it far too often). I hadn’t been in Poland long and a few words of Polish loosely strung together and poorly pronounced would still win me ‘woos’ of appreciation from my fiancee, Monika’s family. It was my birthday and Monika’s family had prepared an extra special Polish feast not just for me but also for my family who had come to Poland for the very first time. It seemed appropriate that at such an important moment I should propose a suitable toast both to thank the hosts and impress my family with my eloquence in this exotic language. I had heard ‘Na zdrowie’ and ‘Zdrowie gości’ plenty of times at Monika’s parents’ house and thought it was about time we toasted the health of our generous hosts. The shot glasses were filled with vodka and, seizing the moment, I rose to my feet, raised my glass and delivered my carefully prepared toast. However, it was obvious from Monika’s family’s puzzled faces and the disturbing lack of people standing and replying ‘Na zdrowie’ that something had gone wrong. The tension was broken by Monika who, clutching her sides, with tears of laughter running down her face, managed to reveal that I had just made a toast to nudity–‘Zdrowie Nagości’ remains a popular source of amusement in both households.
The mistakes I’ve made in my Polish classes are too numerous to mention here but I would like to share a few that demonstrate how the occasional pronunciation error or grammatical mistake can transform the mundane to the memorable and provide a little comic relief. The first happened during my description to my Polish class of the London Underground system, all very banal until I matter-of-factly announced that it was quite common to see bears running around in the underground. Laughing, but entertaining my obvious error the teacher asked me whether the bears needed a ticket. My look of confusion turned to a broad smile as she informed me of the subtle difference between ‘miś’ and ‘mysz’. On another occasion our conversation turned to the more serious issue of bereavement and I started telling my teacher about a relative who had tragically died. The tone of the conversation was suitably sombre until I said ‘died’, at which point my teacher released a burst of laughter. What I had done was taken the noun ‘śmierć’ and converted it rather cleverly (or at least I thought) into a verb in the past tense giving me ‘śmierdził’!
In case you thought my mistakes were confined to the safety of the classroom, here is one final example that was unleashed on the unwitting Polish public on an extracurricular visit to a cafe one winter to meet some fellow Polish students and our teacher. Discovering that I had arrived at the cafe early I sat down at the only available table, took off my hat, scarf, coat and gloves and made myself comfortable while I awaited their arrival. By the time they had arrived there was a larger, better positioned table available and we moved there, drank coffee and had a chat. I had another meeting afterwards so I had to leave early. I thanked them, dressed and left the cafe. I realised instantly that I had forgotten my gloves and was certain they’d be at the place where I had first sat. Returning to the table I politely informed the lady who now sat there that I thought I may have left my gloves at her table. She looked at me in a way which questioned my sanity. I repeated the question gesturing at my hands to try and aid communication. It only dawned on me what had happened when my fellow students, sitting almost opposite, started laughing at the question–apparently confusing ‘rękawiczki’ with ‘ręczniki’ in a cafe in midwinter provokes such a reaction.
So, if you’re at a party or seated in a cafe and someone with a strange accent proposes a toast to nudity or asks you for a towel, please enjoy the moment, treasure it and share it with everyone you know, that way all our mistakes can add to our enjoyment of learning a language. If you have made any mistakes in English or Polish I would love to hear about them; you can email me on email@example.com.
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long to pragnąć, tęsknić za kimś, czymś
to appreciate docenić
loosely strung together luźno połączone ze sobą
woos of appreciation odgłosy uznania
feast uczta, uroczystość
seizing the moment korzystając z okazji
clutching one’s sides trzymając się za boki (ze śmiechu)
mundane codzienny (o rutynie)
confined to ograniczony do
to unleash spuścić (psa ze smyczy)
extracurricular (activities) dodatkowy, nie obowiązkowy (o zajęciach)
instantly natychmiast, od razu
sanity zdrowie psychiczne
to aid pomagać, wspierać
to dawn on somebody przyjść komuś na myśl, zdać sobie sprawę