Friday, February 20, 2004

Critical diacritics

by Suw on February 20, 2004

One of the great things about going up to London last weekend was that I got to spend quite a bit of time with my Teach Yourself Polish book. I’ve completed Chapters 1 and 2 now and have been constantly revising them.

It’s important at this stage of the game not to rush it, not to leave a chapter until you’re really sure that you’ve learnt all it has to teach. The temptation to tear through the pages as if each one completed was some sort of trophy to be won then discarded is strong, but must be conquered.

So at least I’ve learnt something about learning over the last six years, then.

I’ve also been trying to stick to my 10 minutes a day plan, although that’s proving difficult not because I can’t find 10 minutes, but because I can’t limit myself to it. So I’ve given in, and allowed myself to study for as long as I like. The important thing is to take lots of breaks and frequently review what I’ve learnt.

I have a head start on the pronunciation, having learnt to read (but not understand!) Polish about 10 years ago, so it’s quite easy to get back into it again. I find it hard to learn a language without being able to speak it, so correct pronunciation is important to me. I think that was the trouble with Dutch – I just couldn’t get my head round their vowels.

The drawback with the Teach Yourself Polish CD, though, is that the English woman’s voice is so much louder than the Polish voices, meaning that I just can’t have it loud enough to really hear how the Polish words are said without risking ruptured eardrums when the English explanations kick in. To me, that’s really a stupid tactical error on Hodder & Stoughton’s part – the voices should be dynamically even. No louder bits, no softer bits. And it’s really not hard to do.

Anyway, I got so annoyed with it that I ripped the whole CD to wavs, then took a chapter at a time into Pro Tools and cut the English bint out to leave only the Polish. This does, unfortunately, cut the sound files right down to almost nothing, but at least they’re listenable.

I’ve also joined the Polish Language Study Group which should help the cause. I’ve had a look through their archives and they have a lot of stuff there that will be really useful. Plus it helps to have a bit of extra moral support. (Loolie: you should join too!)

What is distinctly unhelpful is the difficulty that seems to surround the Polish diacritics – the accents on a, c, e, l, n, o, s, and z. There’s the kreska (acute) on c, n, o, s and z, the ogonek (tail) on a and e, the barred l, and the kropka (dot) on z. Now, I’ve downloaded Arial Baltic, which includes these characters, and I’ve enabled Polish in my Windows multi-language options, but frankly, that matters not one kropka.

Most of the diacritics vanish when printed, even when using Arial Baltic, and are simply unavailable online. I’ve tried to find out if there’s some sort of standard way of replacing these diacritics with some other sort of indicator – in Welsh you can use + (or ^) instead of a circumflex, \ instead of a grave, / instead of an acute and % instead of an umlaut, e.g. ‘dw^r’ (water) or stori%au (stories), although really w^ and y^ are the only two difficult accents.

There seems to be no accepted schema of replacement symbols for Polish. Instead the diacritics are simply dropped. Well, that’s fine for fluent speakers but I think it would be a terribly bad habit for me to get into. Those accents are there for a purpose – they give additional pronunciation information. I’m not yet familiar enough with the language that I can really get away with ignoring them.

If you happen to know how I can solve this problem, please leave a comment or email me. In the meantime, I guess the majority of my Polish learning will have to be done with pen and paper.

Update: Ok, so with the help of some more unicode-literate people than I, I have deciphered that a mix of Arial Baltic and WP Multinational HelvA will do the trick, although it does mean having to switch fonts a lot. Still, it'll do til I can afford a Mac.

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by Suw on February 20, 2004

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