Let's face it, learning any language is hard, even if you have piles of the latest textbooks, native speaking tutors and the best technology behind you. The only thing that really works is perseverance, and this is where most people actually fail. But it’s distance learning and individual learning that are probably the two things that put people off the most. Not only can it be difficult to maintain that fiery impulse to learn, the thing that first got you reading those beginner language textbooks, particularly if you aren't immersed in a native speaking culture and don't need to speak, write or listen, but being a solitary learner can leave you in real trouble when it comes to identifying what techniques suit you, in terms of maximising your vocabulary and perfecting that grammar.
For months before I moved to Poland I studied the language from afar. It took me some time but I gradually identified a number of techniques that really helped me approach the language’s most difficult topics. By sticking to some fundamental rules, I saw real improvements in my grammar, and my vocabulary grew considerably. That's not to say that these learning tips will work for everyone; people learn in different ways and it may simply be a case of discovering for yourself the best way to approach your own study.
Individual Vocabulary Learning Tips
One central aspect of vocabulary learning, generally accepted to be one of the most effective ways to memorize new words across the board, is repetition. It's used in most all of the new, fangled software learning packages (frankly, often in excess), but it definitely did the trick for me.
Using the repetition method, 5-10 new words a day is definitely a realistic target, but there's a few things that will make it easier. Firstly, try creating a spread sheet of each day’s words, this will let you go back to them the next day, cover the words up and try to recall what they are from just looking at the English translation. This will let you see how you’re doing, and where your errors are each day. If you get one wrong try writing it out five times, repeating in your head the English translation, to ensure you get the definition and not just the sound.
Secondly, it's worth learning vocabulary in lexis groups. This means learning kubek (cup), talerz (plate), nóż (knife), widelec (fork) and szklanka (glass), all in one session; you already associate these words in English - through what's known as semantic association - so recalling them together in Polish, will be far easier than trying to recall them separately.
Individual Grammar Learning Tips
As always, developing a way to self-test your Polish grammar is probably going to be the most tricky aspect of individual learning. Where a teacher can set tests and present questions they know will push you, the individual learner has to work backwards; essentially, first learning the answer - then setting the questions. The problem here, in short, is 'how can you give yourself a question you don't know the answer to?'
Well one way to do this is to construct a number of random sentences using the infinitive form of all its constituent words, and place it in a spread sheet alongside its English translation. After you've got this, try to render the infinitive words in their correct forms, using the right verb tense, and all the correct noun and adjective case endings. As you learn more polish case rules you'll be able to deal with more and more complex constructions. Try moving from the accusative (which is used to express the object of transitive verbs) to the genitive (which expresses possession), getting used to the endings of each.
For example, on one side of the sheet you write the incorrect form of the sentence 'I have a big dog', using all the infinitive Polish forms: mieć duży pies. From here you work along the sentence altering each word into the correct case and tense. You should end up with Mam dużego psa (where mam is the first person singular form of 'to have', and dużego and psa are and adjective and noun in the accusative respectively).
Basically, these methods revolve around repetition, and isolating individual aspects of grammar. These methods worked well for me, and indeed many other language learners I've met. That said, always remember they’re by no means right for everyone, and generally speaking there's simply no substitute for perseverance!