I rocked up in Poland last April not having the remotest concept of Polish beyond ‘wzystkow porządku’ (it took me three months and a lot of espresso with a very patient Parisian Pole to learn it) and ‘żubrowka with apple please’. I already have a fleeting acquaintance with French and Italian and so far I’ve managed to blag a living as a translator (and occasional interpreter) on this basis, so I thought- how tough can it be?
And so began my life as a massive self-inflicted linguistic experiment, in a rather geeky anthropologo-linguist-among-the-natives kind of way.
The main difference between learning Polish and learning a more popular Western European language is a complete lack of shame when it comes to practising. Normally, I’d be terrified to utter a word in French, for fear of seeing that telltale eyebrow raised in Gallic scorn. But in Polish, I’m happy to dive right in. I don’t have a hope in hell of developing any kind of stylistic elegance. It’ll be a miracle if I manage to communicate in spite of the case system. So I rattle on at anyone and everyone and generally make a bit of an idiot of myself most of the time.
I’ve noticed that Polish reactions to foreigners mutilating their beautiful language fall into three categories.
1/ Poles who ignore your valiant attempts to grapple with their idiom and answer you in English. The minute you entered the shop they pinpointed you as a foreign type and probably discerned your exact provenance while categorising you as student, businessman-with-capital or bum (standard groups of foreigners in Kraków. ‘Bum’ could also read ‘artist’, depending on whether or not you own your flat). While I appreciate that it’s generally safer to communicate in English, given the potential for disaster in Polish (I have trouble differentiating between ‘upstairs’ and ‘in the mountains’ for example) it’s really irritating when you’re trying so hard. Particularly if the phrase in question is ‘Do you want fries with that?’. Now that’s just humiliating.
2/ Poles who are so unused to hearing foreigners speaking Polish that they assume you are fluent and immediately launch into a very fast, very colloquial string of plosive consonants, of which you understand approximately two percent. The best course of action is to stay calm, keep breathing (try to count occurrences of ‘straszny’ if you need something to concentrate on), and when they get to the end and look at you expectantly, insert ‘No właśnie’ as required. They will then tell you that you speak excellent Polish and you will feel undeservedly smug for the rest of the day, forgetting that you didn’t understand a word.
3/ Poles who think you are hilarious. By far the majority of native speakers I have encountered so far fall into this group. As a result, I am now under the mistaken impression that I am some kind of comedian, and I can never work out why my pub stories fall quite so disastrously flat whenever I’m back in the UK.
Last night was an excellent example. I went to meet some other foreigners in Kazimierz (ever so slightly like being on a permanent Erasmus exchange) and struck up a conversation with a young couple at the same table, who turned out to be Polish colleagues of one of the girls.
– So you’re learning Polish? Really? (smiles and nudges)
I told them in Polish that I was and that I went to a language school in Podgorze.
– Great! So, uh, do you ever speak in Polish? (poorly-suppressed titters)
– What, when? When you go to the shops? (incredulity)
Yes. I sort of have to, otherwise I’d starve.
– Really? (corners of the mouth taking a definite upward turn now) So what do you say, then? What do you say when you go to the bakers?
Uhh ‘poproszę bułkę’. Or ‘dwie bułki’. (giggles from my new Polish friends)
Or even ‘dwa razy bułka’, if I’m not sure. (‘Really?! ‘Dwa razy!’: Poles now laughing outright and holding sides)
Yes. Or I ask for the name of the bread, like ‘proszę słonecznikowy’
More peals of laughter. I gave them a little time to collect themselves.
– No, wait, I’ve got one! What do you say when you go for coffee?
‘Poproszę kawę’ (another explosion of mirth). Or ‘średnio cappuccino…’ (helpless spluttering) ‘… na wynos!’
The Poles were by now doubled over with tears streaming down their cheeks, clutching each other for support in a pained-looking way.
Sometimes it’s best to leave them to it and order another Tatanka…