Breaking the code

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)

Well, yes.

– 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…


15 thoughts on “Breaking the code

  1. island1 says:

    ‘Aint it the truth!

    Foreigners speaking Polish is guaranteed to provoke mirth among Poles.

  2. darthsida says:

    Oh, there is another (sub)group: those who actually want to or have to talk to you – but speak only Polish. They’ll be happy to learn you learned some Polish, and assume that since your Polish is better than their English, the burden of understanding is on you. However, to make things easier for you, they will be slow and distinct and careful how they form and deform their lips. Yup, I heard a person do so: extending {yuuh-b-woh-nee-eh} [to mean JABŁONIE], or {oh-grrr-oh-dh-zzz-eh-nee-eh} [to mean OGRODZENIE].

  3. an. says:

    I am Polish and have to say that when i hear a foreigner speaking Polish I find it veeery cute and funny.
    Specially when it is my boyfriend (English).

    He doesn’t speak Polish but when he sometimes says: “Herbatkę zrobiłem” or “Co robimy?” or “Idziesz już?” I find it absolutely cute and my heart melts:)

  4. pinolona says:

    Darth – Introduce me to these people!!

    An. – *temporarily unable to speak due to sudden violent retching fit*

  5. an. says:

    Looks like for me English people speaking Polish are cute and funny (sorry, I didn’t know many other words to describe it, my English isn’t so good) and for you Polish people trying to write something in English are just to be laughed at…

  6. Anonymous says:

    No I’m not laughing. Retching isn’t to do with laughter.
    I’m just a bitter and cynical old woman I’m afraid. I did not intend to make you feel bad about your English or anything like that.

  7. pinolona says:

    And sorry, yes that was me and it was meant to be ‘sorry’! (to an.)

  8. scatts says:

    I have to say that I don’t suffer from the same problem – people laughing at me when I try to speak Polish. Okay, the odd word perhaps, like pierniczki, seems to raise a smile but that’s about it.

    I’ve been told my accent is good though, perhaps that makes a difference? All it does for me is make life harder as people assume I know more words than I really do! As for the speed, I actually prefer it if people speak just as they would normally. I find that easier to understand than when people start trying to make alterations in the hope I will understand better.

    One thing that does annoy me, is when I start off in Polish and they immediately switch to English. I find it insulting and confusing. Of course in some parts of the country that “English” should read “German”.

    Out of your three groups, I would judge my experiences to be: 1/ 15%, 2/ 25%, 3/ 5% and the other 55% would be category 4/ Poles who just react normally with a mix of both languages.

  9. island1 says:

    I think the point is that Polish people laugh in a delighted way, not a ‘god-what-a-funny-accent’ way, when they hear foreigners speaking Polish. It also depends a lot on the person. Some Poles who mix in a more international crowd are much more used to it and the novelty has worn off for them – in the same way that Brits are used to hearing foreigners speaking English.

  10. darthsida says:

    => Pinolona,
    You will be approached directly by those people as soon as they need anything from you, and in Polish only. Brace yourself :)

    => Scatts, “when I start off in Polish and they immediately switch to English. I find it insulting”.
    Really? Under indifferent context I’d see the situation as an exchange of gestures of politeness. You scratch my tongue, I’ll scratch yours, you know what I mean.

    => Generally,
    Yet another way to see some (deserved or not) inferiority complex at work, I assume. The average Pole would feel shy / uneducated – to admit not speaking English. The average Englishman would not be shy to admit not speaking Polish. Which implies English rules, Polish serves. Which further means: when rulers start speaking the language of serfs, the serfs may chuckle in disbelief. It may be a defense mechanism. (IIRC, it’s Ferdydurke with a similar picture, with a social, not linguistic, clash: maids get astonished why landlords should descend to talk to them and in the former’s language.)

    So, I’d like to know what’s the Welsh view on Welsh (or Scots on Scots or Gaelic, etc.): do linguistic minorities think their languages and English are peers? Or would Welshmen giggle when Englishmen should befriend them with sudden gaf i beint o gwrw os gwelwch yn dda or Cymru am byth or sumphing?

  11. piękny lolo says:

    that’s probably just because ppl are not yet used to foreigners learning polish.. give them 20 years and it won’t raise an eyebrow:)

  12. my girlfriend says that there are so many people who speak english. so many countries and so many people as a second language. in her opinion it’s completely normal for people from english speaking nations to hear foreigners or immigrants speaking english whereas for poles it’s still a bit of a novelty to hear foreign types speaking (or in my case, butchering) polish.

    sounds feasible…well, at least to me.

    hope you’re all having a great weekend.

  13. Marek says:

    There are just some Polish words that I try my damndest to avoid. Unfortunately, the one I have the most trouble with is the word for “please”.

    As you all know, the Polish equivalent is “prosze” but I just can’t pronounce the “sz” sound the way I am supposed to. I can only make an “sh” sound instead (I blame it on the gap between my front teeth).

    And by saying what appears to be “proSHe” apparently I am calling someone a “little pig”.

  14. wu says:

    Well, personally I agree with comments stating that Poles are simply unused to foreginers trying to use their language. It’s a very surreal experience, because – well – who’d like to learn Polish anyway?:P

    The biggest “wow!” moment for me happened when I was attending a certain college with a considerable group of foreginers as teachers. We heard them talking in Polish – most of the time really, really well – a lot of times and we thought we got used to it.
    But one day a guy from Spain entered a room where we had our classes and started a conversation with our British history teacher. In Polish.
    We were so amazed that we applauded them :D

    I think that was a very wierd experience (seeing us getting excited) for them too.

  15. Steven Woodruff says:

    Poland isn’t bad, ever try to speak French in France? What a bunch of snobby jerks.

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