Said it so many times, but never here – compared to Polish, English is an extremely easy language to get to the stage of good conversation, advanced or even very advanced level. However, to take that next step and to get your English (British English) to the stage where you can be considered truly fluent (with a fair degree of intelligence and artistry) is, I would say very much harder than with Polish and is verging on, if not actually impossible. Not only for foreigners, many Brits can’t get there either! Once you get beyond a certain stage with the English language there are just so many different ways to play with the thing and so many very subtle nuances between the different options that it must seem like knitting fog. It becomes more of an art than a science whereas, I think, the Polish language, although equally beautiful, is more constrained, more concise and therefore easier to stop it getting away from you. I have not looked up the number of words in the English language versus Polish but I expect there’s a big difference and that’s before you start trying to put the combinations together! My deepest sympathies go out to any foreigner who’s ambition in life is to be truly fluent in English. Also to anyone who’s job is to translate novels or verse (I would have to add the word ‘quality’ in there) between one language and the other. I expect someone like Dan brown is pretty easily translated, others definitely not so.
Still, have no fear because even with English at basic up to advanced level we can all have a lot of fun! Here are a few of the main culprits that appear to have even the best English speaking Poles tripping over their tongues / typewriters:
The (with a side helping of ‘a/an’) – This one I understand. There is no such word in Polish and certainly nothing that is used in anything like the irregular ways that the word “the” (or “a/an”) is used in English. It is therefore understandable that most Poles struggle with this. Many are so confused by it that they either use it far too much or far too little. Those who get the quantity about right usually insert them in the wrong places. ;)
Numbers – This one is strange because there seems to be no excuse at all. I’ve met Poles with quite excellent English who still say 2,200 as “two hundred thousand hundred……ooo errr”. My experience is that this is an entirely one-way thing. Most foreigners grasp Polish numbers very quickly and make few mistakes. Most Poles struggle with English numbers. The words zielonego pojęcia spring to mind.
Borrow / Lend – This I understand. In Polish there is only one word for both of these – pożyczyć, so it makes sense that this might be a tricky one to grasp.
He / She – Still baffled by this one. Why he/she should be any more complicated than on/ona, I have no idea. And yet, it is one of the most common errors.
Recognising a question – I sort of understand this one because in Polish you have to send out a signal that there is a question about to follow before you embark on the question. Just slip the word “czy” up front and bingo, you have a Polish question, without “czy” you have nuffink! In English, questions are more subtle and normally you don’t find out (unless you’re advanced enough on tones of voice, sentence structure, body language and stuff) until later in the sentence, or even after it seems to have finished. This is a particularly annoying one because it leads to a serious outbreak of premature ejaculation on the Pole’s part and lot of repeating of “Let me finish, this is a question, not a statement” on the Brit’s part.
Homework – please translate back and forth the following sentence, He asked her “Do you think it would be okay for you to lend me the 2,250 zloty you got from a bank on that street behind the library?”. She told him, for what seemed like the 115th time, that he should only borrow 740 zloty. Unless he really liked hospital food?
Let’s not leave thinking that the Polish language is straightforward though. Borrowed from Wiki (to save typing time):
- Ala ma kota – Alice has a cat (when spoken with a different sentence tempo and accentation, this sentence can be understood as mildly offensive idiom “Alice is crazy” or “Alice is a loony”)
- Ala kota ma – Alice does have (own) a cat (and has not borrowed it)
- Kota ma Ala – The/a cat is owned by Alice
- Ma Ala kota – Alice really does have a cat
- Kota Ala ma – It is just the cat that Alice really has
- Ma kota Ala – The relationship of Alice to the cat is one of ownership (and not temporary possession)
From my own experience, I can say that tone of voice is pretty important when distinguishing between the above, especially as there are probably no more than three versions that anyone would be expecting to hear.