Selective use of language (and some other rambling nonsense!)

One of the arcane secrets of being an alien in Warsaw is knowing when to use Polish and when to switch to English. Both can be very effective, or not, when used at the right, or wrong, time.

Take for example my recent trip to the Marriott hotel to order the Christmas turkey dinner. I arrived at the counter and explained in my very best Polish that I wanted to order a turkey. She asked if it was for Wigilia and I said no, it was for the first day. “No, we’re closed” was her reply, followed by that look and silence that means – GO AWAY. Clearly a change of tack was needed if I was to feed my family on Christmas day so I switched to English and asked the same question, also reminding her that we’d spoken earlier on this subject. After that, nothing was too much trouble. The dinner is ordered and will be picked up midday on the 25th, even though the hotel is closed.

Talking to policemen, not that I’ve had to do so recently, is also far more effective in English than Polish. Just mention “stupid foreigners” and Manchester United and for the most part you’ll be waved away.

On the other hand, try speaking English with anyone in a government office, the meldunek police, the tax police, the passport police, whatever, and see how far you get. A stern look and a “sod off and leave me alone” (po polsku) is the best you can expect.

In the work environment it’s the same deal. It goes without saying that all foreigners prefer to speak English than Polish – except those foreigners who’s Polish is excellent in which case they prefer to show off and speak Polish! But for the Polish biznesmen there is a divide between those who enjoy using English and those who hate doing so. Interestingly, this is quite often nothing to do with their ability to speak English but more to do with their attitude toward foreigners doing biznes in Poland. Psychologically perhaps something to do with power or having the upper hand? Those who enjoy speaking English are very often most enthusiastic and will go out of their way to use this language. Of course this again is not so much to do with being nice to Johhny Forgner but more to do with helping themselves learn English. Nothing wrong with that.

The longer you spend in this country, the better you’re able to judge those occasions when speaking English is the best approach and those where only Polish will do. There’s no question to my mind that having both available is a big advantage, more strings to your bow.

Annoying are those who answer you in English (or German if you’re in Breslau, Danzig or Pozen) despite you having asked a question in perfectly understandable Polish. I find that a little disrespectful, even if many of them are just trying to save time or help you out.

Mixing the two languages is a lot of fun. A phrase I’ve been waiting to use but never had the occasion is “For the love of God, Bogumiła!”. I need to employ a really bad project manager called Bogumiła before I die. :-)

Worrying, I find, are those occasions where I’m on the receiving end of a lecture about how bad Poland is, how stupid/annoying Polish people are or how shitty it is living in this country….etc etc etc. Surprisingly, these outbursts are not restricted to foreigners but can quite often come from Poles themselves. For the most part, in my experience, this is Poles who have left the country and are living/have lived abroad or Poles who used to live in a small Silesian mining village and are now married to a Dutchman, living in a large villa on the outskirts of Warsaw and driving an expensive car. I can’t decide which is the worst of these scenarios, they’re both pretty nasty to deal with as there’s an assumption that because I’m foreign and speaking English then I must surely agree with them. Despite what I write on here sometimes, I don’t agree with them and for the most part I tell them that. How to lose friends and not influence people!

Perhaps the worst possible dilemmas though are those when you know you are getting some advantage because you are foreign and speaking English. You’re getting something that a Polish person speaking Polish might not get. I suppose the Christmas turkey is a small example of this although to an extent I have to believe that the Marriott knows that the 25th means more to me than to a Pole. Hence, a Pole can get a turkey on the 24th but I can also get one on the 25th. There are worse examples though. It is possible for example, that we were able to rent the place we are now living because of me being English and the owners being Austrian. They have said as much in the past about not trusting Polish people. Having listened to some of their stories about building and running this place, they have clearly been given good reason not to trust Poles but does that make it any better? My wife, child and “new family” are Polish after all, so should I be taking advantage of these situations or should I be making a stand on behalf of all Poles?! I really am torn on these issues. I have the feeling, to be honest, that many Poles in the reverse situations where Poles have an advantage over me (which must be plentiful), wouldn’t think twice before grabbing with both hands and who cares about the Angol. On the other hand, it just doesn’t seem right. My innate British sense of fair play and decency I suppose. So, on the whole I take the advantages I’m offered but then don the cilice belt and hair shirt when I get home, the home I might not have if I were Polish!

In cases like that of our landlords I often wonder which came first – the bad attitude towards Poles or the being treated badly by Poles? I’ve always treated the Polish people around me as I would any other nationality, including Brits. I’ve had some bad experiences but no more than should be expected. I have my issues with many things Polish but no more than I have with things British, probably these days, less so. I have found in return that I’ve been treated well by the Polish nation and people. It may be that I’ve just been lucky, but I don’t think so. I think for the most part, if you start out with a bad attitude towards a nation or its citizens then you’re usually going to get what you deserve. What do you think?


17 thoughts on “Selective use of language (and some other rambling nonsense!)

  1. isa says:

    “…we were able to rent the place we are now living because of me being English… I really am torn on these issues.”

    Yes, you should be! I suggest you vacate the apartment immediately and…let an American (me) move in ;-)

    Situation you describe is not limited to Poland. We got our apartment in Paris, because we were foreigners. According to the landlord “the French destroy the place, are often late on rent and it takes months (or years) to evict them!”

    As for using different language in different situations – been there, done that…in 5 languages! Never felt guilty about it, either…

  2. Mal says:

    English is also a fantastic language for talking about the other people on the bus, for dealing with Jehovahs Witnesses and for getting rid of beggars.

    I do love the way that some Poles try to help by replying in slow and clear Polish.

  3. guest says:

    watch this Mal

  4. pp says:

    Well, it just means that foreigners are welcomed in this country.

    Moreover, our girls like foreigners, especially those English-speaking ones ;)

  5. Anonymous says:

    Mal is right!! I’ve used the same tactic when dealing with people on the street I’d rather not deal with. One time a guy knew a little bit of broken English but I just looked at him like he was speaking Swahili and let it go.

  6. Sylwia says:

    Scatts, if any Pole told me he wanted a turkey for Christmas I’d assume he’s joking! Maybe that’s what that lady did.

  7. Anna says:

    Just a quick remark – do avoid translating the names of Poznan, Wrocław and Gdansk into German – we may be rather touchy about this.

    Great blog, BTW.

  8. michael farris says:

    I totally agree with Sylwia that you probably sounded a little nuts at first (okay, I’m less diplomatic than her).

    I have to say I’ve almost never found it advisable to switch from Polish to English.

    I also trust my ability to get things done in Polish much more than in English for any number of reasons. (Not the least being that if I switch to English I’ll usually switch to American ways of interacting which are …. not helpful in getting things done in Poland).

    About the only time I’ve insisted on English was when I was calling the US Embassy on behalf of a student whose visa was dangerously late and got a Polish person on the other end who thought that “queue” was an appropriate word to use with Americans (it isn’t, it’s a “line” thank you very much). I adopted the tone of voice I assumed that she would have been hearing from Americans in positions of authority in the embassy to find out what was going on. Calling on my own in a non-crisis situation I might well have switched to Polish once I heard the person answering.

    I also have to say things have changed a lot. In the early 90’s most Polish people had never really heard many (or any!) foreigners speak Polish and the margin of error allowed before becoming incomprehensible was _very_ small (this is actually the normal state of affairs for any population, native speakers have to learn to understand the weird things non-natives can do with a foreign language). I was subjected to …. bizarre behavior by people selling things before I learned how to ask for things.

    I’ve never used English to get rid of unwanted attention, Spanish works better since fewer people here have ever tried to learn that (and I can switch to far less accessible languages too).

  9. michael farris says:

    Strangely I was recently watching German tv (which I do often, mostly to avoid the dreaded lektory) and there was a story on Poznan and they kept saying …. Poznan. I have a high PC threshhold but that was too much.

    I can understand not using Posen in English now (though historically it’s was called that in English more than Poznan) but it seems like a perfectly okay name in German, mainly because it _is_ the place’s name in German.

  10. scatts says:

    Obviously, I used the German names because it amplifies the reason why people in those cities use German as their default foreign language.

    It’s an added bonus that I managed to upset people!! :)

  11. Jubal says:


    Be more precise :-) I agree that using the German version of the name when speaking English is… not the best idea, to put it politely.

    On the other hand, when I’m speaking German, I’m using the names Warschau, Posen, Breslau, Thorn etc. – they’re there for the reason. (In the same manner, when I’m speaking Polish, I’m using the names Monachium, Londyn, Paryż, Lizbona, Akwizgran and Rzym.)

  12. Sylwia says:

    I often use both names at once Gdańsk/Danzig, assuming that people are more likely to know where Danzig is, and still trying to sneak the Polish version, lol.

    I prefer to be understood than politically correct, but here of course Scatts’s meaning was clear from the context. You guys are great with learning the only correct names!

    Some time ago a German girl asked me what names we prefer to be used. I told her that we like Polish names in English, but German names in German and/or from German people are perfectly fine. However, there might some problems. For example we use the name Auschwitz only for the camp, while the town is Oświęcim. It could cause a confusion. Also, in case of all of the smaller places, I simply have no idea what were their German equivalents. People know that Wrocław was Breslau and Poznań was Posen, but how many know that Leszno was Lissa? And that’s one of the larger towns there. So it wouldn’t harm to check the Polish name before coming here, but then I think German people often do that.

  13. gemma says:

    well if you like poland and polish people, just go to eupee. its a site like facebook which is popular in polish people. that might help you ;)

  14. Ewa P. says:

    Jubal, I have a very big problem with Akwizgran, because I never remember it (my German family lives near, so for me the town is Aachen, period…) But in international company I try to use all the names of Polish towns (English ones, German ones, French ones…) hoping that one of them will at last ring a bell.

    As for using the other languages, nothing beats change from English to French in Paris. Speaking English you are a pariah, speaking bad French – an acceptable lowlife :->

  15. […] [Polandian] Selective use of language (and some other rambling nonsense!) […]

  16. Jakub says:

    Ah i love this post.
    It is not limited to Poland in any event though…
    As the one on the other side of the barricade (a Pole living far away from home and struggling with the language of the host country) I can officially confirm that I do all the same: to officials it’s always English spoken, since they would not understand and would let go, but to average people, or to people who would feel flattered – usually Korean.
    By any means do not feel guilty.
    And – this blog is absolutely wonderful. Interesting to know how it feels for people who come to my own country. Even though I was a bit ashamed when read some posts… :P
    Thanks for the one who established such a great idea!

  17. scatts says:

    Glad you enjoy it, Jakub and good luck with that Korean!

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