I’m going to be honest from the very start: I knew little about Poland until about 13 years ago. Though I was familiar with some of the country’s history, I was ignorant about more or less everything else. I could name the capital city and I’d heard of Lech Walesa, but had little knowledge of the culture. I had only met two Poles face to face. One was a second generation Canadian Pole, whose parents had emigrated in the eighties. That was the first time I would hear of pierogis (and later try the frozen version.) The second was a guy I met at a house party in Brixton in the late nineties. I don’t remember his name, but he was wearing a kilt so perhaps he was a bit confused about his identity. He was clutching a bottle of vodka, though, so he may have been authentic after all.
Back then, I imagined Poland to be a cold country (partly accurate: it can be positively glacial for at least a few months of the year), riddled with grey, monolithic Soviet architecture (frequently accurate in towns & cities) and populated with miserable people (that couldn’t have been further from the truth.) So much for history lessons!
All of that changed when I landed my first job as an EFL teacher in March 2003. It wasn’t a glamourous assignment – a small language school in Croydon, run by a local cowboy – but it was to change my life. The student population of language schools is largely determined by their agent partnerships around the world. I knew nothing of the details, but judging by the nationality mix in my classes, the owner had one agent in Korea and another in Poland. You could not imagine two more different nationalities if you tried, they were polar opposites, but somehow they learned to coexist in the classroom and later, outside. With a comet’s tail of other nationalities, they all got along and, I hope, learnt something about each other’s cultures at the same time as they were trying to learn English.
For a good few of those students, it was the first time outside their country and their first visit to the UK. How they washed up in Croydon, it didn’t matter, but for them it was exotic; they were in London. For all I know, they told their friends back home they were living in Camden Town or Soho. It was my first time teaching, so in a way, we were in the same boat. Conveniently, the school was situated directly above a pub on George Street, so after lessons finished we would descend the stairs, take a convenient turn to the right and step into the semi-darkness, where the English lessons would continue with the aid of a little old-fashioned lubrication. Students would be sent to the bar to ‘practice their English in the real world’ and later we would visit some of the many nightclubs of the district to further their practical education.
But, I digress. I’d been working at the school for little more than 3 months, when i met a young, Polish student. I’m not a believer in love at first sight, but there was a spark in the atmosphere that day and the rest, for us, is history. We started dating soon afterwards, things got more serious and about 6 years later, we were married.
When learning a second language, motivation is an essential part of your toolkit. In theory, I now had the strongest possible motivation: my then girlfriend (now wife) spoke little English. We stumbled together through communication in English, like two drunk people lost in a dark cinema. I often think the reason we didn’t have an argument for the first twelve months was that we didn’t actually understand each other. However, it took time and travel for my motivation to fully activate. My early attempts to communicate in Polish were aimed purely at impressing my girlfriend. After all, she was learning my language, the least I could do was try to learn a few words of hers too. As often happens when learning a second language, some of these efforts backfired. For example, my first attempt at writing a simple love note in Polish. My straightforward message ‘I love you’ was lost in translation because, in writing ‘kocham się’, I was telling my girlfriend that I loved myself. All in the difference between a ‘c’ and an ‘s’.
Sometimes, i didn’t even know I was speaking in Polish, for example, when entering the school reception one morning and having received some good news, I exclaimed, ‘Superduper.’ Our Polish receptionist, Beata, who was photocopying with her back to me, turned round, blushing deeply I’d just told her she had a nice ass! Fortunately, she appreciated the unintended compliment.
I aim to share here some of my experiences of learning Polish, frustrating and interesting language that it is and something of my visits to Poland. I hope I will inspire you to learn more about Poland, its remarkable culture and challenging language. Poles will certainly appreciate your efforts to communicate in their language, though they may well not understand you all of the time as you mangle their mother tongue!