Friday 11 September 2015

The Piękny Polish Język

Oh, you lucky people. It is Polski Piątek yet again, so if you are procrastinating from whatever you should be doing, you get to witness my Polish language obsession.

Yesterday, as I padded after Benedict Ambrose like a little lamb, I reflected how much more docile a travelling companion I am in English-speaking countries than I am in others. In English-speaking countries, I just follow after B.A. and agree with the vast majority of his suggestions. But in countries where I have made an attempt to learn the language, I turn into a tightly-wound, self-hating, control freak lashing out at B.A.'s attempts to make up for my linguistic failures with his far more effective use of sign-language, etc.  It's horrible. If I cannot have a useful native friend to show me about and do all the hard work of talking and map-reading, then I have to travel alone, or I have to give up any attempt to speak the local language.

This is because I cannot speak English and another language at the same time. I really can't. In order to open my mouth and have another language come out, I have to shut English away into a mental box beforehand. And when I am silently working out what to say to a ticket agent, someone saying, "Hey, why don't we....?" opens the box with a crash, and my carefully worked out sentence disappears.

I am going to to a wedding in Kielce on October 3, and arriving in Kraków on October 1st. (Pójdę na ślub w Kiecach 3 paźdżiernika, a przylatuję do Krakowa 1 paźdżiernika.)  This means that I have set aside reading W Pustyni i w puszczy for the much harder task of stocking my brain with useful vocabulary to trot out when I need it.

I need it if after I say (as I always do when the situation is at all complex), Czy Pan/Pani mowi po angielsku?, my interlocutor replies, Niestety nie. ("Unfortunately not.") Niestety nie triggers a switch in my head labelled  Dobrze.  ("Okay.")

The Dobrze switch is connected to all the Polish I know, beginning with the deepest layer, which was put there by Mr Pimsleur and his invaluable method. Unfortunately, Mr Pimsleur does not have advanced courses in Polish. After 30 lessons of Mr Pimsleur's Polish, you will not be able to say much more than that you have two daughters. However, you will never be able to forget how to express this non-fact.  Also, you will be able say, as I have had to on more than one occasion, Chcilibyśmy pojechać do Krakowa. ("We want to go to Kraków.")  Chcialabym pojechać do ("I want to go to..." + genitive of the place) is essential with monolingual Poles in the transportation industry.

Unfortunately, it is almost useless for small-talk with Pan Taksówkarz ("Mr Cab Driver"). Pan Taksówkarz will not be content to know if you are American (which Mr Pimsleur always assumes are, his bad). He will want to know, in rapid fire Polish, why you are in Poland,  if you have Polish relations, why you know any Polish at all,  you like Poland and, if you are unlucky, where your Polish destination is.

Oh, heavens. That memory has prompted me to promise myself to figure out the tram route from the train station to my Kraków hosts. Talking to cab drivers in Polish is exhausting, and it is terribly disappointing to discover your own hopes you know his town better than he does. Throw in the universal belief that all foreigners are rich and stupid, and you could have a financial disaster on your hands.

Possibly I will write out whole speeches of small talk before I go. This is something recommended by popular polyglots: you write an English speech all about yourself, look up all the vocabulary, memorize it, and spill it out in the other language when asked. The number one Small Talk topic in Poland for Polish-learning foreigners is, "Why do you know any Polish?" which I sometimes answer with "I have many Polish friends" or "I am a writer, and my first book was translated into Polish." The is a good answer for monolingual Poles, who always seem excited to be speaking to a writer. Possibly meeting writers carries more caché in Poland than elsewhere.

I have never been to a Polish wedding, but I imagine the conversations, while they are still at all coherent, are the same as those at Canadian weddings, i.e. who are you, what do you do, how do you know the bride and groom, do you know such-and-such, how do you like our town, would you like another drink, I don't want to dance, how pretty this room is, this food is very good. Dear me, how very stilted Canadian weddings can be.

Fortunately, all occasions in which Poles and alcohol are in the same room involve music and dancing, so even more important than writing out essays of small talk is my review of Polish wedding songs. Actually, I shall now leave you all to write to the bride. I will ask her what Polish pop songs her DJ is most likely to play. That way I can print them off and bring song sheets, if need be. And naturally since the bride was my first ever Polish teacher, I shall prepare a little speech thanking her for beginning the long and painful, increasingly national, project of teaching me the art of polszczyzna.


  1. Fascynuje mnie Pani fascynacja Polską :-) Baw się dobrze Seraphic! (Czytam blog kilka lat, to może mogłybyśmy przejść na Ty?) Wszystkiego najlepszego.

    Your Very Single Polish Reader :-)

  2. Miło mi i cieszę się.

    Bardzo mi się podoba, że bronisz, wspierasz i szerzysz Katolicyzm, i to z jakim talentem. Według mnie (już o tym pisałam), wyjątkowo rozumiesz Polskę i Polaków.

    Your Very Single Polish Reader :-)


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