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Tiptoeing through Polish
Guest post by Darren Cameron
My Polish expedition began way back in 2007. My parents had separated a couple of years before and my father had moved to Cheddar as it was close to work. He was staying in a bed and breakfast and had met a Polish couple who started asking him to accompany them on outings and invited him to parties – things like that. In time, he met a Polish woman, Dorota, and fell in love. My father invited me on holiday with him and his new partner and, in an uncharacteristic spur-of-the-moment decision, I said yes.
The holiday was amazing! We stayed in a cabin by a lake near Gościm (which is approximately 20 miles east of Gorzów Wielkopolski) and I learned my first Polish word: Ośmiornica.
Now why, I hear you ask, did I learn the Polish for “octopus” of all possible words? Well, all around the site, somebody had placed pinecones in the shapes of animals. An octopus was just outside our cabin door. Just to ensure that I would never forget that word, there was a documentary playing on TV that very afternoon all about, obviously, ośmiornice (octopuses). The week flew by and my stepmum-to-be taught me many other words for the local wildlife and objects and also told me something about the local traditions.
Our final day was spent in the city of Gorzów where I met a charming young lady named Kamila who offered to show me around that evening. At 8 o’clock, armed with nothing but an English-Polish dictionary and a thirst for adventure, we set out along the bulwar (boulevard). We explored the city for almost 7 hours; walking aimlessly around, having a drink at a quaint bar overlooking the beautifully lit river, sitting on swings in the park, and talking in broken English, Polish and German. It was here where I made an epic mistake with the Polish language.
It was 3am and we were heading back to her house, where we had decided to stay – my father’s girlfriend being best friends with Kamila’s mum – when I noticed her shivering. So, like a knight in shining armour, I asked to hold her hand. She blinked and said “Nie rozumiem” (“I don’t understand”). Smiling and reaching for the dictionary, I flicked through until I found “to hold”, then ran my finger down until it was under “to hold one’s hand”. I showed her the selection and she gasped in shock. Was holding hands a little too forward? I thought that I’d crossed some cultural line, so I meekly queried “Nie?” She smiled hugely and replied enthusiastically “Tak! Tak!” So I took her hand and we walked home.
Returning to England
A few hours later and my father, Dorota and I were heading back to sunny England, though, by the time we’d hit Germany, I was already missing Poland. All the way back, Dorota was asking me strange questions. What did I think of Kamila? When was I going to go back and see her again? Did I love her?! I’d agreed to stay in contact with Kamila, and it was true that I thought she was lovely, but this was a little crazy! Why was Dorota acting so strangely?
The first thing I did on getting back? Why, find myself a Polish wife, of course! I had been admiring a Polish girl at work from afar. Her English was almost as bad as my Polish at that time. I asked a friend to get her number for me (I’m an eternal wimp at heart), which he kindly did 10 minutes later. Afraid that this was a wind up, I sent my first Polish text message: “Masz ochotę na kawę?” (Do you fancy a coffee?). As it turned out, she did fancy a coffee and so we finally met – by work’s vending machines. We spoke for a while, both of us extremely nervous, and decided to go for a date the following Saturday.
I showed her places that I grew up when we went to my hometown, Bath, for the day. We fed squirrels in the park, had a beer in the sun, strolled along the riverside, then had a meal to end the evening. By the time we parted, we’d decided to get married!
An unexpected reaction
One of the first things I did was tell my father, Dorota and Kamila. I expected cheers, congratulations, maybe even a celebratory party. Instead, I had a lecture about how I’d devastated Kamila and how I had embarrassed my father and Dorota! Can you figure out what I’d done wrong? Yep, in Polish, “Can I hold your hand?” can also translate as “Can I have your hand?” I’d accidentally asked Kamila to marry me! It took me years before I realised! Anyway, back to my wedding plans with the Polish girl from work…
Obviously, everybody was shocked and we were both told not to rush things, but rush things we did! I managed to convince a friend from work, also Polish, to start teaching me some essential phrases. A few weeks later, Christmas Eve, I got down on one knee and popped the question “Wyjdziesz za mnie?” (Will you marry me?). Her reply? “Tak!”
Heading for a wedding
We decided to get married in June, so I had 6 months to learn some basics. My fiancée didn’t want to help me at all! She said that she had “come to England to learn English and not to teach Polish.” I had to go it alone, for the most part. As we worked on opposite shifts, I would spend my quiet time immersed in YouTube videos or reading a Polish-English dictionary to learn vocabulary. Six months is no time at all when you are preparing a wedding and I didn’t really get very far with my studies in that time.
Our wedding was beautiful: a 2-day affair with 120 guests, all but 4 of them Polish. It was a crash course in disco-polo and wedding traditions! I’m still the only non-Polish person ever to get married in the town of Wojcieszów, which makes me a mini-celebrity.
During the second day of festivities, my now wife got up on stage to sing a karaoke version of Feel’s “No Pokaż Na Co Cię Stać” (Show [me] what you can do) and it was beautiful. I decided to learn the song when I got back home.
Once the honeymoon period was over and we ventured back into the reality of work and bills, I thought to myself that it was time to really try to learn Polish properly. I enrolled with Bristol University to study Polish. The first 10 weeks were easy; we covered the alphabet, numbers, greetings – everything I’d already taught myself via YouTube. The second term was where I really felt like I was getting somewhere. The teacher asked me to help those that were finding certain aspects difficult. It turned out that I had a certain flair for explaining things in ways that others could understand. I was enjoying myself so much! This new-found joy meant that I was also learning faster, so it was a win-win situation! Sadly, after the third term, the course was cancelled and I found myself, once again, alone in my books.
I started using various audio courses such as Pimsleur and Michel Thomas and found them very helpful in learning useful phrases. Michel Thomas’ course had a slight advantage in that it focused more on grammar.
Motivation and challenges
A few months later, our first son, Robert, was born. My wife didn’t think that learning Polish was important for him because he would be living in England. I found it difficult trying to stay focused enough to learn when there didn’t seem to be any point and I almost gave up completely. It was with the birth of our second son, Alexander, that I decided to keep my Polish semi-active for the sake of my extended family. I now try to use both languages when I talk with the boys. Robert refuses to speak Polish to anyone but me, but Alex tries speaking whenever he has the chance – with much better pronunciation than I can manage!
Since 2011, I have taught English as a Second Language and have learned a lot through exchange lessons. A friend at work helps me enormously because she only speaks to me in Polish. I try as much as I can with all of my other friends to communicate in the language, though I am still very shy. Sometimes I still find the grammar incredibly difficult to fully grasp, but my understanding is very good and I managed to get my [tooltip content=”This refers to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. A B1 user can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure etc.; deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken; produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest; and describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.” gravity=”n” fade=”0″]B1 certificate[/tooltip] in 2016.
In January 2016, I entered the uTalk Challenge. I wasn’t sure which language to begin with so I asked one of the organisers to choose for me. They chose Polish! This meant that my first language choice in the challenge was easy, but there were still words I hadn’t met before and it was a nice refresher course for me.
What I’ve learned
Over the years, I’ve found that it is possible to teach yourself without taking expensive courses. Although it can be a difficult path, it’s enormously rewarding in the end. I can say that I’ve taught myself Polish. I’m quite proud of my progress, however stuttering it has been over the years. My one desire is to be able to reach a near-fluent level as I love the language, the culture, the people and the food! My advice for other learners: Just go for it and see obstacles not as a reason to quit, but as a challenge to overcome and look back on in the future with a sense of conquest.
[alert-note]Thank you for an incredibly insightful and hilarious post, Darren! You can find out more about the work that Darren is doing at Lingotastic by visiting www.lingotastic.co.uk.[/alert-note][alert-warning]TL;DR: Use what’s you’ve got, whether that’s YouTube, a Polish-English dictionary or a native. Be careful with translations! Even if you make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world. Learning Polish songs is a great way to pick up new vocabulary. You don’t need an expensive course to learn Polish. Many universities offer Polish courses for beginners, although later on you may have to learn by yourself. Michel Thomas and Pimsleur have useful audio courses that you can use. Michel Thomas’ course focuses more on grammar than Pimsleur. It can be tough to stay motivated to learn Polish if you don’t have anyone to speak it to. Languages challenges, such as the uTalk Challenge, can provide extra motivation. Even at an intermediate level, some Polish grammar can still be difficult to grasp. Learning Polish is extremely rewarding – just go for it and overcome the obstacles.[/alert-warning]