Polishing my Polish

When I first met my wife, I spoke very little Polish. I could buy my groceries, order a beer, get a ticket to Warsaw, and that was about the extent of my Polish communication. When she introduced herself to me, my wife admitted that part of the reason she’d come over to where I was sitting was that she wanted to practice her English. That was fine, but it began happening too frequently. Soon, everyone who knew any English was coming up to me to pull out their rusty linguistic skills for a good once-over. The result was that my Polish was somewhat slow in developing.

Eventually my Polish reached a communicative level and I could discuss at least rudimentary things. But still it continued – people wanted to speak English with me.

With many people I was more than happy to continue. My wife still speaks better English than I do Polish, and several friends spoke such good English that it just seemed stupid to try to switch to Polish once I could mutter a few phrases. The goal of communication was just that – exchanging ideas – and not to sit in a bar with my friends having a language lesson.

However, I fought the English-as-a-default-language tendency with acquaintances, often to no avail. “Damn it, I want to learn this crazy language!” I thought to myself, realizing the idiocy of the situation: in Poland, and still unable to speak decent Polish. So I fought it, and tried to speak Polish more and more.

It was a triumphant moment when, standing at a bar listening to someone trying to tell me something in English, I realized, “Hey, I speak Polish much better than this guy speaks English!” I was momentarily proud of myself, then annoyed. I wanted to say, “No, możemy po prosto mowić po polsku.” (You can probably guess what that means.) It’s truly tedious to talk to someone who can barely communicate in English when you know you could switch to Polish and probably have an interesting conversation. But how terribly rude that is, for in making the switch, you’re essentially saying, “Great, great – you’re English sucks, so let’s speak Polish.” At least that’s how I always felt whenever the reverse happened to me.

My linguistic reality now is mixed: I still have some people that I speak mainly English with. I have a few friends with whom I began by speaking English and now mainly converse in Polish. There is an ever-growing number of people that, though they know English, have never used it with me – an ego-patting thing. And of course there are plenty of friends and acquaintances now that I’ve only spoken Polish with.

Communication with my wife, though, is a topic deserving its own post.

3 thoughts on “Polishing my Polish

  1. Hilarious. So human. Wonderful. What a vein. Great potential for a play or a film, short or long, using as a backdrop the tedium of the locals practicing their English on you, when what you really want is to practice your Polish on them. There’s some kind of irony there somewhere.

    Do you think maybe Babble is its own language? Because, no matter what language, it’s rare to find a listener who isn’t just waiting for their turn. Yet, of course, real communication is always curious and open to surprise. It draws out ideas.

    I’ve had a lot of contact with deaf people over the last few years. I don’t sign, but I get along extremely well. It’s just not hard. I’ve had some long, deep conversations with deaf folks.

    Conversely, I’ve had contact with people who are paid to listen, medical doctors for example, who simply don’t.

    Next time somebody wants to use you to practice their English, correct them in Polish.

  2. Heh. :)

    I think I’m slowly learning that people want to speak english to us because we’re the weirdos – we’re the ones that “ain’t from around here,” as we say back home. So while yes, some people speak english to make us feel welcome, the others are excited to try out their english from school.

    I watched this happen all the time when my husband was with me in the states. Plenty of folks brushed off their school French and gave it a go. I don’t know why I thought it would be any different here. ;)

  3. How true. In my case my Polish starting improving exponetially when I starting dating my wife. She didn’t speak ANY English. I loook forward to the day when her English is better than my Polish. At least our son, Philip, will be able to converse and understand both languages.

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