Lingusitic Netherworld

My wife and I, for the first several years of our friendship, spoke nothing but English.

When I met her, I barely spoke Polish; as we became friends and spent more time together, though my Polish was improving, her English was still much better, so it just made sense to speak English.

When we decided to try dating, after being friends for six years or so, I told her, “Okay, one thing that has to happen is a linguistic change. We can’t go speaking English all the time.” And so one early date, we spoke nothing but Polish.

It was awkward. The language felt heavy in my mouth as I occasionally stumbled to express something that I knew I could say in English and she would easily understand. And hearing her speak Polish to me – it was surprisingly odd.

Since then, we’ve reached an equilibrium. We speak a lot of English because we’re eventually going to be living in the States for some time, and she wants all the practice she can get. “You get so speak Polish all the time. I never get to speak English,” she reasoned. Fine by me, I thought – speaking my native language is still easier than speaking Polish, a sign that though my Polish is getting pretty good, fluency is a non-issue, and admittedly, an impossibility due to my inherent laziness.

When we’re with friends, we speak Polish of course. Guests leave and we sometimes continue speaking Polish, sometimes slip in to English, and most often, mix the two.

When she’s tired and I’m tired and neither of us wants to think about what how to say what we want to say, she speaks Polish and I speak English, leading to some undoubtedly strange sounding conversations. Most telephone conversations are mixed like this, though no one else knows it. (Or didn’t, until now.)

I’ve recently noticed that when she speaks Polish, she sounds like a different person in some ways. My wife speaks very good English, but she’s generally spoken it very deliberately. That’s why she makes so few grammar mistakes – she’s thinking carefully as she speaks. But when she speaks Polish, all those linguistic concerns disappear and she just talks.

Even her voice sounds a little different when she’s speaking Polish. It’s somehow a little deeper. It resonates a little more. The sounds in Polish (“szcz,” “prz,” “rz,” etc.) generally sound harder (not more difficult, more solid), so when she’s speaking Polish, she sounds older and less naive.

Re: the “less naive” comment: My wife and I are both idealists, though I’m a pessimistic idealist — I hope things will work out for the best, but I usually doubt they will. So in that sense, we’re both a bit naive.

I can only imagine what I sound like speaking Polish to her. Because Polish grammar is so difficult (it’s a heavily inflected language), I still make tons of mistakes. But my Polish is now at a level that I usually know I’ve made a mistake, but I just don’t want to go back and correct it, or, more often, I don’t know exactly how to correct it.

The result must be somewhat horrific.

Because my wife speaks English so well, I sometimes feel a bit stupid speaking Polish with her. She uses grammatical constructions that, as a teacher, I know are difficult for Poles to master, and she does it without thought. I, on the other hand, must sounding little like this. Well, no — that’s a bad example. My problem is mainly with the endings, so “better example this would be.”

One of the advantages of this linguistic soup will obviously be bilingual children – as long as they don’t take their Polish cues from me, that is.

5 thoughts on “Lingusitic Netherworld

  1. I’m right there with you on this one. Philip will be bilingual(tri with German) but he had better learn his Polish from his Mother rather than from me.

  2. I know what you mean about those strange bilingual conversations. I speak English to my mother and she speaks Polish.

    PS: Great Blog! Very interesting. I’ve only known people coming from Poland to the US. Never in the opposite direction.

  3. Funny, I feel very self concious speaking French to my husband. I’m willing to try around anyone else, but if he’s there I get nervous – I think because if it’s bad I feel like it’s a reflection of him!

  4. Even though we are in Germany, my husband and I always speaking English together. We have also noticed that both of us have a hard time speaking German (even though it is his native language) in one another’s presence!

  5. My German is also to the point where I know I’ve made a mistake, and I DO make a conscious effort to improve it. Not always immediately, but more like a mental note to remember to do better in the future. But my German must really sound odd sometimes because I also have a problem with endings and gender. My co-workers are used to it, though, so we get along. :)

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