Trouble With a Language? How Food Can Transcend Words

Posted on 17. Sep, 2014 by in Language Learning

Guest Post By Bridget Piszczek, Founder Polska Foods

We all know that uncomfortable moment when you are traveling abroad and trying desperately to buy that ticket, order that sandwich, or talk to a relative—but no one can understand you.  You sink into your shoes and hope to disappear.   Maybe you hope that your brain will suddenly remember the exact words that you need to say in that language and your mouth will spout them out perfectly.  Unfortunately, once panic sets in, there is a one in a million chance of that happening!

On my recent trip to Poland to visit my husband’s family for the first time, this was a common occurrence.  Everything from asking for a napkin to where to hang my coat or place my shoes became embarrassing and painfully uncomfortable.  But there was one time that transcended all language barriers and we could suddenly sit at the table comfortable together with laughter and cheer:  through food.  More specifically,  my mother-in-law’s Polish pierogi, the national dish of Poland. I remember well the first time I had them.

It was on a snowy day (minus 4 degrees F outside), and we had been hiking through the thick woods outside of Jelena Gora in Poland.  After building up a good appetite, we finally headed home to defrost our feet and noses.  As I opened the large thick wooden front door, a waft of rich potato, herbs, mushrooms, and various seasonings filled my senses.  We dropped our backpacks and my feet followed my nose to the kitchen.

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Me on the cold, snowy hike before eating my mother-in-law’s pierogi.

As my husband and I sat at the table, drooling, his mother began to serve us different varieties of pierogi that she had slaved over all day.  First was the famous potato, farmer’s cheese, and onion pierogi made with a delicate olive oil and onion sauce.  As I took my first bite, my teeth sank into a soft, warm dough filled with immense flavor.  Dumb-founded, I told my husband, “This redefines comfort food.” He laughed and tried to translate this to the perplexed faces in the room. He explained to his mother that “comfort food” was food that provided comfort instead of just nutrition and brought up old childhood memories of playing with friends and enjoying mom’s cooking. This was difficult to explain to them since they were used to eating is fresh, home-cooked food their entire lives.  In their mind, all food is “comfort food,” who would settle for anything less?

As my husband struggled to translate “comfort food” to his family, I realized this was not a good enough explanation for what we were experiencing.  When I bit into the next round of pierogi, filled with sauerkraut and mushroom, I realized that the food brought me more than just comfort.  It allowed me to connect with my husband’s family during a time when words had been such a barrier.  Her Polish food reminded me of how you can show someone you care by offering them the most tasty, nourishing food you can make from mother earth.  Her food expressed love.  This moment transcended my need to directly communicate to my new family, and we just enjoyed our new form of sharing.

When I looked up at my husband’s mother, I saw her watching us devour her incredible pierogi.   She smiled from ear to ear and I even noticed a glimmer in her eye.  My husband’s mother and I had a new bond from that point on, and now I even feel more comfortable trying to speak a few broken Polish words to her!

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Me learning how to make pierogi for the first time, using sign language, as my mother-in-law spoke no English and I spoke no Polish at the time.

Reliving The Experience at Home Launches A New Venture

Food is the perfect way to keep the joy going from any trip, and maybe even your motivation to keep learning that language The challenge is finding that same kind of food you enjoyed in that country and bringing it home to relive the experience.

When we came home from Poland, all I could think about was how I could get more pierogi at home in California. Try as we might, not only was it hard to find, but some of it didn’t taste even close to the homemade versions my husband’s mother made in Poland. Luckily, my husband had been making his family’s pierogi his whole life so he started to make them for me. Duplicating the pierogi experience we had in Poland became a daunting task since the exact ingredients are not easy to find in the States. For good taste, we decided to use only the freshest, organic ingredients available, preferably local to maintain the flavor and nutrition of each vegetable. We found raw local sauerkraut and even a local mill that made flour using organic Old World grain. We also were adamant about adding no artificial flavorings, no MSG, no additives, no preservatives, no GMO ingredients, no dairy with growth hormones, no meat with antibiotics or hormones, and all the other things that go along with many packaged foods today, especially in the US.  If we were going to truly make pierogi the authentic Polish way, every ingredient had to be carefully selected to keep the recipe clean.

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Homemade pierogi, what’s not to love?

We were not alone in enjoying our Polish re-creation. We received a surprising reaction from family and friends when they tried my husband’s pierogi using his family recipe. “This is delicious!” “Where can I get more?”  It was then that we decided to start a business making pierogi for family and friends, and eventually to neighbors and more.  We decided to call the company “Polska Foods” and started selling organic pierogi at farmer’s markets. Eventually, we started to sell to local retailers and even select Whole Foods and Safeway stores!  Our pierogi even won Gourmet Retailer’s “Editor’s Pick” Award in 2014.  As the word spread about our organic pierogi, we really had a delivery problem.  So, starting this summer, we opened up an online retail store with a partner company who can ship our fresh, flash frozen pierogi nationwide so now anyone can enjoy our Polish pierogi across the nation!

It is truly amazing how one experience abroad in a foreign town with new family connections can suddenly change your life forever. Because of my husband’s heritage and my Polish culinary moment with his family, our focus has been clear. Our goal is not about just offering food for sale to the public, it is about offering an experience. Food should nourish your body and warm the heart.  Each ingredient should be carefully selected and artfully combined, providing an array of flavor that dances on each taste bud.

Simple, good food is why we like to travel, and how we connect with loved ones when words are not available. Today, when I sit down to start studying and practicing my Polish, I do so with pierogi. And, if you ever want to enjoy a “bite” of what we experienced in Poland, or need some comfort food while you attempt to learn Polish, you too can now do so through our Polish pierogi.

Do you associate culinary traditions with your heritage? Is there a particular dish that you associate with the language you’re learning?

About Polska Foods®

Founded in 2011, Polska Foods offers award-winning, organic pierogi from their grandma’s kitchen in Lubiechowa, Poland. They offer five pierogi flavors with ancient grains, fresh vegetables, and hand-crafted farmer’s cheese (rBST free and Kosher). Their pierogi contains no preservatives, no MSG, no GMO ingredients, no Soy, and absolutely nothing artificial. Flavors include: Potato Cheese, Whole Wheat Potato Cheese, Mushroom Cabbage (vegan), Spinach Feta, and Savory Beef & Pork Pierogi. They also use only organic or expeller-pressed oils–no trans fats in any products. Polska Foods’ pierogi is made fresh and then frozen to maintain quality and freshness, not precooked. Their pierogi is certified organic by Oregon Tilth.  Customers can buy pierogi from Polska Foods’ in the frozen section of Whole Foods, Central Market, Lunardi’s, Mollie Stones, Wild By Nature, select Safeway stores and many independent retailers across California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Nevada, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Washington D.C.  For a list of stores or to buy pierogi online, visit http://www.polskafoods.com/buy-polish-pierogi.

From Average, Ambitionless Student to World-Travelling Language Lover: How High School Spanish Class Changed My Life

Posted on 15. Sep, 2014 by in Language Learning

Guest post by Sean Duhaime, one of our trusty Quality Assurance Testers and our go-to Hispanophile here at Transparent Language.

Before I started learning Spanish, there was nothing concrete about me.  I was a wayward child with a C average and a vague ambition to become the next singer-songwriter-sensation.  I was eleven years old when I began learning that most beautiful of Romance languages, though I didn’t love all of it right away.  I loved the learning of vocabulary, especially the weekly verb quizzes. I loathed, as most do, the prescriptive instruction of grammar.  I’ve just never really been a rules guy.

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That’s me on the beaches of Malaga after a storm, November 2007.

The learning of Spanish began to spread like mint in a garden, until it began to suffocate all other puerile pursuits, not the least of which was my ephemeral rock star dream.  Throughout high school and into college, I nurtured it.  I read Katherine by Seton.  I listened to Juanes.  I had dueling Spanish professors we affectionately called BLo and Babs.  Their styles couldn’t have differed more except in efficacy.  Spanish finally found its rightful place in my heart when I read a book halfway through college by the name of For Whom the Bell Tolls.  For anyone who hasn’t read it, the story centers on an English expatriate who is fighting against the fascists in the mountains of Spain.  I became that Englishman for the space of a few hundred pages, and it was then and there that I first realized I was going to Spain.

It was never a hurried dream.  What dreams are when you are twenty-one years old?  I just knew that it was something that would eventually happen.  I considered studying abroad for a semester, but that seemed too pedestrian for me.  I wanted something grander.  I wanted the loose and wild conjecture of buying a one way ticket, with absolutely no idea where I would go, knowing only that I would return when my money ran out.  I also knew that I would go alone.

College ended and there was that great vacuum that Stephen King calls “the last major convulsion of childhood,” and he is right.  I knew nothing of what I wanted to do with my life for a career.  I had majored in Literature, because it was my first love, but I had no idea what to do with it.  Spanish gave me a purpose.  More truly, Spain gave me a purpose.  I began to think about it day and night.

On November 1st, 2007, the day finally came. That first journey around Spain can’t be put into words, except to say that it was the most difficult and most perfect thing that I have ever done.  I watched other tourists being handled and taken for money because they didn’t have the language skills I had, and I began to finally see the value of all those years of studying Spanish.  Learning a language that seems to be slowly consuming the entire western hemisphere, I had elected wisely.  I realized that the world was open to me because of Spanish.  I spent a week with a Spaniard remodeling his new restaurant, and was given free use of his taxi service afterwards.  I spent that first Christmas with two natives that became family to me.   Memories that would never have been if I had not spoken the language.  Most importantly, I didn’t have to go to a call center like so many of my friends.  I could go to any Spanish speaking country and I would be welcome.  And I did.  After three more trips to Spain, all around Europe, South America, and beyond, I can’t ever thank those early teachers enough for giving me the keys to open the entire world. 

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Me with my English students at I.E.S. Manuel Reina in the town of Puente Genil in June 2013.

In addition to these keys, the learning of languages gave me something else that is even more important.  It painted a picture where before there had been nothing.  I was no longer a mediocre student with a vague dream, I became that person that was good with language.  My studies of other languages improved my knowledge of my native tongue of English, and enabled me to teach English abroad in multiple countries.  Lately, it gave me the new gift of inspiration for my first novel, something that I had always wanted to do but had heretofore had no cause.

I know that Spain hasn’t finished with me, but that it is something that will follow me into my future, influencing even the smallest of decisions while I yet live.  I will never be the same person as I would have been if I hadn’t pursued foreign languages.  Especially today with all of the violence of the world bred from hate, which comes from fear, which comes from not understanding, the idea of learning another people’s language and consequently about their way of life, could not be more important to the preservation of our world and our species.

How have languages changed your life? What surprising paths did you take because of your language abilities?

Why We Need to Stop Idolizing Polyglots

Posted on 10. Sep, 2014 by in Language Learning

Image by -macjasp on Flickr.com

Image by -macjasp on Flickr.com

Think about the people we idolize—actors, musicians, models, authors, and, for some reason, the Kardashians. (I don’t understand it either, friends.) We put these celebrities up on a pedestal because we are in awe of what they do and perhaps want to be like them. But there’s also an element of idolatry that comes from believing our idols do something we simply cannot. They are achieving the impossible, and we love them for it. So, what happens when we begin to give polyglots this same treatment? When we put them up on a pedestal, are we giving people the impression that they themselves can’t become a polyglot, too?

That’s why I vote we stop looking at polyglots as fascinating, silver-tongued specimens, and start looking to them as our companions on this crazy journey called learning a language. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had a number of polyglots contribute to the Language News blog, and I respect and appreciate each one of them. But polyglots will be the first ones to tell you there’s nothing special about them. In fact, this post was inspired by the well-known polyglot Benny Lewis, who insists that learning a language is not impressive at all. According to Benny,

“Being impressed is a spectator sport. This is not something I care to promote. I’ll be happier when speaking a language is a run of the mill thing, like anything else many people learn such as driving a car that it only ‘impressive’ to those who have never tried.”

I say, preach, Benny, preach! What’s impressive about polyglots isn’t the fact that they have learned numerous languages, but that they’ve put in the time and effort required to do so. Just like any other activity that seems out of reach for us “normal folks”, be it running a marathon or writing a novel, learning a language is actually entirely within reach for everyone willing to put in the effort. There’s no special gene or super power involved, it’s called hard work, which is something we’re all capable of.

This train of thought is particularly relevant for language learning. To a monolingual just beginning their language journey, watching someone seamlessly slip from one language to another may seem like sorcery. But monolinguals are actually in the minority. A recent study (albeit an imperfect one) from Stockholm University estimated that 80% of the world’s population speaks 1.69 languages. In many parts of the world, bilingualism (or beyond) is the norm. In regions in West Africa, for example, switching amongst two or three local dialects is not only commonplace, but necessary for daily life. No magic, just reality.

Polyglots don’t want to be your magical idol, anyway. They want to be your inspiration! Sure, you should look to them for advice and motivation, but you should never have to look up to them. Every polyglot that I’ve met promotes their abilities not to shove in in your face like sucker, but to show you that you can do it, too. It’s time we shift our collective thinking from “I wish I could do that.” to “If they can do it, I can do it.” Ask questions, take their advice, and, well… do it! With some time and persistence, you may just find that you’ve impressed yourself more than any polyglot ever could.

What do you think: are polyglots valid idols? Does polyglot worship make multilingualism seem less achievable? Do you find polyglots inspiring or discouraging?