Do Poles Like It when Foreigners Learn Polish? Posted by Anna on Aug 20, 2009 in Culture
I was totally misty-eyed reading your comments. Thank you so much for being so supportive! And thank you for your constructive criticism.
The blog and my grammar explanations will stay as they are. There was a single, lone email in favor of more sophisticated Swan-like approach, but unfortunately, my dear reader, you’ve been outvoted and outnumbered.
There was one comment, however, that surprised me. And when a similar sentiment was expressed in a direct email from another reader, I thought I’d better take a closer look at this issue.
The comment I’m referring to was that Poles don’t like when foreigners learn Polish, and that Poles don’t want foreigners to learn Polish. Whoa! Now, wait a second! I’m Polish and I applaud every foreign person who is willing and able to learn even if only five words of our wonderful language.
But then, I started to talk to a few random people and ask them all sorts of questions “o cudzoziemcach którzy uczą się języka polskiego” (about foreigners who learn Polish), and wouldn’t you know it! Not every Pole shares my opinion. That was a huge surprise, I must say.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Polacy są bardzo dumni ze swojego języka (Polish people are very proud of their language). It’s been like that since… oh well, long ago when a guy named Mikołaj Rej said something along these lines “Polacy nie gęsi i swój język mają” (Poles are not geese and have their own language). He said that to convince the learned and sophisticated types of his day to write in Polish, and not in French, or some other Latin, or whatever it was that they used back in those olden times to write love poems and make shopping lists.
So yeah, we’re proud of our language. We (and here I am generalizing, of course) think it’s a very difficult language. No, scratch that, not think. We KNOW it’s a very difficult language. Go to any Polish shopping mall on any given Saturday and listen to the young and old, and you’ll see just how difficult Polish is. So difficult, in fact, that the great majority of Poles tends to simplify it a great deal and use just several chosen words to express, well… just about everything. One of those words (and probably one of the very first words of Polish, if not the only word, that a native Pole will teach you) is so versatile it functions as a verb, noun, adjective, adverb, conjunction, exclamation, and probably a few other things too. So yes, now you know why. The “k” word is so immensely popular, because Polish is just too difficult and complicated, even for the average Pole.
And because our language is so difficult even for us, we simply consider it to be impossible to learn for anybody else.
Oh yes, foreigners can learn the basics, like ordering “pięć piw” (five beers) or explaining why they’re in Poland to their brand new girlfriends – “uczę angielskiego” (I teach English). Add to that a couple of popular tongue twisters (to amuse their Polish drinking buddies) and you have the level of Polish skills that most Poles expect from a random foreign person. The problems begin if said foreign person speaks Polish more or less fluently. The natives raise their eyebrows and look on with obvious suspicion. “Why are you learning Polish?” or “How the heck did you manage to learn our language so well?” (implying – ‘do you have a Polish grandfather or are you a Mormon missionary?’) are two of the most common reactions.
A foreigner speaking Polish is nothing but a direct attack on the very fierce Polish pride (remember? our language is supposedly one of the most difficult in the world and supposedly impossible to learn). And as odd as it may sound, that is the reason why some Poles (not all, but some, and the percentage is surprisingly high) will knowingly sabotage the foreigner’s efforts to learn more. It may be done through incomprehensible lectures and explanations, always ending with “eh, you won’t get it anyway, you’re not Polish.” It may be done through showing the foreigner that his/her knowledge and studies (even if said foreigner is an expert in a particular field) will never be a match for the knowledge of an average Pole. And when all else fails, they try to snow you with grammar. This bizarre one-upmanship when it comes to our beautiful (albeit very convoluted) language seems to be a national obsession.
The problem is that most foreigners get put off instead of taking it for what it really is – reverse psychology to motivate you to study harder, learn more and reach true native-like fluency.
(Oy, I don’t even want to think what kind of comments this post will bring.)
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