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Do Poles Like It when Foreigners Learn Polish? Posted by 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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Comments:

  1. Kuba:

    Anna,

    I have found that most Poles are happy to hear their language spoken by a foreigner. On many flights to Poland they would say “your Polish is good” and I knew I was making mistakes but they understood what I was saying and that is what counts. Writing is another matter because then the grammar shows. You can see the mistakes on the written page. But when speaking it is not that obvious that the mistakes are there.
    As far a Swan, may be a good course but without someone to talk to or correspond with I personally just can’t push myself to do it. I need the help and support to say go ahead and try it.
    I learned Polish at a very young age just from hearing my parents and grandparents speak it. Then at 4 I started school and it was all in English. So my grammar is terrible and some of the words I use are quite old. Most from the a farmers point of view.
    Would love to have a Polish grammar class in person. Or better yet a Polish person who could live with me and we could talk and I could learn to write better and increase my vocabulary.

  2. Maria Clara Soares Correia:

    Hi, dear Polish teachers and learners
    I feel I must say a word here. My experience was really different. I was in Poland 5 or 6 times and everyone was delighted with the little Polish I could manage to speak. I attended several Polonicum courses in Warsaw and always felt really welcome. I am quite surprised about this opinion expressed here. And, by the way, I intend to go on learning it till the end of my life!! Besides, I am not a mormon nor have any Polish relative ( I am sorry about this last thing, maybe it wouls have helped…
    So, please, go on teaching us, it doesn’t matter what level we reach, the main thing is going on!
    Love for you all
    Clara

  3. Hoosier41:

    What is the “k” word ?

  4. Linda:

    Hmmm, I’m learning Polish (and have been doing for two years) and have Polish friends. I find their opinions mixed.
    One of them insists I speak Polish with her (her English isn’t good) whilst another just refuses to engage, and despite the fact that I had really helped him out with stuff, refused to help me practice.
    I put this down to a gender thing (another subject I know) but another male aquaintance found it first amusing and now fascinating that we can converse in a mixture of Polish and English. He’s dead chuffed that anyone would learn more than ‘the few words’
    Lastly, none of my Polish friends have taught me the K word!!
    Polish is such a beautiful, complex language. I am determined to speak it.
    Cjeers
    Linda

  5. pinolona:

    it’s true – Polish friends often apologise for how difficult it all is with a sort of slightly ironic smile… or they send me a really difficult joke or a word play by email or something, to test whether I get it. I think in general it’s in a spirit of well-wishing, and they’re largely pleased (or amused) to see foreigners learning Polish, but sometimes, just sometimes, I feel that they’re pushing it a bit…

  6. Chris:

    I live in Poland and for the most part people are delighted to hear somebody try to speak Polish. I am on the level of elementary/butchering so I haven’t acquired enough fluency to make anybody suspicious of my intentions. My husband says that I come off as a “sierota” and in difficult situations I try to use that to my advantage. I should be better but I don’t have a Swan’s or even a Polish/English dictionary. I know. That’s baaad!
    Hoosier the “k” word is like the “f” word.

  7. Mchl:

    I used to have a foreigner boss, who could speak Polish quite well (with an accent and lots of funny mistakes, but still). I noticed, that when I was talking to him, I was semi-consciously switching to English to which he was native. Don’t know exactly why, but it might be seen as discouraging him from speaking Polish…

    I guess it happens to everyone. During my trip to France a waitress in a restaurant noticed I was a foreigner and immediately switched to English, even though I was placing my order in French (with an accent and lots of funny mistakes, but still)…

    As to multipurpose-word-starting-with-k: do you remember Monty Pythons’ skit about ‘many uses of the word f…k’ ?

  8. Jola:

    Hmm, I’m Polish and I live in Poland and I’m really surprised with what was written in the post. I very much appreciate foreigners’ attempts to speak Polish. The difficulty of this language is one thing but I think Polish can be compared with German in that matter so we shouldn’t exaggerate about that.

    I (and many Polish people, I suppose) admire foreigners who are willing to speak Polish for some other reason: this language is not spoken in other countries and seems to be useless elsewhere. When you learn English, German or Spanish, you can communicate in these languages in many countries worldwide so they are really useful. When you learn Polish, you can practically use it only in Poland (now it changes maybe a little because of many Polish emigrants living e.g. in GB or other countries). That’s why people often ask a polish-speaking foreigner – why do you learn Polish? I also often ask this question 🙂 It is just so fascinating that some people take effort to learn Polish even if they know, that with English or German they would manage in Poland quite well.

  9. inda:

    Most of the Polish people are really pleased that I speak Polish with them and prefer me to make fun of myself (i.e. make mistakes), rather than forcing themselves to speak English.
    However, sometimes, after the first surprize on my fluent Polish comes the usual question: “Oh, and can you pronounce Chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie w Szczebrzeszynie??” and they are happy if I don’t manage pronouncing it properly. I guess it is also a self-protective issue: if a foreigner managed to learn Polish (considered a very difficult language), they have no excuses for themselves not speaking English (or other foreign language) very well.
    Luckily, most of the people I met are very supportive and keep encouring me, so learning this language is overall a positive experience for me.

  10. russ:

    I’m glad I’ve not met any Poles with such a hostile nasty attitude toward foreigners learning Polish! It’s hard for me to even comprehend where such an attitude would come from. It sounds very insular and nationalistic and xenophobic and us-vs-them. (Were these people you talked with more conservative/rightwing or something?)

    I have quite a few Polish friends who speak English more often than Polish with me just because their English is much better than my Polish, so we can converse easier and faster in English when we simply want to communicate… but that’s quite different from not liking that I’m learning Polish!

    I know Poles who tell me Polish grammar is complicated (and I agree – it’s true!)… but that’s quite different from not liking that I’m learning Polish!

  11. John:

    Although I ask people to correct my poor Polish language when I speak to them they don’t, so maybe it’s “okay” with them when I don’t speak properly. I am trying to read more and to try to speak outloud as I read, often amazed that the word I am pronouncing is the word that I knew but never knew quite how it was spelled.

    My nephew knows English enough to speak like “Borat” and I know I sound like the Polish version when speaking Polish so we laugh at each other.

    By the way, another “k” word that is used often is the very bad “p” word. Thirty-five years ago several friends were using the “p” word often enough that it caught my primative Polish attention as a “new” word to maybe use. I asked what it meant but they wouldn’t tell me until I threatened I would ask bacia for the meaning.

  12. Ed:

    I have often thought that many Polish introductory language books were written in order to obfuscate. This opinion was formed by looking at the many English translations of polish sentences that are far from the literal translations. This is a real barrier to learning the rhythm and grammar of the language. The authors must have had the thought in their heads that Polish is way too difficult.ie their readers will never get it. The quality of most introductory books is just awful.

  13. sila:

    now i want to know about the “p” world!

  14. Michel:

    Hello,

    I am French and working in Poland for a 6 months mission. I work in english but I started learning Polish by principle.
    At this point of my experience, I share the opinion that Polish people do not imagine that one can learn their language.
    In bookstores, you have no Polish books in the language dept.
    I finally found a Polish grammar …in Paris !
    I take lessons but the polish teacher does not know Polish grammar because he is in fact an English teacher even if he is from Poland.

    Do widzenia,

    Michel

  15. Tom:

    Reactions to my “baby” Polish vary greatly – a university Professor I met on a train ride from Krakow to Warsaw was very encouraging. When I noted how difficult the Polish language is and how my grammer is so awful, he said, “My grammer is bad also – Polish grammer is so difficult that Poles are always making grammatical errors.” On the other hand, I’ve had several waitresses refuse to even attempt to understand me – curtly informing me “I speak English” – even though her English was equally as bad or maybe worse than my Polish. Hard to generalize – and not worth trying to generalize. Enjoy the challenge of learning a beautiful and most interesting language.

  16. Kuba:

    Sila, I think it is the Polish version of the ‘F’ word in English

  17. russ:

    Michel – maybe you visited a lame bookstore. 🙂 Most decent Polish bookstores I’ve visited which have foreign language books also have books to learn Polish. Typically they are in a separate nearby section though, not filed under “P” next to Portuguese etc.

  18. boydie:

    dzien dobs!

    its very interesting to read some of these comments…..I am currently in a very obsessive phase of learning polish – i cant seem to get enough!

    Dla mnie, there is something about learning a language. It seems to get a different part of your brain into gear. I taught myself spanish years ago, and was surprised at how much fun it was – just bought books etc and absorbed myself in it….and when in spain, being able to converse, without ever having gone to a lesson, seemed amazing. Its like a whole new world is opening up for you.

    With polish, I picked up a few words working with lovely polish people a few years back. Then i met my girlfriend, who is polish, and i started to teach myself more…..we went over to poland and spent some time with her family out there – her pares know no english, so that was a big motivation to learn more polish! And i must say, it was appreciated….i didnt see any of this snobbery of a foreigner (clearly butchering) the language! however i did feel like a doll, with a string in my back – pull the string, and here i can say ‘troche rozumiem po polsku, przepraszam’ – znow!

    Since then, 6 months ago, ive worked on the langage most days….even got a grammar book from the library (something id avoided, as it seemed too much like school – but actually, its a good thing as once patterns are learned, it means not having to learn as much, if you get me?!).

    We are back off to poland this week (czarny dunajec – anyone heard?!)….and im really looking forward to seeing the fruits of my work in just being amongst the language – quite interested to see the improvement over 6 months. And of course I will be able to converse more with the parents etc….

    In the UK here, the polish people i meet, when they hear i know more than a few words, are often completely surprised and delighted that anyone is bothering to learn their language (ok its difficult, but hey im glad i never had to learn english ;))…..perhaps the people who are a bit patronising, well maybe thats their personality?

    So overall i would say the majority of polish people are very much on your side if you make the effort to learn the language…..its good to throw some gags in too – i often say stuff like ‘skrecic w prosto’ which i know makes no sense, but i hope will be funny. Usually the audience is aware its a deliberate mistake 😉 Im always thinking of gags 😉

  19. Izydor:

    The situation when some people raise their eyebrows and look suspiciously at a foreigner who attempts speaking their language is not to be found in Poland only. I noticed that in Lithuania and Greece as well. I think it’s quite explainable. When someone’s language (like Polish) is not one of the popular languages in international communication, they might suspect that a foreigner learning it (providing they don’t live or work in Poland, they’re not of Polish descent or have a Polish spouse) has some bad intentions. I’m learning Greek and when I tell people that I’m doing it for the beauty of the language itself rather than for any practical reason many of them (I sense that) are close to saying I’m nuts and wasting my precious time. When I was in Greece I once had a funny conversation with a Greek – I spoke Greek and he (understanding my words) responded only in English. Well, in the last case the person might just have felt offended that I didn’t give him a chance to show that he could speak English (his English was very good BTW).

  20. sila:

    can anyone write the polish word with the “p” for me?

  21. Kamil:

    I have met only two foreigners speaking perfect Polish. One was from Russia other from Japan. I couldn’t spot any difference except a bit odd accent. Their pronunciation was excellent. One week ago I and my flatmates were playing SingStar. One of them sang “Chałupy welcome to” with me and hearing the song once he started to sing that almost flawlessly. I was so impressed that I asked him to say “Cześć” unfortunately failed the test for native;), he’s from China btw.

    My high-school teacher was from U.S. Her Polish after few years living in Poland was so-so. Even today when I meet some of my high-school friends, we recall her famous struggles with Polish like when I asked her to explain the meaning of the word “unknown” to me (-“niewiadomo”, -“what? even Americans don’t know what it is?” ) or her screaming “ciacho” when we were to loud.

    Personally I am pleased when someone put their effort into learning Polish. On the other hand listening to someones poor Polish for several hours just because that person wants to get better is a torment. I knew self-taught fluent-polish-speaking Dutch with a grammar better than average Pole but horrible pronunciation.

    PS Alright Sila if you want it so badly:)

    Actually there is many of them but most of them are used with “ja” (“I”). Listen carefully to what I write:
    – Ja piórkuję! (I am feathering)
    – Ja pierdykam! (no meaning)
    – Ja pierniczę! (I am gingerbreading)
    – Ja pierdzielę! (I am pre-dividing)
    – Ja pierdylę! (I am pre-beaming)

  22. Chris:

    So let’s say that I decided to buckle down and actually learn Polish from a book. What are some good ones?

  23. Gabriel:

    Haha, I suppose I know what is the “k” word. Believe it, that was the first polish word I learned, and it was before I started to learn polish. But I don’t think polish is so hard. Seriously.

    By the way, polish tongue twisters remind me of that “W Szczebrzeszynie chrzaszcz brzmi w trzcinie”. I wonder how Brzechwa could create something like this!

  24. Kat:

    I only wanted to add that your translation of “Polacy nie gęsi iż swój język mają” is incorrect. The precise meaning is “Poles don’t use goose’s language, they have their own language”.

  25. ash:

    All languages have the potential to be difficult but comparatively it is still using the Latin alphabet which most Europeans use and can pronounce albeit badly – the mildly nationalistic sentiments you mention can be shared not just by Poles but can be found the world over but in an ever shrinking world is an anachronism. There is no quantifiable counter to determine whether it is harder than high German Arabic Mandarin Hindi or Bengali which are vastly different, use totally different characters etc. Nor could children be able to pick any language up as opposed to leaning the language. Grammar and written fluency will always be harder to master than the spoken word in any language.
    Use environment immersion and a willingness to learn are all mitigating factors: I am on the way to my 6th Language and did some Polish language lessons – found it ok: so it being that much harder is a very subjective. If it were I would have expected a great deal more fluency in the command of English from the first post cold war generation who have settled here. My own experience is people are pleasantly welcoming when I tried my pigeon Polish – it is a great way of connecting people and brought smiles.

  26. paweł:

    Mormon missionaries are cute, we should be getting more of them. :>

  27. mike:

    hi i am american man maybe moving to poland for work. ive just begun to learn polish and i can honestly say polish is one of the easiest languages ive learned so far. its not harder than any other language

    people that tell you its hard is just jelous and are pissed that a foreigner can learn their language.

    if those pollacks give you trouble than just tell them “palic w piekle kurwa” to them haha

    • Anna:

      @mike well, Mike, if this is the best you can do in Polish, then really, good luck to you in Poland. You’ll need it.

  28. Chinese Translator:

    Last summer I have stayed in Andrychow for over 1 month. And I picked up some polish. Overall I had a great respond from local people when I tried to practice my limited polish with them.

  29. Kyle:

    hej, jestem anglikiem i mam 20 lat. Nigdy nie byłem w Polsce i zacząłem się uczyć polskiego dopiero 16 miesięcy temu. Rozumiem, że nadal mam błędy gramatyczne, ale moja nauczycielka na uniwersytecie pochodzi z Polski i nie może uwierzyć jak szybko uczę się tego pięknego języka =]] W ogólw myślę, że bardzo dobrze piszę i mówię po polsku, ale to jasne, ża zawsze mogę ulepszać się =]]]]

    I wrote tat all myself, without any help from any dictioanries or online translators etc. My best friend is Polish and he said that my polish grammar is correct 95% of the time, so I think that that is good for 16 months. Honestly, in the beginning polish was very difficult to learn, but after about 3 months ofhard work and continous practice i was moved up to the advanced class at university (equivalent to the European Common Framework of referencing for languages C1) now I am just trying to perfect my language usage. i can read Polish newspapers and understand 100%, Honestly guys it isn’t that hard, as long as you work hard and accept all challenges.

  30. kyle:

    sorry ‘że’, ‘w ogóle’
    ‘that’, ‘of hard’

  31. Sari:

    This article is the scariest thing I’ve read about learning Polish.

    I would like to learn some Polish because it is my great grandmother’s native tongue, and I’ve often thought my grandmother would be pleased if I learned some.

    Where I live in the U.S. there is a Polish population near by, and I often do some shopping at the Polish Grocer, Bakery and Deli… especially around the holidays because in my family Christmas and Easter are celebrated in the Polish tradition.

    I just want to learn enough to converse with the baker or the butcher. I thought that the gorcers might be pleased that I was attempting to speak to them, rather than just pointing at what I want.

    But now, after reading this, I’m terrified that I will insult people. I have the best of intensions, my mother though born in the U.S. has Polish parents. I’m third generation, and was hoping to teach my kids enough to get by.

    If there’s anyone out there reading this that thinks I should be encouraged to continue my study, please please please tell me… I admire our little Polish community near by, and wouldn’t do anything to disrespect them.

  32. neil:

    I too am learning Polish and it quite a lonely place, my last gf was Polish and she always thought it was a bit strange that I wanted to learn and if I tried to speak it or enquire to her or her friends they woul always start with a nervous laugh..maybe thats how bad my Polish is? No I dont think so but on the whole they were constructive in their criticism, anyway now I have to continue alone.

  33. Frannie:

    As long as I remember, I loved Polish music and Polish songs. I was finding them every day on the internet and listening all day. Then, my little obsession turn to all language. Cause I had options, I decided to try school of Polish (Prolog, http://www.polishcourses.com ). I don’t regret this. Effects are good (and I attended classes only for three weeks), I met amazing people and had great adventure. If you want, you can write me an email and I will send more details.

  34. Juxi22:

    Actually… “gęsi” doesn’t mean “gees”. I mean, it does, but not in that case. Rey says that polish people do have their own language, so they don’t have to use “goos” language. (That’s because, latin sounded to Rej like squawk.)
    So “gęsi” is not a noun, but an adjective. “Gęsi język” – “goosy language”.

  35. azumi:

    “Ja piórkuję” sounds for like a kid’s version of the curse word.I’ve never heard anyone using it.
    Sari, there’s no way that learning a language can come off as disrespectful. That’s just stupid (no offence to you, offence to people that would take as an insult, they must be idiots). I think it’s great you want to learn your grandmother’s language and I’m sure Polonia would appreciate your efforts. 🙂

  36. Mariox:

    I have to start learn Polish, I wonder about the courses offered by the site http://www.polishcourses.com What do you think about her? It has a lot of good reviews and an interesting offer.

  37. Andrew Stone:

    I’m approaching B1 in Polish and I have to say the hardest thing about learning Polish was the teaching method. Polish teachers try to teach you the grammar and for a beginner it is impossibly complex to comprehend.

    What worked for me (at the suggestion of Czech teacher) was to learn to describe my daily activities in Polish, getting up, getting dressed, making a cup of tea, and when I could walk around the house in Polish to start on conversation.

    Once I started to be able to ‘think’ in Polish it started to come together quite quickly.

    As for what do Polish thinkers think of foriegners speaking Polish.

    1. Disbelief/Astonishment
    2. Joy and Excitement
    3. ‘Culture Shock’ – they have to treat you as an ‘insider’ and its a wierd cultural exprience for them. The world is divided into those inside Polish culture and those who are not.
    4. More disbelief. . . . . I remember asking the same question 4 times in Polish in a shop in Krakow and each time getting the reply in English. It finally ended with me saying. Proszę mówić po polsku – Nie rozumiem po angielsku. . . . ‘Please speak Polish – I don’t understand English.. . . . .crazy. . . .

  38. Iwona from Poland:

    Hi. I am from Poland. I can teach polish language an you can teach me english. Maybe “teach” it is to much say, but we can send e-mail to each other. Somebody is interesting ?

  39. martka:

    hej Ania 🙂

    I’d like to share with you with slight correction of the following sentence:

    “Polacy nie gęsi i swój język mają” (Poles are not geese and have their own language)

    Here *gęsi* means adjective, not a noun, so let’s think about correct version of this, maybe:

    Poles don’t have gooses language, but their own one.

    Cheers

  40. Mariusz:

    Cześć, naprawdę polski jest trudnym językiem? 🙂