Making a virtue of necessity

When I started learning Polish, I was somehow frustrated. I’m not talking about the normal frustration that accompanies your first encounters with the beauties of Polish grammar, but about growing frustrated because all this effort could easily have been avoided.
If my grandparents had spoken to me in Polish, that is.
I don’t have Polish roots; nevertheless, my grandparents had (and still have, I suspect) a decent command of the Polish language. My grandfather once even mentioned that it actually used to be his mother tongue!
So they could have easily passed some of their knowledge on to me when I was a toddler, but they didn’t. I am not sure about their reasons, but I figure they might have been afraid to revive bad memories, at the same time being oblivious to the great effects of multilingual education.

I used to think of this as a huge disadvantage, but by now I’ve changed my mind. Here’s why.

# 1 There are a lot of people of (real) Polish descent who speak Polish to some extent. But all those people didn’t learn Polish as a foreign language – they learned it the same way they learned their mother tongue.
On the other hand, learning Polish with no reason, just for the sake of it, makes the learner somewhat outstanding. Poles are aware that those people are a rare breed and treat them accordingly.

# 2 Aside from that, chances are that raising me in a Polish-speaking environment could actually might have hindered my progress. At first glance, this sounds controversial, but it isn’t. Let me explain.
I just wrote about all those people of Polish origin who speak Polish as a mother tongue. Well, at least they claim to do so, but often enough they speak broken, crippled Polish. We’re talking about a complex and irregular language here, so as soon as you’re not constantly exposed to it, it’s easy to get the numbers wrong. Or the nominative plural. Or the cases. In addition, most of those speakers aren’t even aware that they could be making mistakes – after all, it’s their mother tongue, isn’t it?

Being raised in another country, they didn’t learn anything about Polish language in school. Some aren’t able to read aloud – or read and write at all, for that matter. It seems quite hard to me to make progress from that point. Learning about grammar rules just confuses you. Saying hello to the black hole of ignorance is especially depressing if you expected to find some knowledge.And things don’t get better when you are to compare yourself with native Poles of your age.

Don’t get me wrong here: I don’t want to be condescending by any means, I just want to point out the advantages of learning a language from scratch.
Being a complete newbie to the language allowed me to follow my own strategy from the very first day (well, if I had had a strategy, but you get the idea). I can deal much better with making mistakes, just because I don’t have high expectations.

In a nutshell, I have a necessary precondition for learning: I know that I still don’t know a lot of things, and this is because I can’t be fooled by the idea that Polish is “like” a mother tongue to me.

# 3 Now for the most beautiful reason why I appreciate not being Polish: it allows me to really love Poland. Being a stranger, I can maintain an unbiased view on what is happening in that country. I don’t have to worry that people might judge me based on what they know about Poland, so I don’t have to distance myself from the country. I know about the things that might go wrong there, and most certainly I don’t approve of everything going on in Poland, but I can still preserve a positive attitude towards the country and its people (reinforced by #1).

All in all, realizing those points helped me cope with my monolingual frustration. Fair enough, since there is still enough frustration left when it comes to actual language acquisition!

Published in: on February 11, 2011 at 12:13 am  Leave a Comment  

Why I learn Polish

I don’t exactly have a reason for learning Polish. I don’t have a Polish boyfriend. Nor do I have Polish roots. My grandparents used to live on now Polish territory and were expelled after the war – but I doubt that this qualifies as “Polish heritage”.
Since people just won’t stop asking “why” I learn Polish, I decided to turn my gaze inward. I finally came up with the following reasons:

  • great food (I know this is the answer you’ve been waiting for.)
  • that certain “secret agent”-feeling. If you speak Spanish or Italian, even people who don’t actually know the language will be able to pick up some words. They might even be able to grasp the general meaning of something written in those languages just because they know some Latin or French.
    The one thing I can assure you of is that you won’t experience that with Polish.
  • opening up new horizons. You will discover a whole new world of books, films, music… completely unknown to the average citizen of Western Europe. What is more, learning Polish means that almost inevitably you’ll get in contact with the history of the country or, more accurately, with the region where Poland and its neighbours are situated now. You might start by learning the language, but it is likely that you end up with completely new insights about that part of Europe.
  • Polish people (and even folks from the Ukraine) tend to be extremely warm and welcoming once they discover one’s genuine interest in their country/region. Learning a language such as Polish makes 40 million people like you.
  • It deepens your respect for people coming from a not-so popular country. Where I live, people tend to behave rather condescendingly toward Poles. No wonder, as those Poles steal everything that’s not nailed down (which is why you have to be rather careful when you let them into your house in order to clean up the mess or to take care of grandma). Or do they? Well, we won’t know, because we don’t bother to find out. Which in turn is why we’ll never know about all the great stuff this country has to share.
    (That very same argument might be valid when it comes to learning Turkish.)

Whenever I talk to other people and the subject moves on to Poland, chances are that I’m bound to listen to yet another car theft story.
How do I react? I don’t. In the past I tried to convince people that there is a difference between prejudice and reality, but I don’t do that any more. This allows for two advantages:

  1. I save my breath and time telling people stuff they’re apparently reluctant to learn
  2. I don’t have to share the great food!
Published in: on February 6, 2011 at 1:52 am  Comments (2)