Is Polish Difficult? No.
If I ask a Pole a question and they answer ‘no’ I have to think – are they answering me ‘no’ in English, which means ‘no’, or are they answering me ‘no’ in Polish…which means ‘yes’? If they answer ‘nie’ I have to make sure I have heard them correctly because ‘nie’ sounds very much like ‘yeah’. Of course ‘nie’ means ‘no’ in Polish and ‘yeah’ means ‘yeah’ in English. Are you confused? I was. The title of this piece of writing is using ’No’ in the Polish way – Is Polish difficult? Too right it is. It is an absolute nightmare.
I taught English In Poland for more than two years. It opened my eyes to how difficult the English language is. ‘Cough’ doesn’t sound like ‘enough’, it doesn’t sound like ‘though’ or ‘through’ either. In fact none of them sound alike despite all having the same ending. I have apologized for the English language enough. Many of my old students would have heard me say about certain rules or features of English - ‘I don’t why it is like this, it just is like this so accept it’. I now realize how easy it is to say that but how annoying it is to hear.
I remember before I moved out to Poland I thought that I would learn the language very easily. English is similar to German. Germany is next to Poland. Polish must be similar to German. German is similar to English. English must be similar to Polish, right? Wrong. Oh, so very wrong. On my first night in Galeria I was trying to listening to conversations on other tables. I realized very quickly that I couldn’t understand a bloody thing.
In my first year in Poland I never spoke Polish. It’s true. I taught English. My job was to speak English with kids. My colleagues were all English-speakers and wanted to practice their language on me. There were enough people in town that could speak English which meant I didn’t need to learn Polish for any social purpose. On my first night in Poland my boss Rafal taught me ‘dwa piwa’ and that was all I needed for about six months.
People who have never lived abroad are amazed at how I could survive without speaking the language, but it was fairly easy – outside of work all I needed to survive was Tesco. I would go there and do my shopping and just look for the total bill at the till and hand over the money. When was the last time you had a long conversation with the woman at the till in Tesco? It doesn’t happen.
I learnt basic phrases like ‘tak’ and ‘nie’ and a few others but it seemed pointless to learn phrases to begin a conversation if I didn’t know enough to develop the conversation. Anyway, I was young and in a land with cheap beer, what did I care about small details like learning the language?
In that first year I lived in my beloved Ohio and I was drinking enough to kill a small horse. After the pubs had all closed and I was back in Balkanska sometimes I would go over to the Sklep Nocy for more refreshments. One time I came out of the shop at about 2am with a few cans of Tyskie and some big guy was blocking my way as I wanted to walk. He was obviously drunk and wanted something from me…I don’t really know what. I couldn’t understand him. This guy was talking Polish at me and he looked dangerous. Well, he was out in Ohio at 2am – I don’t think he was a Priest. I didn’t know what to do to get rid of this guy. He was really talking at me quite a lot and not letting me go anywhere. I couldn’t understand a thing he said. I didn’t want to upset him. I just wanted to get home. I had the perfect solution – I’d speak to him in Polish.
Now I barely knew any Polish back then so I told myself that I would answer ‘tak’ and then ‘nie’. Whatever he said my answers would just be ‘tak’ and then ‘nie’. So he spoke and my memories of the conversation are like this:
‘Nie…nie, nie, nie.’ (shaking head for added emphasis)
This guy seemed really surprised at some of my answers. For all I know our conversation could have been:
‘My wife doesn’t love me. Do you think I should leave her?’
‘But what about the kids? Will they miss their father?’
‘So I should leave her?’
‘Do you think I will ever love again?’
‘No…no, no, no.’ (shaking head for added emphasis)
Did I change his life? I’ll never know. As we spoke I walked closer to Balkanska and at the right time I shouted ‘Do widzenia!’ and ran away from him and back to my safe flat.
In my second year I learnt a bit more. I felt I had to make the effort, but it was all by ear. That meant I just listened and would repeat phrases. But how could I make them sound Polish? I had a trick up my sleeve. I knew from teaching English that when people speak it perfectly it might be perfect but it isn’t right. I certainly don’t speak perfect English. I have a degree in English but my grammar can be all over the place at times. Also my pronunciation of words isn’t exactly what the dictionary says it should be. From teaching English I realized that to speak a language properly you can’t speak it perfectly. I thought about all the Polish conversations I’d listened to over my first year in Poland, conversations I heard but didn’t understand and I thought about what I could do to try to make sure I sounded real when I spoke Polish. I quickly taught myself a simple rule that I stick to even today – say every sentence like you are complaining.
I’m serious. Every time I heard a Pole speak it seemed like they were complaining, unhappy, angry, whatever. I would say ‘Idziemy na piwo’ like it was the last thing in the world I wanted to do and people seemed surprised I said a sentence so well. Then we all went for some beers.
I also told myself not to fully open my mouth. When I speak English I barely open my mouth so I thought the same rule must apply for Polish. Another thing was ever since I was a kid I have loved doing impressions of people so when I spoke Polish I was never speaking like a textbook – I was speaking like a guy from the pub.
These rules worked well for me. I have heard many, many times how good my Polish accent is. From all sorts of people. I put that down to the impressions, the complaining voice and the lazy mouth. Since I moved back to Wales and I have spoken Polish with Poles I have done it so well that to begin with some of them even think I’m Polish. The tragedy is that after a few sentences of my horrible grammar and limited vocabulary they quickly realize I’m not Polish at all. Just a Welsh guy who tricked them for a little bit.
Believe it or not my Polish improved a lot when I stopped living in Poland. When I moved back to Wales I had lots more free time to myself (the beer was too expensive in pubs so I had to stay home a lot) and I think I was able to slowly understand more. I even started looking at How To Learn Polish books. I have a book called Learn Polish In 4 Weeks. I will believe Star Wars is a true story before I will believe anybody can learn Polish in 4 weeks.
I think I could live to be 384 and I still won’t understand Polish grammar. I try and try and just when I think I’ve got the right ‘ego’ endings my wife will tell me that it is wrong and then tells me what it should be. It is very annoying. Every time I hear ‘ego’ at the end of a word I think of Diego Maradonna. He might have been a football genius but I bet he couldn’t order pierogi and a Lech.
So I tried to teach myself vocabulary and thought the grammar would just sort itself out. A word that recently caused me trouble was ‘Niebezpieczny’. This means ‘not safe’, right? So I know the word ‘bezpieczny’ means ‘safe’, and I know ‘bez’ means ‘without’ so I thought to myself that ‘pieczny’ must mean ‘danger’, right? Wrong again. Now I try not to think too much.
The other day my wife and I sat down to watch our new Czas Honoru DVD but on the first disc the English subtitles didn’t work. We watched it with Polish subtitles. I had to pause from time to time but Pani Williams seemed quite surprised at how much I could understand from the subtitles. The TV show was like real life anyway – you can figure out a lot of what is going on by what you see.
On my last visit to Tarnowskie Gory I honestly understood more than I ever have done before. I can understand a lot but it is hard to form it into sentences. I used to get angry at students when they would tell me that they understood what I was saying in English but had difficulty creating sentences of their own. I thought it was lazy. Now I’m the same as them. Am I lazy? I have been with the Polish language. It’s time to start understanding what Diego is doing in sentences. I need to do it so I can have meaningful conversations with my Polish family and guys outside Sklep Nocys.
Is Polish difficult? Yes…it is an absolute nightmare, but one day I’ll wake up.