5 Reasons You Should Learn Polish

 

Today is May 3rd, the Day of the Polish Constitution, and the third day in a row I’m writing a Language-specific article.

If you have Polish-speaking friends, there is no doubt that they will bring scientific papers and studies and BuzzFeed articles that prove that Polish is the most difficult language in the world, bar none.

I remember the first time I heard that, and I thought “well, why not Czech or Slovak or the Sorbian Languages?”  (Note to those unaware: these are the closest relatives of Polish, as they are all Western Slavic)

Polish pronunciation is tricky for the uninitiated, probably the biggest hang-up I had as a beginner was the fact that there are “n” sounds that are pronounced but not written, one example most commonly used is “ja pamiętam”, meaning “I remember”. The “ę” is a nasal “e” sound. Polish is the only Slavic language to have retained these nasal vowels in the present time (they are originally from Old Slavonic).

As a result of this combination, it is actually pronounced like “pamięntam”

kroke 094

Anyhow, you came here for an article and that’s what you’ll get:

  1. The Tongue Twisters are Probably the Most Difficult in Any Language

Polish tongue twisters are among the most “get ready to throw your computer out a window” in the world. For the truly masochistic, I recommend the short verse “W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie” (“A beetle buzzes in the reeds in Szczebrzeszyn”).

The sz is a sh sound, the cz is a ch sound, and you can combine them (other Slavic languages do so as well) to create a “shch” sound.

Rz is pronounced like a combination of a sh sound and a z sound, like a French J.

Ch is the classic guttural sound, like the “ch” in Bach (too many other languages have them, Hebrew and Dutch are probably best known for theirs).

C or s followed by an i is pronounced “chi” and “shi” respectively.

W is a v sound in English.

The letter “ą” is also nasal.

Now you know everything in order to pronounce that sentence.

Good luck.

Impress your friends today!

  1. In Poland, I felt as though Polish-speakers were comfortable using Polish or English to whatever degree I was comfortable with. Other countries where English is commonly spoken (some would classify Poland as such) need to learn to do this, too.

 

In some places, like Sweden, Israel and the Netherlands, I felt considerably afraid about messing up, knowing that if I did I would get answered in English without a second thought (thankfully the better you get and the more natural you sound, the less of this will happen. Fun fact: in the Netherlands I’ve even heard stories of Dutch native speakers being answered in English!)

Poland’s not like that! Especially if your pronunciation is good!

Even as a beginner, you’ll get plenty of encouragement (aside from being told that Polish is absurdly difficult all of the time) and you seldom need to worry about being answered in English. But even if you DO want to speak English, the locals will gladly accommodate that, too!

The more I look back at my time on Poland, I saw that there was a nigh-PERFECT balance between using global languages (like English and German) and using the local language (although Polish is also a global language as well, because…)

  1. Polish People Live Everywhere as Expatriates

 

Maybe it had something to do with lots of people fleeing the country during the tribulations of the 20th century, but you’ll run into Polish-speakers all over the globe. As far as I can tell, Poland is the only country that has Polish as its official language (despite the fact that there are sizeable Polish minorities in all of the surrounding countries and even further afield).

Despite that, the Polish diaspora will ensure that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice!

Not only that, but even now there are Polish citizens that are discovering that they have distant family members everywhere, from the United States to the British Commonwealth countries to…well, everywhere else, actually.

People of Polish heritage have brought their culture everywhere. The various histories of the United States and Poland, both countries that had constitutions guaranteeing full religious freedoms, are also intertwined, and they share a lot of the same mindsets and struggles.

Polish culture (as well as the language) also influenced Ashkenazi Judaism and the Yiddish language to no end, and thanks to the fall of communism as well as drastistically improved relations between Polish people and Jews all over the world, the true extent of how much they share is finally being revealed to all.

 

  1. Polish Music had a Fantastic Reputation during the Communist Period

A lot of people are feeling uncertainty with the global politics of the present moment. It wasn’t the only time, and I doubt it will end up being the last time.

 

 

My favorite Polish band is Republika, one that masterfully captures a lot of lyrics that encapsulate rebellion, the tragicomedy that is hoping in despairing times, and fantastic musings that can be applied to personal hardships as well as those on a global scale:

 

Here’s a taste of the lyrics of the above song, “My Lunatycy” (“We, the Lunatics”)

 

My lunatycy  – coraz więcej lunatykó pośród nas

my lunatycy – każdy własny wulkan na Księżycu ma

tabletki na sen to komunia święta dla każdego z nas

my lunatycy – coraz więcej lunatyków pośród nas

 

We, the lunatics – even more lunatics among us

We lunatics – everyone has his/her own volcano on the moon

Dream tablets, this is our worldly communion for every one of us

We, the lunatics, even more lunatics among us

 

Somebody understands politics better than most.

(Sadly, the leader of Republika, Grzegorz Chiechowski, died in his forties as a result of heart disease.)

And a song you are probably guaranteed to hear after an extended stay in the country:

 

It’s a tongue-twister song!

 

On the other side of the quality spectrum, I wrote a piece (for April 1) about Disco Polo here. But maybe there is some of you that actually like that stuff. If I didn’t have a class to teacher right after finishing this, I’d actually, y’know, translate the lyrics in that post.

 

  1. Recognizing and Appreciating the Culture of Poland will instantly earn you friendships!

 

“Everyone thinks my country is backwards”

“Everyone hates my country”

And the quickest berserk button? Blindly associate Poland with anti-Semitism and/or xenophobia.

(Truth: it is no different than the US in this regard. Poland was, up until World War II and then Communism, an astonishingly multicultural society, although not without tensions, it should be mentioned)

The best way to show that you are willing to engage with the culture is to take up the “absolutely impossible world’s most difficult language”. Even if you know a few words, it will help build trust. In a lot of Central-Eastern European countries, there is a culture of a silent distrust sometimes unless you actively choose to build that trust. (Being sandwiched between multiple empires will do that to you!)

A lot of political problems with many countries have to do with a sense of national victim mentality (see the quotes at the beginning of this section). You can help alleviate it, even just a little bit, by choosing to show that you are willing to engage!

I got asked at a dentist office if Poland was still communist (in 2012). I can imagine that Polish nationals throughout the world have probably gotten something similar and sometimes plenty worse.

Learning this language is like a cupid’s arrow, except for friendships instead of infatuation. Trust me on this one!

jared gimbel pic

No, Americans are Not “Worse” or “Better” at Languages Than Anybody Else

While there are some certain realities that cannot be denied (that every member of my extended family that is still living, with the exception of myself, is a monoglot), it has little to do with reality and more to do with attitude.

2015-07-06 11.22.31

Austin, TX, home to speakers of Spanish, Japanese, Upper Sorbian and Northern Sami, among others

Think about it. If you were raised with everyone telling you that learning a language is a waste of time, hopeless beyond a certain age, and that “everyone speaks your language anyways”…why would you expect very stellar results?

Let’s say, for the purposes of a thought experiment, that all the countries on earth, instead of the 190+ there are in reality, are the current and former members of the Danish “Common Kingdom” (Dan. “Rigsfællesskabet”). So in this world, the only countries that exist are Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland (I’m not mentioning Norway and Sweden here, that is taking the exercise a bit too far and possibly extending into controversy).

As you well know, Danes do visit and have employment opportunities on Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and in both places Danish is the second-most common language after West Greenlandic and Faroese respectively. In Iceland, Danish is still learned commonly as a foreign language after English.

In the real world, while there is some interest among Danish-speakers in learning Greenlandic and Faroese, the majority does go with the idea that “they speak Danish anyways, why bother” , not unlike what some English speakers do in the real world with where their language is commonly spoken (most of the developed world, more or less).

In this thought exercise, in which the English language does not exist, who do the “worst” language learners actually become?

The point you should take is this:

No one nationality is better or worse at learning languages than any other. But some nations do have better or worse ATTITUDES at learning languages than others.

It has little to do with age of beginning education either. The Netherlands, very high English proficiency indeed, does start its English language nearly later than any other country in the EU (I regret not remembering nor writing down the source). The earliest is Belgium (3 years, if I recall correctly).

But there is no correlation between age and English proficiency or proficiency in any other languages.

Often I read articles about how wonderful the Luxembourgers / South Africans / Nigerians / Scandinavians / Dutch are at “linguistic ability, and then sometimes I feel pain. Why did I have to be born into this nation?

But at a certain point, I realized, especially coming from the Northeastern U.S., that I had advantages in picking up languages that people from these countries and others do not.

  1. English may be everywhere in certain countries, but in many American Cities, nearly EVERY major language is everywhere.

In Heidelberg, I struggled to find speakers of official EU languages of smaller countries. In New York City, I once encountered two Faroese speakers over the course of a single weekend! (P.S. that was NOT the Polyglot Conference).

Furthermore, the neighborhoods of many American cities are known for being, to some degree, ethnically divided, with regional languages dominating alongside English. Yes, this does exist to a degree in many other developed countries, but given as the United States still remains the world’s most popular immigration destination, you can imagine the variety you can help yourself to!

This is the U.S.’s hidden treasure that it has lying out in the open. But will you take it?

  1. American English has its accents taken from the various countries from which its immigrants came. You probably have a variety of foreign accent without knowing it.

 

This is somewhat self-explanatory. Upon returning from Germany to the U.S., I noticed exactly how many American accents owed themselves to German. I also noticed significant Slavic strands (especially Polish) as well as Scandinavian strands among American accents in general. Sometimes I could even tell what an American’s ancestry was based on listening to their voice, and you’d be surprised how right I was!

As a result of this, you’ve been exposed to a plethora of voices that you somehow need to convert into the many accents of the world. Again, the fact that so many immigrate and have immigrated to the U.S. can make this a boon.

  1. American English has a colloquial speech taken from words and colloquialisms from all of the immigrant languages.

“Long time no see”, “you hear?” as a question, and “this here book” all started out as immigrant mistakes, and then they became fossilized in correct, although slang, English. In literally EVERY language I have studied, I have seen an influence that the language has played in English, or, alternatively, that English has influenced it. (This holds true even for minority and/or smaller languages!!!)

As a teacher of languages myself, I make a point of showing how much of the target language a person knows already, without extensive effort. I point out the various connections between that target language and English.

If you ever hear me do it during a lesson, your conception of “Americans are bad with languages” will be banished forever to the hinterlands, never to be heard from again.

For learning a language as an American, it is merely connecting the various familiarities you already have from certain popular culture phenomena or slang expressions and then you have a stable base in a language upon which you can grow fluency.

4, No American I have met has ever decried any language as “useless”.

You’d be surprised how often I get in some countries a “why would you want to learn that?” response. You’d be surprise how, when I used to speak English in some countries, there would be those that put down the local language as useless (hint: if you speak the local language well, or even not so well, no one will ever say anything bad about it! On either side!)

Americans, thanks to a general open-mindedness but also a very friendly demeanor, NEVER judge you on your language choices. Furthermore, they are never skeptical about the idea of a polyglot (some people, especially in Europe, see the idea of learning lots of language an extraordinary waste of time. I heartily disagree because the skills between languages are more transferable than you may think, especially within the same families and sub-families!).

You’ll encounter learners of the rarest languages at American polyglot gatherings (as I’ve seen last week) and you won’t hear any scorn among them. In fact, scorn will be heavily discouraged! In fact, more often than not, a rare language is seen as a thing of extraordinary pride. True, when I was in Germany and Iceland, there were those that marveled about the fact that I could understand Greenlandic (which I then forgot and am now learning again!), but the awe shown is only a fraction of the praise that Americans, polyglots or not, will shower upon you for your efforts and commitments.

You are really encouraged to pursue your dreams in this country. Language learning should be no exception.

And the only thing holding America back from being the greatest multilingual powerhouse the world has ever seen is an attitude, paid for by pseudoscience and fear.

Get rid of that, and a wonderful, new ultra-omniglot United States will come into being, unlike any other country that ever existed!

“It is Never Too Late”: How Successful Language Learners Engage the Question of Age

Between the area where Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic intersect, there is an area called “Lausitz” (in German) which is also the home of the Sorbian / Wendish peoples, who speak not one but two Slavic minority languages in Germany (“Upper Sorbian” and “Lower Sorbian”).

(For those curious: the name is “Łužica” in Upper Sorbian and “Łužyca” in Lower Sorbian)

In one of my first exposures to this minority culture, there was a montage (on one of the Sorbian cultural websites or so) of various Sorbian people saying in the Sorbian Languages, German that it is “never too late”.

This is the attitude that any learner requires and should attain.

By contrast, many of my American friends (including members of my own family) believe that the only true way to have gotten good at a language was merely to “start earlier”.

If only it were that simple…because if that were the true solution, it would have been implemented already by everyone to maximum effect!

This should be said: Anglophones are not the only ones that learn languages in school and then forget how to use them completely…I’ve seen people make confessions of this sort everywhere I have been. Even those fluent in a number of languages in the double-digits!

STA_4339

The idea that childhood usage = adult usage can be refuted by noting the case of the Kindertransport, Jewish children adopted by other families from Nazi Germany, many of whom forgot to use German entirely. I’ve even encountered people in my age demographic who have forgotten their native language completely as well!

Well, then…you may say…certainly starting earlier means that you speak with a perfect accent, right…? Right?

That may be the case, but also ask anyone who has worked with accent training for singers and accents…

Once you learn how to position your mouth and tongue accordingly, you can imitate any sound on the planet, regardless of what you may have heard about your mouth taking its shape at age 10 (or so) and refusing to morph any further (or learn any new sounds).

These positions can be learned. And there is one thing I tell anyone who says that he or she is “not a language person”:

If you can imitate a voice, you can do any accent.

I’ve heard countless young people imitate their co-workers and peers on the streets of Manhattan. Certainly they have no excuse as far as the accent is concerned.

There is one argument that I will concede to the “earlier = better” crowd. In a way, it makes the racking up of hours in your target language easier. Learning a language isn’t exactly about early exposure nor is it about courses taken. It is the amount of hours plugged into the task.

Here’s the good news for you folks reading this on the internet:

Thanks to the Web, your chances to get your hours for your target language are extraordinarily common, more than your parents certainly would have ever had it when they were your age.

There are many reasons that people that undertake language projects don’t reach their goals. Having started too late in life isn’t a serious issue. The list of serious issues will come in another article (and I hope that language teachers especially will be reading it).

To conclude, there is one thing…ONE mindset, that American society will need to adopt it ever it seeks to overcome its reputation as notoriously monolingual…and it most definitely is capable of it…

Learn from the Sorbs, and repeat after me…and them:

It is Never Too Late!

P.S. Ah, I found that video!