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On Learning My Native Language

School of Polish Language and Culture of the Jagiellonian University

So this summer, I went on an adventure. I wrote about my motivations on returning to Poland in a previous post. The first part of my big trip was three weeks in Krakow, specifically at the School of Polish Language and Culture of the Jagiellonian University. The program was comprised of, like, 90% college kids, and older folks who had some tie to Poland in one way or another (Polish roots, Polish spouse, etc). And then there was little ol’ me. I think I was the anomaly in the entire program: a Polish-born person studying and learning Polish. We all stayed in student housing a few tram stops away from the University. Let me tell you, I do not miss dorm living.

Below is my simple but intense daily schedule:

8:45AM to 1:30PM—Polish Language

3:00PM to 4:30PM—Polish History

5:00PM to 6:30PM—Polish Literature and Culture

I’ll discuss the two lecture courses in another post. So let me get right into it:

I grew up speaking Polish. I never formally learned it. Sure, I went to Polish school on Saturdays when I was really young, but let's face facts: i don't remember anything (except for that really harsh teacher I had in fourth grade who made us kneel up straight on the hardwood floors as punishment for getting something wrong....But I digress!). I learned Polish the same way I learned English: by just speaking it at home, and being surrounded by it. At the program, I got placed into level B2, which I found to be just the right level for me.

Let me reiterate something that I've been saying to friends ever since I got back: Being confronted with the Polish language and grammar on paper is mind boggling and overwhelming.

There have been numerous articles written about how Polish is probably the hardest language to learn. And it’s true! It's not just the way it sounds, with all its sz's, cz's, rz's, and other tongue twisters. The class I was in was made up of folks like me who grew up speaking Polish. These kids were doing it for college credit while I was doing it just to be a better Pole. But there was one student who was originally from Manchuria, had been living in Norway for the past ten years, already knew Czech fluently, and had been learning Polish as well (and like eight other languages too). So in our class, he was the only one who knew the formal grammar. Meanwhile the rest of usjust sat there gob smacked every day.

And so, our motto for the class was, “It’s best not to ask ‘Why?’ ”

Now, I see you there, asking, “Why?” Simply put, for every rule in the Polish language, there is bound to be one, or two, or a million exceptions. And it can drive you bonkers. Our teacher told us that this whole endeavor of teaching Polish as a foreign language is a very new concept. When she first started doing it, there were no books and teachers had to come up with their own lessons plans and instructions. Having Polish be taught as a foreign language and putting it all on paper is when all these fun little aspects of the language started to come out for everyone to see.

My suitemate was an older woman who was in a lower level than me and I helped her with homework sometimes. One of the exercises she had was a fill-in-the-blank but she had to choose the correct ending for certain words. I remember telling her for one of the blanks she picked the wrong ending (the word was book aka książka), and that it was another ending. She of course asked me, “Why?” To which I had to tell her that I’m the wrong person to answer that because that’s what sounded right to me, since I grew up speaking it.

The picture here is from one of our workbooks. It’s a chapter on the second conditional. I texted this picture to my dad and he was like, “But you know this already!” And I responded with, “Do I? Do I really?” Because I’ve never had to really think about it.

And that’s where I started to trip myself up. The more I thought about the grammar and making sure I was using the right endings and forms, the more and more I doubted myself. When it came to the tests, I was erasing and rewriting my answers here a lot!

In the end, I did learn some interesting and frustrating intricacies of the Polish language. My favorite word that I learned was ufoludek, which is the Polish word for alien/UFO. It just sounds really delightful.

So after I spent six weeks in Poland, I went to London and Edinburgh for a week by myself. And when I landed in London, it was very jarring to suddenly hear English spoken everywhere and even at the airport, my gut reaction was to speak Polish. Now, keep in mind, I did speak English when in Poland: with my classmates, with Josh when he arrived, and with my parents when we met up with them. But for six long weeks, I was surrounded by a Polish hum everywhere I went. And at some point it clearly started to feel very natural to me.

As nervous as I was about doing this program (alone for so long by myself, meeting new people, etc), I am so glad I went. I hope my Polish got better. I'd like to think I have a better understanding of it at least.

Next post: the very complicated history of Poland. I'll keep it brief.

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