I am not making a serious effort to learn Polish because my time here may be brief and once I leave I will never speak it again. On the other hand, I would like to pick up some words and phrases. It embarrasses me that people go to great lengths to make use of the smatterings of English that they learned in high school but I – the guest in their country – cannot return the favour.
Languages were never my favourite subjects at school. It might well have been because I was an idle student. On the other hand, it might have had something to do with learning French from English men and women. The show Spiral is a bleak and brutal series, full of murder, rape and drug abuse. As characters speak about this depravity, though, I am enchanted by the music of their tongue. At school, though, chanting “juh ma pell”, it had the melody of a post-punk riff.
Polish pronunciation is hard to get used to. There are, indeed, a lot of thick “d”s and “z”s and “r”s, and even soft, elegant “l”s obtain strokes, become “ł”s and sound more like “w”s. It becomes easier when you internalise some rules: learning to see a “dz”, for example, and think “j”. (Speaking Polish, one can sound as if one is imitating a bee.)
Polish grammar is a formidable prospect. Even natives speak in hushed tones about the seventeen forms of “two”. It is alleged that while English speakers become truly at the age of 12, Polish speakers achieve this status four years later. There is room for scepticism here, especially as so many English men and women don’t seem to have become fluent well into their thirties, but it still looks hard enough to make an episode of The Sopranos or chapter of Moby Dick seem more appealing.
I’d like to get somewhere, though, in order that I can be less of a burden on new friends and associates but also because speaking on the basis of a limited and unfamiliar vocabulary brings a new significance to one’s conversations. Greeting, giving thanks, offering toasts and bidding farewell to people can seem especially meaningful when such concentration is demanded by the deed. One appreciates the value of interacting.
Besides, I want to make sure nobody can talk behind my back. Heck, the first things that I learned were the swear words.