Prompted by a comment from Zarazek in the previous thread (not picking on you Zarazek, just an interesting comment):
Typical Yankee thinking. Why does she expect people to speak English? In case she hasn’t noticed, Poland is not an English-speaking country. And in my opinion, 2 years of living in Poland should have been enough to learn Polish.
We’ll brush the political correctness under the carpet and concentrate on what, I suppose, are the main two points here. Firstly, how much English one should expect to be spoken in Poland or indeed any non English speaking country. This might have a sub-topic around the word “expect”. Do we expect or do we hope to find? Secondly, there’s the more obvious question of how reasonable is Zarazek’s expectation that 2 years is long enough to learn Polish? Speak enough Polish to handle Polish bureaucrats, as this was the original context. Here’s what I think.
The question of how much English we should “expect” to find in Poland is a tough one. From the perspective of a Polish citizen the answer must be close to zero – “Why should we speak English?”. I don’t think zero is reasonable even for a Pole given the ‘diaspora osmosis’ rule that suggests for every Pole with an uncle in Chicago or child who worked in a bar in London, there must be half a person who has picked up some English. Not to mention the English taught in many Polish schools, the English on TV, etc. So, I think it’s fair to expect to find some English here, in the same way as finding some German, French & Russian.
On the other hand, the more Poland embraces things like the EU (and its money), NATO and all this inward investment from companies based in the UK, USA or wherever, the more one might expect to be able to use English here as the “international language of government and business”. Whether the French like it or not!
However, to expect a Polish immigration ministry clerk to be fluent in English is, as we insiders all know, quite laughable. You don’t get customer service oriented, bi-lingual, “how can I help you” people for $450 a month in any country and you certainly won’t find them here. Mind you, I have a sneaking suspicion that you’ll find a lot more language skills in any Polish department responsible for helping money to flow into the country, naturally enough.
Therefore, I think it’s reasonable for foreigners to expect to find some English here but perhaps a little less than they hope for and certainly none in any public sector, civil service type institution.
Moving on to the question of “How long should it take to learn Polish?”. Firstly there’s the question of “To what level of competence?”. In my experience, Polish is a harder language than English to learn at a basic conversational level, primarily because of all the funky endings and things like “one coffee” being different to “six coffees”, “I’ve got some milk” being different from “I don’t have any milk” and so on. It is, let’s say, harder to cheat in Polish, to get by even though you’re missing a whole chunk of grammar and words. Once you get beyond that, I think English is harder to master at very advanced level because of the greater number of options to invoke ever changing degrees of subtlety or meaning. This is however hotly disputed by Poles and as time goes on my perceived gap between the two is shrinking. For the purposes of this post though, let’s assume we’re not talking about fluency but an intermediate level of competence with an understandable accent.
In my experience there are three main ways to learn a language;
- Pick it up as you go along – no mad rush, no urgent need
- Total immersion – taking it very seriously, some urgency
- I’m just a smart-arse with a head for languages
Despite the length of time I’ve been here, I’m in the first group. There is some need because of family, everyday life and to an extent because of work but none of these needs are strong enough to require me to move into the second group, even if I could. As I also don’t belong to the third group I’m left to bumble along picking up what I can, attending infrequent lessons and doing little or no homework. The language at home is English because it started out that way and latterly because it’s better for Zosia. Of all the people I know in similar positions, those who have been here 8-12 years speak reasonable Polish, those who have been here less time don’t. It really is as simple as that. Obviously, good understanding comes earlier than speaking for most people in this group.
I’ve known a number of people in the second category too, primarily people who absolutely needed the language to do their job and for obvious reasons they learn the language much faster. Worth adding an observation though that this fast-track route, whilst it clearly does get you up and running much faster, can result in some poor accents. It can also result in a rather ‘stiff’ vocab until sufficient time (I’d say 5+ years) has elapsed to soak up the culture and nuances of the language properly. This category probably could hold forth with Pani Meldunek after two years although I’m not sure I’d give them too high a chance of success. This group, like those who learn English the same way, have a tendency to be very good at saying “The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain” but pretty weak at informal banter and utterly useless at the kind of language needed in your run-of-the-mill urząd.
The last group are an extremely annoying bunch who could pick up any language in about 10 minutes. They are best left to their own devices, preferably a long way from the poor struggling sods in group one!
In the end then, I think the answer to whether Analisa, the young American lady in question, should, or should not be speaking Polish after two years in the country comes down to this rather simple equation:
I shan’t be posting again before Thursday (you’ll be glad to hear), so may I take this opportunity to wish you all a very Happy Easter & Wesołych Świąt. Try not to get too wet on Monday!!