How long does it take to learn Polish?

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.

radio-lingua-one-minute-polish_logo

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:

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!!

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18 thoughts on “How long does it take to learn Polish?

  1. Fantastic post! Not the part that you won’t be posting until Thursday though…

    I’m an Irish guy who has been living in Poland for just over 7 years and I can speak Polish to anyone about any subject (within reason). However I do always sound foreign. Just the other day I was in a solicitor’s office and she asked me for my ‘NIP’ number. Unfortunately it ends in 66 66. When I said these numbers she started laughing and said to me, “I thought you said you could speak Polish!” Needless to say I was livid.

    There’s no such thing as a certain length of time being enough to speak a language.

    I’m glad you wrote this post. Happy Easter. Wesołych Świąt!

  2. Very good post! It’s amazing how inspired you can be from a single comment.
    I’ve always said that, no matter how fluent you are in a foreign language, there are lots of things you can’t be able to understand. And I also think that may happen with people speaking languages taht are very much spread. Like Spanish, for example. I’m Peruvian, and I’m completely aware that there are lots of terms used in other Spanish speaking countries that I need to be translated.
    More than a language issue, I guess is more a cultural issue.
    ¡Felices Pascuas!

  3. At school we had to learn russian and thats why most of us do not speak/understand english. Give us some time and of course learn Polish…(basic Polish is pretty easy IMO)

  4. scatts – as always, good post – you have a gift for words and for taking the everyday things we think about and weave them into an interesting written form.

    I believe the answer to your question as to how long it takes to lear Polish is rather more complicated. I have yet to see two (god forbid more) Poles be able to communicate in a clear, concise fashion where both come away from the conversation with the same understanding of the gist of what was discussed and/or agreed. (This is after 20 years of doing business in this country and thousands of meetings) (This should not be construed to be an attack on Poles just a first hand observation)

  5. Why has no one observed that the average immigration agency clerk in England knows not a single word of Polish, Urdu, Farsi or any of the other languages that might be relevant in this sort of position? Check out any Daily Mail article even touching on the subject and you’ll find reams of comments in the ‘if they want to live over here they should jolly well learn our language’ vein. So why on earth should Polish immigration services be expected to speak English?!

    I know people who learnt Polish in a couple of years, but they mostly come from Central/Eastern European countries and already had some grounding in a Slavic language. I’ve been learning for nearly two years and can hold an – admittedly not very sophisticated – conversation and read the papers but still find Poles switching into English with me in social situations. I managed the Urząd Skarbowy all by myself though :)

    Scatts, I agree with you about advanced level English being a lot harder than people think it is. Apart from anything else, I occasionally have trouble communicating with people who say they speak English but don’t understand me because they have never met a native speaker before… (worse still, I then feel as though it’s my fault!)

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone!

    Come on Pino (who falls into category three for those who don’t know), in these days of more than equal opportunities I’d bet at least 40% of the immigration service speak Urdu, Farsi or whatever at least as well as they speak English. You read the Daily Mail?? Shurely shome mishtake.

    guest, I am learning Polish and I think the “We had to learn Russian” excuse is nearing the end of its expiry date! ;)

  7. The new head of our company is a foreigner, and he’s promised he would try and learn Polish in a year. One day he asked what the Polish word for “hi” was. When he heard it’s “cześć”, for a moment he seemed like he was going to give up. Can’t say I blame him.

    I think a major difference between English and Polish is that, in Polish, you’re able to convey a meaning long before your grammar becomes “good”. I mean, the sentence “ja byś zagranica, ale ja mówić polski trochę” is so incorrect it hurts, but at the same time it’s completely intelligible to a native speaker. You may be functionally fluent, in that everybody understands you, and at the same time feel like your Polish is lacking, because sometimes you get the inflection wrong (which isn’t as terrible as it may seem, because native speakers get the inflection wrong all the time).

    English seems to be the opposite: it’s easier to produce a grammatically acceptable sentence… and thus make a mistake, because you actually wanted to say something else. I think the most common kind of a “transparent” mistake a Pole could make would be mixing up “the” and “a”, because there’s no analogue for those in Polish. Another one would be mixing up the past simple, the past continuous, and my personal nemesis, the present perfect.

    pinolona – if you forgive me a wild guess, your communication problems may be caused not as much by insufficient lingual skills on part of the people you talk to, as by them not being used to British English pronounciation. Most people are used to US accents, if anything, because that’s what they hear in most movies, TV series, etc. The easiest spoken English to comprehend is that of another Pole. ;-)

  8. Scatts – the problem with The Great First Foreign Language Switch is that it’s not sufficient to just tell everybody to start learning a new language (in this case – English). You need to wait until a new generation of teachers emerges. From my observation, this hasn’t occured until around 2000. I remember the teacher who “taught” me English in my last year of highschool was terrible. My own English back then was better than hers!

  9. Hello, it is I again :)

    First of all, let me congratulate on yet another interesting post.
    I know that language is a rather controversial topic and I think I went too far saying that two years should have been enough to learn Polish (silly me, didn’t even specify to what degree). As you mentioned, different people require different periodes of time to learn it and I’m perfectly aware of that. However, just as I don’t expect people to speak English when I go abroad, I think foreigners (especially those who live in PL) shouldn’t demand that Poles speak English.
    When it comes to the EU, Polish is, alongside Engish and others, one of the official languages so I don’t really see why you’d expect Polish politicians or civil servants to speak any English. There should be equality in this respect and I don’t understand why any language should be privileged.
    Having said this, I will just add that it is regrettable that people who deal with the huge :) number of immigrants coming to Poland still haven’t mastered any of the ‘big’ languages, English included.

  10. I had a look at the Śmigus Dyngus website Ian links

    Every Polish person remembers those Easter Mondays when they would lie in bed and their friends or family poured water on them. The greatest victory was catching someone in bed, unconsciously awaiting their watery surprise! […]

    This is like a ready-made script for Graham Norton or The Sunday Night Project hahahah:>

  11. Why should the Poles even learn English? You say it’s an international language, but most of the Polish don’t have any intention of leaving. Besides, the diaspora has a negative effect on people learning English (“There’s so many Poles in London, I can perfectly get by with Polish”).

  12. I don’t think necessarily that all Poles must learn English… but in a general sense, it would be good for them. One of the things that is holding back Poland in terms of being considered a “destination” by many Europeans is the language. Poles are happy to tell you how difficult Polish is, and that’s fine. I think we’re all agreed on that. But then Poles skimp on translation of texts in museums, national heritage sites, etc etc, and wonder why people come away confused. Imagine being a Korean tourist, for example, and trying to wade through impossibly bad English translations (written in the likely “common” language both parties might share). If Poland wants to be taken seriously, it’s going to have to adapt to the world.

    In some ways, this is similar to the situation in South Africa, which has 11 official languages (or perhaps 12 now?) The post-apartheid South Africa was hell-bent on eliminating Afrikaans (the oppressors’ taal, in spite of the fact that it’s the first language for millions, including significant segments of the black and coloured communities. So now you have Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa, etc, which are great as far as they go. Unfortunately, it’s also true that Zulu, for example, doesn’t have many words necessary for scientific, medical, technological, and business vocabularies. Ultimately, personal advancement in South Africa comes about only with fluency in at least English and Afrikaans. Pride is fine. Practicality is entirely another matter. I think this holds true for Poland also, like it or not.

  13. Well, for my French it was about three months of language courses (very good ones, but not very long, something about 4 hrs a week) and then a year or so of “immersion”. I was pretty much alone, with some Polish speaking people around but I didn’t meet them often, in my work most people could speak English, but did it only when they really wanted something from me (in second part of my stay, they didn’t speak English at all to me, deliberately, deciding it’s time to force me to use French). I don’t think, after another two years, that my French is good – on the other hand, it is understandable and ordinarily I don’t need a native speaker with me, when I go anywhere. The worst, in fact, is the situation when I have to use the very short sentences – somehow they need the most precision and the best choice of words. What’s more, then the problem of the bad accent is most annoying – after a while, the French I’m talking to do adjust the sounds I’m making to what they should been, in their heads :-)
    Of course, my learning French was rather on “let it come when it wants” basis, really forced person can do it much quicker – my sister, transplanted to Germany, did it in approximately a year. Despite her being about fifty and having no ear for languages at all. But then, she is very dutiful, and if she decides to do something, she does it, and this was a pretty intensive course.
    I don’t really believe Slavic languages are so much more difficult than French or German, so the 5+ and more years sounds a bit excessive to me. I think, that if finding someone speaking English in Poland would be as easy (heh heh) as finding someone speaking Polish abroad, foreigners in Poland really would learn quicker :->

  14. I’ve been pretty lucky with my experiences at Dluga. I’ve been in Poland long enough to feel utterly ashamed at my lack of the Polish language, but the last few times at Dluga, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful lady who spoke to me in a happy mixture of Polish and English, and we got along fine. It’s really embarrassing to have been living here for so long, and still not being able to carry a simple conversation in Polish. I get around fine in shops and things, but to talk about the weather (or use any past tense) I’m completely lost!!! But in my defense I’ve never had an urgency or time to learn properly. My job is only in English and lack of time, and a myriad of other excuses…I’m still embarrassed about it though, and I certainly don’t get angry when someone in Poland doesn’t speak English. I just try a little harder with my Polish (failing miserably, but trying nonetheless). Happy Easter!!!

  15. Hey, great post and nice blog I have come here by accident, and it’s sure interesting to hear form such prespective of my own country. About knowing English I would be more harsh, but it maybe since it’s not my native language and it will not be considered nationalistic. I mean really, don’t be so French guys about that stuff! English is by far most spoken second language, get over this! And it is resonable to expect from WHOLE administration (or at least those who deal with people) to know English at least on basic level. As for population as whole I agree with some before, it will take a generation change as young people mostly know English quite well, it is needed as additional qualification for many jobs and well is used in internet which is also important. Also I can’t understand this (French again) attitude- I won’t speak foreign language (even thou I know it) in my motherland- for me it’s just being a-hole.

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