I have recently been seized by Polish

A surprise visit has me murmuring odd phrases at work, at the gym – everywhere.

Toby Melville/Reuters/File
A woman passes a rack of Polish-language magazines in London.

I don’t think I am obsessive, but I do have a lot of energy for things that seize my interest. For the past several months, for example, I have been going at the Polish language with the élan of a Viking with a battering ram.

It’s like this: About a year ago I received a letter from a cousin in Poland I never knew existed. She is coming to America for the first time and asked if she could visit. I was thrilled at the news, and, even though she speaks English, I thought it would be a nice gesture to be able to communicate to some extent in her language as well. And so ... 

Here I am, day in and day out, adorned with earbuds and a set of 30 Polish lessons on my itty-bitty MP3 player. When my students see me, they must think that, at long last, I am “cool” and am listening to modern sounds. If they only knew. Rather than hip-hop or techno-rap, I am concentrating on basic phrases, such as “Chc˛e przyjechać do Warszawy” (“I want to come to Warsaw”), “Mam polskie pieni˛adze” (“I have Polish money”), and “Czytam ksi˛a˙zk˛e” (“I am reading a book”).

Yes, you already see the difficulty. Polish looks nothing like English. In order to denote its exotic sounds, such things as hooks, dots, and accent marks have been appended to otherwise reasonable-looking letters. But undaunted, I press on.

While cleaning the house, I recite my Polish. In the garden, I struggle with sounds that simply don’t exist in English. You want an example? Take the Polish industrial city of Lodz. To the uninitiated English speaker, the pronunciation seems elementary: “Loads.” But by Lesson No. 3 I had, well, learned my lesson. It sounds like “Wooch.” And don’t you forget it. I haven’t.

If I didn’t have a reputation for sanity in my community, observers might have concluded that I am now out of touch with reality. They see me at the gym, softly mouthing my Polish as I work the treadmill: “Mam dziesi˛eć złotych” (“I have ten zlotys”); sitting quietly at the coffee shop, my eyes closed as I savor a cup of tea and recite, “B˛ed˛e pracować w Krakowie” (“I will work in Krakow”); strolling through the park, my face angled to the sun, all but exclaiming, “Jaka pi˛ekna pogoda!” (“What beautiful weather!”).

But it is difficult, very difficult. Somewhere in the dim recesses of Polish history some invading army, in its pillaging of Polish gold and art, must have made off with the bulk of its vowels as well. This is a real stumbling block for the English-speaker. By way of example, consider the violin. Would I have ever developed an appreciation for it if I had to call it, as the Poles do, a skrzypce? One of my early childhood memories is of a great-aunt who spoke only elementary English. One day, hearing me practicing my clarinet, she came into my room and remarked that, as a young girl in Poland, she had played the skrzypce, and – pop! – out flew her dentures. 

Despite the claims of the language program I am using, I don’t think I will speak Polish “like a diplomat in 30 days!” If, after 30 days, I am indeed speaking Polish like one of our diplomats, then I do not hold out great hopes for the future of US-Polish relations.

As I said at the outset, I have a great deal of energy for things that interest me, and I find that I am slowly but inexorably falling in love with the Polish language. It is said to be one of the most expressive of the European tongues, yet comparable in difficulty to Korean. 

I accept the wyzwanie (“challenge”).

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