Stories from Poland
Declining Nouns, Strange Sounds, and Other Surprises: How I Got More Than I Ever Expected by Learning Polish
As I contemplated my future during my last year of college, the only job I wanted to apply for was to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. When I submitted my application I presumed I would be sent to a Latin American country since I speak Spanish or to an African country since that is the image so often conjured up by the mere mention of this U.S. government program. By the time I got all the necessary medical clearances in 1993 however, Peace Corps was recruiting heavily to send volunteers to Eastern Europe. With the recent collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of democratically minded governments in the Eastern Bloc invited Peace Corps to send volunteers to work in their countries.
Peace Corps offered me a volunteer post teaching high school English in Poland. After having waited a year to make it through all of the medical clearance hurdles, I was extremely eager to begin my international adventure and jumped at the chance to head to a country I knew very little about. I ashamedly admit that having grown up in a Protestant household I did not know that Pope John Paul II was Polish, nor did I have much of an impression of his homeland other than the color gray and a vague idea about Lech Walesa’s leadership of the Solidarity movement.
Several months before departing for Poland, I began meeting with a Polish-American woman in my hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida. Pani Adele Cisniewicz introduced me to St. Pete’s flourishing Polish-American community and started teaching me words like długopis, książka, and dowidzenie. I was hopeful that this foundation of a few key words and phrases along with my experience studying Spanish abroad would catapult me ahead in my Peace Corps language training class --- but boy was I in for a surprise. Nothing in my earlier language learning experiences prepared me for cases such as nominative, dative, and genitive as well as the need to decline nouns. While I did pretty well memorizing vocabulary words, during my first three months in country, I never changed any endings because I could not even grasp the concept of noun declension, let alone remember all of the different końcówki, rules, and those beloved exceptions to the rules.
After my three month Peace Corps training, I was posted to Nałęczów, a village of about 5,000 people two hours by train southeast of Warsaw. In 1993, there were very few people in Nałęczów who spoke English so I had to learn Polish to make friends and keep from starving. Initially, I stepped behind the counter at the sklep to pick up an item for myself since I did not know what it was called. Eventually, the patient Pani Sklep (as we Peace Corps volunteers affectionately referred to them) helped me learn not only food vocabulary, but measurements as well since I frequently purchased a fourth or a half a pound of some wonderful Polish cheese or chocolate candies.
My Polish learning efforts during my first nine months in Nałęczów were quite valiant, but not very fruitful. My language acquisition speeded up immensely when at the end of my first spring I met a local Polish band named Rewelersi which consisted of a number of cool, handsome, fun-loving guys who spoke a little bit of English, but not too much. I became their American groupie and spent the summer following them to concerts and festivals around eastern Poland. I was finally hearing and speaking a lot more Polish. The guys and their friends enjoyed teaching me all kinds of Polish slang. That was the summer I came to love a Polish ognisko with people singing late into the night. Just thinking about it makes me start humming "Córką Rybaka."
At about the same time, I started traveling to Lublin on a regular basis to meet with Polish students studying English for a language exchange. I really decided to jet-start the language-learning process that fall by signing up for private lessons through the Catholic University of Lublin’s program for foreigners. Luckily, I was assigned to Pani Bożena, the Goddess of teaching the Polish language to non-native speakers. Finally, under her amazing tutelage I came to understand what it means to decline a noun. After many lessons of tedious, but extremely helpful exercises in which I declined nouns in all seven cases, I actually got it and it became normal for me to try to decline nouns when speaking.
Another language learning tactic I used was to take the latest addition of Twój Styl and my dictionary to a bar. I would drink Polish beer while learning new vocabulary and sentence structure. Additionally, all that Żywiec lowered my inhibitions about using the wrong noun ending (at least I was trying to use these endings) and made the Poles around me more patient and willing to listen to my broken Polish.
I extended my Peace Corps stint and stayed for a third year, during which I kept meeting with Pani Bożena. At the end of those three years, I wanted to remain in Poland and continue mastering this difficult language so I enrolled in the Catholic University of Lublin’s year-long program for foreigners in Polish Language and Culture. This allowed me to continue studying with Pani Bożena and introduced me to a number of wonderful instructors who helped me further appreciate Polish history and literature.
It was Pani Viola who first shared with me a short story by Pawel Huelle from his book Opowiadania na czas przeprowadzki. Not only did I enjoy the story, but being able to comprehend the plot in Polish (with some help from a dictionary) gave me a tremendous sense of achievement and confidence. Another author Pani Viola introduced me to was Marek Hłasko. How could a sensitive, adventuresome, book-loving girl not be compelled by the Polish James Dean who wrote books like Ósmy dzień tygodnia and died under uncertain circumstances? (As these examples indicate, I have found it easier to digest more modern Polish literature, but there is hope that someday I will make it through Boleslaw Prus’s Lalka.)
After four years, I finally returned to the U.S. only to pursue a graduate degree in Russian & East European studies with a concentration in Polish studies. I spent a year and a half at the University of Kansas deepening my knowledge of the history and politics of the region and started exploring Polish film and art. During a summer semester, I participated in the Jagiellonian University’s six-week summer language program and was assigned to the second most advanced group. While this was a bit of a challenge for me, especially at first, the demanding reading assignments vastly improved my vocabulary and helped me navigate newspaper and magazine articles.
Because of my already strong Polish language skills I was offered a Fascell Fellowship through the U.S. State Department and posted as a Consular Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw upon completing graduate school. For two years I interviewed Poles applying for immigrant and tourist visas to the United States. This was an excellent opportunity to flex my language acquisition muscles through daily conversations at the professional level with visa applicants and Polish colleagues at the Embassy. Outside of the Embassy I spent time with Polish friends, attended films and plays in Polish, and read a variety of local newspapers and magazines. My Polish language skills peaked during the last six months of my posting at the Embassy in early 2002 when I worked in the Public Affairs Section (PAS). During that time, I was expected to read Polish newspapers and magazines on a regular basis basis, represent the Embassy and speak (in Polish) at a variety of events, and plan cultural events in partnership with colleagues at Polish organizations around the country. Interacting with represntatives of government ministries and non-profits daily connected me to well-educated professionals and required me to continually participate in high-level discussions in Polish.
After working so hard over a period of almost ten years to achieve fluency in Polish, I was determined to find ways to maintain my advanced-level knowledge of the langauge upon moving to Washington, DC in 2002. I was delighted to find the Polish Library in Washington, which has played a key role in keeping me connected to the Polish language and culture. I am thrilled to have access to Polish books by Hłasko and other Polish writers I came to admire such as Ryszard Kapuściński. I also find it extremely helpful to watch the films and TV shows available at the library on DVD. I especially enjoy watching Polish films or TV shows while I spend time in the kitchen making a big pot of soup on a cold winter's day. Now, as a member of the library's board of directors, I get to participate in monthly board meetings, volunteer at the library, and assist with special events like the annual Piknik and Kolędy, all the while interacting with people in Polish.
I will always be grateful to the Peace Corps for sending me to volunteer in Poland. It has led to a life-long interest in a region I might not have otherwise ventured to explore, trans-Atlantic friendships, amazing academic and professional experiences, and fluency in a language I greatly enjoy using.
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