Category Archives: Polish language

16 month lexicon

It occurs to me that these are the final moments when I will be able to even attempt counting the words that the kids know, and I will likely want to remember at some point what was going on when they started talking, so here is a list of words they use at the moment. Besides these words, they also have a repertoire of yelps and gasps to express surprise and shock.


bath (this word leads to a frantic rush to the bathroom and desperate attempts to tear off clothes and climb into the bath)


uwaga (look out!)

no,no,no, no, accompanied by a wagging finger

thank you

daj! (or try)


doon-doon (a word used in my family for generations to describe a cave made out of sheets or blankets)

lampa (light)

nana (all food and drink)

gloom (this clearly means milk, though I have no idea where it came from)

pić (drink)

tak (yes), maybe?

butybutybutybutybuty (shoesshoesshoesshoesshoes)

papa (byebye)

hauhau (woof woof- apparently this covers all animal noises, so koalas and cats also say hauhau)

tam (there)








Filed under language, language acqusition, Polish language

Comprehensively: a tale of bloodshed.

My Polish is much better than it was two years ago; so much so that I have gotten lazy about looking in the dictionary. If I can’t say what I want elegantly, at least I can come up with a competent paraphrase, which in my current state of intellectual torpor, is good enough for me. But lately, as I read my book about Victorian women travellers, so agog that the language became transparent and I forgot that it wasn’t my own, I was gifted with a word which I have wanted and needed for a while- doszczętnie.

Comprehensively. I use it all the time in English, and have often felt its lack as I try to exaggerate my way into being interesting in Polish. With great satisfaction, I slot it into my matrix. It’s so necessary to me that I don’t forget it, even though I’ve only seen it once.

I share my great revelation with Marcin, who rises to the occasion and, after fiddling about for a second on his phone, gives me the etymology of this word. Sczęt is an old Slavic word for children, which finds its echo in the modern word szczęniak  (puppy). These olden-days Slavs, he tells me, used to kill their enemies along with their children. Doszczętnie means something like ‘down to the last child,’ most often used to talk about degrees of destruction.

Not since his research into the mating habits of bedbugs has he acquired such a bloodthirsty piece of trivia. We both feel a strange satisfaction with this etymological revelation.


Filed under around Poland, history, language, Polish language

Cognitive impairment

I still have a couple of persistent problems with cognition in Polish that I don’t have in English. I am constantly buying not-juice, for example, because I see a label screaming 100%!!!!!, and fail to notice the small print which informs me that it’s actually 100 % of my daily vitamin C requirement, not 100% juice. I can’t remember my phone number, since something in the Polish section of my brain resists numeric recall.

These are minor impairments, but I can also be terrifyingly literal minded. I remember laughing at Marcin in the supermarket in Australia when he suggested that we should buy ‘tasty cheese’ because it would obviously taste better than banal-sounding cheddar. Now I am on the receiving end.

When we were at the ultrasound, the technician showed us the cerebellum vermis on one of the baby brains. When you ‘drown the worm’, he explained, this is what you’re drowning. I imagined a pickled brain in a jar, sitting on a shelf. I thought he was saying that you only needed to preserve the cerebellum vermis. I found it slightly strange, since the pickled brains of my imagination were whole, but quickly dismissed my misgivings. The doctor surely knew more about pickling brains than I did.

Anyway, it turns out that ‘drowning the worm’ is slang for getting drunk- apt, since the cerebellum vermis is responsible for posture and locomotion. So much for my linguistic genius.



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Filed under language, migrant life, Polish language

In Lilliput

I have started to teach a group of little girls, a prospect which initially filled me with dread but has now become one of the highlights of my week. They can’t speak much English and I have been given the class because I can give instructions in Polish but am still a native speaker, which their over- ambitious parents apparently insist on.  What this means is that unlike adults, who are reticent about telling  me when I make a mistake, they have no problem correcting my case endings or laughing hysterically when I accidentally use a male conjugation when I’m talking to one of them. They have no problem asking me how old I am or why I don’t have my husband’s surname, or telling me my fly is undone, in such a cryptic way that they have to repeat it 4 times before I get it- (Niech Pani zapina rozporek, bo dzisiaj nie wtorek!). I have often wondered at what point kids master the polite form of address and can now testify  that by 9, they have it firmly under control.

But most fascinating for me is the glimpse into small-girl society, a land where I haven’t ventured for well over 20 years and which I didn’t find all that jolly when I was there.  They are mad fountains of energy but also have confiding moments where they hug me, or show me their fake sideburns, rubber bangles, and dress- up books for dogs. They are obsessed with justice and when I write their names on the board at the beginning of the class (so that I can put marks against them when they’re bad) there is a chorus of complaints- why is my name first? why is mine last? why am I in the middle? Miss, it’s not fair!

This obsession also emerges in their games. One day in their break they decided to hold a trial for one of their number who had been complaining that she didn’t feel well (apparently she’s a well known malingerer). They set themselves up a little court and began interrogating her. At some point one of them halted proceedings and said “Wait, wait, she needs a lawyer to defend her.” I watched on with fascination and slight anxiety, wondering if I could consider myself a legitimate anthropological observer or if  I had stumbled into “Lord of the Flies” and should call a recess.

Anyway, the whole experience has left  me with a boundless admiration for their real teachers, who have to deal with 26 instead of 6 of them, as well as some new items of vocabulary. I also wonder how they actually ever learn anything, since their energies seem to be almost entirely absorbed by herd politics.


Filed under English teaching, migrant life, Polish language

Linguistic revelations

My Polish classes are from 8 until 9:30 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I am proudly present at every one of them, regardless of my activities the previous night. On this particular occasion I had been disporting myself with Marcin at Bar Polyester in advance of his departure for Koszalin for a week,  had decided (for my own mysterious reasons) not to drink a coffee, and was not at my best.

On this particular day, our teacher decided that we were going to do imperatives.  Being a Polish wife and speaking mainly in Polish at home, I am very familiar with this form but was  shocked to find that there was something fundamental that I didn’t know about it.  This something might not be very exciting for anyone who couldn’t care less about Polish, but for me it was a revelation. And it’s this- when you tell somebody not to do something, you use the imperfective aspect; when you tell somebody to do something, the perfective. Which is why you say “zamknij drzwi”, but “nie zamykaj drzwi.” I had half registered to myself a difficulty in choosing a form while being imperious, but had no idea there was a rule. I haven’t had such a shock since discovering that aspect actually existed in Polish (not that long ago, truth be told). In all my not- insignificant trawling through Polish grammar, nobody had ever informed me that this is how you make imperatives.

This piece of information threw me so far off my game that I became somehow incapable of forming an imperative for the rest of the lesson. The experience of being the most retarded student in the room came in handy on Friday evening  when I had to somehow remain patient and calm with a conversation student who was pronouncing group as ‘grub’ for the 200 th time.  Some things, I told myself, are just hard to grasp.

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Polish progress report

This post is intended to comfort me as much as provide a realistic assessment of my gains in this area.  Just looking at the title makes me feel better.

Progress. I often doubt it but know that it must be happening, simply because my Polish can’t be getting any worse. I collect words and deposit them in  little notebook where I promptly forget about them, until I wake up at 3 am in a frenzy of nocturnal lesson planning (which happens much more often than I’d like). Then I find myself sometimes going through this hoard of new vocabulary like a miser counting his money. It soothes me, this sense of acquisition. I have a thing  I can do something with. I have even, on a couple of very memorable occasions in the last few months, made somebody laugh. This is a heady and wonderful experience and makes me feel cheerful for days.

The other thing which has sparked this linguistic reflection is that I have finally enrolled in Polish classes. I have to admit that part of my motivation for this was a burning desire not to be the dumbest person in the room for a change, and to find some people to speak Polish with who do it as badly as or worse than I do. So I’m simultaneously disgruntled and complimented to find that I’ve been enrolled in the class with the Ukrainians and Belarussians, who pick up Polish quicker than herpes and who actually have a chance of learning to speak without a trace of an accent.

The course coordinator, having her doubts that someone with a name like Ross-a-merry Moo-ray could speak a word in her hermetic language, began a surreal conversation with me, in Polish, asking me why I was insisting on speaking to her in English  and opening with “Why don’t you want to speak to me?” She then took my look of mystification as evidence that I was unable to hold my own against the Ukranians.  When she had come to her senses and could identify the language we were speaking in, she explained that usually Anglophones who know some grammar and can fill in their placement test can’t actually say anything when the time comes to talk.  Evidence of the power of expectations on communication.

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On Polish

Living here, the thing that gives me my highest and lowest moments is language. I speak well enough that everybody consents to communicate with me in Polish, even the interpreters and people who can discuss the frequency of radio waves in English, but this, I am discovering, is only the beginning. In this language I am without subtlety or delicacy. I wield it like a hammer, thumping and hoping, and live in a ferment of frustration and the conviction that I am stupid. All of my layers of charm, sophistication and certainty are stripped away. I dread the quizzical glance which means that I have said something strange and incomprehensible. After several days in the company of strangers (especially when I have a hangover, as I inevitably do on such occasions) it rasps on my ear like the sound of sharpening knives. All the words sound the same. In the odd photo I have of myself at these gatherings, I see a look on my face that can only be described as a pained smile- an effortful, constipated look.   I interrogate Marcin endlessly- is this how he felt when he came to Australia? His answers are stoic, monosyllabic, infuriating. He doesn’t remember or it wasn’t that bad.

Then there is the matter of reading in Polish. When I read in English,  the text is there as a barely noticeable interface between me and the writer.  I read gluttonously, indiscriminately, with a sense of instant transport. In Polish I fight my way through the thickets of meaning, sometimes reading the sentence three times before I can be sure who does what to whom, and in what manner. I read slowly, laboriously, and would not be surprised if my tongue protrudes from my mouth while I do it. Sometimes I mutter to myself.

My education is both assisted and hampered by some of the most boring books of all time- Klara Janecki’s 301 Polish verbs (‘intended for anyone interested in the Polish verb’), BW Mazur’s “Colloquial Polish” (published in 1983) and “Czas na Czasownik” (‘Verb time’), a book of excruciating exercises of the I go, you goes, he goes, she goes, to the bank, into the bank, past the bank variety, which I hope will reveal to me the mysteries of aspect.  And these are not even the most boring on offer- the worst of all (which I would buy as a narcotic rather than a linguistic guide) being the grossly misnamed “Adventures in Grammar”- about 300 pages of incessant drilling exercises without any sort of accompanying text.  These textbooks seem to be designed on the assumption that the primary use of language is sitting in a dark room conjugating. Looking at the plethora of materials available for the learner of English, I’m consumed with envy.

The pain of it all doesn’t mean that the process is without revelation. I am immersed in the language, wallowing in it, and cannot go anywhere without incidentally learning something. Marcin breaks his wrist (again) and I learn the words for sling, adjusting a bone, plaster, emergency room. Reading the leaflet about painkillers provides me with the means to discuss clotting disorders.  I watch the Tour de France religiously with my notebook (my increased vigilance causing Cadel Evans to finally win) and now know the vocabulary of breakaways, time trials, advantages, finish lines and yellow jerseys. Marcin decodes a  mystifying communication from the course coordinator about one of my new students at the school where I work- ‘shooting bulls’, apparently, means making spelling mistakes. I am so excited by the ridiculousness of this that I carelessly respond to her with an email full of my own shot bulls. When somebody asks me for my godność (‘dignity’) on the phone I feel my brain ratcheting away like a 1950s cash register, wondering what it could mean. It turns out to be my surname.

Also, the mere fact of being a Polish-speaking foreigner seems to be grounds for endless wonder to the natives. There are foreigners in Poland (an English fireman and a German cook) who are famous simply for being foreigners who speak Polish. The Poles are proud of the fact that their language is so difficult that even they can’t speak it properly. I, on the other hand, am rather bitter about the fact that even the drunks pissing it up under the bridge in Pruszków speak better than me . Our friends’ seven year old son comforts me by telling me that there’s a kid in his class who speaks a whole different language at home, and he can’t speak proper Polish either.


Filed under Polish language