In spite of the rich English heritage of simply speaking louder and slower to foreigners in some sort of vain hope that then they’ll understand, for my Polish Odyssey I’ve actually tried to learn some Polish language. Two or three days into my very first trip to Poland I was studying the departures board at Warszawa Centralna railway station when a woman came up to me and indicating towards the departures board she asked me a question.
There’s a world of difference between listening to an audio course or being able to read something and actually trying to understand what someone is saying to you. Of course, I didn’t understand a word she said, so I said to her (in Polish), “I’m sorry, I’m English, I don’t understand Polish.”
Now, here’s the thing, I must have pronounced it with some sort of authenticity because she looked at me a bit sideways and then continued with her questioning. I held up my hand and tried again (in Polish), “I’m English, I only understand a little bit of Polish.” This time I think the message got through; she gave me a cursory look up and down, shrugged her shoulders and walked off muttering under her breath. I’m sure she thought I was pulling her leg.
Last week I was waiting for a tram in Łódź, I didn’t know where I was going but I had an all-day ticket and I thought I’d just get on the first tram that came along and see where it ended up. As I was standing there this young woman approached me and she also asked me a question which of course I didn’t understand. I smiled and said (in Polish), “Sorry, I’m English, I only understand a little bit of Polish.” Then she smiled and said (in English) “Ah, I don’t speak English.” She then asked me (in English) “Are you here for Marillion?”, “Yes.” I said, raising the sleeve of my jacket to expose the concert wristband I was wearing. “Oh, me too,” she said, and pulled back the sleeve of her jacket to show her wristband. A small conversation then ensued (in English) during which she asked me where I lived and told me about her sister who lived in Manchester.
The two examples above are just the tip of the iceberg; in Poland I’ve been asked questions by complete strangers and I always try to reply in Polish if only to tell them that I don’t understand and when I ask questions of others I always try to start out in Polish.
I’ve recounted this elsewhere but I’ll trot it out again; getting into a taxi in Poznań I asked the driver (in Polish) if he understood English, “No,” he said (in Polish) as he shook his head, then he looked me in the eye and smiled and said (again, in Polish), “but you understand Polish.” So the quandary is; do you speak to someone in their language to tell them that you don’t understand their language or don’t understand much of it, or do you speak to them in your language and hope that they’ll understand you?
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