I recently took a trip to Kraków in Poland with my sister, and it was the first time in a long time that I had visited somewhere and I didn’t speak the local language. I had forgotten how different knowing how to speak the local language makes your trip.
During our first day in Poland, I felt very awkward not being able to say anything in Polish. I didn’t even know how to say “hello”. I had originally planned to learn a few phrases before going, but I didn’t get around to it and I immediately regretted it.
After a few embarrassing attempts at trying to make ourselves understood in shops or restaurants, my sister and I whipped out our phones, and headed straight to Google Translate. The trouble with using normal dictionaries was that I had no idea how to pronounce any words in Polish, and with a couple of letters I didn’t even recognise, Google Translate proved invaluable with its speaker button that reads the word out for you.
My sister had downloaded an app that you could use to translate things simply by pointing your camera at them, but I didn’t want to rely on that as I wanted to be able to speak the language rather than just read it all in English. As we walked about the very beautiful city of Kraków, we typed hundreds of words into Google Translate. The words on street signs were the first things we were translating. It didn’t really matter to me what they meant; I just wanted to figure out how to pronounce things. We learnt that the letter “C” is pronounced like a “TS”, a “CH” sounds like you’re clearing your throat, and a “CZ” sounds like a “CH”. We also learnt that the letter “W” sounds like a “V”, and there is a letter L with a line through it, “Ł”, that sounds like a “W”.
Within a couple of hours, we had learnt a lot of new words that probably weren’t useful directly, but we saw them all over the place, and they taught us basic Polish pronunciation rules.
Ulica — Street (pronounced “oo-leet-sah”)
Koniec — End (pronounced “koh-nee-ets”)
Uwaga — Attention (pronounced “oo-vah-gah”)
Pracowników — Employees (pronounced “prat-sov-nee-kov”)
Restauracja — Restaurant (pronounced “rest-a-oo-rat-syah)
Wolny — Free (pronounced “vol-nee”)
Smok — Dragon (pronounced “smok”)
Złoty — Zloty (the Polish currency, pronounced “zwo-tee”)
Then I realised how much of a geek I was because I found it exciting to spot a new word and try to work out how to pronounce it. I used the speaker button on Google Translate to check if I got it right.
The second day in Poland was much more fulfilling than the first day, simply because we started to use words and phrases that we had been learning. We learnt:
Dzień dobry — Hello
Dziękuję — Thank you
Do widzenia — Goodbye
Chciałbym — I would like
Proszę — Please
Rachunek — The bill
Armed with these words and phrases, we were unstoppable in Kraków! Although there were some people who seemed a bit put off by us trying out our Polish (namely one girl in a restaurant, whom, in hindsight, we did pester to death with our attempts at speaking her language), most people were happy that we were trying. We felt much more a part of Poland, simply by using these few words.
The first time I said “Dziękuję” (thank you), I was intensely nervous, but I bit the bullet, and said it…wrong. But after hearing it being said a couple of times by native speakers, my second attempt was much more successful, and once that wall had been bulldozed down, I was saying “Dziękuję” left, right and centre. Pretty soon, my sister and I were saying a Polish hello to everybody we saw, a Polish goodbye to everybody we left, and we were saying a Polish please and thank you after virtually every utterance.
We were riding a real high on day two, but it wasn’t to last. On the second day, after a successful evening ordering in a restaurant, we decided to go to a local supermarket to reward ourselves with some chocolate and biscuits. We also picked up a bag of cornflakes for breakfast the next morning, and it was that bag of cornflakes that destroyed our day’s achievements. We had got quite a hoard of items in the supermarket, so we decided that we needed to ask for a bag at the checkout. I remembered how to say “I would like” (chciałbym) and then I quickly searched for “bag” on Google Translate: “torba”. At the checkout counter, the lady scanned the bag of cornflakes, and my sister and I both said “hello” in Polish, which was received with a smile. However, the lady picked up the bag of cornflakes and uttered a very long sentence, and I understand not one word. I looked at my sister, for some reason assuming she had secretly acquired Polish fluency and could tell me what the Polish lady was saying, but her face was as perplexed as mine. “Sorry?” I asked in English, but the Polish lady said something else, pointing at the bag of cornflakes. She didn’t speak any English and I only knew a handful of Polish words and I couldn’t work out what she was trying to say.
What must have been less than a minute seemed like an eternity as the lady kept talking and talking and I was left clueless. As she went on, she seemed to get angry at us for not understanding what she was saying, so I carefully took the cornflakes out of her hand and handed over the money. Then I remembered I needed to ask for a bag, “Chciałbym torba” (I would like a bag). The lady obviously understood because she threw a plastic bag at me (I may be exaggerating a tad, but fear magnified the situation). We both laughed about it on the way back to the hotel, and then we decided to go into another shop to get some more chocolate, and we forced ourselves to say “hello”, “thank you” and “I would like a bag, please”.
We may never ever find out what that lady was trying to tell us about those cornflakes, but they were the weirdest cornflakes we had ever eaten, so it was probably a warning or a recommendation to buy something else. Either way, we managed to put the whole incident behind us and started the next day afresh, eager to try and speak more Polish.
The rest of the trip to Poland was wonderful and heart wrenching at the same time, as we visited Auschwitz, Birkenau and then explored the rest of the city of Krákow. It felt as though I were starting from scratch with language learning, and it was a great experience to get back in the mindset of a complete beginner. There are a lot of things I learnt:
1. Speak as much as you can from the get-go
This is the most important thing to do. My sister and I were both nervous about using the language, seeing as we hardly knew a thing, but we forced each other to speak. Even though, 95% of the time, we didn’t understand what was being said back to us, we still spoke as much as we could.
2. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
We pronounced things wrong, got blank faces to our early utterances and had to repeat ourselves several times, but through our mistakes we improved. Don’t be worried even the slightest bit about making mistakes; who cares? A couple of times, I said something and got a blank look from the other person, but then I just said, “I’m practising my Polish,” and said it again. A mistake is only a problem if it stops you from moving on. Just put a mistake behind you and try, try, try again.
3. Don’t be put off by awkward situations
The amount of confused faces we got from the people we were speaking to was about the same as the amount of smiling faces we got. Most people were overjoyed when we said something in Polish, but there were a few very awkward situations. The cornflake incident, for instance. And then there was a waitress in one particular restaurant on a boat, who I think got sick of our constant pestering for attention. Every time she came to our table, my sister or I would say something else like “the food was delicious” or “this is very tasty” or “can I have the bill?”, and I think she just wanted to get on with her job!
4. Have fun with using the language and laugh at yourself
My sister laughed and laughed and laughed at my every attempt to speak Polish. It was fun to try and say different things, and I did go out of my way to try and show off, especially with one of our tour guides. “There goes the teacher’s pet,” my sister laughed every time I tried to say something else in Polish to the poor tour guide who was trying to show us around the Jewish Quarter of the city. If you take language learning too seriously, you take the fun out of it. Speaking a new language should be fun and exciting; it opens up a new world for you. Don’t be embarrassed about trying out new words and phrases, and if you make a mistake, laugh at yourself and try again; you’ll improve much more quickly that way.
5. Don’t try to overcomplicate things
When I travel to France or Spain, I can say whatever springs to mind and have in-depth conversations with people, but when I was in Poland, my Polish was extremely limited. Therefore, I wasn’t able to say everything I wanted, exactly as I wanted. This is an important thing to note when you start learning a language. Try and simplify everything at first. I wanted to be able to say, “Can I have the bill?” or “Could we have two hot chocolates?” or “Do you have a plastic bag?”, but I didn’t know “Can I have” or “Could we have” or “Do you have”. Instead, I just had to use “chciałbym”, which means “I would like”, for everything. It didn’t matter though, it’s better to say something simply than to say nothing at all.
6. Ask for help if you need it
The hardest thing for me when learning new Polish words was how to pronounce them. I wanted to make sure I was saying things right, so I kept badgering our tour guide and asking about how to say this, that and the other. Don’t worry about annoying people if you need to ask them for help. As it happens, our tour guide was happy to answer our questions about the pronunciation rules, and she even explained other things we hadn’t thought of. However, not everybody will be willing, and don’t be worried about that; the girl on the boat restaurant wasn’t so keen to help me or my sister with our pronunciation, but we still asked anyway, laughing between ourselves like little school children whenever the waitress walked off with a look on her face that said she had had enough of us.
7. Listen as much as you can and be proud if you understand just one word
Finally, from the very outset, you should listen to as much of the language as you can. My sister and I earwigged every conversation we could, without seeming too creepy. We nodded at each other whenever we heard a word we recognised. We didn’t have a clue as to what the rest of the conversation was about, but even after just two days, we were recognising lots of words. We got very excited when we were eating breakfast at the hotel and the lady came over and asked for our room number. We knew what she was saying because we recognised the word “pokój” (room). We had seen the word when we were noseying in an estate agent’s window the day before.
So, enjoy your travels and your language learning; it should be a fun experience with lots of laughs. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and take every opportunity to practise what you’ve learnt.