When the mysogenistic Samuel Johnson was asked about female preachers, he compared them to dogs walking on hind legs. “It is not done well; but it is surprising it is done at all”. That is sometimes how a foreigner’s efforts at speaking Polish are greeted in company. In his Letter From Poland, our friend at www.thenews.pl, Jo Harper, posed a question about the nature of communication in a second language. Jo has lived in Poland on and off since the mid nineties, based a Phd in politics on source material in Polish and has followed local politics and economics since then. Though modest about his linguistic abilities, he knows learning Polish is a tough slog because he has already mastered it. Nevertheless Jo feels that his intellectual powers diminish when surrounded by native speakers of Polish in a serious discussion. It does feel like that sometimes. You know more than them about macroeconomics but the use of “-ego” ending rather than an “-emu”, is met by smiles and your Polish is complimented like a little boy at a party being patted on the head for wearing a tie.
Talking recently to a teenager who had just started an Oxbridge College scholarship, she asked me, a resident of Poland for 20 years, whether I felt isolated or fully understood in Poland, as she felt unable to join in the banter of British students, not grasping their popular culture references to comedy and soaps. As a recipient of the International Baccalaureat, she had been well prepared for study abroad. But there are now waves of Polish students entering UK universities, not all of them with the fluency of our family friend. How many of them would admit they had paid to get their essays and dissertations proofread? Check the numerous proofreading adverts on gumtree.co.uk aimed at foreign students. Or how many of them squirm silently, as more confident locals take the limelight in tutorials? Being surrounded by English public school kids waxing lyrical with zero knowledge but with the gravitas given them by years of cricket and French ski-ing holidays is intimidating enough for UK students from comprehensives. How do most young Poles fare in that situation, if they are honest enough to admit it?
Despite the fuddy-duddy fousty atmosphere of Polish academia, Polish students may get more out of their studies at a Polish university, as the intellectual skills attained by forming arguments and writing essays in their native language will be more more profound. Equipped with such skills, they could then set out on post graduate studies in a different language group abroad. Is the allure of the English lettering on their diploma and a clipped inner M25 accent what they were really after, rather than gaining the requisite intellectual skills?