Professor Jerzy Bralczyk on Why Learning the Polish Language is About More than Saying Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz

The Polish language has a reputation for being exceptionally difficult to learn. Indeed, the Irish wit Oscar Wilde described it as “rustling, hissing and hushing” that made his ears bleed. But are such opinions really justified? Kinga Liwowska spoke to silver-tongued linguist Professor Jerzy Bralczyk, to find out more about learning Polish, its subtleties, and the way we use language conventions in everyday life.

poland_news_bralczykKinga Liwowska: The Main Statistical Office (GUS) suggests there are around 900,000 foreigners living in Poland today. Is there anything that the Polish authorities can do to encourage them to learn the language?

Jerzy Bralczyk: To encourage is not the best form. People who are “encouraged” usually suffer from the boomerang effect. Knowing that they are encouraged, they can actually become discouraged. It is worth doing something to promote self-motivation, which is in fact a good form of encouragement.

KL: In Germany, you cannot use any language but German when talking to officials, so foreigners living there have to learn the language. Why not in Poland?

JB: Yes, but this case is about a prohibition that can be applied because German is a robust enough language to bear this, whereas Polish does not seem to aspire to such a position I think that showing what is particular for the Polish language, or what is common for Slavic languages overall is important for foreigners learning the language. So, for instance, we may talk about why cases can express something more distinctly than word order, or why we use prepositions which express content similar to our cases. As an example, the supplementary use of the dative case in our language is interesting: I say “I sit by myself” [“siedze sobie”] using the dative, because this case helps us express that an action is its own end. “I read by myself” [“Czytam sobie”] “I sing by myself’”, [“Śpiewam sobie”]… there is no external purpose, no sitting because of waiting for someone, simply sitting, for the sake of sitting. Thus, in showing the nature of the cases and conjugation, we address something that is extremely challenging for foreigners. Very often, for example, even very intelligent and linguistically skilled foreigners do not distinguish between  the Polish “robił” and “zrobił” [“was doing” and “did”].

KL: We have plenty of forms for individual verbs, which differ slightly in both meaning and pronunciation. For example, is it easy for foreigners to discern the differences between the “reading” verbs: Wczytać, wycztać, doczytać, odczytać, zaczytać, and przeczytać?

JB: Even if they learn the basic difference between “czytał” [“was reading”] and “przeczytał” [“read/have read”], it’s a lot. From the “spirit” of the grammar used we can draw conclusions about the nature of the intended meaning.

KL:  So a Polish native speaker can fathom the intended meaning of a foreigner speaking imprecise Polish?

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JB: Sometimes our communication, especially in terms of everyday use, is at a very low threshold, so we can understand what a person is speaking about, and we can follow simple instructions. However, the subtlety of shades of meaning and contextual application of language requires precise expression. Yet, however necessary such subtleties are, we sometimes don’t apply them. And, while precision is important and its absence can cause misunderstanding, it hardly ever makes it completely impossible to function.

KL:  In one of the interviews you said that the Polish language is not difficult. How do you justify this?

JB: Very often, the same language can be difficult in some aspects and easy in other ones. There are languages which are not complicated in terms of grammar, for example, those which do not use cases, but are phonetically difficult It could be that, if one is not understood when communicating in a foreign language, the cause may be pronunciation [rather than grammar or vocabulary]. The Polish language is one of those in which phonetics is a cause of difficulty. It’s a problem typical for tonal languages, when foreign speakers may not be used to such distinctions of sound and therefore find it difficult to express some subtleties. I know a bit of Swedish, but Danish is rather more a throat infection for me. It consists of weird, hard to recognise or hard to pronounce sounds. This phonetic difficulty that exists only in speech it is often the root of misunderstanding. The sounds may be unfamiliar to us, but in fact the language itself might be easy. In this respect, defining which language is easy and which is difficult is hard to say.

KL: What role do language conventions play?

JB: Rituals, conventions, create culture, we would like to find ourselves a safe shelter, thanks to which we can be sure that we won’t say something improper. For example, we pray by repeating formulas; although the conversation with God should be individual, we prefer these ready formulas because they make us feel safer, and this is a very normal thing. Wishes [for birthdays, on Christmas Eve, etc] should be expressed conventionally, but honestly too. And, because convention is in some way a contradiction of honesty and naturalness, we dress conventional words with intonation that expresses our honesty. Convention often assumes pretense, and may mean reconstructing, but ritual and convention are very often close to each other.

KL: So following convention may have a side effect of killing spontaneity?

JB: Applying convention, yes, but the convention itself probably doesn’t. If we are aware of the convention and apply it with awareness, dressed up in some sort of internal honesty, then it does not disturb us.

KL: Aside from convention, we tend to apply style to. In your book, Wszystko zależy od przyimka (Everything Depends on the Preposition), you state that we not only use certain styles of speaking, but in fact “find ourselves” in our style of language. So how does the style we use describe us, and what does it reveal about us?

JB: If we consciously decide to use a given style, then in itself it does not really describe us. This is because we choose the style to suit the situation or recipient, so it is a mask rather than being part of us.  They say something about us – for good or ill – when they are not the result of choice.

KL: And this mask helps us to fulfil social roles?

JB: It does, but while “finding ourselves” in a style in some way reveals our features, character, and preferences, the concept of style itself is very vague. It is said that style is a human characteristic, referring to appearance, behaviour and partly to language.  “Finding yourself” in a style is very often a sign of good socialisation. When talking to officials we adjust our language to a formal style, at church to a religious style, and so on.  The more styles we have, the better equipped we are, the better we socialise, but we should not forget that it is only a mask, a device. It is said that there should be a neutral style stripped of these features, but I am afraid it is impossible.