stephenI am fortunate in many ways, one of which is that I work with a large number of Polish speakers so I get to listen to Polish being spoken every day. Now, I am not a Polish speaker, nor will I pretend to be, but I do know some words. Alas, they are very random words like “hour”, “strawberry”, “knees”, “house”, “Monday”, “dog”, “weekend”, etc. (excluding the so-called “bad” words, of course, which are used with such a very high frequency in most casual conversation that you’ll probably already know those ones yourself). The reason for this randomness is that I’ve learned these words ad hoc. And because of this there is a common occurrence for me in work where I would be near Polish colleagues who are having a conversation in Polish and I would understand maybe one word in each sentence. At first, it was difficult and, to be honest, it was tiring trying to keep up, but the more I’ve learned the more I understand and though I still don’t understand even half of what is being said I can now enjoy listening to and trying to piece together such conversations.

For instance, I might understand that two people are talking about their weekend… that they were at home… Bożena or Jurek, or whoever, were there… that beer was involved… and that they were working on Monday…. The frustration I used to feel in this situation was abated by my making a game of trying to imagine what is being said. Obviously, the conversation could have been that the speaker was “in Jurek’s house all weekend getting drunk because he broke up with Bożena”… or, that “Bozena and Jurek’s first wedding anniversary was on Monday so they celebrated all weekend at their house where there was free beer”… or, of course, that “next weekend Jurek’s daughter, Bozena’s, is having a birthday party and because she doesn’t drink there will be no beer, but at least there’ll be no hangover on Monday.”

As you can imagine, any one, or none (most likely none) of these possible conversations could be what was actually being said. And, while I don’t expect that I am correct when I, admittedly, snoop on a conversation that I don’t understand, albeit for educational purposes (I am not a manager of any Polish speakers so there is no professional conflict), I have been able to hold my focus only by constructing the wildest conversations I can create from the nuggets that I understand. So, for example, in my mind, “Bożena and Jurek were discovered, shipwrecked, on a desert island at the weekend having lived on nothing but beer and nuts and while they were malnourished and dehydrated they will, indeed, of course, be back in work on Monday.”

For those who only know a few Polish words and are having trouble in conversations where everyone is speaking Polish, remember, you’ll know at least three or four words, and if you listen, they will pop up sooner or later. Just hang in there, I know it’s tiring listening out for a small glimpse of familiarity in a torrential downpour of unfamiliar sounds, but the more your learn the easier it gets, especially if you learn everyday words like “car”, “tea”, “coffee”, “week”, “make”, “go”, “come”, “difficult”. It also helps a lot if you seek out words that you know will be commonly used, for example, if your Polish friends are Mixed Martial Arts fans then at least one of the words for “fight”, “grapple”, “kick”, “elbow”, “nasty”, “bloody”, or “champion” will be in almost every sentence on a fight night. How you choose to construct those sentences in your own mind is entirely up to you. But the fighters’ names are the same in every language and if you ask for help, you’ll almost always get it.

Stephen Fahey