vocabulary

Living the Language

I grew up speaking Polish, because it was important to my parents that my brother and I learn their language, and it was the only language spoken in the home. Actually Polish was my first language, having learned English by going to school. Since I learned so young, I have no accent, while my parents had heavy accents.

I can remember reading from a Polish primer, basic child stories like the Dick and Jane readers, while sitting at my mom’s side as she did her re-weaving at the sewing machine. I hated it, because it was hard. I could speak the language, but having to learn to read it too? This was a hardship in my view. My grandmother sent us those books, czytanki, (in Polish).

So many years have gone by and the Polish language has suffered because I don’t have anyone to speak it with. One of my first but vague memories as a child was when in kindergarten I participated in a Christmas pageant, reciting a Polish poem, with my mom behind the curtain in the wing. She was there to rescue me if I missed a line. I have no idea what it was that I recited or even if it was related to Christmas. But apparently I delivered the poem in Polish. I also remember at some point during high school, my brother and I no longer spoke Polish to one another outside the home.

When I went off to college, I would write letters home and since my mother saved just about everything, I still have the letters I wrote home in my possession. Wow, my language skills were great. I had an extensive vocabulary and probably spelled the words correctly too.

While mom was alive, we spoke on a weekly basis and as the years went on, there were more and more English words inserted into our conversations, because of just not remembering the Polish words. Mom fell into that trap too, not just me. I do have to admit that I often felt that our relationship was not as strong as it could have been because the language got in the way. I would withhold information about some matters because it was too hard to explain them to her in Polish. She would always say to me when I struggled, “Say it in English” and I would, but usually it was easier to avoid the subject and not go down that road.

After she died, I realized I no longer had someone to help me keep the language alive. I had a rude awakening when I made my first trip to Poland to visit my cousin. She and her husband speak no English, so it was all on me to communicate with them. I had a really hard time. Basic conversation was okay, but if I wanted to get into a deeper explanation on a topic, I found myself translating English into Polish in my head before I spoke, which is not good. In the past I have always been able speak without thinking too much about it. To start translating with Polish sentence structure being different was frustrating, and it was evident that the vocabulary was not there. Indeed, I had a two year old’s vocabulary instead of the second grade level vocabulary I thought I had.

When I started to work on Letters from the Box in the Attic, I had to hire a translator to help me read all the documents and letters written in Polish. So maybe those Polish primers were necessary. I still would not have been able to read the letters, since they were hand scripted and I have a hard enough time reading the language when it is printed. My translator was wonderful. I was grateful for her patience. She also said that it is evident that I was taught well by my mother, even though much skill had escaped. She would also correct my mistakes, because it is so important to know correct grammar  and pronunciation. It was amazing to me to know how many words I have repeatedly mispronounced for so many years. We would spend a couple of hours together weekly and this was my immersion experience. It was still evident that I lacked good speaking ability, but to my credit I understood more than I spoke. I also developed more sight recognition of some printed words. I used to have to sound out each and every syllable before knowing what the word was, and some Polish words are very long.

I love to go shopping at a Marshalls or a TJ Maxx in the suburban Chicago area where many Polish immigrants live and shop. It’s fun to spy on their conversations. Not that I hear anything personal; it’s always about finding that outfit in the right size, or look at the cute shoes. There are benefits to knowing another language.

I do not mean to trivialize the idea of speaking and understanding another language. It’s a great gift to do so, and I am proud of and love that I can speak another language even if it is at a basic level. I do wish I had a better command of the Polish language, but that would require going to Polish language classes. I could go full circle and start reading those primers again.