A few weeks before my first trip to Wrocław, I decided I’d better learn a few words of Polish. I’d been told that most of the people I’d be working with spoke English, and would be more than happy to use my native language; likewise, most Poles under 35 spoke at least some English, since it had become common in Polish schools following the fall of Communism. (Before that, Russian and German were the two most frequently-chosen foreign languages in Poland. I think that was sort of a case of “know thine enemy,” since there is no love lost between the Poles and either of those countries.)
But since this was more than just a quick trip—I’d actually be living in Poland for a couple of months—I figured it would be for the best if I weren’t completely ignorant of Polish. The last thing I wanted to do was show up in Wrocław and behave like a stereotypical insufferable American. I was pretty sure that, no matter what, I’d wind up doing or saying something unintentionally that would make the Poles grit their teeth at my dumb ass, but I wanted to prevent as much of that as I could.
I didn’t really have time to attend classes—not that Polish classes are easy to come by in the Chattanooga area anyway—so that left me with a few online options. One of them, and I knew it was probably the best one, was Rosetta Stone, but I didn’t know anyone who’d used it, and its not-insignificant price tag left me fearful of buyer’s remorse. So the technique I settled on to get me through the absolute basics, and I mean basic on the “yes/no, please/thank you” level, was Google Translate. I put the app on my iPhone, delighted that it had a feature that would speak the words aloud once it had translated them.
(At this very moment, my aggressively multi-lingual Techland co-worker Magda Kiąca is experiencing an uncontrollable eye-rolling episode, caused by the very thought of anyone anywhere using Google Translate for anything. I can hear your eyes rolling, Magda.)
Rolling eyes or not, though, at a very basic level Google Translate works pretty well. Thanks to using it, I learned…
“Yes” is tak, pronounced with a long A, like “tahk.”
“No” is nie, pronounced kind of like you’re making fun of someone, like “nyeh.”
“Hello,” “good morning,” and “good day” can all be accomplished with dzień dobry.
Dzień isn’t too hard—it basically sounds like “jin.” I’m sure that’s not 100% technically accurate, but that’s how I always said it, and no one corrected me.
Dobry is a little tougher. The “r” is surprisingly similar to the r in Spanish, like in tres. The tongue does a little flip that gives it a sound halfway between “r” and “d.”
The “y” at the end, however, gave me endless fits. Tons of Polish words and names end in “y,” and while it’s always pronounced the same, that one pronunciation proved to be the hardest bit of the entire language for me to get straight. Sometimes I’d hear people say it, and I’d swear it sounded like “ee,” as in the last three letters of “bee.” Other times it sounded like the double-o in “book,” or the last part of the French word “deux.” I finally figured out the key to it: you shape your lips as if you’re going to say “oo,” but instead you say “ih,” like the short “i” sound in “tip” or “rip.”
Not that it mattered. Hardly anyone actually said Dzień dobry. If you greet someone, you say Cześć. That’s the Polish version of “Hi!” and it sounds like “chehshch.”
That string of letters is not a typo. It starts out with “cheh” and then adds a “sh,” like the first sound in “shoe,” followed immediately by a “ch,” like the first sound in “chocolate.” You run those two sounds together. That construction appears all overPolish – the “sh” followed immediately by the “ch” with no space in between.
The first time I showed my wife Tracy some written Polish, she cocked her head and said, “There…there aren’t enough…vowels.”
And by English standards, that’s very true. The Polish word for “book” is książka. It’s pronounced “kshawnzhka” – or, to break it down a bit more, “ksh-awn-zh-ka.” Polish puts consonants together in ways that English doesn’t, and it can get intimidating.
(Speaking of intimidating, “Wrocław” does NOT sound the way English-speakers would think. That L-with-a-slash-through-it turns the letter into a W. And actual Ws are pronounced like Vs, unless they’re at the end of the word. And all the Cs sound like “ts” together. So Wrocław is pronounced “vroh-ts-wahff.” Vrohtswahff. Say it with me!)
But I digress.
“Thank you” is dziękuję, which sounds like “jin-koo-yuh,” and “thanks very much” is dziękuję bardzo. Bardzo basically means “a lot,” and sounds like “bard,” with that hard, flippy “r,” followed by a very straightforward “zoh.”
Conversely, “you’re welcome” is proszę, which sounds like “pro-sheh.” Or at least it does in common conversation. The “ę” is supposed to sound like the last part of “down,” except the “n” is very soft, which makes it come across as vaguely French, but no one I talked to pronounced proszę that way. If you want to say, “You’re very welcome,” you can tack bardzo onto the end: Proszę bardzo!
Since I had “yes,” “no,” “hi,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome” down pretty well, I figured I’d better learn at least one complete sentence. That sentence, I decided, was going to be, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Polish.” In Polish, that sentence is Przykro mi, nie mówię po Polsku. I practiced that over and over and over until I felt as if I could say it in a reasonably natural manner.
Once I got to Poland, though, those words had an unexpected effect.