Just Winging It

I speak varying degrees of six different languages. A lot of English, pretty good Spanish, much less French, just smatterings of Czech and German, and now, Polish.

I’m not saying this to brag. Being able to speak only one foreign language moderately well and four languages badly is no great shakes considering I had at least six years of one of them in school, and actually lived in the countries where the rest were spoken! I mention it because of what it’s done to my brain.

I’ve been studying Polish for about a month now, and it’s going very well. Except, I do have this one problem. Whenever I try to speak Polish, my brain goes into Default Foreign Language Mode. All the languages get let out of the barn at once. I have to sort through them before I say anything. Meanwhile, I just know I look like a deer in the headlights. Sigh.

This my brain on languages.
This my brain on languages.

Czech is at the head of the pack, because it is really a LOT like Polish. This is a net advantage, I know, because there are a ton of cognates that I recognize right away. Look at the Czech numbers and the Polish numbers, for example.

Czech • Polish
Jeden • Jeden
Dva • Dwa
Tři • Trzy
Čtyři • Cztery
Pět • Pieć
Šest • Szesć
Sedm • Siedem
Osm • Osiem
Devět • Dziewieć
Deset • Dziesieć

So, I’m definitely not complaining. But a good bit of the time, when I try to say something in Polish, it comes out in Czech, or at least pronounced like Czech.

So, yay, a fifth language to speak badly, now with an accent that no one will be able to explain! But that’s OK. I have been doing this for so long by now that I have no pride left.

On the positive side, I have spent so much time floundering about in learning languages in my lifetime that I now know exactly what I need to learn and how I need to learn it.

I could have taken Polish at the Foreign Service Institute, and in fact, I was signed up for the “fast course” this spring. But, when I found out that 1.) classes start at 7:40 a.m. and 2.) the first two weeks of the course is something called “grammar boot camp,” I decided that, unlike my husband, I am simply not paid enough to be beaten over the head at an ungodly hour of the morning.

I was serendipitously introduced to another State Department spouse who just happens to be a native speaker of the language I need to learn. (For the second time! I learned Czech the same way. Love that FS/expat network!) And we set up a weekly conversation class with another spouse who is going to Warsaw this summer. It’s going very well, and this way I will learn the vocabulary that *I* will need to know in Poland.

When you live in a foreign country as an expat spouse, you don’t need to know how to discuss foreign policy or understand a political speech—unless you just want to, in which case more power to you. My hat’s off to anyone who truly becomes fluent in the local language for a two- or three-year tour.

You need to be able to say and understand polite greetings. You need to know how to ask for a half-kilo of pork loin at the grocery store. You need to know what kind of food you are buying and what ingredients are in it. You need to be able to order a pizza or make a restaurant reservation over the phone. You need to be able to read a menu so you don’t accidentally order tripe soup or head cheese at a restaurant.


You need to be able to ask directions to the bank, the hospital, or more often, to the toilet. You need to be able to negotiate with taxi drivers. You need to understand numbers and prices at any store, and especially at the flea market, if you want to have any fun!

And, you don’t have to speak perfectly. I mean, it’s nice if you can, but in most countries, any effort to speak the language will go a long way. Especially if you smile nicely and apologize for not speaking it well. (This even worked with the Viennese, which is saying something.)

So, I’m not sweating the small stuff. For example, I am now on my third language with the dreaded case system, and I’m just not going to get worked up about it. Vocabulary is much more important.

It’s more interesting to tackle a language on several fronts at once. So, in addition to the conversation class and the textbook we are using for it, I am also following the Mango course that is offered through the Arlington County library website. And I found a Polish podcast that I like a lot. It even has videos narrated by impossibly fresh-faced students about Polish cultural traditions. I listen to and watch these podcasts while knitting, which (strangely?) helps me to listen better. Plus, sweaters and socks for Warsaw. Win-win.

Now, none of this (except Mango) is free. It would sure be NICE if my husband’s employer could provide an allowance for language training that costs MUCH LESS than the training at the Foreign Service Institute and is more appropriate to my needs and schedule as the person who has VOLUNTEERED to accompany him to post. But I’m not going to get worked up about that either. This is just one of those stupid, inflexible things about the State Department that is not going to change in my lifetime. God grant me the wisdom, and all that.

So, once again I am improvising. And it’s pretty fun, honestly. I never really took to German for some reason, but I have an enduring fondness for Czech that is carrying over to Polish. I guess I just like the quirkier countries and languages.

By the way, Polish spelling is truly humbling. I am a really good speller in all my other languages, honest! I’m an editor, after all. But I am learning: when in doubt, stick a “z” in there somewhere and you’re good. Maybe an extra “c” just to be sure.

I did say I was winging it 😉


  1. If you like quirky come to Hungary! Really tough language. But for 3 years we had to learn it! Hubby is like me, learning on his own since it was not required for him and if you add 6 weeks quick class to home leave you miss the start of school…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a fellow knitter, the knitting helping you pay attention makes complete sense. It occupies the part of the brain that would otherwise wander and start thinking of other things.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll have to take up knitting now and see if it improves my language-learning ability! (By the way, Serbo-Croatian numbers are extremely similar to Czech and Polish, so maybe you’ll be lucky to serve in the Balkans someday and add even more confusion, I mean languages, to your brain.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sigh, yes, some language training allowance would be nice… especially for spouses who can’t (or are not accepted) into the language courses. Do they have a DL express course in Polish?


    • What is DL Express? And yes, I knew that my being able to take the fast course was not guaranteed, anyway. A friend was just booted from hers and is now improvising just like me.


      • Sorry, it’s actually DLL (Distance Language Learning). You meet with a mentor once a week from FSI (over the phone or skype) and there’s an “Express” curriculum that you normally follow.. I’m not sure if they offer it for Polish, but I’ve been using it for Portuguese.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.