"We are creating a fan base for Polishness” – interview with a teacher of Polish as a foreign language

The Polish language is the European Union’s biggest Slavic language. Although it still does not top the list of the most eagerly chosen foreign languages, it enjoys a constantly expanding circle of advocates and devotees. Why do students from different corners of the globe decide to study Polish and is it really as difficult as it is said to be? That is what we asked Dr Piotr Kajak, a teacher of Polish as a foreign language, an assistant professor and deputy director of the Polonicum Centre of Polish Language and Culture for Foreigners at the University of Warsaw.

Poland.pl: Do many students decide to study Polish?

Piotr Kajak PhD: The study of Polish generates quite a lot of interest, although Polish is a less frequently taught language. Compared to world languages, we are not the biggest. According to the findings of Professor Stanisław Dubisz of Faculty of Polish Studies at the University of Warsaw. Polish has a scant 40 million speakers in Poland and another some 15 million throughout the world. That shows us the kind of language it is. Americans refer to it as one of the less commonly taught languages, others describe it as a minority tongue, a rarer one. There are many descriptions which may not appeal to everyone but they do function. Our main interest is why people decide to study Polish, and that’s a question that can be irritating to learners. We know that some people study Polish because of family ties or for business or social reasons. There have also been more surprising responses. One person said it was because he had eaten pierogi and decided that was a good enough reason to learn more about Polish cuisine, culture and language. I experienced such things when I was a visiting professor in Toronto. People all over the world are studying Polish but in different ways. Some of those learning Polish abroad have ties to Poland, for instance, as the children of immigrants. Others represent further generations removed from their distant immigrant ancestors. The third group are foreigners without previous links to Poland who are learning the language for a variety of reasons. Each of those three groups requires different teaching methods. Polonian children and adolescents may attend language classes conducted in community schools in parishes, Polonian organisations or school consultation centres of which Poland’s Ministry of National Education is in charge. There are also primary, middle, and secondary schools forming part of a given country’s educational system. A separate category are universities where Polish studies chairs or sections have been established. In Poland, we would refer to that academic discipline as Polish philology, but actually these are Polish studies, accentuating not just language and literature but emphasising broader cultural aspects.

How many centres in the world conduct such studies?

On the website of Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs there is a map [LINK] which shows nearly 200 places on Earth where Polish can be studied in classes or at the higher education level. In addition, Polish Institutes and libraries are important centres popularising Polish culture. In recent years, the situation has been improving. For example, such activities conducted in China and India are also financially supported by Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

What are the motives of students who decide to study Polish? I presume they are interested in our culture, but does that go hand in hand with the conviction that knowledge of Polish is a good investment in their professional pursuits?

Yes, very much so. Those are usually the reasons we encounter. At Polonicum Centre at the University of Warsaw, which I represent, we mainly have contacts with young adults participating in student exchanges or enrolled in higher studies. Those who have Polish partners constitute a separate group. The third group are people who regard studying Polish as an element of their chosen career path. A classic example are translators not only of literature but also those working for the government. Our language’s prestige began to grow when Poland joined the European Union. We need fluent speakers of Polish in Strasbourg and Brussels. People see that Polish is the language of a country that is doing well in the European Union. It may not be the number one economy, but it is definitely a country of success. That’s how we are viewed around the globe. It is the language of a European Union country, an interesting one, but somewhat different. Tourists from such countries as China may get bored of Berlin and Paris and are glad to discover Polish cities. Since historical awareness is quite high in the Middle Kingdom, they are able to say quite a bit about the Second World War and relate to their own country’s history. This is why they want to see how Poland managed after the war and what Auschwitz looked like. We can equate with their fate, because they have had similar experiences with their neighbours. In addition, although Polish is not the biggest Slavic language, it is the biggest Slavic tongue in the European Union. The language’s prestige and soft power are very important. For various reasons, Polish works and concepts resound throughout the world. And that too wins us new fans and devotees.

And that too can be a reason to study Polish.

Indeed it can. Just take a look at the Erasmus student exchange. Students come for a semester or two. We all know that is a form of tourism, although the students do follow a plan accepted by their home universities. But such sojourns mainly involve getting to know and befriending a different culture. Many people want to touch base with Polish either at a two-week “survival” class or at regular semester- or year-long courses. For us instructors it is not important to have them master the intricacies of grammar, but rather to instil in their minds an interesting image of Poland, to explain the questions they encounter on a daily basis while grappling with problems they do not understand. After all, every country has its own logic of daily living. We are creating a Polish fan base because through the workaday and the colloquial we are showing what makes the Polish mentality tick. Out identity is quite interesting to foreigners, because Poles are closely tied to their traditions and language which is an integral value of Polish culture. We know how to make our way in the world, but we always preserve our language, we return to where our family graves are. People can see that. They see our strong sense of identity and eagerly listen to hear what we have to say about ourselves and how we relate to our experiences. They need not always project a positive image, but we can explain certain things even to those who are not big devotees of Poland and things Polish. In addition to building a Polish fan base, we also try to show those who have problems accepting us the reason behind different issues to acquaint them with our point of view and raison d’état.

Are there any phenomena in the cultural and linguistic realm which intrigue foreigners living in Poland that you have to explain to your subnets in class because they find them incomprehensible?

There are many such things at various levels. Everybody is accustomed to their daily routine, and accordingly one calls a taxi, buys a ticket or uses a pedestrian crossing against a red light. In our country if one crosses Nowy Świat [one of Warsaw’s main shopping streets] at a pedestrian crossing when there is no traffic but a policeman is standing on the other side, most likely such a one will get a ticket. We do not argue with that. Either we submit or take a risk. That's the way our police operate, and that must be accepted. In such situations the Dutch and Canadians are quite surprised, because they are accustomed to different reactions form their countries’ law enforcement. Those are trifles which we often let go unnoticed. A student once asked me: “Piotr, coming home from a club I paid a horrific sum for a taxi. Why was that?” I asked him: “Did you phone a taxi company or get into an unmarked car parked near the club?” He said the latter was the case. “So you have only yourself to blame, because you forgot our first lesson,” I replied. “I warned you that you should phone a taxi company, they’ve got an English helpline and you wouldn’t have overpaid.” Polish language lesson There are things we don’t pay attention to but we need to explain them to foreigners because the purpose of our efforts is to let our students comfortably adjust to Polish reality. Defining what is comfortable is no easy matter, because everyone comes from a different country. But there is beauty in that diversity so we strive to clarify all those doubts and complexities. Students often ask about political or religious matters, because they know what a significant role religion plays in Poland. At times, shyness is a barrier for some students, so we must put them at ease and show that teachers are also human. These are people they can discuss things with openly to clarify various matters. We cannot allow the image of Poland and Poles to suffer through some foolish move.

Let’s now take a look at teaching Polish from a linguistic perspective. What causes the most problems?

That’s a very good question. Teachers of Polish as a foreign language and Polish culture have to grapple with a stereotype that we Poles ourselves have created, namely that Polish is a very difficult language. You will undoubtedly find suggestions to that effect even on our professional websites. That’s a bit like sawing the branch on which we sit for no good reason. There are no specific linguistic tools to measure a given language’s degree of difficulty. The basic question is “whom are we teaching?” and “how are we teaching?” That is an extremely relative process. For example, to Slavs Polish is not that difficult, because their languages contain many common elements. There can also be misleading similarities. As a Czech philologist, I know a thing or two about “false friends” whose use can lead to embarrassing situations. But as far as structure is concerned, all the Slavic languages except Bulgarian have basically the same declension. A Slav therefore is soon able to communicate. But Polish is difficult for the Chinese, a significant group we teach. The number of new language courses and academic specialities in China is growing. Polish and Chinese phonetics differ, add to that the writing system and cultural aspects. In China, culture is collectivistic in nature, whereas ours is individualistic. It is therefore difficult to say what is the most difficult, because it all depends on whom we are teaching. For some it may be phonetics, for others the grammatical system or memorising vocabulary – something that requires much effort. Stereotypically one hears that the most difficult is declining words through all those cases, but that too is relative. I think it would be interesting to sit down with representatives of different cultures who had studied various languages to find out which language they found the most difficult.

Since we’re on the subject of linguistic difficulties, Poles like their native tongue-twisters which require considerable skill and effort to pronounce. Would you have a favourite tongue-twister that you share with your students?

I try not to, because I know our students are extremely practical. When learning a foreign language they constantly ask “Is that necessary?” or “How can we use that in daily communication?” I have therefore abandoned tongue-twisters. When we want to do something interesting, we usually play about with the names of different cities. I ask people of Polish decent and foreigners who have had contacts with Poland about them. Usually someone had visited a place whose name was hard to pronounce. If not, there is always Świętokrzyska street near the University of Warsaw or Krakowskie Przedmieście. I try to teach pronunciation on the basis of practical examples we’ve got an arm’s length away such as the sentence “Studiuję zarządzenie i stosunki międzynarodowe” (“I am studying management and international relations”). But one exception which we nearly always use at demonstration lessons and meetings promoting Polish culture and language is an excerpt from the war comedy “How I unleashed the Second World War.” The protagonist, Polish soldier Franciszek Dolas, got captured by the Nazi Germans. Not wanting to reveal his true identity, he says his name is Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz. That is most likely the favourite meme of Polish teachers as well as their students.


Piotr Kajak PhD – teacher of Polish as a foreign language, language teaching methodologist, Slavic philologist and political scientist. He is an assistant professor at Polonicum Centre of Polish Language and Culture for Foreigners at the University of Warsaw and since 2016 its deputy director. At the Faculty of Polish Studies he is the dean’s representative in charge of organising examinations in Polish as a foreign language at all levels of fluency. He has been a visiting professor at Toronto University’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and holds membership of the Canadian Association of Slavists. Through his efforts, the University of Warsaw has signed an agreement with China’s Sichuan University in Chengdu to set up a joint study programme combining Polish, economics and international studies.