Cultural Musings, Poland

Things not to do/say to a foreigner speaking Polish

I know foreigners speaking Polish is some sweet, adorable thing that Poles almost never get to hear. I know, I get it. When someone speaks English as a foreign language it’s totally normal and obvious. And I understand people are shocked when you attempt to speak Polish and some people are so so nice about it. Like when our friends get drunk, take my hands in theirs, and say “Leah, to bardzo fajnie że próbujesz mówić po polsku. Na prawdę.” That, I love. But these other things… please consider how irritating they are before you do/say them.

Ask someone to “say something in Polish”. This is the absolute most irritating question. I am not a monkey and I do not do tricks. My typical response to this is “dupa”.

Speak the same speed as you normally would. Look, when I speak English to people, I judge the person’s language abilities and change my speech so as to make them feel comfortable. It’s awkward when you say something to someone and you can see that they’re embarrassed because they don’t get it. This is a common courtesy which I think should be observed by all (trust me, I know that English speaking people are guilty of this as well). My husband’s grandmother does this for me and she’s 80-something. She gets it. Why is it when I talk to young people, who should understand my situation, I have no idea what they’re saying?

Compliment them after they say one word. “Wow your “dzień dobry” is so good.” Yeah, I can say good morning. Thanks. Now I feel like a child.

Listen intently as a group with all eyes on them. This is the thing I hate the most. Finally you work up the courage to start speaking Polish in public around only Polish people and suddenly everyone who was afraid to come within 1 meter of you is now incredibly interested in what you ate for breakfast this morning. Then you’re sweating and can’t pronounce anything correctly.

Ask silly questions like “what language were you using when you were talking to —person who obviously doesn’t speak English—?” Yes I went to Żabka and asked the lady “excuse me, but do you have peanut butter here?” What, do you think I’m an idiot? Of course I asked “Przepraszam, czy ma Pani masło orzechowe?” To ma sens, nie?

Don’t be afraid to start or keep up a conversation with them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started conversations with people, which is harder for me than it is for them, and they’ve just kind of answered my questions and not asked me anything. It’s like, ok, I don’t know what else I can do. I would be so happy if someone just asked me something which was relatively easy and kinda helped me along.

So these are a few basic things to remember when speaking with foreigners in Polish. Overall, small groups are much appreciated and a couple hints when I don’t know the right przypadek. Help a girl out, y’all!

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  • Reply hollydolly 22 January 2016 at 12:31

    I do not fully understand the last point.

    • Reply Leah Southers 22 January 2016 at 18:02

      hm small typo. Should have been “don’t be afraid”. I fixed it. Now does it make sense?

      • Reply hollydolly 23 January 2016 at 03:08

        Yeah, now I get it 🙂
        It’s good, that you wrote this post. I was not aware of a lot of things mentioned here.

        • Reply Leah Southers 23 January 2016 at 09:35

          Ok good! Thanks for pointing that out! And glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  • Reply Adrian 22 January 2016 at 14:47

    Nice write-up, Leah. I’d also add:

    – If you want to correct someone pronouncing a particular word incorrectly, do it carefully with patience but without patronizing. I can imagine how embarrassed that person might feel. Don’t make a big deal out of it.
    – Translating polish names of cities and villages to english ones isn’t neither necessary nor helping.
    – Don’t force a person to use polish accent and polish pronunciation. Yeah, we polish people know that we’ve got one of the most difficult languages in the word but it takes a lot of time and practice to get there and even for some polish people that’s often a burden

    P.S. This is a point of view from polish person spending much time on learning and practicing american english.

    • Reply Leah Southers 22 January 2016 at 18:05

      Adrian – Yeah I would agree especially with the first one. Pronunciation is always difficult so it’s important to be patient and not to embarrass someone if they just can’t say something correctly. It’s not that big of a deal. However, I do think accent is important. At least you have to try not to roll your “r’s” in English. I try to roll all my r’s in Polish! I don’t always succeed though 🙂

      • Reply hollydolly 23 January 2016 at 03:11

        It’s the toughest sound in Polish, kids often learn it as the last one (I also had problems with it). On the other hand English ,,r” is quite easy

        • Reply Mike 28 January 2016 at 03:47

          English “r” is not easy! Because it sounds so close to “l”, Japanese people have a problem distinguishing the two. In a way it’s like a difference between “bitch” and “beach” pronunciation to Polish speaking people. Believe it or not, it does not sound the same.

          • Leah Southers 28 January 2016 at 07:33

            hah yes bitch and beach are quite different. like Polish and polish 🙂

    • Reply Sławomira 24 February 2016 at 17:21

      “Translating polish names of cities and villages” Yeah, translating names of cities – srsly, someone could know where is “Boat city”?

      • Reply Leah Southers 24 February 2016 at 22:20

        Boat city 🙂 Yeah better not to translate names. People are like oh “Gliwice, wow, that’s sounds tough” and I’m like “hah, you know no idea”.

  • Reply Dorota 24 February 2016 at 18:20

    It is really interesting! Actually, I am working with Icelanders and one of them is trying to speak with me in Polish, but I never know how to keep this conversation 😉 Little misunderstanding! And now I know, I need to try more 🙂 Thanks!

    • Reply Leah Southers 24 February 2016 at 22:19

      Dorota – yeah it’s hard sometimes I think. I think you just have to give them a little encouragement and ask lots of questions and keep the conversation going yourself. That’s what I do with my students and it works really well!

  • Reply Yola 18 March 2016 at 22:29

    Hi, I just discovered your blog and love it already. Born and raised in Poland, I have been living in US for the last 24 years.
    I recall my elementary school Polish teacher telling us over and over : “Nazw własnych nie tłumaczymy!”. We shouldn’t translate geographical names, or people’s names. What a mess that could create!
    Of course, when I go back to Poland nobody asks me to say something in English, but I have been learning Japanese, so they ask me to say something in that language. When people in US ask me to say something in Polish, I say “dzień dobry”, but my 17 year old daughter always responds with”dupa”, lol. On the other hand, I had a situation years ago which wasn’t funny at all, when my older child went for a kindergarten interview. The teacher told my daughter to pronounce her Polish last name in “American way”: ” I don’t understand it, say it in American English!” My daughter kept repeating her last name the way we taught her, every time being scolded by the teacher. Finally, she burst in tears and ran out of the classroom to me, waiting outside. Oh, I had a word with that teacher! That was in NY, if that matters. After a few years we moved to Florida, and generally speaking, outside of NY we always get a positive reaction when people hear we are Polish-Americans. And I don’t mind answering questions about Poland, even if they are strange, when I see someone is truly interested and nice about it (I also read your post about the crazy questions you get).
    At my girls’ new school most of the teachers made an effort to pronounce our last name correctly, and it’s not an easy one. I feel touched by that. And we have been asked several times to bring home made “pierogies” (pierogi) to school parties. Food brings people together 🙂

    • Reply Leah Southers 18 March 2016 at 22:33

      Hey Jola 🙂

      Your 17-year-old daughter and I would get along great! I can’t believe they treated your daughter like that when she was a kindergartener… come on. Sometimes people aren’t very culturally sensitive I suppose. I’m sure your “pierogies” are always a big hit though 🙂 Where in Florida do you live??

  • Reply Adrian 15 April 2016 at 21:52

    “Don’t be afraid to start or keep up a conversation with them”

    So, you’re basically saying that if I supposedly met you in the middle of Gliwice and started a chit-chat with you, you wouldn’t be intimidated? I thought that it depends of ones personality, if they are shy or not etc… but! I’ll take your advice and start talking with random foreigners… (…in English).

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 16 April 2016 at 09:19

      I mean like at a party or something. Sometimes I start conversations with people in Polish, which is much harder for me than for them, and they just don’t help me out and keep the conversation going. It makes me crazy.

  • Reply kaye 22 June 2016 at 22:21

    I just stumbled your blog and I like it a lot 🙂 I have the same sentiments about being corrected when speaking Polish.. so what I do is be stubborn and not follow the corrected one at all! I also hate it when I try to practice my Polish speaking powers when I am at a store for example, and just because I don’t look Polish (I am Asian) they will speak to me in English 🙂 It is a funny pic an Asian woman speaking Polish and getting some answers from a Polish lady in english 🙂

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 23 June 2016 at 06:57

      Hey Kaye! I know a Japanese-Polish family and they all speak Polish perfectly so I bet they have a lot of fun with people in public 🙂

  • Reply Ko 24 February 2018 at 21:39

    Ask someone to “say something in Polish”. This is the absolute most irritating question. I am not a monkey and I do not do tricks. My typical response to this is “dupa”.

    Ha, ha-let me “steal” it from you!
    I live abroad and often people ask something like this.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 8 March 2018 at 15:19

      Hahah it makes me crazy!!! Dupa is a great response.

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