It is not easy to learn a foreign language, not even when you enjoy learning languages. I do not particularly enjoy learning languages, although I do not resent having to learn new ones out of necessity. It is, however, a long and difficult process and it takes me at least two years to see any worthwhile results.
When I lived in Germany I had to learn German. For the first two years I struggled to understand and to be understood. Most Germans were patient with me, many praising my incomprehensible mutterings and encouraging me to mutter louder. Some, especially government employees, were impatient and told me to return with a translator, dismissing me with a 90º turn of the swivel chair and some dramatic typing on the keyboard, the message of which was unmistakable.
After two years I got the hang of it and I made some major leaps forward in my understanding. I could communicate in restaurants and understand just what the waiter was saying when he insulted me, I could argue with belligerent taxi drivers and order them to take me to the place I wanted to go, even if it were not convenient for the taxi driver, and I could eavesdrop on people on public transport as they made banal conversation and talked the most mundane bullshit.
Now in Poland, I have to learn Polish. They say that once you learn one foreign language it is easier to learn another, and my response to that statement, from my own experience, is yes and no. Yes, once you learn the grammatical rules of a foreign language you understand the concept of grammar, and every language has grammar. It is easier to see words and know if they are nouns, adjectives or verbs, and you can quickly expand your vocabulary because when you learn one word, you can identify the whole family of related words. But Polish, being a Slavic language, has little to nothing to do with Germanic languages. English is a derivative language of German, so there are many German words in the English language (bed, bath, house, etc), making it easier for English speakers to learn it. Polish and all the other Slavic languages like Russian, Czech, Serbian and Croatian, developed separately, with their own grammar, their own words and their own crazy way of pronouncing things so that every word sounds like a frightened bee is trapped in your mouth.
There is one piece of help: Slavic languages, like Romance and Germanic languages, were influenced by Latin, and I learnt Latin in high school. That helps somewhat, although it helps about as much as covering a gunshot wound with a plaster. No, I will have to suffer for at least two years before I experience any noticeable progress.
Not being able to speak the language of the country in which you find yourself living has its advantages and its disadvantages. One afternoon, after my girlfriend and I had viewed an apartment with the intention of possibly purchasing it and we were standing on the street corner and my girlfriend was talking at length with the agent and I was standing beside her staring at the sky, I realized I was behaving in a very similar way to that of a well-trained dog. I stood patiently while my girlfriend and the agent discussed God-knows-what and I tried to make shapes in the patterns of the clouds. From time to time parts of my body became itchy and from time to time I scratched those parts. When it looked like they were wrapping up their conversation I became excited and I shuffled my feet.
Perhaps one of the reasons Mrs Coulter and I get along so well is that when my girlfriend speaks to Mrs Coulter in Polish, she and I understand about the same amount. We both know nie, which means no, and we both know the raised, clipped tone that signifies we have done something to displease the girlfriend.
Feeling that you are on the same intellectual standing as a household pet, to know that, should you have to compete with the pet linguistically you may lose, is humbling. A further disadvantage with not speaking a language is that at parties, when you are the only English speaker and people switch from Polish to English, you know they are doing it for your benefit. That means you must pay attention, even when you are not involved in the conversation – you cannot zone out, as we all like to do at some point or another in a party.
But as I said earlier, not knowing a language can have its advantages. On public transport, I am surrounded by philosophers. They discuss serious, important and relevant topics. Ideas are born, theories are tested and the prosperity of humanity is assured, all on the twenty-minute journey from the home to the workplace. When I cut off a driver on the road, he waves his arms and compliments me loudly and emphatically on my superior driving skills. When I am stopped by a charity collector on the street, the moment I speak English I am sent on my way with, “Have a nice day.” (Incidentally, this can work in English too. When I was in Cardiff, Wales, a charity collector stopped me and I told him I did not live in Wales. He asked me where I was from. I told him I lived in Germany and he told me that my English was excellent. I said thank you and he told me to enjoy my stay in Wales.)
One final point on not speaking a lingua franca: you become so used to not understanding anything that you can tune out what people say to you and it can get you into trouble. When strangers talk to me on the street I wait for a break in their sentence and I interject with an explanative apology in English. Recently, at a meeting at one of the companies I work for, a woman approached me and spoke to me. I was daydreaming, so I drifted back from my daydream and by the time she stopped speaking I had prepared my sentence. I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Polish. Do you speak English?” and she said, “Yes, I am speaking English!”
I have been in Poland for almost a year and I am picking up the language slowly, but I am picking it up. In another year I will be able to understand much more Polish, and by year three, I should be able to communicate. That should put me ahead of the cat.