Breaking the language barrier

As you may know from my previous column, my spectacular year in Poland will be coming to an end on June 30th, as I half-reluctantly make my way back to the Copper Country, which in a bittersweet fashion is no longer my entire home. The other half of which, is of course in Warszawa, Polska.

With my departure date soon approaching, I have of course been doing my best to make the most of each and every moment I have left in this gorgeous country with its vibrant culture and amazing people. In an effort to accomplish this, each day I try to go and have a new adventure, whether that might be going vintage shopping with my friends majoring in fashion design at university, or getting purposely “lost” so I’m forced to walk through streets with unfamiliar sights and shops, simply breathing in the life the city is constantly exhaling in a sort of twisted symbiotic relationship.

At this point during my exchange, I have become fully immersed in the Polish culture, especially the language, of which I understand around 95 percent of what is said, and according to the latest poll from my host family and friends, I speak at about a 7/10 … disregarding bad grammar in the form of declensions. In case you didn’t know, declension is, according to Google, “the variation of the form of a noun, pronoun, or adjective, by which its grammatical case, number, and gender are identified.” In simple terms, this means that much like a verb is conjugated depending on the context in which it is used – i.e. the verb “to go,” I go vs. she goes – nouns change from their basic form depending on their context. In Polish, declension is based on three classifications: gender (masculine, feminine, neuter), number (singular, plural), and the seven cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative, and vocative.) As you can imagine, this can be quite complicated, as the word mi?so meaning meat, can also look like mi?sa, mi?su, mi?sem, and mi?sie depending on how it’s being used – and those are just the singular declensions.

When I think about all I’ve done this year and all the ways I’ve changed, I never fail to amaze myself as the whole concept still seems rather surreal. In the past nine months, I have left my family and friends to go to a strange country where they consume copious amounts of beer and pig products and speak with an alarming number of consonant clusters and in their absence, found a spectacular second set of both who although I will leave behind for a time in a month, will always be there for me to come back to. In the past nine months, I have learned to the best of my ability the finer points of the Polish language (which has been described to me as resembling a cruel yet beautiful woman) as well as shared the finer points of my own, including some absolute gems of yooper vernacular. In the past nine months I have received what can only be described as the best educational experience one could ever ask for, as I learned valuable lessons that cannot be taught in a classroom, such as the significance of the ?mietana in pierogi ruskie ze mietan, when and when not to make it blatantly obvious that you’re an American, how to eat a kebab, and when to realize that the knowledge of US geography from the person you are talking to is limited to New York, Chicago, LA and Texas, so you’re probably best off just telling them you’re from Canada. Most importantly, I have begun to understand just how small we as people are compared to the world we live in, but that as small as we are, how just one of us can make an incredible difference.

Editor’s note: Maria Sliva is with the Houghton Rotary student exchange program.