My Missed Opportunity To Grow Up Bilingual

I never learned my family’s language, but I cherish the snippets I do know.
My Missed Opportunity To Grow Up Bilingual

Every house has a different name for the remote control. Some people call it a “remote” (boring), a “clicker” (inaccurate) or a “gizmo” (hmm, okay). My family always called it the “zapper” — one of those words that if someone from outside the family heard it, they might wrinkle their nose and look at you a little strange. But while people have always passionately debated what to call the channel changer (too literal), I realized when I was young that my family has different words for other things, too.

We never got something out of the “cupboard” — it came out of the szafa. If mum wanted us to “come here,” we’d be asked to chodź tu. And if you must know, we never went for a wee-wee. Instead, we had a siusiu.

My babcia and dziadzio (“grandma” and “grandpa”) were Polish — both came to England after World War II and settled in Bradford in West Yorkshire. My mum and her siblings were raised speaking the language, and in my early years, I regularly heard it around me at family gatherings and Catholic mass. But when I was nearly 3 years old, my parents moved away from Bradford and the rest of our extended family, settling in a small North Yorkshire market town. Although my mum searched tirelessly, there were no nearby Polish communities or churches. There was no Saturday morning Polish school.

In the years before we moved, my older sister had attended Polish school on the weekends — here she learned not only the language but also traditional dances, crafts and a bit of history, too. My cousins who stayed in Bradford continued to go, meaning that by the time we were teenagers, one of them was able to undertake a Polish GCSE, a high school qualification earned after two years of study. My sister, brother and I didn’t have these resources in our town, and the opportunity to learn as we grew slipped away.

While it’s absolutely never too late to learn a new language, it’s sad to think about who I might’ve been and what I might’ve done had I learned Polish when I was young.

When I ask her now, my mum says she took the “easy option” by raising us to speak English — my dad is English, so we weren’t immersed in Polish at home. Although my mum sang us Polish rhymes and we had a few Polish children’s books, regrettably not much sunk in. I don’t blame her at all (we were hard enough to raise at the best of times, even without chucking in a ź or a ł or an ę) but I do feel sad about what I missed.

I was never able to speak to my babcia in her native tongue. I wasn’t able to help my mum when the Polish population in our town steadily grew and new friends needed help with forms and papers. I cringed on my first family trip to Poland after university, when I accidentally said “good morning” in the place of “thank you” as I left a shop. When I took my partner to Poland half a decade later, I’d mastered “thank you” but very little more.

My missed opportunity to grow up bilingual stings all the more because I am terrible at learning languages. I am still tormented by the memory of a bully laughing at my attempt to roll the “r” in règle in Year 7 French, and I dropped the class as soon as I could. My brain fumbles and panics when confronted with unfamiliar languages, and an overanxious mind  has always prevented me from comfortably attempting pronunciations. After attending university in London, I briefly looked into Polish lessons, but the thought of spitting and gurgling my way through words filled me with hot embarrassment.

It’s widely thought that it’s easiest to learn a language when you’re young — when our brains are sponges, eager and ready to absorb. One 2017 study from Georgetown University found that people who are raised bilingual find it easier to learn languages later in life. While it’s absolutely never too late to learn a new language, it’s sad to think about who I might’ve been and what I might’ve done had I learned Polish when I was young. I could’ve lived abroad. I could’ve done translation work. I could be writing this very piece in another language! I could’ve listened to my babcia’s amazing life story in Polish before she passed away.

Although I feel a sense of loss, I cherish the Polish I know, delighting in the abstract mix of words and phrases that I’ve picked up throughout my life. I’d estimate I know about 50 sayings, some of which I use every single day. If I think something is good, I will say dobre dobre to myself, and my fiancé has charmingly picked up the habit too. His homemade pasta sauce? Dobre dobre. A sip of wine? Dobre dobre. Limbs slowly lowered into the comforting crook of the sofa? Dobre dobre!

I’m never “cold,” either — I say zimno jest. The words themselves sound like shivering to me — “zzzzimno,” I will mutter to myself when I forget my hat and scarf. Much of the Polish I know is food-and-drink oriented: beer, tea, apples, ice cream, eggs, milk. Should I ever need to, I could at least write a shopping list before visiting the local Polski sklep.

Although I feel a sense of loss, I cherish the Polish I know, delighting in the abstract mix of words and phrases that I’ve picked up throughout my life.

Of course, I know the mushy stuff — ja kocham ciebe, “I love you,” words hugged into my grandparents as we said goodbye and muttered to my mum every night before bed. But then there’s “how are you?” which I only know thanks to Borat (jak się masz, or “JAGSHEMASH?!” as you might know it best).

As a teenager, I also picked up the phrase “has to be” when cold and bored at the back of a Polish Christmas mass. The church was overflowing and we had to stand the whole time — to make it worse, my siblings, dad and I had absolutely no idea what was going on. And then, an epiphany. I nudged my brother and we broke into stifled laughs. Over and over again, the priest was saying musi być, which my mum later told me means “has to be.” The first word is pronounced “mushy.” The second sounds a little like the word “witch,” only with a “b.”

For now, I’ll keep clutching at the stray Polish I know: aunt, uncle, happy, “I want to go home,” please, thank you, hello, goodbye, good morning, good night, cow, mouse, little frog, happy birthday, Merry Christmas, lamp, nose, tasty, eat, “sit down” (always tutted insistently to my babcia), soup, very, “I don’t understand,” cake. Although the sum of my Polish is no great accomplishment, I find it warming to know and use these words; I almost feel like a child with a secret language, a second option to describe and interact with the world.

After lockdown, I plan to look into classes again, and my partner says if we ever have children, he’d like them to learn the language too. One way or another, I will carry Polish with me. And that, quite simply, is dobre dobre.

This article is part of a series commissioned and paid for by Babbel, but it represents the journalist’s views. It was edited by Michelle No and Thomas Devlin.

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Author Headshot
Amelia Tait
Amelia Tait is a London-based freelance features journalist who writes about culture, trends and the internet. Though half of her family tree is Polish, she unfortunately hasn't mastered the language (though she can at least rustle together a few words to order her favorite soup).
Amelia Tait is a London-based freelance features journalist who writes about culture, trends and the internet. Though half of her family tree is Polish, she unfortunately hasn't mastered the language (though she can at least rustle together a few words to order her favorite soup).

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