The first 3 words I learned in Polish were:
I arrived in Poland in February 1998. I knew one Polish word (cześć), and the only famous Poles I had heard of were John Paul II, Zbigniew Boniek and Lech Wałęsa. I didn’t know a thing about Polish culture, history or food. No worries, I thought, I’ll absorb it all on site. It wasn’t as easy as I’d imagined.
I figured that the best place to pick up Polish is in Poland itself, so I didn’t bother studying beforehand. I did however buy a small phrase book and spent the flight to Warsaw trying to pronounce the greeting ‘cześć‘. After greeting a Polish person with this word, my plan was to switch to English.
I did notice that the word ‘cześć‘ and ‘Wałęsa’ contained some strange symbols. The ‘e’ had a tail, the ‘l’ had a belt and both the ‘s’ and ‘c’ had little hats. So the Poles like to dress up their letters, I thought. That’s nice…just as long as it’s the same, familiar letters underneath.
In practice, not a single Pole understood my pronunciation of ‘cześć‘ anyway and we switched to English immediately.
I spent my first evening in Poland with some new work colleagues and we went out for a beer. When it was my turn to buy a round, I approached the bar and asked (in English) for three beers. The barman responded by asking ‘Żywiec?”
I quickly discovered that Polish beer was good but that it was a challenge ordering it. In fact, it took me three months just to learn how to pronounce the name ‘Żywiec’. As soon as my anglo-saxon mind stared at those 6 letters, there was no way to even begin saying the name. And course, as hard as I tried to memorize it, the effect of the beer washed away the memory and by the next morning I was back to square one. I knew some British guys who drank ‘Lech’ just because it was easier to pronounce!
On day 2 I went for a walk. Walking down the street, I saw a dog walker turn to their dog who was busy sniffing in the bushes and say ‘chodź‘. The dog immediately looked up and ran over to its owner. ‘Ah-hah I said to myself, ‘chodź‘ must be the name of the dog’. In fact, it seemed to be the most popular name for a dog in Poland, like ‘rover’ or ‘spot’ in the Anglo-Saxon world. Most dog owners were using it. For a time I used to think that the most popular name for a dog in Poland was ‘chodź’. Then I heard some owners using a longer version of the name: ‘chodź tu’, and I was confused. After some hard thinking I deduced two possibilities – either ‘chodź’ was a shorter version of ‘chodź tu’, a little like Bob being short version of Robert – or that this owner had previously owned a dog called ‘chodź‘ who had died tragically and then bought a new dog whom they had christened ‘chodź two’. The next dog would probably be called ‘chodź three’…
So that was my start in learning Polish – two words I couldn’t pronounce and a third I didn’t understand. Perhaps it wasn’t going to be so easy.