In his Polish history God’s Playground, Norman Davies describes a test used by Polish troops during the 14th century to check whether a suspect was actually Polish:
“Investigations into the Cracovian revolt were assisted by a simple language test. Any suspect who could correctly pronounce ‘soczewica, koło, miele, młyn’ was judged loyal; he who faltered was guilty.”
Norman Davies, God’s Playground, volume 1, p77
Clearly, Polish words are so difficult to pronounce that foreigners can’t even pronounce simple words like wheel or mill correctly.
I actually had to undergo a similar test in a Notary office one day. Before he would notarize the document I was signing (which was in Polish), the notary insisted I read the document aloud to prove that I understood it. I read one sentence and he said ‘stop’. He had heard enough and by pronouncing one sentence correctly, I had passed the test.
On many occasions, I’ve experienced Poles using a variation on this technique. When they heard that I’m learning Polish, they immediately respond by asking me to repeat a tongue-twister about a beetle in Szczebrzeszyn (W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie). This has happened so often that I’m curious why.
Obviously, it’s difficult and Poles want to challenge a foreigner with some particularly tricky Polish pronunciation.
However, I sometimes wonder if it’s defensive too. Are they saying ‘don’t get so good at Polish that we don’t know you’re foreign anymore!’ and by hearing me fail, they are comforted that only real Poles can say the ridiculously difficult beetle tongue-twister?