Going Back to School in Poland

During the Easter holidays 2006, I spent 10 days visiting Poland with the aim of getting to know where the new pupils have come from and also learn a little of their language.

Through the internet I had made contact with a small language school near Gdansk, so when I got off the Central Wings aircraft with the many people returning for the holidays I was met by the owner his Swiss wife and two bilingual children.

I lodged with a local family, so was immersed in the culture.  As it was the anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II and also Easter a lot of time was spent in church. I was amazed at how full the church was for the many services, especially as some lasted for many hours or started early in the morning.

Spending a long time listening to a language, which I did not understand helped me empathise with all the EAL pupils.  I ate all my meals with the family and they tried hard to communicate, even putting post it notes on everything on the table.  Every meal was a lesson for me as I arrived with my dictionary and notebook.  The family taught me how to say the basics but I soon realised that their language was extremely difficult as it was difficult for me to work out rules.  I quickly lost my inhibitions as I realised I had to give it a go.  I do not think that I would have been able to do this in my youth, when there is a compulsion to get it right or else say nothing.  I certainly have a better understanding of the pupils who choose to remain silent for long periods.
My resulting mistakes caused much amusement.  Once when trying to say I was very tired I used the word for sacred instead.  The mother, laughing, pointed to the photograph of Jan Pawel Drugi (John Paul II) indicating that he was the only very holy person present.
I had indicated to my Polish teacher that I was interested in visiting schools.  Through contacts he organised three visits to a primary, middle and secondary school.  Although I had two sessions per day of formal instruction at the language school the learning done as part of family life as well as meeting other teachers and pupils was the most meaningful as I had a supportive context to aid my understanding.  My impressions of the education system follow this article.
I was also taken on outings in the local area, the most poignant being to a small chapel built to remember the thousands who had passed that way on a death march, after being abandoned at the Stutoff concentration camp.  The people who showed it to us lived in a house, which had formerly been the border post, when this whole area belonged to Germany.  I was particularly keen to visit Gdansk, as I have an elderly German friend who grew up there when it was called Danzig and became a refugee at the age of 12 to escape the Russian advance.  The house where I was staying had once also belonged to Germans and was then occupied by Russian soldiers, who sold it to the present owners for a bottle of vodka!

Gdansk is a very historic city similar to Amsterdam, having high narrow houses with beautiful ornate facades.  It is the home of amber jewellery but the prehistoric resin once picked up on the beaches now comes from China.  I visited the Mariatski, the biggest church in Poland and was interested to watch people bringing small items of food in decorated baskets to have it blessed for Easter.  This is just one of the many customs of Easter festival and the end of Lent.
I was able to travel round on my own using the train, yet another way of actively learning the language.  People joke about the carriages shaking because the rails are so old but after spending most of my time driving a car, I enjoyed this type of transport.  I took trips to Gydinia and Łeba (first letter is not an L and is pronounced W).  These are on the Baltic coast with its long golden beaches, although rather quiet and chilly in April.

I was impressed by the standard of living in Poland even though shops do not have the same variety of fresh produce as here.  Like my hosts most people grow and preserve their own fruit and vegetables.  It reminded me so much of how things used to be but I can imagine that following the contact with other countries things will change.  There are many half built houses as people gone to earn money elsewhere to buy the windows and doors.  In fact people complain that it is very difficult to get a tradesman nowadays, since so many have gone to fill the gap in the UK.  It also means that unemployment has gone down, nevertheless most young people look forward to taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the enlargement of the EU.
My Polish pupils seem pleased that I have visited their country and that I can now say a few words in their language.  I have tremendous respect for their ability to use one of the most complicated languages, which I have encountered.  The trip taught me many things about Polish life and culture.   Most of all however it gave me insight into how we learn languages, how stressful the experience can be and the benefits of learning through immersion.

Janet Storey
Outreach Teacher for English as an Additional Language  

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