Linguistic Challenge Revisited

The linguistic challenge post, written 10 years ago, at the start of the Bohdan Pawłowicz project in 2013, was a snapshot in time triggered by the memories and feelings towards the languages I had learned at different times and in different ways for different purposes, as well as the realization of the need to learn the Polish language differently: not only as a way to communicate orally with the family, but as a means to reading, interpreting and translating it into English and eventually Portuguese.

The trip to Poland in April and May 2013 proved that my speaking and listening fluency was adequate, as I managed to understand, be understood and hold my own in everyday situations.  Once I had recovered my grandfather’s papers, I further put the language into practice: I gradually built this website and fleshed out  the biographies with more information and detail gleaned from the documents, the recorded narratives, and the annotated photos of my ancestors. 

In October 2015, I visited Arizona and stayed with my cousin Leszek, who handed me two boxes filled with more of my grandfather’s diaries, articles and family photos which had been left in his care by my late uncle. These have joined the ones my mother had given me and those I had brought from Poland. Although I managed to go through some of the materials and absorb enough information to convey the basics, progress was still very slow.

At the end of 2021, I officially retired from teaching English at the French school, which meant my close involvement with English and French was diminished considerably. Besides, picking from a list of resolutions for the new year, I decided to enroll in an online course of Polish in March 2022. The course named “Uczymy się razem” (We learn together) is offered every semester by the Casa da Cultura Polônia- Brasil in Curitiba, Paraná, and is sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland. 

After an interview and a positioning test which placed me in the most advanced level offered (Polish VII), I started taking classes every Saturday from 9 to 11:30 am. The group in this class (about nine to ten students, most of whom I have now met for three semesters)  are in general much younger than I am and represent the third or fourth generation of immigrants, who have had very little or no contact with the language at home. The exception is a lady from São Paulo, who, like me, is second generation, and closely matches my age and linguistic profile: Polish is the language she learned at home from her parents. 

While the younger generation is learning Polish to obtain the Karta Polaka to eventually go to Poland to study, get a job, or live there, my colleague and I want to improve our reading, hone our writing skills, and expand our vocabulary. Both of us know the language and use it instinctively (and, much to my surprise, correctly most of the time) without having to parse mentally hard grammatical rules such as the various cases and declensions, most of which we may not even be aware of. I am amazed at how well my parents (and hers) succeeded at teaching us so well informally: all the components of the language come together like a well choreographed dance, and they hardly ever miss a step. We also notice immediately when something gets tripped up. Heaven only knows what it must be like for the other students who have not had this advantage, as Polish is not an easy language to learn.

Although I am now more effective when it comes to reading, writing assignments inflict utter misery on me. Dictation is, for the time being, the fiercest of furnaces and a source of anguish. To counteract it, I diligently write down and copy all my exercises and corrections, in the hope of getting acquainted with the spelling, understanding the patterns and memorizing the most common words. “The Polish spelling is not for the fainthearted.” 

As a student on the course I am also invited to participate in various folklore festivals and cultural events that take place in the Polish community. Most of them happen in or around Curitiba, in the different towns of the state of Paraná, where many Polish immigrants have settled. As I live in São Paulo, I have been following only what is broadcast online, such as interviews with Polish writers and professors, which have exposed me to a different register of the language than the one I am used to in everyday situations. The distancing from English and French and closer contact with Polish has kindled the questions I asked myself at the end of that post I wrote ten years ago. The situation has changed since then and the rapport among the different languages, reversed.

This year, for the first time, I translated one of my grandfather Bohdan’s articles into Portuguese instead of English.  This decision was the result of a chance encounter, which, together with other apparently unrelated events, developed into a publishing opportunity. 

At the end of January 2023, following a link shared in our Polish class Whatsapp, I learned about  Fabricio Vicroski (Wichrowski), an activist of the Polish community and a representative of the Polish ethnic group in the Sectoral College for Linguistic Diversity in Rio Grande do Sul.  He launched and is promoting an initiative called National Inventory of the Polish Language in Brazil. When I got in touch with him, he told me more  about the project and I introduced him to my own family project, which he complimented me on.

Some weeks later, while looking at my grandfather’s documents, I randomly picked one of his articles from a box of yellowish newspaper clippings, and read it.  It was published in 1966, a year before Bohdan died, and is titled “Letter from Father to Son.”  Being addressed to his son, Leszek, and his son’s generation, it is also dedicated “to all the Polish fathers from the post-war Polish diaspora scattered across the globe.” 

It is an urgent plea for the post-war generations to maintain their Polishness, pass it on to their children, and promote it in the countries to which they have emigrated. I found the intense tone a bit too nationalistic for my taste but I could relate to the article’s feelings in the context of the trying times Poland had undergone, having been partitioned several times, having seen its people rendered stateless, their nationality and language suppressed many times. I contacted Fabricio and sent him the article, which he suggested I translate into Portuguese and submit to Boletim Tak, where he has also published several articles. I translated it immediately but only sent it to the editor of the bulletin at the beginning of August, once my Polish teacher had gone over it. It was accepted and I was told it will be published in TAK32-setembro_outubro_2023 (added link to file on 21st October 2023 – article is on pages 12 to 15). I was also invited to talk to my class in a few weeks about my ancestors’ experience, challenges and perspective on WWII after a screening of the film Katyn by Andrzej Wajda.

Different threads seem to be untangling and pointing towards new possibilities.

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