English Second Language

Posted by Wojtek Dziegielewski on Jun 30, 2019

English is my second language. I know that after living in America for 30 years it is no longer an excuse for committing mistakes. But, there are certain things that will always reveal my Polish origins.

For one, pronunciation. When you come to an English speaking country as an adult, it is too late for your vocal cords to accommodate the new language demands. So, even after all these years, I still sound like a Pole. Unlike my children, who by the way are fluent in Polish, I can say “cześć” (Polish “hello”) without revealing that I don’t live in Poland. I can even properly pronounce Polish tongue-twisters like this one.

I can still hear Tom Hanks speaking with an astounding, perfectly-sounding Slavic (albeit not quite Polish) accent in a movie classic The Terminal. Remarkable performance for a native American speaker.

I ain’t going to be Tom Hanks any time soon and the accent will stay with me for the rest of my days. I remember a while back being stopped at a sobriety checkpoint. I said “No officer, I didn’t drink anything” only to be flagged for a secondary screening. Fortunately, a brilliant thought came into my mind and I quickly followed-up with “But officer, English is my second language”, which got me waived off right away. And no, I haven’t had anything to drink that day.

Here is another story. On a recent ski trip to Whistler, I and my Polish friends stopped at a bar for a few drinks. We got engaged in a conversation with a group of Canadians. It was quite heart warming to hear from a Canadian that he thought I was an American among a group of Poles - he couldn’t sense a foreign accent in my speaking(!). OK, alcohol may have helped a bit, but not by much, I only had one drink.

I am glad I am blogging and not speaking, as those false tunes would definitely become detectable. But even in writing, it’s difficult to hide your origins. In Polish, there are no articles, so those a’s and the’s don’t come intuitive at all. Over the years, I have gotten better at it, but I still don’t fully understand which of the articles, if any, should be used. Even the above paragraphs gave me hard time in a few places, such as:

  • for a secondary screening” or “for secondary screening
  • any time soon” or “anytime soon
  • for a few drinks” or “for few drinks
  • I was an American” or “I was American
  • sense a foreign accent” or “sense any foreign accent
  • in my speaking” or “in me speaking
  • which of the articles” or “which articles

Another troubling feature in English grammar is the abundance of “tenses” (in Polish, there are only 3: past, present and future). For example, is “those false tunes would definitely become detectable” at the top of this paragraph correct? Or should it be “those false tunes would’ve definitely become detectable” instead? I think that the latter is technically more correct, but the former sounds more natural. Do you agree?

Can you spot any other missteps in this article that reveal English is not my native language?

As a bonus, in case I sparked your interest in my native Polish, here are two links that you may find interesting. Both links point to articles from a fantastic Culture.pl site.