When I first moved to the States I was not fortunate enough to know how to speak English. I found it difficult to communicate with my friends and my mother enacted a “No Polish in the house” rule. Being unable to speak with even my family affected me. I withdrew, read even more and watched movies. I couldn’t understand the English books I was reading, so I had my oldest brother buy me an English-Polish dictionary. I went around the house labeling everything and translated my Polish children’s books into English. My mother put me in ESL classes and a wonderful British woman taught me how to speak “proper English.”
Over the course of the summer, I prepared for the school year with my ESL teacher. I began using English at home and reading English language books with the help of my well-loved dictionary. I even wrote a short story about what I did over my summer vacation, in English! After each lesson I was even more thrilled with myself. My sentences began to actually make sense and I was conversing with my friends. Even when I was out with friends and family, I carried my trusty dictionary with me. Every so often I would thumb through it and look up a word that came up in conversation. Words that were not in the dictionary I wrote down on a notepad so I could ask for a translation at a later ESL lesson.
Since I was living in NYC, I would often go to Greenpoint, Brooklyn and visit the myriad of Polish stores. I found it comforting to talk to people who spoke my native language and was even able to find a copy of Slownik Naukowo- Techniczny Angielski-Polski (English-Polish Dictionary of Science and Technology). Though I didn’t carry the book around with me like I did the general dictionary, I read it from cover to cover several times. Sneaking down to Greenpoint was freeing for me and I would always come up with an alibi regarding where I had been all afternoon. My mother tried to keep Polish out of the home, as she didn’t want me to fall behind in school. When we went to Greenpoint as a family, she spoke English to the store owners. Most of the time I would hang my head and feel ashamed that we were betraying our native language. Every time I spoke English to someone I knew spoke Polish, I felt like a traitor.
When I started school, it became clear that the English I knew was not enough. My peers had their own language and it was completely foreign to my ears. The slang words that were thrown around in the halls were words I didn’t understand and I once again became withdrawn at school. After school one day, I came home and explained to my mother that I felt like an outsider. She enrolled me in another, more intense ESL program and I began to take lessons from my British instructor on a more frequent basis. A few months into the intensive course, my mother moved us to the Midwest and I had to find an ESL teacher closer to where we lived. I definitely missed the ESL courses in NYC and the teachers in Missouri were never the same.
English has probably been the most challenging thing I have ever had to learn. Medical school, residency, moving great distances and even relationships, have never proved as difficult as learning English. English phonology proved incredibly difficult and I had a very hard time with pronunciation. In the beginning, hearing the English words didn’t help me understand how they were physically said. Even with the help of the ESL instructors I had a complete disconnect from the words they were trying to teach me. Long before I was able to speak English with any sort of fluency, I was able to write it. Even though I had no idea what the words I was writing sounded like, I plugged the words into sentences. To this day, I still have to stop every so often and translate from Polish to English in my head during conversations.
The English-Polish dictionary is still on my book shelf, though I refer to it less often now. It has been so well-loved that G-J has completely come loose from the spine and it can be laid perfectly flat on a desk. It’s pages are covered with notations, some of which are faded and barely legible. The dictionary served me well and I can’t bear the thought of throwing it out after it helped me understand so much of the world around me. It showed me that, even though language can seem like an insurmountable barrier, with enough perseverance you can make yourself understood.