Growing up Polish

We refer to ourselves as Americans of Polish origin.  My sister and I were born in the United States, whereas our older brother was born in Belgium where our parents had completed their university studies after the Second World War.  We not only grew up speaking Polish at home, our parents taught us to read and write Polish before we started (American) kindergarten.  However, we were more than just bilingual, we were brought up bicultural as well.  Has this hurt us at all?  Have there been any negative repercussions associated with this?  Absolutely not!

As adults, we realized that our parents had been enlightened people who knew that by virtue of being raised in this country, we would be Americans in every sense of the word and that we would speak like everyone else.  However, they also knew that giving us a second language would enrich our lives and broaden our horizons.

Linguistic knowledge is always useful.  It facilitates cultural understanding and rapport with people of other nations, and engenders a more scientific or critical attitude towards other languages.
Of course, as kids we balked at speaking another language in public, and found it  occasionally embarrassing as adolescents – but that passes.  The majority of our lives are spent in adulthood and that is when we really reaped the benefits of the gift our parents so wisely gave us.

I will cite a few personal examples of the unique opportunities, in terms of employment, that present themselves when one is bilingual.  I had always wanted to be a stewardess and to travel the world.  I was accepted by Pan American World Airways, which was (then) the most elite international airline in this country, and realized my dream thanks to the fact that I knew Polish.  Pan Am was the only American airline requiring the fluent knowledge of at least one foreign language.  My colleagues and I were a virtual flying United Nations!  I no longer cared that I had been a little different growing up in Rocky River, Ohio; I was now a part of a group of people who consider themselves “citizens of the world.”
In many parts of Africa and the Middle East that I flew to, the Lebanese run businesses.

As many of them speak French besides Arabic, I was able to converse with them during flights in French (the knowledge of which I also owe to my parents), resulting in many invitations to dinners, special events and local celebrations.  It is so interesting to be a guest in a private home in Liberia, Monrovia or Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and to get an inside look at life in exotic foreign lands.

My older brother, Tom, a clinical psychologist, moved to Chicago to do his residency, and has remained there.  The city has a large concentration of Poles, with only a handful of Polish-speaking psychologists to meet a huge need for their services.  Tom has a constant flow of Polish patients.  A foreign-born and -educated professional working in such a field may not match what is expected in the American sense of professionalism.  Similarly, my sister, Anna, a clinical dietician, has on a regular basis been called upon to assist non-English speaking Poles at each of the hospitals at which she has worked.

All of us have traveled a good bit to visit family and friends in Poland and elsewhere in Europe.  By speaking Polish and French, our hosts did not have to make an effort to speak English to us, as so often happens with relatives and friends from America.  We were thus not the burden that family less able to assimilate would be.  Both sides were more comfortable and we always felt welcome.

More generally, growing up bilingual prevents one from becoming too invested in one way of talking about experience. This in turn makes one more open to new cultural experiences later in life.

I attribute my ability to relate to persons from various parts of the world, during my flying years and later, to this.  I wonder whether some Americans’ xenophobic attitudes toward other cultures and peoples may not be due to the fact that many Americans have not learned to speak any language other than English.  Multilingual proficiency is more common in Europe and other parts of the world.  This is yet another benefit of having been raised in a manner somewhat deviating from the American norm.

Karolina Rostafiñska Merk

Forum, 3/2004