Sometimes I have ideas beyond my skills. For a long time learning Polish seemed to be one of them. I suspect I’m not the only English speaker who would be daunted by a sentence like this:

Chcemy się pochwalić że zostaliśmy dziadkami.

There is a paucity of vowels for a start. I was comforted at first by assurances of phonetic consistency. After English, that seemed promising. But in the daunting sentence, there are three different kinds of z s (and one possible kind is missing, I discover later). There are c s and e s and s s with and without diacritical marks. They all sound different – I think.

One of my goals (to avert Alzheimer’s without resorting to crossword puzzles) looks as if it will be well served. The brain will certainly be breaking new ground. My main goal – to communicate with my daughter’s in-laws when I go to Poland – looks completely unachievable.

I fumble round the edges of learning: I buy and borrow teach yourself Polish books. I blu tak a bewildering array of flash cards on the kitchen cupboards, although I know osmosis probably won’t take the place of hard work. After all I spent 9 years of my working life espousing explicit teaching with absolute conviction.

I identify patterns and become enamoured of adverbs and conjunctions because they hold their identity, no matter what the rest of the sentence does. They are the mature parts of speech in my view – the ones that don’t succumb to the pressures of proximity. As I “progress” ponieważ (because) becomes a particular favourite, because it enables me to move out of the realm of the simple sentence into more complicated sentences, such as “I like it because it is nice.”

I don’t seem to be getting any closer to my first goal of emailing O and J. The breakthrough is the arrival of a postcrossing postcard. The front of it delights me with its palette and patterns.

When I turn it over, this is what I see

It’s from Poland. And then I realize that not only is it from Poland but that most of it is written in Polish. (I have progressed. I know it’s not Swedish, or Lithuanian or Russian.) I did post on my profile that I “was struggling to learn Polish” and Anna has called my bluff.

So I begin a process that becomes familiar (and easier – a bit.) I pull out the dictionary and work through word by word. My greatest triumph is niedaleko. I don’t need the dictionary. I can read Polish!! I know nie – like a 2 year old one of my first Polish words was no or not. And daleko is on my flash cards. I even remember what it means. So niedaleko means “not far.” Context kicks in – I’ve always been good at leaping over unknown words in another language and getting it roughly right, provided there aren’t too many unknowns. I reckon Anna lives not far from Roztcze. And the dictionary confirms it.

I become cocky and do two things. I add to my postcrossing profile: “If you speak Polish, please write in Polish to make me work hard to translate, and learn a bit more about this challenging language.” And I send an email to O and J.

Stagnation sets in again. O and J don’t reply. Have I offended? Should I have addressed them more formally as Pan or Pani? Or have I been totally incomprehensible? My daughter reassures me – they don’t use their email much now, because both their sons have returned to Poland and live nearby.

I soldier on. I comment in broken Polish on my daughter’s blog, blithely using the infinitive instead of the first person. I write part of my emails to her in Polish. I send Marcin birthday greeting in Polish. However, when I look over what I have written it doesn’t flash into meaning. I’m still stymied by unfamiliar letter couplings.

By now I’ve discovered an online keyboard that provides the diacritical marks I need – ą ć ę ł ń ó ś ź ż – and I’ve discovered Google translate, so I can see how it interprets my clumsy attempts. I’ve become vaguely familiar with pronouns and the conjugation of verbs and the declension of nouns. The dictionary seems to have more of the words I need, now that I recognize forms and transformations, and know that z has a different section from ź and ż.

Then M sends me a note from his parents in Polish. I spend an engrossed Sunday morning learning that they thank me for my letter, that they are grandparents,  that they are delighted that R (my daughter) and M have arrived and that I am invited warmly to Poland. The sentence that leaps out at me is Twój polski jest bardzo dobry. I know exactly what it says. I can read a whole sentence in Polish! It says “Your Polish is very good.”

Now it’s my turn to respond. I draft a few ideas in English, shape them to the capabilities of my Polish grammar, and write my reply. I congratulate them on being grandparents (Chcemy się pochwalić że zostaliśmy dziadkami means “We want to boast that we are grandparents”), ask them about their holiday on the Baltic; talk about spring here; say I want to hunt for mushrooms with them when I go to Poland. I am very pleased with my letter, despite its kindergarten constructions, until I feed it through Google translate and find that I have said as my opening line, not “I liked your letter”, but “I have fallen in love with my letter-box.”