In the fifties, after both socialistic countries – the People’s Republic of Poland and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam – came into contact, Vietnamese students started to arrive in the country upon Vistula to study at public universities. Almost all of those who came to Poland in consequence of this collaboration spent their first year in the unknown country on the intensive studying of unintelligible and difficult Polish language. The first centre that got involved in teaching Vietnamese students was the School of Polish for foreigners in the University of Łódź (the oldest centre of Polish). Not without reason, memories of student life of the Vietnamese living in Poland are related to this city. But it was even before their arrival in Poland that the Vietnamese were attending language courses in Foreign Languages College in Thanh Xuan, in the past a separate town, now one of the districts of Hanoi, the capital. Ngô Đăng Quang, who was a teacher from Poland at that time, remembers a simple but much telling motto printed on the cover of her exercising book – “Trade is life”. And in a fragment of the Polish Film Chronicle we can see young Thanh giving the example of a sentence with the preposition “beside”: “The Polish people always stand beside the Vietnamese people against American aggressors”.
The Vietnamese, coming to Poland to study, had to learn Polish. Being able to understand the language was indispensable when one wanted to get good marks; and good and very good marks were much expected by the Vietnamese authorities; they were a kind of passport thanks to which it was possible for young secondary school graduates to go to the brotherly country for further education. Later on, when the Vietnamese began to work, these language skills appeared to be really useful. Trade, which became the main activity of the enterprising Asiatics who were determined to stay in Poland, required communication skills – it was good to be acquainted not only with the very language but also with the Polish realities. The Vietnamese who have been coming to Poland from the eighties and nineties hope to work, not to study. They come here encouraged by the stories of those who “have already been and seen”. When travelling to Poland, they are helped by their families or by special agencies which, if given 4 thousand dollars, help to cross the border illegally. Roads from Vietnam to Poland unfortunately are different, not all of them legal nor pleasant. When, however, a Vietnamese citizen finally lands in Poland, the way he got to the country and the purpose of his stay will determine his Polish language knowledge.
Those Vietnamese who have already become acclimatized bring here their closer and further relatives. These closest ones are being brought in order to unite spouses and siblings often divided by thousands of kilometers. When they are finally in position to maintain their families in Poland, they send their children to Polish schools so that they could get the best education and, with that, an opportunity to grow. Further relatives, if not able to earn living on their own, take up a job with the friendly Vietnamese or a family who already runs its own business. Those further relatives and the Vietnamese who come to Poland crossing the border illegally, settled here in order to earn money and send savings home, that’s why they spend all days at work. Sometimes, the work they perform requires contacts only with their nationals so they learn some very basic vocabulary and really indispensable expressions. Their knowledge of Polish language is much crimped or even it doesn’t exist at all. Due to a demanding job, they don’t have time to study the language nor to come into contact with Polish speakers. Thus, they don’t find it necessary to study thoroughly this foreign and difficult tongue.
The young generation, being the children of the Vietnamese living in Poland for years, goes to Polish schools and studies at Polish universities. It differs markedly from the above described group. Parents of Vietnamese children urge them to learn the language so needed for undertaking studies. Vietnamese children speak Polish fluently, get the best marks during Polish lessons and writes poems in Polish. Wishing to provide them with even better start, parents encourage them to learn English, French and German. After a few years it turns out that a Vietnamese teenager speaks fluently two languages, has excellent school results but is not able to understand his parents nor tell them in Vietnamese what he was doing at school. The problem of this group lays therefore not in unacquaintance with the Polish language but with the Vietnamese one. The Vietnamese community in Warsaw tries to make them attend Sunday language schools but we all know how enticing such activities are for a young person. Parents, who are overworked, find no time to help their children in studying Vietnamese. And when teenagers start to rebel, one has to face not only the generational gap but also a language barrier, which makes it very difficult to understand each other.
But not all of the Vietnamese children who go to Polish schools can speak Polish fluently. Some Vietnamese have not been able to afford bringing up their off springs in Poland from the very beginning. Their children live in Vietnam, together with their grandfathers. When their parents gather enough money, they will come to Polish schools, being already 8, 11 or even 16. And Polish school in no way is prepared for receiving such children. This is a completely new phenomenon, which Polish teachers try to handle as good as they can – they ask other children to teach their Vietnamese schoolmates the language, they turn to pedagogues or other teachers or try to support a child on their own. According to their age and origin, such children hit upon different kinds of obstacles in learning Polish. Younger children, quite naturally, quickly assimilate the language, the older ones have difficulty keeping up with a school program which requires rich vocabulary as well as the understanding of complex literature texts. Those who were brought in Vietnamese cities are more self-confident and more eagerly embrace the change, that is to say – the new life situation. The young, raised in the country, are overawed not only by the new urban world but also by the unknown country, language and European mentality. They are afraid of speaking Polish and coming into contact with young Poles. For this reason they also need much more time to acquire some practical language skills. Another problem boils down to the fact that the very possibility of learning Polish as a foreign language is much reduced. In Warsaw, the Vietnamese the most often sign on language courses organized by the Polonicum Language Centre or they attend free lessons e.g. in the secondary school in Raszyńska street. Many of them strive also to find tutors but there are few people who speak both Vietnamese and Polish and are interested in being a teacher. There are no Polish-Vietnamese grammar manuals either.
Not knowing the language, in many important life situations the Vietnamese have to rely on their friends who are in command of both languages or they pay for translation services. However, it’s not only about translating contracts or helping in public institutions, where even Poles don’t know exactly what they are expected. Parent-teachers meetings, visits at the doctor’s, opening bank accounts, translating letters – even the simplest things are impossible to carry out without the help of someone who usually wants to be paid. To the Vietnamese, paying for such a kind of help is obvious. They don’t know about institutions and information points for foreigners. Unfortunately, some Poles take advantage of their not knowing Polish. The Vietnamese who are intimidated and don’t comprehend nor know their rights often happen to be a victim of those extorting money - tax and ticket collectors or policemen who, losing patience because of language difficulties, tend to look down on foreigners. They fail to see the resemblance between the Vietnamese and Poles working in England or Ireland, even if both these groups not always have the opportunity to learn a language.
The Vietnamese living in Poland usually want to study Polish because they imagine their future in this country. They want to understand their children speaking Polish just as understand Poles themselves. The older ones are sure not to be able speak fluently. It is also probable that they will always have problems with the right forms of verbs and nouns, but the young Vietnamese can even use literary language. Those who don’t learn Polish usually don’t have such a possibility or it is not their priority as “some part” of them is still in their homeland. This “part” is often their family whom they send their savings and who they hope to return to.
Text by Đàm Vân Anh
Translated by Magda Torzecka