We DO Speak English. Really!

Back in what may be called the “dark ages,” so only just a few years ago, being an English speaker coming to Krakow could be quite a daunting experience.

Not many people spoke much by way of our Anglo-Saxon tongue, and sorting out even the most rudimentary of things, such as buying toothpaste or getting someone to weigh you an onion in that bastion of Polish grocers, the Jubilat, was indeed quite a nightmare. But whether it’s doing the shopping, going out to a restaurant, or visiting any number of Krakow?s cultural institutions, there has always been the problem of communication for the multitude of foreigners that have no clue about Polish, admittedly a very difficult language.

But that is all over now. Since Poland joined the EU in 2004, I for one have felt an ever-growing presence of other European languages being spoken on the streets of Krakow.

Only the other day I was getting some essentials in the Kefirek on Grodzka street, which is usually full of tourists buying water (Germans), beer (Norwegian schoolchildren), even large packets of crisps (mostly Italians). At the checkout I presented my card and the next thing I hear is a shrill “PIN and green”: the lady had seen my not-so-Polish name on the machine (how does it do that?), and decided it would be easier for me if she said it in English.

Not that I understood what she was on about, the hour being late and I was expecting a rather cooler reception from the cashier. The phrase admittedly comes directly from the Polish, “pin i zielony,” but at least the girl made an effort, not quite so common in the service industry here, not yet…

So the use of English is becoming more popular yes, so much so that the Municipal Council has decided to promote its institutions (museums and the like, even though any organisation is allowed to take part) that speak English – or should that be “spik inglisz?” Stickers have been created just for such a purpose, with the bold proclamation “Please come in. We do speak English.”, as if these institutions were desperately trying to prove something. No really, we do speak English.

Speaking to Filip Szatanik, the Municipal Council’s press officer (in English, no less), got me thinking about how such a campaign can indeed promote the city. I’m still in two minds about it: the criteria are pretty wide-ranging to become part of the campaign, with cultural institutions only needing one English speaker to qualify. And taking into account Polish organisations and the wonderful people that work therein, I wouldn?t be too surprised if an English speaker could only be found on Tuesdays between 10 am and 1 pm, and every other Friday between 4 pm and closing, whenever that may be.

Not everyone is impressed: English should be standard everywhere, and there shouldn’t be such a need to promote the city because a few institutions feel that they speak the language. And what about other tongues? How about French, German, Russian, even Norwegian? And has anyone seen any of these stickers being proudly displayed anywhere? English speakers have an easier time now than five years ago certainly, and the more tourists that come to Krakow, the more institutions will realise that they shouldn’t have to feel the need to advertise that they speak the language, because it should come naturally, just like entering your PIN number and hitting the green button.

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