Learning a Language is Not so Easy


From what age can you remember things? How do your earliest memories affect you? At what age does memory in a recollective sense begin?

In the dim recesses of my mind I recall RAF uniforms, warm secure times and the smell of men and distant buzz of conversation like a comforting hum. When about four years old I became separated from my mother in a Post Office in Aylesbury, it was to a young uniformed aircraftsman I clutched for security. The fact that he had not got Poland on his shoulder flash would have been beyond me. I came from an émigré family which elected to stay in England rather than face persecution in Communist Poland. My father was a member of Polish Air Force in England.

I was brought up to speak Polish and I am told by three years old was bilingual. I cannot remember speaking Polish I only remember English. Now in my sixties I am trying to relearn Polish and when travelling back to Poland words I do not consciously know arrive in my head. Unfortunately they tend to be pretty useless like dolly and ice cream! I am known for being a dunce at languages. Why I wonder? After all I work with words, I write advertising copy, articles and books.

When I was about three years old I went into hospital for some operation. I vividly recall being in intense pain and hauling myself up the side of a cot. I stood rattling the side bars with all my strength. I was screaming for my ‘szczotka do zembow’, my toothbrush. Apparently this was my talisman by comfort blanket. I do not remember.

When I came out of hospital I never spoke Polish again. There was and is a mental block with language. I hate not being able to communicate. My mother told me that she was reprimanded by the nurses that the poor little boy did not speak English.

Later on I had difficulty in reading. I was way behind at my private school. My mother spent the summer teaching me and within weeks I became an avid and very good and fast reader. Why was I slow? I now realise that to me it was a new language a code I could not express. Love and care taught me the security of the code and I was away!

Words count. At what age did I hear and understand the distress of my parents when my father returned from work and quietly spoke of the obscene language written about Poles on the lavatory walls at work. Or the gestures made on Armistice Day when laying poppies. Polish was a thing to be avoided.

I even grew to hate my name Jan. When about ten or eleven I used to walk about muttering the name in various tones spitting it out so to speak. I wanted to fit in and be Tom, Dick or Harry. I guess it is the same if your name is Ahmed and your skin a different colour.

Words are so important. It was not till my fifties that I began to analyse the feelings about words and my insecurity of not being able to communicate. English I can deal with but as I relearn Polish I still find that panic of not being able to make my self understood. I want it now not to learn. I need to be understood.

Jan Kusmirek January 2009

About Jan Kuśmirek

Having brushed with the Security Services in my late teens and early twenties, I went on to become one of the world's leading exponents of aromatic medicine and skin care. I am an accepted authority on the subject and a sought-after lecturer. In the last few years I have turned my hand to literature and am the author of three spy novels that retell the European confilcts of the 20th century from a Polish perspective. The central character in the series - Teddy Labden - has resonated with the Polish media, who have claimed him as their own "James Bond".
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