My students often tell me that they would love to travel to Poland, but they are concerned that it will be hard to do so without speaking any Polish. Of course my first response is to chastise them for not knowing Polish! What possible gap in their education could explain their failure to master this crucial language? So many of them have wasted their time with inconsequential dialects like French, Spanish, or German…. But that’s our woeful American educational system, and we have to deal with it. Fortunately, I can reassure them that they will do just fine in Poland with English. It turns out that the Poles are among the best in Europe in terms of English language abilities, according to the most recent edition of the English Proficiency Index, a 60-country survey prepared each year by “English First,” a European firm specializing in international education. Because EF’s testing is done on-line, the comparative results are somewhat skewed by differences in internet access, but let’s not let methodological rigor get in the way of a good story! According to this test, Poland currently ranks 6th in Europe, behind only the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, but slightly ahead of Germany, and far ahead of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Italy, Spain, or France. Perhaps even more important, the Polish scores have shown stunning improvement over recent years, with a 20% rise since 2011.
But let’s be sure that no one concludes from these figures that there is no need to learn Polish! It is now the fifth largest native language in the EU, after German, English, French, and Italian (and tied with Spanish). If we add together native speakers with those who have learned Polish as a second (or third…) language, it falls to sixth place. English then becomes first (51%), French second (27%), then German (24%), Italian (16%), and Spanish (15%). But still, I think it is impressive that 9% of the entire population of Europe speaks Polish. These figures (from the Eurobarometer survey agency) are based on self-reported speaking abilities, so they too should be taken with a grain of salt. Moreover, the survey in question was taken in 2012, and since knowledge of Polish as a second language has been steadily growing in Europe for many years, the figure today would be somewhat larger.
So learn Polish! But while you are working on it, you can travel to Poland with confidence that you’ll have no problem communicating.