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English language in Poland

Greetings,

The last time I was in Poland was about 10 years ago. I was in big cities like Warsaw and Krakow. I soon leaned that most Poles under about 35 spoke pretty good English, so if I needed help I could usually find a person who spoke enough English that we could communicate well.

What about the smaller towns outside of Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk? Is English common there? I ask because in Italy outside of the main tourist towns, I often had to depend on my Italian which while limited is enough to by. Alas, Polish is just not in my future.

Posted by
11107 posts

Any specific smaller towns? Wroclaw and Poznan (not places I would consider small) are quite westernized, especially Wroclaw. I went to a number of small (but not super-tiny) places, including Torun, Bygoszcz and Chelmno. Only in one place (I think it was Chelmno) did I run into a tourist office that had no English speaker, at least at the time of my visit. All the front-desk personnel at my hotels spoke English well. The major museums have exceptional English explanatory material, and often audioguides as well.

As is common elsewhere in Europe, you shouldn't expect middle-aged employees of train and bus companies to speak English, although some may.

I don't think you'd have significant problems in Poland. It is a comparatively easy country for an English-only American to get around. The language is difficult for non-Slavs to master, and the Poles know they need to have communication skills to support the tourism sector of their economy (which seems to be booming). I was impressed.

Posted by
2007 posts

I have the experience that even in smaller non-touristy places English is widely spoken in hotels and restaurants.
As said above, don't expect the dear lady at the ticket window or the bus driver to speak English. I always have my travelling wishes written down, which is always much appreciated. Complement it with a handful of Polish words (such as today, tomorrow, tickets) and all will be fine.

Posted by
10164 posts

I am going to assume that in the course of ten years English education will have progressed even more. I was last in Poland visiting those cities like Krakow and Warsaw in the early years of the 21st century. It all depends on the person you're talking to. Generally, I used English or what the interlocutor was more comfortable with outside of Polish,. ..German or English.

I took a day trip in 2005 to Chelmno on the Vistula (ca 1 hr by bus) from Torun for various reasons, one being that it had survived the war intact, ie, bypassed the Soviets in 1944. In Chelmno and Krakow I used much more German than English, even at the hotel in Krakow, in Gdansk because of the two older women running the Pension, used German exclusively, one of the breakfast staff understood it too. Other than Chelmno and Malbork I don't have any other experience based on smaller towns to draw on, except my visiting the border towns located just across the bridges over the Oder. In those border places I use exclusively German.

Like my my visits in the Czech Republic to small places in 2016 and 2017, don't expect everyone you encounter even in train stations to know English (they don't and will tell you as much), or want to use it with you. I don't expect that just so "they" can communicate with me.

Posted by
524 posts

If you go to smaller places, everyone you meet will not speak English. Will this be a problem? Probably not. There are plenty of people who do speak English and we found Polish people to be kind and helpful.

I did speak a tiny bit of Polish on our trip. I bought 30 Pimsleur Polish lessons (downloaded to my phone). I knew enough to buy bus tickets or to have a simple conversation. I must say that my very basic Polish was enough to make a couple of very special experiences that we would not have had without it. We had a very kind nun give us a Polish tour of her convent — I could understand just enough to make a connection with her. In Zakopane, we were able to talk to some Polish families who were vacationing there. I gave directions to one couple and told them they didn’t have to go far! (They laughed when I came up with that).

So, you will be fine with English, but you will have more fun, if you learn a little Polish.

Posted by
3402 posts

Unless you are planning to engage locals in conversations, there's probably no reason to worry about the language barrier. I've stopped worrying about it when I travel - and English is the only language I can speak. In places like Russia, even in St. Petersburg (very touristy) I found that few people spoke English or very little. But usually I could still communicate. In a pinch, I used my phone (Google Translate) to translate - e.g. when I wanted orange juice at breakfast not coffee, I was able to use my phone to convey that. I wouldn't attempt actual conversations with a phone translator, but it will get you by in a pinch.

Posted by
4 posts

No reason to worry - English lessons are mandatory in Poland from the earliest stage of education. So you should be able to communicate with most of the people. Trouble may occur trying to talk to some of the elders, since they didn't have to learn English, instead they were taking Russian lessons.

Posted by
186 posts

I traveled to Poland in 2014, 2016, and 2018. I speak VERY little Polish- mostly polite, courtesy phrases. Here is what I learned:

  • You will have no problem in the larger cities like Krakow, Warsaw, and Gdansk, especially if you stay in the popular tourist areas. On the other hand, wander into the Krakow's oldest market- Stary Kleparz and you will find little English is spoken. Still, no problem. I pointed to the foods I wanted, and the seller wrote (total cost) on paper. I look at these minor issues as wonderful tourist little tourist challenges..

The same goes with taxis. In 2014, our first taxi driver told us, in very good English, that all the taxi drivers were Poles. In 2018, you will find that many Ukrainians have crossed the border for work and are now taxi drivers. One in Krakow couldn't understand my destination "Bus station" so I wrote it down. Bus is pronounced more like Booz. Once I figured that out by writing down my destination, we were fine.

  • I encountered most problems at the train and bus stations. Many of the workers are holdovers from a different era and have little desire to help people who don't speak Polish. We always found either a younger person or some kind Pole who had worked in the USA to help us. These were just other travelers who made great efforts to assist.

  • If you are visiting for family history purposes, which defines about 1/3 of my time in Poland, and go to the villages, you will likely find a different world. We traveled to three different family villages to visit or research and very few people speak anywhere near conversational English. Many people, including the young ones, are quite timid about their English speaking skills and need some encouragement to converse. My second cousin who is about forty only started to attempt to use her English when she got to know me better. I stayed at her home for four days this past May, and we thoroughly enjoyed using her basic English and our cell phone translator apps. Her mother, my first cousin once removed is my age and speaks no English, so we could only speak directly using my app. I hired a wonderful translator to be with me in 2016 and 2018, but she was only there during the day. We did just fine when left to our own devices. BTW- I'm an author/writer, so this past trip was mostly for research. All the major sites had wonderful English speaking guides. The smaller ones (Pustkow, Blizna, etc.) required my personal translator. Larger museums, castles, and churches often have English postings or English audio guides (like in the WWII Museum in Gdansk, Malbork, etc.)

If you are going to the villages, hire a local to help you out. Most of the priests don't speak English. I met maybe six during my journeys and one (who is my Facebook friend and fellow historian) spoke English. You usually need an advocate to get into the church records. I can read most of the records because I'm experienced in the old Latin columnar format. You can learn these skills.

I hope this is helpful, but this is based on just my rather recent experience. Please private message me if you would like further information. There is a book "Travel Back to Your Polish Roots" on Amazon that might be helpful.

Posted by
10164 posts

No only in Poland, although I myself have not come across that, ie meeting people who know maybe just a smattering of English but won't use it to assist you. Fair enough. I have come across that or seen it done to other anglophones who were ignored the because the local in Germany, Czechia, and France didn't want to be bothered since they couldn't speak the local language.

Posted by
186 posts

I can understand the hesitation. If someone spoke Spanish to me, my high school intro wouldn't do me any good. Neither would my college German.

Posted by
10164 posts

When we were in Krakow in the summer of 2001, one morning we decided not to have breakfast at the hotel, went to the rynek looking for some small food shop to buy what would amount to be breakfast. A middle age (mid-40s ?) Polish woman was sitting on one the benches in front of one of these shops and must have heard my talking English to the Mrs.

From the looks of it, she must have assumed we were looking for something to eat. After all, it was morning. To be helpful she offers suggestions by addressing us in good (certainly wasn't broken) German.

It must have been obvious to her that we were Americans and, obviously, tourists to be sure. I replied to her suggestions and talked with her in German as did the Mrs, who after a few moments went back to the food shop just there to decide what to get.

I wasn't sure if the woman was panhandling, which I wasn't against, just wanted to talk, or simply hungry. I asked her, more than once, if she wanted anything from that food shop (reminded me of a small deli). She kept on saying no. I could understand that... pride or taking "charity' or whatever. In some ways strange, What I should have done (it never occurred to me) was to put one or two Polish bills in her hands...period. In talking during these several minutes, I never asked if she knew English.

Posted by
186 posts

That's a nice story. We always think of what we should have done when we are back home. Since I also have time to ponder, I suppose ordering a few items from the deli for her to join in your lunch may have been nice. Who wouldn't like a packzie?

Posted by
8319 posts

I've been to dozens and dozens of small towns and villages in places much more removed from the West than Poland and almost without exception if the first person I spoke to didn't understand English, then someone else within 6 feet did and offered to help. Everyone is teaching the younger generation English these days. Even the French. And when on that odd exception no one speaks English then enjoy it and laugh as you get your point across with expressions and hand gestures. It's all fun if you let it be.

Posted by
186 posts

Very true! If I had been fluent in Polish, I would have never met some really kind and wonderful people.

Posted by
8 posts

I'd also say it's quite common there, and getting increasingly more so! The level varies from basic to pretty much immaculate (at least in my last Krakow hideout, https://plazahotelkrakow.pl. And I really mean very, very good. Overall from my impressions English speaking seems to be at its best in central Europe as the same can be said for Czech Republic and Hungary in my opinion.

Posted by
16 posts

Hi Barnstormer,

No worries, more and more people speak English in Poland nowadays.

English language has been mandatory in schools for a long time and, generally, people start to understand that it's very important to know English. I've been living in small towns in southern Poland (Gliwice and Katowice), and the majority of people I know can speak English (some of them need to have a drink to be able to speak English, but that's a different story).

You may have a look at these posts describing life in Poland now:
https://overhere.eu/blog/10-reasons-why-living-in-poland-is-ok/
https://overhere.eu/blog/9-facts-about-living-in-silesia/
https://overhere.eu/blog/5-facts-about-traditional-polish-wedding/