2017 our foundation implemented a project “At Our Home We Speak Polish”. It was a 7-episode program, co-funded by the Polish Chancellery of the Senate. It was broadcast on TVP Polonia channel as well as on many other channels for the Polish diaspora all over the world.
USA is a country with the highest number of the Polish diaspora, and the Polish emigration has a long tradition there. The program was prepared in cooperation with our local partners, and touches upon the issue of bringing up children in a bilingual system.
Families with Polish roots face a strong stereotype that a child born outside of Poland will never be able to speak Polish well. The result of such way of thinking is very limited knowledge of the mother tongue by the young generation of the Polish diaspora not only in the US, but also in other countries.
At the same time, there are many other families, who, with a right attitude to their Polish identity, emphasize the role of Polish language, tradition and culture in the process of upbringing their children – they raise their children in two, sometimes even three languages, and the level of their Polish more often than not is nearly as good as the level of Polish children raised in Poland.
Our programs depict positive patterns of behavior and stories told by families living on the US East Coast, who successfully raise their children in bilingual system.
In the United States live 10 million Poles. One of the biggest challenges faced by Polish people there is to be able to pass on the Polish language, culture and traditions to their children. Is it possible to assimilate well in the United States, but at the same time keep the Polish identity? In the first episode of the series, we meet two mixed families, who manage to do so: the Budimans – Polish-Chinese family, and the Polish-Hindu Fernandes family. At homes, in everyday communication, they use three languages, including Polish.
Katarzyna Żyłka-Budiman, together with her Chinese husband, have a 9-year old Christopher and 7-year old Ashley. They came to the US in 1999 and have been married for 9 years. Before the children were born, they already had made the decision to raise their children in their native languages. They couldn’t imagine that their kids are unable to talk with their families in Poland or China. This way, Christopher and Ashley talk in English, Polish and Chinese.
Joanna Czarnecka-Fernandes and her husband Allen from India have a very similar approach. They have two boys: 10-year old Aleksander and 6-year old Adrian. The fact that children attend Polish Saturday School and that Allen is Catholic help considerably in the process of learning Polish. Celebrating holidays and participating in service are very important elements of family life, which contribute to keeping Polish traditions and Polish identity alive.
In the United State live a few millions of Polish families. How do they manage to strike a balance between living in the US and keeping their own national identity and maintaining their knowledge of Polish language? Can the knowledge of Polish language help you in the US? In the second episode of the series we meet the Kłos and Szewc families, who emigrated to the United States together with their children. Małgorzata and Jacek Kłos came to the USA 10 years ago. They have two children, Agata (18) and Olaf (17). At the very beginning, none of them spoke English. The whole family started to learn intensively the new language. Children very quickly adjusted to the new school and environment. As time went by, however, maintaining the knowledge of Polish language became the priority and challenge for the whole family.
Anna Staniewska-Szewc, together with her husband and three children, came to the USA 12 years ago. The eldest son Jakub was 5 years old at that time. Zuzia (11) and Piotruś (3) were already born in the USA. Anna claims that she will always remain very Polish and in this way she is raising her kids. They talk at home in Polish, they read Polish books, watch Polish films, their children go to Polish school and often travel to Poland. This love for the homeland is particularly strong and important in Kuba’s case. He is now 17 years old and he just graduated from a Polish school and passed Polish final exams. His hobby is strictly connected with the history of his family and his homeland.
Can maintaining the knowledge of Polish language help Poles born in the United States with their professional career? Can the struggle to learn Polish bring any profit in the adult, professional life? In the next episode of the series, we get to know the main characters, whose Polish language skills had a huge impact on their career path choice: Monica Semczyk from New York, who found her dream work in Warsaw, and Michał Papacz-Capik, who works in Manhattan.
When 24-year old Michał starts to speech Polish, it’s really hard to tell that he was born and raised in New York. He owes this beautiful and sophisticated Polish to his parents, who supported him and encouraged him to speak Polish at home. Currently, he uses Polish not only at home, but also in his professional work. He works in Manhattan, in Wall Street, for a company with its branch in Poland, which offers all kinds of software solutions for American companies.
Another character in this episode, 27-year old Monica, was born and raised in New York, where she graduated from Bard University. Knowledge of Polish took her all the way to Poland. For 5 years now she has been living and working in Warsaw, in Nowe Horyzonty (New Horizons) company, where she prepares film festivals. Her task is to choose new, ambitious titles from various countries. Because of this, she often travels abroad, where she seeks new films and meets film producers. Bilingualism is essential in her work.
In bilingual upbringing, a very important role is played by the grandparents. Very often they don’t speak English as fluently as their children and grandchildren, who were born in the USA, so in everyday communication they use Polish. In this way, the grandparents pass on younger generation of Polish immigrant community the family and national traditions. This is exactly how it looks in the case of the characters from another episode of the series: Stanisław and Elżbiera Kierzkowski, who help their son and daughter in law take care of their children.
Stanisław Kierzkowski came to the USA 41 years ago. He met here his wife, Elżbieta and here they had two sons, who started their own families. Stanisław doesn’t work anymore, but he decided to participate actively in raising his grandchildren. Nearly every day he looks after 6-year old Filip, 4-year old Olivier and 5-month old Marcel, while their parents and grandma are at work. Grandpa is one of the most important people in boys’ lives. Grandparents are for the boys an example to follow – thanks to them, three brothers can learn Polish language, culture, history and traditions.
Is it only an additional burden for the youngest generation of Poles living abroad, or is it also a pleasure, or even an investment in own development? What role do Polish Saturday Schools play in their life? In the fifth episode we get to meet a student and a teacher from one of the biggest on the East Coast Polish School in Clark, New York. Kasia (10), Karolina (12) and Julia (11) are students of the Polish Saturday School in Clark. Although all of them were born in the USA, they speak perfect Polish, with wide vocabulary and no American accent. All girls have the same attitude to learning Polish – they learn it not because their parents want them to, but because they feel such a need and they see it as considerable added value in their life. Their involvement in the process of learning Polish is so huge that they correct their younger siblings and parents, who often automatically switch to English. Polish turned into a passion for many students also thanks to the attitude of teachers like Maria Marchwińska. Teaching is her passion. In Poland, she used to teach biology, in New York she has been teaching Polish language, history and culture. She is also an activist, who gets involved in many different school initiatives and the life of Polish immigrant community in the United States.
Polish immigrant community in the United States represents different generations, stories and customs. Very often, younger generation of Poles starts multi-cultural families. Is it possible for the Polish language to be a link between generations and cultures? Can it bring people closer instead of dividing them? The characters of today’s episode, Piekut family, can confirm, that in fact this is the case.
Stanisław Piekut came to the United Stated 30 years ago. Shortly after, his wife Danuta and their nearly adult children joined him. The while family has a very strong bond with Poland. The beginning of their life as emigrants was very difficult. With time it was getting better and better. The Piekuts not only worked in New York, but also they did things, which they were passionate about. When their grandchildren were born, Danuta volunteered to help take care of them. First she looked after Sebastian (who is now 21 years old and is about to graduate) and Patryk (13), but now the grandchildren help their grandparents – mostly thanks to their bilingualism.
In the previous episodes we were following the lives of Poles in the United States, who chose the bilingual path in their life overseas and decided to pass on to younger generations who were born abroad their mother tongue and Polish traditions. Is their bilingualism needed and useful? Can you adapt well in a foreign country and at the same time maintain the knowledge of native language? In the last episode we are going to sum up all stereotypes connected with bilingualism, which our film characters often had to face.
In the contrary to many countries with long bilingual or multilingual traditions, like e.g. United States, Poland is quite a homogenous country when it comes to language and culture. This is why, a lot of myths and stereotypes related to bilingualism were born among Polish people overseas – especially stereotypes regarding younger generations born in the US. One of the biggest is that a child born outside Poland will never be able to speak Polish well and that bilingual upbringing influences child’s development in a negative way. A lot of Poles in our series are proof of the contrary. Their lives confirm scientists’ research: bilingualism has hardly any disadvantages. Bilingual children, and then adults, achieve better results at schools, have better possibilities regarding social and cultural adaptation, have better professional career, while bilingualism itself has positive influence on people’s health.