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Witamy w Polsce: The Dilemma of Language Learning among Poland's Growing Immigrant Community

Poland is not unfamiliar with immigration issues. Its unique location as a borderland between “East” and “West” has, through its history, served as a homeland to settlers from various ethnic groups. However, since 1989, when significant political and socio-economic changes transformed Poland, conditions in the society have attracted an influx of migrants. Not a homogenous group, recent immigrants to Poland range from refugees, unskilled workers, and illegal residents to highly-qualified specialists, managers of multinational corporations or institutions, petty traders, and Asian entrepreneurs.  While the number of emigrants leaving Poland continues to outweigh the number of immigrants, noticeable trends of temporary and settlement immigration continue to push integration issues to the fore of policy debates in the new European Union member state. 

Polish, a language used exclusively in this country, can be challenging for immigrants, especially given that lessons are not always accessible or appealing to temporary residents. However, the ability to speak Polish is crucial to social and economic assimilation in the country. Christian Dustmann and Arthur van Soest write, “Immigrants’ ability to communicate with members of the indigenous population is probably the most important single alterable factor contributing to their social and economic integration.”  Therefore, the linguistic abilities of the immigrant community must be seen by policymakers as a fundamental piece of the integration puzzle. 
Who Are the Immigrants in Poland?
It is difficult to know the exact number of immigrants currently residing in Poland, but the population is widely acknowledged as only a small proportion of the overall Polish citizenry. The actual number of foreign residents is usually grossly underestimated because the data collected by administrative offices does not account for the residents in the country who are undocumented.  According to the data gathered by the census in 2002, the total number of responding foreign nationals residing in Poland (i.e. persons without Polish citizenship) was 49,221; of these, 5,079 were born in Poland. When juxtaposed with the overall national population of 37.6 million, the proportion of foreigners is considerably small – around 0.1%.  This census data, however, also does not account for illegal migrants and does not allow for dual-identification (i.e. choosing more than one nationality in the survey form). 

Data published in 2003 from the Office for Aliens shows that the most widely represented home countries of migrants to Poland are Ukraine, the Russian Federation, Germany, Belarus, Vietnam, and Armenia. Almost one quarter of these enumerated foreign residents (22% of permanent residents and 30% of residents with a restricted permit) live in Mazowieckie (Mazowsze) voivodship (region) – the greater Warsaw area.  This area is attractive to all types of immigrants because the labor market is receptive to both highly-qualified experts and unskilled laborers, is the most developed in terms of transnational relationships and migrant networks, and provides convenient access to institutions such as embassies, international schools for children, and places of worship for various faiths and religious persuasions. 

Because many immigrants relocate to Poland to take advantage of a strong economy, it is unsurprising that the majority of immigrants fall within the most productive age bracket, between 25 and 55 years old. However, these working migrants often bring their families across the border as well, and statistics show that the group of migrants under age 14 is quickly expanding.  Some working migrants, like those from the former Soviet republics are often neither residents nor settlers, but instead come to Poland seasonally on tourist visas and find short-term or irregular employment (construction, agriculture or domestic services). Since the pattern of this migration continues across years, a type of “spontaneous” integration into Polish society has resulted: many learn basic communication in Polish quickly and establish good personal relations with their Polish employees and landlords. 

Similar to the trends in economic migration, applications for refugee status in Poland have been growing steadily over the past decade, specifically since the Dublin Convention changed the EU’s policy on asylum seekers in 2003. Although the annual number of successful asylum applicants remains small, the numbers of acknowledged refugees or persons granted tolerated stay has gradually increased over the years. The most numerous and distinctive refugees are those seeking sanctuary from war-torn Chechnya, followed by citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Afghanistan, Somalia, Georgia, Sri Lanka, and Sudan.  
How Does One Learn a Second Language?
Research suggests that an immigrant’s capacity to integrate socially and economically into his or her host country is based on his or her individual “human capital,” which is loosely defined as the ability to participate in, contribute to, and benefit from a community. The concept of human capital is especially relevant to immigrant populations because the human capital they amassed in their native country must be quickly adapted in the new land. Perhaps the most critical component of human capital for immigrant integration is language, because linguistic skills are difficult to develop but necessary for success. 

Ability and willingness to adapt language capital to learn a host country’s language, in this case Polish, is dependent upon a variety of factors. First, studies show that immigrants who plan to stay in their host country indefinitely acquire more language capital than temporary migrants.  Second, the linguistic abilities depend on the kind of labor – skilled or unskilled – that the immigrant seeks in the new community.  Third, the age of the migrant at the time of immigration dictates much of the ability and willingness to acquire language.  Finally, some research shows that concrete factors such as language of origin – and its relative connection to the language of the host country – as well as gender influence the language capital of the immigrant.  Each of these factors is important in understanding the language development in Poland’s immigrant community and should be considered when explaining and potentially resolving the dilemmas that Poland faces in integrating its immigrants. 
Why Should Immigrants Learn the Dominant Language?
In light of an immigrant’s unique composition of the above-listed factors (future plans, employment, language of origin, age, gender) and his or her individual human capital and potential, each immigrant faces a distinct incentive structure to learn Polish. The two most important incentives to learn the language of the host country are social and economic pressures to integrate and achieve success. 

Some of the social pressures on an immigrant’s linguistic incentives are the desires to create relationships, friendships, and networks. As the desire to have social contact with the dominant culture increases, so too does the incentive to improve language abilities. In this case, studies show that speaking and listening abilities are more desirable than reading or writing skills.  

The economic pressures to learn the dominant language are perhaps the strongest of all motivations for integration. Linguistic theorists have developed intricate methods for measuring the economic forces dictating migrants’ language-learning by comparing their target wage rates (and thus fields of employment), opportunity costs of learning the language (the monetary or personal investment they must make to marginally improve an aspect of their communication skills), and language abilities. Graphs of utility functions show that a migrant’s utility for learning the language is maximized when the wage rate equals the opportunity cost of continued language learning. Thus, the knowledge of the new language will not exceed a minimum basis of communication because economic constraints do not allow or compel further acquisition. Experts predict that this optimal point usually leads migrants to acquire ‘good’ oral skills and minimum written skills, while reading and listening skills are negligible.  

These incentives to learn the dominant language are powerful because economic and social assimilation are essential for an immigrant’s success, health, and happiness in the host country. As was mentioned above, human capital is not only the ability to understand or benefit from a community, but also to actively contribute to it. The ability to speak the language of the host country enables a symbiotic rather than parasitic relationship between host and migrant. If Poland desires to integrate the growing migrant community into a symbiotic society, policies and practices must be altered or adopted to increase incentives for language learning and integration. 
What Integration Policies Exist in Poland?
The stated goals of integration policies in Poland are to “guarantee rights” and enable migrants to fulfill their “duties as responsible members of their adopted country.”  The immigration and integration policies in Poland have changed drastically since joining the EU in 2004, though the Migrant Integration Policy Index reported in 2007 that Poland’s integration policies “perform rather unevenly.”  While Poland is ahead of its EU neighbors in access to citizenship and anti-discrimination policies, the political participation and labor market restrictions are considered “critically weak” integration measures.  

Poland recognizes immigrants under three different legal categories – in addition to undocumented migrants who are living illegally in Poland – and each legal status comes with a unique set of requirements, rights, and privileges. The three legal classes are: “humanitarian migrants (refugees and tolerated stay), economic migrants (EU nationals and third country nationals), and repatriates.”  Although economic migrants and repatriates have rights, they are not the subjects of integration policies which only target refugees, and for which the Ministry of Social Affairs is responsible.  Illegal immigrants, on the other hand, are not recognized by the government and are given no special rights or programs and must work individually or with the help of charitable organizations to integrate into Polish society. 

Until immigrants are given their classification through a government process, they are detained at camps – usually on the outskirts of cities – where they must live in cramped quarters with others from various backgrounds in depressing conditions. During this time, some services are provided to the detainees, including Polish lessons. Once the immigrant is granted status, the refugees may apply for aid – through an application provided only in Polish – while the others are more or less on their own.  The Ministry of Social Affairs looks after the personal needs of refugees at the community level through the Powiatowe Centra Pomocy Rodzinie (County Centers for Family Assistance), which provide twelve months worth of counseling, reimbursement for health insurance, financial allowances, mentorship in adjusting to Polish life, and Polish language lessons. 

According to an ordinance from the Polish Minister of Education, five stages of language learning are provided to refugees in their year of participation in the integration program. The first stage focuses on teaching the alphabet, writing of basic words, and phonetics. Next, refugees learn basic grammar necessary for communication, but do not focus on the complex rules and vocabulary of grammar. Third, the students begin to learn topical lessons, beginning with personal information and everyday routines, continuing through employment and institutions, and finishing with information about Poland and personal rights. The fourth stage focuses on important language phrases, while the fifth and final stage teaches cultural lessons about both the refugee’s country of origin and Poland.  
How Are these Policies Actually Functioning?
In practice, the integration policy for refugees in Poland is not performing ideally. Evaluations of these policies show that enforcement is astoundingly weak. For example, of refugees enrolled in the individual integration program with mandatory Polish lessons, 25% do not attend classes.  The list of problems with the system is long, though a few obstacles stand out as particularly challenging. Motivation among immigrants to learn Polish is low, teachers are not always qualified, resources and textbooks are lacking, lessons are not practical, and many programs end after just twelve months. Symptomatic of these problems and the consequent lack of Polish is noticeably low integration into the labor market; immigrants are not prepared to interact and communicate in a professional setting, nor do they meet the qualifications for employment in many sectors.  This social and economic separation becomes a downward spiral when immigrants do not know Polish, cannot find employment, and either live off of state aid or work illegally, making the gap wider and less conducive to language learning. 

In interviews with some of Warsaw’s language-learning immigrants, their teachers, and the experts who run integration programs, many of the causes of this downward spiral were uncovered. The analysis of these interviews shows the deep-rooted and systematic problems with Polish language policies as well as potential solutions that may further integration in Poland. 
What Opportunities Exist for Learning Polish?
Polish migration expert Agnieszka Kosowicz believes that each immigrant, regardless of status, has plenty of options for learning Polish.  The number of facilities and free programs that teach Polish is constantly growing, so it would be inaccurate to assume that immigrants are not given the proper opportunity to learn the language.  That said, there are four main ways for immigrants to acquire Polish language skills: in the detainment camp classes, through the government-sponsored integration program (refugees only), with the help of classes at a non-profit organization, and on one’s own. Children have the additional opportunity to absorb Polish in their mandatory primary and secondary schools, though they often need tutoring and remedial courses to catch up to their peers. Each of these routes has problems and, ultimately, even a variety of sources and programs does not mean that every immigrant to Poland is properly learning the language. 

According to Agnieszka Kosowicz and Anna Maciejko’s publication on migration, the detainment center programs are not successful because the “quality of the lessons can be questioned” and “often out of 100 adults living in the centre only 2-3 people attend Polish language lessons.”  Moreover, Sister Maria at the Migrants’ Center in Warsaw shared in an interview that there is usually only one teacher per camp who maintains an inflexible schedule; this teacher may have professional training, but still might not be equipped to teach foreigners and adults who have different learning needs than children. She also pointed out that the detainment centers are very confined, and migrants living there may want to venture out into the community rather than spend their days in a classroom.  In a personal interview, Agnieszka Kosowicz also reiterated the point from her 2007 publication that the duration of the migrants’ stay in the detainment camp does not necessarily improve knowledge of language: “About 14% of refugees staying in the center less than 6 months declare good language skills, while only 18% out of those staying in the refugee center more than 6 months declare that”  Overall, the concept of offering classes to detainees is ideal because it is convenient and easily monitored, but it does not cater to individual needs or give incentives to the students; the real process of language learning begins upon exiting the detainment camp. 

Refugees are offered the benefits of an integration program, should they apply, that gives them financial and personal advice. As was mentioned above, beneficiaries of the integration program are required to enroll in twelve months of Polish lessons that have a rigid curriculum developing in five stages. This program is a great model because it provides well-rounded support and a thorough introduction to the language and is mandatory for those refugees enrolled in the integration program, though many are not punished for neglecting this requirement. On the other hand, it may not teach individually practical lessons because of the strictly mandated curriculum and may continue to isolate refugees from their new environment. Of all the methods for language-learning, this has the most positive points, although it remains inaccessible to the majority of the immigrant population. 

The third option for language learning is through the help of a non-profit organization that supports integration by offering language courses and mentorship for immigrants. Some of these programs are government-funded and may only be able to support legally recognized residents, while others are open to helping anyone who is willing to learn Polish. For example, the organization Linguae Mundi offers courses to refugees and tolerated stay residents that equip them with language abilities that are professionally useful. Other centers that do not work through government funding are able to offer open courses to legal and illegal immigrants alike. Because these courses are not in controlled environments, have no mandatory requirements, and are often under-funded, the programs tend to face difficulties and criticisms despite their positive outreach. 

Some immigrants to Poland choose not to officially enroll in a course or program, but rather learn Polish using their own resources and human capital. In an interview, a Ukrainian national who immigrated to and now studies in Poland reported that she mostly learned Polish on her own because classes for non-refugees can be expensive and time-consuming.  Another interviewee, an illegal resident, stated that he tried to take classes at non-profit centers but the lessons were not practical and the pace of the classroom was much too slow.  Though learning at one’s own pace may be a time- and money-saving system, it requires dedication and a long-term investment. These immigrants are difficult to track and evaluate, but even this individualized course of study does not end up appealing to a majority of immigrants, who instead go without any advanced knowledge of the language. 
How Do Polish Language Classes for Immigrants Function?
Language courses – those in detention centers and non-profit organizations – are attended by immigrants from all over the world who speak a wide array of native languages. Sister Maria of the Warsaw Migrants’ Center says, for example, that their organization teaches Polish to immigrants from six African nations, and eleven Asian countries. Moreover, each of the immigrants has a different reason for coming to Poland, different aspirations, and different skill sets. Developing a comprehensive program for these individuals is difficult, and the many programs offered to immigrants have different characteristics and strategies but share common philosophies.  

The courses that are available in detention centers are taught by professional teachers, while those in voluntary programs tend to be led by volunteers, usually linguistics students. According to Agnieszka Kosowicz, new regulations for detention center teachers mandate that they must be qualified to teach Polish as a foreign language, though this is difficult to enforce.  The biggest challenges, says Sister Maria, for any professional or volunteer teacher of Polish are the language and cultural barriers. That is, it is easier to teach Polish if the student speaks French, Russian, or English because the teachers tend to be functional in these languages. However, as many of the migrants come from Asian and African countries and may have no linguistic abilities outside of their native language, it is difficult to teach because there is no common language in which to communicate. Moreover, cultural barriers are an issue for teachers who may not understand and work with the learning methods and styles of their students. 

Textbooks for teaching Polish are practically non-existent, making it very difficult for teachers in the centers and non-profit organizations to develop lessons. A volunteer teacher of a Vietnamese class at the Migrants’ Center complains that the only books she has publish exercises for learning Polish with directions that are also in Polish – making it impossible for students to practice or complete assignments without her help to translate or explain the activity.  Because the textbooks are not an efficient teaching tool, many teachers choose to develop their own curricula with their students’ needs in mind, but this is time-consuming – especially for an unpaid volunteer – and may not be practical for all students. 

Sister Maria points out that the main problem for many of the immigrant Polish language courses (even those that are “mandatory”) is that students do not attend regularly and thus the class cannot progress. Since new students are enrolling all the time, the teacher must continually return to fundamentals like the alphabet and phonetics in order to level the skill plane across the class. This is frustrating for the more advanced students who are looking to learn practical knowledge and who then may drop out of the course. Though this problem sometimes leads to the splintering of classes into “beginner” and “advanced” courses, this requires more support from teachers and volunteers and more classroom materials.  

Some programs attempt to combat the problems of basic repetition and impractical lessons, though even they cannot fully overcome some of the barriers to education. For example the @lterCamp Project, financed by the European Social Fund and administered by the Polish Red Cross and the Office for Foreigners, teaches Polish to immigrants who are staying in refugee centers in three innovative ways. First, there are “real-life lessons” where students learn practical lessons and even go to shops where they can develop language skills necessary in daily life. Second, @lterCamp focuses on techniques for learning vocabulary through association, key words, and mnemonics. Third, students work on oral and written texts to develop more advanced skills.  The techniques used in this program solve the problems of repetition and dropping-out that plague other programs, but require a well-developed curriculum, a skilled teacher, and committed students. 
How Do the Immigrants Respond to these Organized Language Programs?
According to teachers and students in Polish courses, those students who take advantage of the opportunities to learn Polish and are committed to achieving proficiency in the language tend to be grateful for the support and mentorship, though complaints about flaws in the system are endless. Old-fashioned teaching styles that focus on repetition rather than practicality are a problem for students who need to be able to function in the Polish language. One immigrant interviewee said, “The teachers were good, but the whole system worked too slow. I don’t have that much time, I need to speak Polish today – I don’t actually need these grammar rules, I don’t want to become a writer.”  Regardless of the teacher’s status as a professional or a volunteer, an inefficient teaching strategy will yield negative reactions from a group who is in need of immediate language ability. 

On the other hand, students react very positively to interactive lessons, especially those that take place outside the classroom – in shops, theaters, and concerts. Sister Maria says that it is usually the young, student volunteers who design fun and creative lesson plans.  For example, the teacher of the Vietnamese group at the Migrants’ Center has developed close relationships with her students, who call her regularly with questions and suggestions for class.  
What about the Immigrants who Are Not Learning Polish?
Despite Agnieszka Kosowicz’s assertion that Polish lessons are available to anyone who wants them, there remains a huge population that does not take advantage of these opportunities and/or defect from the programs of which they are a part. As was mentioned above, the majority of detainment center residents do not take the voluntary courses, and one quarter of the refugees enrolled in mandatory language lessons do not actively participate. Though the slow teaching and learning rates of many courses certainly contribute to the problem of segregation, those immigrants who have no desire to learn Polish are perhaps the larger problem. 

Unfortunately, statistics on the numbers of immigrants in Poland who cannot speak Polish and are not learning it in an organized fashion are non-existent – mainly because it is largely the undocumented immigrants who are not seeking language tutoring. However, it is certain that there is a large population living in Poland that has little or no Polish language ability. Though this claim cannot be statistically supported, it was a well-known and accepted concept in interviews with migrants, experts, and teachers. 

Among the experts, the most prominent explanation for the drop-out and aversion rates is that Poland is not considered a final destination for many of the immigrants. Rather, they see Poland as a transitory land, a first stop on the path to more economic opportunity in countries farther west. Because Polish is a challenging language to learn and may not be as practical as English or French in other EU countries, many immigrants who plan to leave Poland after being processed do not feel a need to invest in learning Polish. Experts also suggest that some immigrants fear that learning Polish will take away from their own native identity, as language may be the last connection they have to their homeland. Finally, many of the teachers and leaders of organizations insinuate that some of the migrants, especially those escaping war-torn countries, may be too traumatized to acquire a new language upon arrival. 

The immigrants themselves report similar reasons for avoiding Polish lessons, namely that the investment in learning Polish takes away from the opportunity to work (even if on the black/gray market) and earn money to support themselves and their families. Interestingly, one interviewee noted that his friend’s father is from Belarus and has been living in Poland for five years without learning Polish because his children and business associates arrange everything for him – at this point, he has no need to adapt his language skills at all.  Though the high rate of defecting from Polish language learning can be contributed to outdated teaching styles and impractical lessons, the majority of immigrants who never start classes do so because the investment is too great for a potentially low payoff. 
What Is the Impact of the Language Disparity in Poland?
The most prominent effect of the low levels of Polish language ability among the growing immigrant population is economic failure and social segregation. Agnieszka Kosowicz worries that this is a critical problem for the younger generations of immigrants, especially the teenagers who are coming to the job market in the next few years. She explains that they often did not even finish primary school and have no qualifications. Ms. Kosowicz cites France as an example of the situation Poland must avoid, wherein young, unskilled migrants become disenfranchised and express their dissatisfaction through rioting and violence. She suggests that an advocacy and early intervention program are necessary to combat the problems faced by this growing “lost generation”, since their problems will only worsen as they age, start families, and raise children who are equally or perhaps more segregated and discontented.  

Another impact of the language gap in Poland – and also symptomatic of the social and economic problems – is a stigmatization of immigrants among the larger Polish citizenry. Both of the migrant interviewees said that they had not experienced any kind of discrimination because of their language mistakes (grammar, word choice, pronunciation) and rather were generally greeted positively because of their earnest attempts to speak fluently.  Additionally, research suggests that Western as opposed to Eastern immigrants are better accepted in society, especially with regards to language. “A large portion of Western migrants feels no need to learn Polish since they can afford shopping and services in places where English is spoken. Both at work and in their spare time they are surrounded by persons speaking foreign languages, whether Poles or other foreigners.”  However, the stigmatization effect on all immigrants grows as the number of immigrants who do not make attempts to Polish also grows. 

Stigmas associated with immigrants are not unique to Poland, nor are they restricted to discrimination based on language abilities, but this new land of immigration must confront its stigmatization problems before they cause irreparable damage to integration efforts. In an assessment of immigration to Poland in the early 21st century, Aleksandra Grzymała-Kazłowska and Marek Okólski discussed the negative light in which Polish media often portrays immigrants. They highlighted four ways in which the community is depicted: as a “flood” of illegal immigrants, as criminals, as black market workers, and, finally, as humans who are adjusting to a new life and culture.  These negative associations with the immigrant community will inevitably lead to further misunderstanding and isolation if not dealt with in the Polish context - one that has a growing culture of political correctness and an awareness of “otherness.”  
What Should Be Done About the Language Gap?
Because language ability is the most flexible immigrant trait that also has a noticeable impact on integration, Poland should take steps to revise its policy and practical approaches to augmenting language ability and, in turn, improving social and economic conditions for Poles and immigrants alike. Experts, immigrants, and teachers who were interviewed agree on many of the necessary and feasible revisions that can be made towards improvement. 

Immigrants said that the most important measure than must be taken is the creation of more programs that are available to all migrants, not just to refugees. That is, people who immigrate to Poland of their own will should not be subjected to outrageous costs for Polish lessons,  nor should the illegal community be excluded from the learning process.  While Agnieszka Kosowicz disagrees that there need to be more programs, perhaps the important factor is opening the field to all those who desire to learn Polish by funding and publicizing existing programs. 

All of the interviewees also agree that the lessons in classes need to be practical in order to appeal to more immigrants. As the low enrollment numbers indicate, there are very few incentives to learning Polish. If the lessons are practical and not isolated to a classroom, students will be socially and economically inclined to attend classes because the lessons will be able to help them live their daily lives as well as achieve their future goals. However, though some western European countries encourage attendance by giving small sums of money to regularly-attending students, this approach would not be appropriate in Poland, argues an impassioned Agnieszka Kosowicz.  She claims that the immigrants need to learn how to express their demands about  what they want from the Polish community, and they should not simply be paid to imitate integration.  

Other suggestions include mandatory language lessons and better use of time in detainment camps to teach Polish, but the best approach for Poland is to overhaul the whole immigrant education system. Publishing books that are useful for teachers and students, hiring social workers who can direct immigrants to language classes, training teachers in languages and cultural sensitivity, and including mentors who have gone through the language-learning and integration processes are all necessities. With the correct combination of availability, incentives, funding, and program efficiency, the language-learning program in Poland can restore a positive outlook for integration in the coming decades.



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Antoń, Andrzej. Coordinator of @lterCamp Project, Polish Red Cross. June 30, 2008.
Kosowicz, Agnieszka. President of Polish Migration Forum (Polskie Forum Migracyjne). July 1, 2008. 
Lidia. Educational immigrant. June 26, 2008. 
Ola. Volunteer teacher, Migrants’ Center. June 26, 2008. 
Przychodzeń, Elżbieta. Vice-President of the Proxenia Association (Integration and Protection of Foreigners). June 25, 2008. 
Shamil (alias). Illegal immigrant. June 28, 2008.
Sister Maria. Administrator, Migrants’ Center. June 26, 2008.
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