A Celebration of Our Spoken Heritage: Polish Bilingual Day!

Polish Bilingual Day is a special celebration that brings the issues we at The Polish Mission (TPM) care about, right up to the front.  As a “Polish Mission,” being missionary plays a prominent role in our identity—a missionary is one who gives of themselves, and as an organization, we have the missionary spirit when it comes to our culture.  Supporters and followers of our work know all about the countless exhibitions, projects, and activities that have made us leaders in our field, but just recently, it was our honor to host the biggest celebration to date of the thread that binds our greater “Polish Mission” together: the beloved language of our ancestors.

Polish Bilingual Day is a new tradition begun just a few years ago in 2015 when the New York Foundation Good Polish School with their partner in Poland, The Foundation of Education for Democracy, established it.  The idea of celebrating the Polish language was born as a result of campaigning in favor of bilingualism for several years in the Polish community by the aforementioned foundation. Professor Jan Miodek is the honorary patron the celebrations, and we at TPM have embraced the new tradition fully!

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Polish Mission Director Marcin Chumiecki had the following to say about Polish language education: “Speaking Polish is one of the best ways to pass our culture along to the new generations.  Here in the US, it should be a priority for Polish immigrants—even though we embrace our new identity as Americans, celebrating our Polish origin is what makes our new country so great.  From our young days, we remember the familiar lines of Mickiewicz, Norwid, and Miłosz as part of who we are.  Today, we have the power to instill that same legacy in our children.  As they grow and have children of their own, they will always know who they are; they will always at least in this very special way, be Polish.”

The holiday is a reminder to all Poles living abroad of the importance of Polish language education.  By teaching children the language of their parents or ancestors, we endow them with the Polish roots and values ​​that enrich their personality and broaden their perspectives. We show them another world. Moreover, by teaching children the Polish language we encourage them to visit Poland and participate in the life of the Polish community here. TPM Polish Language Coordinator Marzanna Owinski has led the charge following a trial run of the celebration at St. Mary’s Preparatory last year. “Last year’s celebration was a great way to raise awareness within our student body about the Polish heritage of the Orchard Lake Schools,” she said.  “After seeing the outpouring of interest for such a celebration, we made plans to expand it this year.”

Bilingualism has many advantages, which take root at the family dinner table or living room when children are most apt to embrace a new language.  But, it doesn’t stop there—language dexterity must be practiced again and again, as often as possible in order to have the second language be more than just a trivial pursuit.  Knowing Polish reinforces the ties between the two countries and stops us from forgetting our roots.  Marzanna’s efforts in Polish language education are broad indeed—in addition to providing Polish language support for the Polish Mission team, she’s also principal of our own Fr. Józef Dąbrowski Polish Language School, and the only teacher in Michigan who’s certified to teach Polish to high-schoolers.  Without missing a beat, she also participates in monthly meetings in Lansing with the State Board of Education on the introduction of the Seal of Biliteracy.  She’s in charge of a statewide community outreach program, and she and her colleagues are working diligently to give Polish speakers the recognition they deserve in our own school systems.

Plans for a metro-Detroit-wide celebration of Polish Bilingual Day came off the paper in May of this year, when Marzanna and Polish Mission Chairman Dr. Stan Majewski led a coalition of like-minded advocates of the Polish language, including Tygodnik Polski Editor-in-Chief Dr. Alicja Karlic, St. John Paul II Polish Language School Principal Urszula Mejza, and Adam Mickiewicz Polish Language School Principal Jolanta Gmurowska, among others.  Plans were made for broad expansion to include all of the metro Detroit Polish schools. “It didn’t make sense to only have this great celebration for one community—it’s a celebration for all, and we needed to make everyone feel welcome” she said. “Our Polish language program is growing at St. Mary’s [OLSM].  It was time to make this as big as it could be.”

Following the success of last year’s celebration at OLSM, word was passed through the Polish-American community of educators, activists, and benefactors to help create a one-of a kind event.  But it had to be effective, that is, it had to be appealing to people of all ages and backgrounds.  So, plans were made to have meaningful activities for everyone, from the littlest children to the teachers and parents, and everyone in between.  A village of support came in from all angles, with people and institutions contributing educational materials, financial donations, and access to networks of others.

Thanks to the support of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland, and the Polish Cultural Institute of New York, plans were made to welcome the Warsztaty Teatralne Little Stars from Chicago!  The Little Stars are a special group of talented people of all ages dedicated to developing talent, imagination, and creativity, all with a focus on Polish language.  They entertained young and old alike with their colorful and exciting rendition OF Cinderella, with plenty of interaction from the young members of the audience!  We’re proud to support groups like the Little Stars, who not only speak Polish, but encourage others to learn!

For the older children, it was our pleasure to welcome the Manufaktura Naukowców (Making Scientists) program, led by Dr. Magdalena Osial and Magdalena Labieniec-Watala.  Osial founded the project and in 2016 won the Science Popularizer Competition for interactive chemistry workshops for kids and seniors.  Together with Labieniec-Watala, the duo travels the world with a special program that’s about as hands-on as one can get.  With a contribution of curiosity, participating kids get the chance to have fun learning experiences on physico-chemical principles of the natural sciences, in the proud tradition of Marie Skłodowska Curie, taught by actual scientists from Poland!  The workshops are fun and easy, and Osial & Labieniec-Watala executed a memorable and exciting science experience things one can find around the house, like baking soda, iodine, vinegar, milk, and olive oil.  Children and adults alike were fascinated by a series of experiments that activated their minds—for the young ones, it was an inspiration to learn, and for the adults, it was an inspiration to teach, in remembrance of the Polish educational tradition.

Osial and Labieniec-Watala arrived to Orchard Lake two days prior, for a weekend-long series of programs around the metro area.  On Friday, the duo offered their program to the students and families of the Fr. Józef Dąbrowski Polish Language School, and on Saturday to the St. John Paul II Polish Language School at St. Florian Parish in Hamtramck.

Dr. Katarzyna Zechenter was our special guest for the event, as our featured lecturer on the benefits of bilingualism, especially from within the family.  Professor Zechenter delivered a lecture that looked at the developmental benefits of being fluent in more than one language, and how parents and teachers can encourage bilingual fluency in young people that allows them to grow into more apt learners, and cultural stewards, who in time will become the adults who, in their own ways, will foster the relationship and image of Poland and Polish people.  Dr. Zechenter is editor of a collection of valuable essays for parents, titled Po Polsku Na Wyspach (Speaking Polish on the Islands): A Guide for Parents of Bilingual Children, which is available online here (http://puno.edu.pl/poradnik/), and will be published in the United States in the coming future.

The American Polish Cultural Center of Troy was most generous to offer our event their familiar and elegant location, for which we’re most thankful. Countless others, a list of which would be extremely long indeed (it’s over twenty) volunteered their time and talent to ensure a successful event.  But in a special way, we want to offer great thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Bankowski, who not only helped tremendously, but even spent their Wedding Anniversary with us!  In addition, thanks go out to Agnieszka Otwinowska and Jozef Ledzinski for their most helpful contributions to our celebration.

Polish Bilingual Day is a holiday that is changing the image of Poland and the Polish community in the world. We aim to show that we are a nation and people that value education, culture, and tolerance.  By being bilingual, we become ambassadors of Poland and multiculturalism abroad. We can learn from the experiences of two cultures and respect both values and traditions.  After only a short time in existence, I’m so happy that Michigan has hosted (and will continue to host) one of America’s biggest celebrations of Polish Bilingual Day!

The celebration was substantially supported by the Embassy of Poland, and the Polish Cultural Institute of New York.  In addition, we at TPM encourage everyone to support the organizations that support Polish Bilingual Day, including the American Polish Cultural Center, the Polish-American Congress, the Polish-American Federal Credit Union, Środek Campau Quality Sausage, Bożek Meat Market, and Matt Construction.  Lastly, please consider supporting the host of Polish Bilingual Day: The Polish Mission of the Orchard Lake Schools. We’re proud to lead Michigan’s signature Polish language event for families, and with your support, we can continue to make Michigan the best place in the United States to speak Polish!  After Wisconsin, Michigan has the second highest percentage of people with Polish roots in relation to the total population, which is almost ten percent! With four major non-profit Polish language schools, which amounts to about 600 young students, our Michigan Polish-American community is one the most dynamic anywhere in the United States, and we at The Polish Mission are proud to help make our Polish-speaking community the very best it can be, by “starting small:” the young children who’ll pass our language and heritage on to our descendants.

Please consider making a contribution by visiting www.polishmission.com, and clicking the donate button.  Finally, please join us all in thanking Marzanna Owinski for the dedication and countless hours of work that have made all this possible.