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60-year-old John from the US burst into tears. It’s already his third attempt at signing up for the state exam. He even hired an IT specialist to help him. Unfortunately, to no avail.

Lotfi, a Tunisian national, was completely perplexed. "I have a question: can someone tell me how to register for the exam. Last year I waited for online registration to open, but when it started at 9:00 am, at 9:03 there were already no free slots left. Can someone please explain this to me?"- he wrote in the Polish State Exam group on Facebook.?"Lotfi, we all go through this" – responded the group’s administrator.

Yuri from Ukraine says he was lucky. - A language school in Warsaw put up a test on their website so that everyone could check their skills. The first five people with the best scores could enroll in a prep course for free. Normally, it cost PLN 900. If you pay for such a course, you automatically get a place on the exam. Otherwise, it is practically impossible to sign up, most people say so. My wife tried to register many times- "attempt unsuccessful". When she bought the course, it was a 100% guarantee - Yuri says in Polish.

He came to Poland seven years ago and is now living with his wife in Kostrzyn (western Poland). – I took a night train to Warsaw to be there for the exam in the morning. First, there was a written part, and then an oral part in the afternoon which took 15 minutes. I was lucky because it usually takes two days. When my wife took the exam, she had to book a hotel room. EUR 150 for the exam, EUR 20 for the certificate, plus the costs of traveling to Warsaw, plus a hotel room, plus the whole course. All in all, it's a lot of money.

Lesson One. Good luck signing up for the state exam

Thousands of foreigners in Poland have to go through what Yuri, John, and Lotfi did. Last year, 12,757 people took the state certification exam in Polish as a Foreign Language. How many wanted to take the exam but failed to sign up? There is no officially available information.

Back in 2017, 2,803 people took the state exam. In 2018 – it was already 5122 people. In the year that followed - 7440. This is not only due to the increasing number of migrants coming to Poland. The law has changed too.

Since 2018, all foreigners who wish to apply for a long-term EU resident status are required to obtain a B1 level certificate. It allows them to live in Poland permanently, work without applying for another permit, travel to other Schengen area countries, and gives additional protection against deportation. That is why Yuri and his wife needed the certificate.

Polish law also requires that people applying for Polish citizenship have a language proficiency certificate. This was the case with John, an American of Polish origin who decided to move to Poland. 

Foreign students studying at public universities also need the certificate if they want to be exempt from certain fees.

On the certificate’s official website (certyfikatpolski.pl) we read: "More and more often, a language proficiency certificate is required from foreigners employed in Poland who are expected to use the Polish language at work". This applies, among others, to health care and civil service employees.

Lesson Two. A black market for exam registrations

Currently, 51 centers have the right to conduct the exams - including 11 exam centers located abroad. These are mostly universities and a few private language schools.

Exams take place four times a year. Anyone willing to take it must register online at a particular center. Hypothetically, anyone is free to sign up. In practice, like John, Lotfi, and Yuri’s account shows, available places are gone after only a few minutes. That’s because most schools prioritize their students enrolled in a language course.

- It’s outrageous. This is a state exam, and everyone should have the same right to enroll. Speaking with my students, I’m ashamed that it looks like this. There is even a black market for exam registrations now. IT specialists develop ways to sign up for the exam and sell their services - says Barbara Sosnowska-Babik from Kraków who has been teaching foreigners for 10 years in her school Polski dla Całej Rodziny (Polish for the Whole Family).

- People travel from one part of the country to the other and even abroad because, for example, the center in London has fewer applicants than the one in Rzeszów - adds Justyna Gola, a teacher and co-founder of the Polish For You language school in Poznań.

The Polish Commissioner for Human Rights has also received complaints about the issue. In 2020, Adam Bodnar wrote to the Minister of Science and Higher Education Wojciech Murdzek: "It is the duty of the authorities to ensure effective access to the state exam in Polish as a foreign language for people who apply for an indefinite stay in Poland or apply for Polish citizenship and bind their future to Poland".

In his response, the Minister wrote that he was aware of the problems and that "the Ministry has undertaken analytical and conceptual work aimed at eliminating them". Two years have passed and nothing has changed.

Lesson Three. Patience test

At a meeting of the parliamentary education, science, and youth committee on April 5, Joanna Fabisiak, a Civic Platform MP, spoke about refugees from Ukraine who won’t be able to take the exam, and people like the 60-year-old John from the US, who become so frustrated with the registration system that he broke out in tears.  

She presented a draft amendment to the Polish Language Act, which would allow people to take the exam remotely.

However, Włodzimierz Bernacki, a Law and Justice party (PiS) MP and Secretary of State at the Ministry of Education and National Heritage, announced that the ministry was working on its own draft amendment, together with the Ministry of Interior and Administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Allegedly, the government wants not only to amend the act on the Polish language but also the act on foreigners (it includes requirements for people applying for a long-term EU resident status). - I ask for your patience. It will take a few more months, half a year at most- he said.

- I am shocked when I hear that the ministry will work on this tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, in a few months. We need to act now! – Ms. Fabisiak concluded, not hiding her annoyance.

The committee voted against the amendment that she proposed.

Ms. Fabisiak is a teacher of Polish as a foreign language by training. Now, she also teaches refugees from Ukraine as a volunteer. - The examination system was already inefficient- she says. – Initially, they predicted that there would be about 3,000 candidates a year. In the beginning, the certification board delegated a representative, usually a university professor, to each exam. If four students wanted to take the exam in Seoul, the professor would go to Seoul. Expensive tourism. And such a baroque celebration. In 2015, we amended the law, curbed these trips, and expanded the list of centers where one could take the exam. At the time, this was enough. But with the surge in the number of applicants, it became dramatically insufficient. If the government's priority is to promote Polish culture, as the ruling party constantly claims, then language should be their main focus. And people can't even sign up for the exam!

Lesson Four. Immigration politics

An IT system that would allow people to take exams remotely is indeed being developed.?"Technically speaking, the system is ready for use. The next stage will be conducting pilot exams planned for 2022" - Mariusz Czech from the National Agency for Academic Exchange tells us.?The first pilot exam already took place last year. The results were "satisfactory".

The system is supposed to allow students to take exams using computers (now they are written by hand) in an examination center or completely remotely. In the latter case, it would be possible to take the exam anywhere, using one's private computer "meeting the technical requirements (...) specified in the regulations". Preparing a remote exam still requires additional work, including identity verification and exam supervision.

- I’m skeptical whether a remote examination system will solve all the problems that the examinees are facing now- says Waldemar Martyniuk, Ph.D., professor at the Jagiellonian University, chairman of the State Commission for Certifying Proficiency in Polish as a Foreign Language (the commission that issues state certificates). Prof. Martyniuk also headed the team of experts who came up with the conception of the computer-based remote system.

The problem with the certificates, however, is not only technical.

- The problem appeared when certificates that were supposed to promote the Polish language became a statutory requirement - says prof. Martyniuk. - The number of candidates increased exponentially, almost overnight. Unfortunately, when the requirements were introduced, the certification system was not adjusted to them. It was hardly able to serve 10,000 candidates a year.  If the requirements remain unchanged, I estimate the number of candidates will increase to at least 200,000, including the largest group, i.e. Ukrainians applying for EU resident status.

According to Prof. Martyniuk, amending the Polish Language Act is not enough. - We need stronger cooperation between offices and ministries that deal with migration. And a quick change of regulations not requiring all migrants to present this certificate to get a certain status. The exam was designed as a confirmation of general Polish language proficiency skills, it is quite rigorous, and oriented more towards academic language skills. However, it was later "hijacked" for other purposes. And the skills it requires are not necessary for all people who want to live and work in Poland. But this is already a question of immigration policy. Either we open the gates or we put a barrier in the form of a more demanding language exam. This is solely a decision of the Polish authorities.

- When I hear that the certificate is now supposed to be the key to the integration of Ukrainian war refugees, I have to object! - Prof. Martyniuk says offended. - Requirements imposed on migrants can be different. And integration cannot begin with certification of language skills.

There is a practical problem as well. - Poland lacks adequate facilities for the whole system of state examinations in Polish as a foreign language. There is our commission, consisting of 14 people who supervise the content. And NAWA (Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange), which - according to the act - is supposed to provide administrative and financial support to our commission. The law does not specify who prepares the examination sheets, who services the examination centers. I am surprised every time that another exam even took place - he admits.

The current law, in force since 2015, is full of bureaucratic obstacles.

Prof. Martyniuk: -We don’t have the capacity to organize more than four sessions a year, so long are the cycles of material production, and the evaluation procedures. And at the end, I have to manually sign each certificate and the supplement attached to it. Can you imagine? I sign about 20,000 certificates each year. Since 2015, we have been negotiating with the Ministry of Education and Science about the need to change the regulations.

Lesson Five. Want the certificate? Pay up!

- The problem with exams is the cherry on top - say the teachers Justyna Gola and Karolina Sołtowska. Their school also offers free language courses for Ukrainian refugees.

Ms. Sołtowska: - When you emigrate to Germany, Sweden, or England, you are assigned a place in a course that prepares you for the state exam. The state subsidizes these courses. Language proficiency is a key requirement for successful integration, everyone knows this. In Poland, people pay for the courses themselves. And to pass the B1 exam, if you’re learning from scratch, you need a lot of time. Today, it’s mainly volunteers who teach refugees.

Final Essay

Barbara Sosnowska-Babik, a language teacher from Kraków, attended two sessions as an examiner. One essay stuck with her in particular.

- In the written part of the B1 exam, you’re required to write two texts, one of them is a longer form- an essay, a dissertation. I graded the work of a gentleman from Ukraine who chose the topic "Is working abroad worth it?". He wrote that he highly recommends it because now he works in Poland and here he always gets paid on time, the boss provides him with two warm meals, and he has a room of his own. It made me cry. I couldn't give him credit for his essay. He wrote communicatively, but with errors that disqualified him according to the requirements of the exam. He managed to pass the other parts, even the grammar. But because he couldn't write a dissertation, he didn't pass the whole thing.

?Justyna Gola: - I am sure that many Poles would not pass the Polish language certificate either.


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