Professor Lewińska, how would you define the concept of sustainable development through the lens of your academic discipline?

Words are important in my research work as a philologist and linguist. I study their use in dictionaries and in various contexts, and analyze those used both today and in the past. Words evolve, change their meaning and stylistic value, and enter into new word combinations. What is more, general Polish words become specialized vocabulary (terms). One word may have different meanings assigned to it, depending on its use. It may be used differently in various disciplines or sub-disciplines as a specialized term. For example, the creators of new ideas or programs use the linguistic potential of the Polish language to assign new meanings and desired values to well-known words. Sometimes words are used as propaganda tools, sometimes their meanings get devalued. Even though certain values have initially been assigned to these words, their overuse or use in different contexts may divest them of their meaning, thereby producing hollow words. As a result, such empty words designate nothing, which only turns them into propaganda tools.

In my view, the Polish word rozwój (development) comes in many stylistic varieties of the Polish language, and has made its way into various scientific disciplines. My research profile makes me  associate this word with both linguistics and language teaching. To illustrate this, I may say: My whole scientific and professional development involves analyzing the stages of language development, as well as language teaching. The concept of development can also be found in psychology, pedagogy, economics, and the natural sciences. Its meaning has been tailored to suit their respective needs.

When writing a text, all scientists need to explain in the introduction their understanding of this key term or formulate their own definition. The first basic step taken by a linguist is to look up this word in dictionaries listing all the entries for a given word. Historical dictionaries provide information on how a given word was defined one hundred, two hundred, three hundred ago or even more. One can also use professional dictionaries, such as pedagogical or psychological ones.

At any time an average user of the Polish language can use Wielki słownik języka polskiego (, an online dictionary edited by Professor Piotr Żmigrodzki, the science editor. The dictionary lists contemporary meanings of a given word. When we type in the word development, we can select the meaning we are searching for from appropriate tabs. I have selected the most general meaning of this word, however, one may also find three subentries: rozwój człowieka (human development), rozwój firmy (company development), and rozwój wydarzeń (developments). Out of these three entries it is the human development that is of paramount importance to me. Although  the subentry has been labeled as specialized vocabulary used in biology, we do not treat this word exclusively as a term. In the context of our conversation it is crucial to embrace not only its biological but also economic dimensions, e.g. company development. In a sense, we are also referring to developments. Our actions and personal development as employees working for this company have an impact on both company development and other developments. Our goal should be to develop awareness of all the mutual relations we enter into.

Biological development is “a natural process of changes occurring in living organisms throughout their lives or in future generations, and leading to their growth,  maturation or evolution”. It is important to note that such an understanding of development not only entails changes caused by cell growth but also has an in-built valuation. Growth is tantamount to better adaptation or a better form corresponding to the needs of a changing world.

It is also “a process of changes leading to better and more complex states of forms,” which is based on the same assumption that development should mean improvement. Taking new actions or developing new forms of activity to make improvements and to meet new needs may serve as an example.

The third subentry refers to developments, which instead of containing valuation conceptualizes development in terms of time lapse. It seems to me that we may sometimes think about biological development or company development in temporal terms. A company may change in time but will it always be a change for the better? If we accept the contemporary dictionary definition of development, the answer to the question should be in the affirmative.

The second word used both in our conversation and in the name of your Center for Sustainable Development (Centrum Zrównoważonego Rozwoju) is the Polish adjective ‘zrównoważony’. In the online Polish language dictionary (WSJP) the entry zrównoważony also has several subentries. For example, ‘człowiek zrównoważony’ (a level-headed person) is an individual who acts in a calm, reasonable  and restrained way. So the lexical definition clearly shows that if we want to think about a change with time and a change for the better, we need to eschew emotions and embrace calm and consideration. In other words, progress or a change for the better are contingent upon time and well-thought-out forms. The same holds true for ‘człowiek zrównoważony’. Another subentry to be found in the dictionary is ‘zrównoważony głos’ (a calm voice) defined as a voice demonstrating composure and consideration.

Thank you for your introduction into how linguists discover the meanings of words used in various contexts and how they define them. Does development always mean striving for
a better form?

Linguists  define words on the basis of their contemporary use. Słownik języka polskiego PWN (a popular online dictionary available at defines the word rozwój (development) by means of two adjectives: złożony (complex) i doskonalszy (superior) as a process of developing more complex or superior states or forms.

Have you often come across the concept of sustainable development throughout your scientific career? 

Not directly. My scientific and didactic development under the supervision of Professor Regina Pawłowska, a long-standing head of the Department of Polish Literature and Language Didactics, subsequently renamed the Didactics Department, has made me reflect on the concept of sustainable development many times. Although Professor Pawłowska did not use the concept in her research work, one may find its traces in her reflection on the right of a student to otherness and diversity, as well as the right of the youth to develop at their own pace. She also advocated comprehensive development of the youth in education to facilitate their participation in a rapidly changing world.

We are talking about a world which over the last century has undergone rapid transformation. Our life expectancy has increased and so has our professional activity. So it is crucial to remember that our knowledge paradigm developed at the beginning of our career needs to undergo change. Additionally, sustainable development entails a relatively frictionless adaptation to our changing reality without renouncing our values. It is a paraphrase of Professor Pawłowska’s words, often shared by me with my students. The words were written in one of the articles published in the 1990s, i.e. over thirty years ago. Let me quote the relevant passage:

The modern school should educate students to cope with the challenges of our changing world: to engage in lifelong learning, to make a smooth transition into a new profession or a new role in life, to appreciate knowledge and acquire it independently, to master effective reading techniques with regard to various texts representing various disciplines and performing different functions; to develop their own modern intellect in order to perceive things and phenomena as interrelated and in terms of cause and effect; to be embrace the volatility and diversity of the world while cherishing their unshakeable values; to act impartially, to strive for justice for all, including themselves, and to deepen their self-knowledge to the greatest extent possible. (R. Pawłowska, Dziecko w szkole dziś i jutro. Warunki konieczne uzdrowienia polskiej szkoły, w: Dziecko we współczesnej Polsce, J. Komorowska (ed.), vol. 1, Warsaw 1991, pp. 249–276 [The title: The child at school: Today and tomorrow. The conditions that produce the reform of the Polish school, [in:] The child in the Poland of today]).

When Professor Pawłowska wrote these words, they were not as relevant as they are today. However, they have acquired a different meaning over the last year – an extremely difficult time for many societies. The need to self-educate and to respond to rapid changes, e.g. technological ones involving remote teaching, has become a large part of our everyday lives.

Have I understood correctly that the widely disseminated concept of life-long learning is directly linked to sustainable development?

The ability to adapt to a changing world  facilitates a constant development and makes us part of the most important changes. It is based on a conviction that we need to change while allowing ourselves to be different. We master particular competences at our own individual pace, at a particular moment in our lives. To put it simply, we follow different developmental paths.

If we want to make the concept of sustainable development relevant to teaching or learning experiences, we need to assume that it entails the right of a human being to develop at one’s own space. We may illustrate this phenomenon with a historical example of apprentices who mastered their professional skills at their individual pace: for some it took 5 years to master the skills that others developed within just a year. However, there were also those who never mastered them in the first place. There is an apriori assumption made today that everyone – the whole population –  will reach the same stage of development by learning under the same conditions and at the same pace. Educational ideas and solutions introduced to support exceptionally gifted students are unfortunately marginalized in practice. What is even worse is that they are perceived as part of the process of equalizing opportunities with its in-built negative valuation and the presupposition of
a deficiency. It is incompatible with what we know about human potential, and detrimental to many of us. It seems hasty to claim that a different pace of development is far from being normal. If an individual develops differently from the rest of the population, it does not mean he or she should be referred for testing. Maybe it is better to support them by giving them ample space for self-development.

One thing that immediately comes to mind is sustainable scientific development.

Science used to be the last space based on the relation between the master and his or her team (students). Through dialog and personal encounters we were in a position to determine the potential of a person who wished to follow us. In the humanities the process of describing reality or creating a new world happened through dialog facilitated by reflective equilibrium and ample amount of time. There were neither top-down frameworks nor predictable schemas imposed on scientific development as such an approach would have impaired creativity. Unfortunately, one of today’s paradoxes is the conflict of assessment. Describing reality is one thing, evaluating it is quite another. To  illustrate such a paradox, let me give you an example of classifying the discovered data as being on a particular scale and then deciding whether such a discovery should merit academic promotion. An attempt made to objectively assess the progress made by students has also failed. As I set and grade secondary school-leaving examinations (matriculation examinations), it is clear to me that the suggestion to use external exams and grade them objectively implies lack of objectivity so far. The negative evaluation of subjectivity has resulted in the loss of essence of the humanities: a personal relation facilitating  development through dialog and in one’s quest for solutions at one’s own pace.

Do you perceive your development as a sustainable one?

Throughout my life I have met masters who did not expect me to make such choices or to do everything within a certain time or at a certain pace. My development had nothing to do with systematic development. I reject the notion of systematicity, and at the same time stress the fact that zrównoważony (sustainable) does not mean systematyczny (systematic). At this point I’d like to quote Jan Kochanowski, who wrote: „A ja z tym trzymam, kto co w czas uchwyci” (I keep with the man who seizes the day[1]). Our biological time puts us in a position where we have to choose or meet challenges. During my time at university I met Professor Edward Breza, my late mentor, who invited me to attend a seminar he used to run  with passion and great personal engagement. At that time there were no doctoral schools or PhD programs in philological studies. Instead one could  enter into a mentor-trainee relationship – Professor Breza’s personal time dedicated to many people he invited into the world of science. We still have friends and acquaintances made during our first doctoral meetings. During the second year of our doctoral yet non-university collaboration, I quit my teaching position to become a teaching assistant of the first year (this is how the position was referred to at that time). Since that moment I have climbed the academic ladder: from a teaching assistant of the first year, through a teaching assistant, an assistant professor, and an assistant professor with habilitation, to an associate professor and finally a full professor.

The second person that helped make my sustainable development a reality was Professor Pawłowska, whom I have already mentioned. My mentors respected my need to maintain work-life balance. I have a family, a husband, children and a grandson, and I have also dedicated my research career to language and the history of the language spoken here, in Pomerania. My PhD thesis and virtually all my books concern the history of language and analyze texts written in Pomerania in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century. I have also strived to keep balance in my teaching duties at the university. When running my Polish language teaching courses I realized that verifying my research results at school would be a natural course of action. That’s why for 15 years (half my professional life) I simultaneously worked as a Polish language teacher in all types of schools. Again, I need to stress the fact that my development has not been systematic: I have worked at a different pace, had time for my passions, and managed to climb both the academic and didactic ladder. I am a chartered teacher, a matriculation examiner, and a certified academic tutor.

In retrospect one may notice rapid changes, including technological ones, accompanied by new teaching methods. What do you think about innovations in education?

Development needs to correspond to a changing reality, as well as the changing needs of young people, pupils, and students. I am ready to admit that I should change the methods I effectively applied ten, fifteen or twenty years ago.  If they turn out to be ineffective today, they should be modified. Young people are said to have changed but – at the same time – it  is said to be a change for the worse. I’d like to stress that this is not true. The conception of the world, teaching methods, and students have changed, which should not be perceived in a negative light by us, adult educators or mature teachers who find it hard to adjust to a new environment. Everyone of us who has been professionally active for a very long time needs to change their methods. We should teach today’s pupils or students differently than we used to thirty years ago. We should also become part of the developmental change. What is more, we should search for new ways of re-entering into
a dialog with pupils and students, seeing their potential, and suggesting a common quest for their development plans.

At the start of our conversation you have underscored that sustainable development is connected with the right to be different. And I’d like to follow up on that. What does it actually mean?

We are no longer a culturally homogenous society or a monolingual society, at least not in the Tri-City. And for the last several days this change has been so rapid that it is not possible to stop or reverse it. I encountered a cultural difference thanks to Rector Professor Józef Arno Włodarski. It was at the Institute of Polish Philology in 2010 that we found out that we would be teaching seventeen students from Harbin, China.  The students neither spoke English nor knew the Latin alphabet. Even though both they and we spoke Russian, we found it hard to understand one another due to differences in our pronunciation. Our Asian guests were taught by Professor Małgorzata Milewska-Stawiany, Professor Lucyna Warda-Radys, and me. Together we designed teaching methods based on our scientific research. We knew that we should resort to concrete thinking, and we designed pedagogical grammar rules. We took our Chinese students out of the classroom, and offered them such activities as excursions, joint filmmaking, theatrical shows, singing songs or shanties.

Later we held the first Polish language classes offered at the university to immigrants from Syria, and with the support of the Immigrant Support Center (CWII) we built a foundation for the teaching of Polish as a foreign language at the University of Gdańsk. These actions materialized in the form of postgraduate program for teaching Polish as a foreign language. Initially this program was dedicated to language instructors who ran Polish language courses for adult immigrants at private schools and the CWII. However, things changed rapidly when two years after the launching of the program it turned out that immigrants chose Poland as a country to live in, not only to work. Their approach to our language has changed: they need to master Polish not only to communicate but also to participate in Polish public life. By choosing Gdańsk as their a place of residence, migrants, and soon probably many refugees, enroll their children at Polish schools. The Immigrant Integration Model (IIM) Gdansk has been initiated in response to these diverse needs. I have been part of this process since its outset. As a university employee I have been involved together with the authorities of the Faculty of Polish Philology in a design and approval procedure regarding a specialization in teaching Polish as a foreign language in the field of Polish philology. What is more, we have designed our postgraduate program in such a way so as to meet the need to educate both language instructors and teachers running extracurricular English classes at schools for children from migrant backgrounds. The Postgraduate Program for Teaching Polish as a Foreign Language has been offered for nine years, and I have a pleasure of acting as its director. For several years children with migrant backgrounds have been attending nearly every school in Gdańsk. As two extra hours of Polish language learning for most of them, particularly in the context of digital education, turns out to be an inadequate support, for several years I have coordinated volunteering activities performed by students who help these children.

What actions should the University of Gdańsk take to support sustainable development?

I am dreaming of an international Polish studies program. I think that the mission of our university is also to foster a sense of community while at the same time showing respect to cultural diversity. Let’s create a university that prepares its graduates for operating in a multicultural and multilingual society. I am also dreaming of establishing a large glottodidactics center at
the University of Gdańsk. And I am glad that thanks to the efforts made by many individuals and the institutional support of the University we were granted a permission by the Ministry of Science and Education in 2018 to administer Polish language certification exams at our university. And then, in 2020, Professor Ewa Badyda became a member of the State Commission for the Certification of Proficiency in Polish as a Foreign Language.

The University of Gdańsk has come a long way since 2010. Systematic efforts have been made to make Gdańsk not only a vibrant teaching and examination center – a mission embraced by
the Academic Centre of the Polish Language and Culture for Foreigners, but also a dynamic Polish glottodidactics research center at the Faculty of Languages. I am sure that such a development vision is quite feasible. Each year we run classes for Chinese students who first learnt Polish in China for one year and then learnt Polish in our country for two years. Whereas nearly 100% of them pass the Polish language certification exam at level B1, 15–20% of them demonstrate Polish language skills at level B2. I think that this is an external evaluation of our teaching methods and a reason to be satisfied.  Additionally, for several years the employees of the Institute of Polish Philology have been publishing their scientific research results in this area, thereby putting Gdańsk on the map of Polish glottodidactics research centers.

Thank you.                                                                                                                                

Interviewer: Professor Sylwia Mrozowska

[1] Jan Kochanowski’s poem To the mountains and forest. Translated by Michael J. Mikoś. Available at: (Accessed: April 7, 2022)