Polishing off your Polish

There’s apparently been a significant increase in the numbers of people learning Polish in recent years, especially since 2004, according to this article, and many of them come from the UK or Ireland.

Many language schools that used to teach mainly English and German to Poles are now offering courses in Polish as a foreign language. Such courses are popular with people from the UK and Germany who have been going to teach in Poland since the 1990s, and also with people with Polish partners, and people of Polish origin wanting to get in touch with their roots. Translators and interpreters are studying Polish as there is a great demand for Polish speakers in EU institutions.

Polish is described as a notoriously difficult language that starts out fiendishly difficult and then gets harder, and it’s apparently quite common for students to quit after a few lessons. Some do continue studying later after getting their courage back though. Not surprisingly speakers of other Slavic language find Polish least difficult to learn, Germans find the grammar relatively easy as it has much in common with German grammar, and speakers of Romance languages don’t find the grammar too hard. It’s English speakers who usually find Polish hardest, and Australians are apparently dreaded by Polish teachers.

Are any of you learning Polish?

18 thoughts on “Polishing off your Polish

  1. I have tried some but quite little. It’s actually not that hard since the grammar is similar to my language. And even if it weren’t, I don’t think it would be too hard. At least not that much harder, than, say, German (and in many aspects easier, for example, in Polish you can usually determine the gender of nouns by the ending where in German you can’t). The biggest obstacle is lack of good resources.

    I’d make some, but, eh, I don’t know the language.

  2. Do you know of any resources for spoken Polish? For me, the challenge of a new language is always to find multisensorial lessons, not just grammar books and music or isolated sound clips without explanations, etc.

  3. I’ve been studying Polish for guite a while now and I don’t find it too hard… I speak Finnish as my native language but I also speak sámegiella and anarâškielâ so 7 cases and a couple of tenses is no big deal. The hardest thing is the Polish pronunciation with all the “s, sh, ch, cz” voices since Finnish only has /s/ and /sh/ (which is rarely used..)

  4. I’ve been living in Poland for a number of years now and occasionally do translations (Polish to English) and even have a little experience in teaching Polish to newcomers (who often do not know much English which didn’t make it any easier).

    It is true that Polish is front-loaded in terms of difficulty, it starts of hard, gets harder but then starts to get easier and easier (by contrast, for Polish speakers English starts off pretty easy but after a couple of years gets harder and harder and never gets easy again AFAICT).

    Some points for learners (real and potential):

    – the backbone of the language is the case system, learners are well advised to put most of their effort there, getting the pronoun, noun and adjective forms right. Verbs are easier but not as important in communication.

    – numbers are a pain in the derrier, it’s hardly a system at all but a bunch of exceptions and exceptions to exceptions and often even Poles have to think about which form is ‘correct’ in a given context. If you don’t even try to decline any number higher than two no one is liable to notice or care. Spending lots of trying to learn the ‘correct’ forms is mostly a waste of time until you’re really advanced.

    – the case system makes sense and holds together once you have an overview of the whole thing (which can take a couple of years) but if you look only at small parts in isolation it seems insane. I knew someone who knew Latin well (where the cases are far more regular) what happened to make Polish ‘that way’. the learner will never have effortless control of the case system, learn the main patterns, the main exceptions and guess the rest of the time.

    – don’t worry about being able to hear the difference between ś and sz (ć and cz etc). I can understand every word of the nightly news but if I hear a new word out of context with ś or sz I mostly cannot tell the difference (Polish speakers find this hard to believe ‘but they sound so different!’ to them I say ‘Hah!). I can usually _produce_ both adequately but I gave up on trying to hear the difference a long time ago and it doesn’t interfere with understanding at all.

    – the way that verbs are presented to learners is a disgrace. Typically verbs are introduced in the imperfective and then the perfective form is given. That makes learning them about 28 times more difficult than it needs to be. I worked out a system for understanding how imperfective and perfective verbs are related that’s a lot easier (learners I’ve described it to invariably say it makes a lot more sense than the traditional approach).

    – the difficulties of Polish are almost all limited to changes _within_ clauses, once you can put simple sentences together, combining them into larger units is totally clear and simple. By contrast, a lot of the real difficulties of English have to do with putting clauses together (dropping subordinating conjunctions, sequence of tenses, choosing betwen ‘to X and X-ing’, nouns with different thematic roles in two clauses ‘I want her to win’ etc). This is also why written Polish can have _very_ long setences that are easy to read while long sentences in English quickly descend into incomprehension.

  5. Hello all,
    I’m an Australian with a bit of Polish ancestry so I’m interested as to why Australian students (above others) would be dreaded by the Polish teachers?
    Is it because of our sound system or is it more of a cultural thing?
    Unfortunately, I can’t speak a word of Polish.

  6. I’ve been trying to pick up a little since it’s a heritage language for me and while it’s harder than the typical Romance and Germanic fare of language learners, it’s not absurdly difficult. Once mastered the orthography is pretty straightforward and it’s not that difficult to spot certain cognates with other Indo-European languages.

    The biggest challenge is the complicated grammar, with the case system and inflections and whatnot but it’s not insurmountable.

  7. I think Polish would be easier to learn if the language would be written with Cyrilic alphabet. All sh, ch sounds in the others Slavics are written with only one letter. From all Slavic languages, Polish is the less phonetic. The same thing(phoneticaly speaking) happens with French in Romance languages and Dutch in Germanic family).

  8. Polish orthography is far more phonetic than French and comparably phonetic as Portuguese. The use of digraphs is not particularly elegant, but there are only cz, sz, rz and ch, and you have to remember that ś, ź and ć are written as si, zi, ci before vowels. And of course there is voicedness assimilation not expressed in orthography, but that’s present in other Slavic languages too (except Serbian/Croatian which are stricly phonetical). In fact Russian orthography in Cyrillic is less phonetic than Polish – try to learn how to pronounce vowels and where the word is stressed (these two are related, but neither is marked in text) or the rules of writing ъ. And to compare Polish to insane French with all its mute consonants, “aient”, “est”, “et” pronounced all the same as [ε] and similar atrocities, is inappropriate.

  9. I’m a native English speaker, and I took a year of night classes in Polish at a local university when I was 13. I’d already been studying German for three years, and French for one. It definitely struck me as a lot harder than German, at least at first. Getting used to declining nouns was probably the most difficult part at first, but I wrapped my head around it eventually.
    The many, many exceptions to the rules were definitely a pain, and the hardest thing to get used to was the aspect system, at least insofar as there’s no rule for forming the perfective from the imperfective…
    The spelling system I actually found quite logical and easy to pick up.
    I haven’t formally studied it since, but I occasionally go back and try to brush it up a little. I can’t hold more than a basic conversation, but it’s usually enough to make the occasional Pole I encounter quite happy!

  10. My step-mother is Polish, and I started studying Polish using Rosetta Stone this winter. I’m having a lot of fun, but as Rosetta Stone expects users to pick up rules from context, the Polish exceptions make real progress difficult. I speak French, studied Latin in junior high, took a few years of German in college, and have a semester of Spanish behind me, so as a language lover I at least know to be patient. I can imagine how a native English speaker with little foreign language experience might find learning Polish to be an exercise in absurdity.

  11. Can anyone compare Russian and Polish in terms of overall grammatical difficulty?

  12. “Polish is essentially a light form of Russian that even Germans can master.” –Jay Bowks in Essentialist Explanations

  13. i learned polish the first time around when it was called RUSSIAN. Why learn the same roots twice? Btw, gotta be easier than russian, since they use a latin alphabet rather than cyrillic. If you’re having trouble learning polish, i have zero sympathy.

  14. comment number 17 has to be one of the most narrow minded comments I’ve ever read. You wouldn’t say you learned French the first time around when it was called Italian would you? There are many differences between Western Slavic Languages and Eastern Slavic Ones. In fact to me Polish sounds nothing like Russian aside from a few conjugates.

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