Polish language

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It has long been an ambition of mine to become fluent in a second language. At school I was pretty decent at languages generally, getting high grades in French and German, but classroom prowess without practical experience is very easily found out. The biggest use of my French ‘abilities’ nowadays is to get a chuckle out of those who are miles better than me (unless they are actually French, in which case substitute ‘punch’ for ‘chuckle’).

The German side of matters has gone radically downhill through lack of use over the last few years. I regularly go  to Austria with the family, where my dad insists on me doing all the talking as I am “better at German than everyone else” and then immediately follows up by telling me exactly what I should say. Now I am the master at ordering hot drinks and hearty meals on the ski slopes and totally hopeless at any other kind of interaction.

I have made some progress with my linguistic ambition though, thanks to my 3 and a bit years of living in Poland. Immersion is often cited as the most effective way of learning a foreign language and I’ve certainly seen the benefits first hand but it can be hard going in the beginning, especially here where people are very rarely exposed to hearing their language garbled by outsiders. We English speakers unconsciously receive a lot of training in understanding the attempts made, with varying degrees of success, by people around the world to communicate in our native language but it is one of very view which have developed in this way.

I spent a large proportion of my first year here feeling hopelessly lost in most situations and, like so many before, limited myself to interacting with other English speakers as much as possible. Taking this easy way out probably didn’t help me much but I did steadily improve and only realised how much when I left for a six-month stint in Tallinn, Estonia.

On arrival at the airport I was met by Kadri, my new boss’ fiancee, and driven to my flat in the city centre. The 15 minute drive took me past numerous shops, signs, adverts etc, all of which left me quite intimidated. I recognised practically nothing of this new language, only the odd word borrowed from other languages. Suddenly I was pining for the relative comfort of Poland where, it turned out, I actually knew- or at least could understand- plenty more than i thought. Being the decent, enterprising guy I am, I had a bash at learning Estonian but never really made it beyond the bare minimum- only present tense and a very small vocabulary. In my defense, there are only two tenses in Estonian, but still a pretty poor effort.

I came back to Poland 2 years ago and have definitely improved a lot further since then, a combination of effects including having a Polish girlfriend, sporadically organising classes, devoting time to self teaching from books, and creating ‘Ponglish’ – inspired by everybody’s favourite ‘Franglais’- words and phrases with a friend (we’ve recently been branching out into incorporating the Silesian regional dialect and archaic Polish words). It has been hard work though- Polish is certainly not an easy language to learn, a recent study naming it the seventh most difficult in the world. This depends heavily on what your native language is, but I believe this study was centred around difficulty for native English speakers.

The principle obstacle for us is the case system used in Polish. Anyone who studied German or, if you had an old-fashioned school as I briefly did at age 11, Latin will have had some experience of this idea, now almost entirely absent from English, where the form of a word changes depending on the case being used. I found it all far too confusing when I was studying German and somehow managed to do well without understanding it at all. Basically, for the non-linguists amongst you, the case of a word is usually determined by its role in the sentence (in Polish, among other languages, the use of certain verbs and/or prepostitions has an influence too). In English, word order has taken the place of this, with words like ‘me’, ‘him’ ‘her’ the only remaining vestiges. For example, we say:

‘I like him’


‘I like he

Usually the position of a word in the sentence tells us what role it plays in proceedings. It is obvious to a native English speaker that these sentences do not mean the same thing (the last doesn’t really make sense at all):

John gave Michael a bike.

Michael gave John a bike.

Michael gave a bike John.

In Polish, the order of the words has a much smaller significance, with the case (shown in the ending of the word) preventing any confusion. The 3 sentences above, translating John as ‘Jan’, Michael as ‘Michał’, and bike as ‘rower’ would become:

Jan dał Michałowi rower. (or Rower dał Jan Michałowi, Jan dał rower Michałowi)

Michał dał Janowi rower. (or Rower dał Michał Janowi, Janowi dał Michał rower)

Michał dał roweru Jana. (or Jana dał Michał roweru etc.)

As you can see, many different word orders are possible, with the words used changing depending on which of John, Michael and the bike are ‘giving’, ‘being given’ or ‘receiving’. In a way you might think this makes constructing a sentence easier- you don’t have to worry about the right order of the words. This is true provided you know the right ending you need, easier said than done when there are 7 cases, 3 genders and a few other issues to take into account. A visitor to England would really only need to know the names John and Michael and the word ‘bike’ in order to get the message across. In Polish, using the right case is usually crucial to making yourself correctly understood.

Another problem with Polish as an English speaker is the pronunciation, although this is mostly a result of the heavy presence of letters uncommon in English like z, j and k. Once you know the basic rules, pronunciation is a breeze- almost every word in Polish is pronounced as it looks, no complicated systems for different combinations of letters. The major headache for us concerns the pairs of sounds similar to the English ‘sh’, ‘ch’, ‘j’ and the sound of the ‘si’ in the word ‘vision’- represented respectively in Polish by:

‘sh’: sz, ś/si

‘ch’: cz, ć/ci

‘j’: dż, dź/dzi

vision: ż, ź/zi

After all this time, the only place i can reliably tell these apart is at the train station, where the harder sz,cz etc are always marked on the announcements by a pronounced hiss from the speakers. As for consistently pronouncing them correctly, I’m still open to suggestions. Thankfully it hardly ever makes any difference sufficient to impede communication, though I must have often caused some shock/giggles when asking for things as the words for  ‘please’ and ‘piglet’ differ only in that one is spelt with ‘sz’ in the middle, the other with ‘si’.

The other area which I am still occasionally stumped by is what is known as the ‘aspect’ of a verb. Putting it very simply, Polish verbs have less tenses than English ones, but almost every verb in English will have 2 equivalents in Polish. These are known as ‘imperfective’ and ‘perfective’ and can be used, for example, to show a difference along the lines of that between ‘I was going to the cinema’  and ‘I went to the cinema’. Knowing which aspect is required takes some getting your head around, and your memory can really be tested when it comes to remembering the 2 verbs for each English one. Often dictionaries only give one translation, the imperfective, and the corresponding perfective form is usually made by adding a prefix to it, which you have to simply memorise.

It’s been well worth the time and work though, and generally speaking Poles genuinely appreciate and respect the effort to learn even the smallest amount of their language


5 thoughts on “Polish language

  1. Yep, it’s a bitch to learn but fantastically satisfying to make those smug Romance language speakers feel inadequate.

    I learnt my Polish phonetically from my mother, aunt, gran and female cousins. Unfortunately this means I am very fluent in first person (FEMALE) speaking, but pretty crap when I want to assert my masculinity. Or other men’s.

    Have you come across the fabled, two plural system, where there is ANOTHER plural for “two”. Thank god for the 15th century.

    Hope Krakow is treating you well.

  2. Indeed, this perfective / imperfective thing in Polish verbs is turning into a nightmare.

    The initial general idea was that “imperfective” equals unfinished – but can be used in the past (which by definition is finished… because it’s past). Past continuous is okay, but last lesson, my teacher explained that it doesn’t always translate into past continuous, which left me bewildered.

    Not to mention that perfective equals finished but is also used for future…
    Learning this will take some temporal reprogramming.

  3. Thanks Andy!!! After four lessons so far, I was feeling a lot more positive about my prosepcts….. until I read this piece….. :-)

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