I’m still fairly early in my journey to learn Polish but here I share some observations and basic facts about this curious language. Is it as hard as people say?
Polish is a Slavic language spoken fluently by around 50 million people worldwide – mostly in Poland but with significant communities throughout Europe, North America and South America.
According to scientific studies, Polish is among the hardest European languages to learn for English speakers – ranked alongside other Slavic languages, Persian, Hindi and Thai by the Foreign Service Institute in terms of approximate hours of study required. Even the few foreigners I know who have lived here for many years seem to speak the language with some difficulty and would not claim to be fully fluent. The many Ukrainian immigrants here, who will be the focus of a future post, generally fare a lot better because of the significant shared vocabulary and linguistic similarities.
The first tricky element is pronunciation and spelling. At first glance (and maybe with a little squinting) the use of the Roman alphabet is misleadingly reassuring. But quickly you find unfamiliar letters: Ą, Ć, Ę, Ł, Ń, Ó, Ś, Ź, Ż, mind-boggling consonant combinations (sz, cz, dz, dź, rz to name a few). The result is some devilishly difficult words: the list is endless but some of the national favourites include źdźbło (a blade of grass), chrząszcz (beetle) and szczęście (happiness; cue jokes about the irony of making foreign learners unhappy). The most common words often don’t offer an easy introduction, with ‘przyjaciel’ for ‘friend’, ‘cześć’ for ‘hi’ and ‘dzisiaj’ for ‘today’. Even the town names of Jędrzychowice on the German border (a not-so-subtle introduction to Polish for new arrivals) and ski resort of Szczyrk can leave foreigners lying in a dark room to recover…
Like in other Slavic languages nouns change (sometimes dramatically and unpredictably) depending on their use in the sentence, known as declination. So the word for dog, ‘pies’, can turn into psa, psu, psów or psem. Names change too; to name a few random examples, the magnificent city of Wrocław (vrots-wav) turns into Wrocławia, Wrocławiu and Wrocławiem and the name Jerzy (George) can become Jerzym, Jerzemu and Jerzego. I can’t pretend to know when to use which yet though. I hope for the best and generally make a mess of it…
My experience is that many foreigners therefore give up mentally before they’ve set foot in Poland, which seems a surefire way of never progressing. It’s not a totally uphill struggle. There are plenty of words with Latin origin (e.g. informacja, restauracja, delikatesy) and I find that Polish people often delight in helping foreigners to learn their language. Plus, there’s a great sense of satisfaction when you do manage to communicate something, even with partial success. I’ll discuss it in the future in more detail, but many Polish people outside of tourist centres don’t speak English. Many below the age of around 40 learnt it in school so can often understand text, but there is little focus in most public schools and in exam curricula on effective spoken communication.
I would describe the difficulty of Polish language as a national pastime too. People of all ages like nothing better than to debate the hardest-to-pronounce words, roll off famous tongue twisters or even debate correct grammar with some passion. A few (famous) favourite phrases include ‘stół z powyłamywanymi nogami’ (a table with broken legs) and ‘Król Karol kupił królowej Karolinie korale koloru koralowego’ (King Carol bought coral-coloured beads for Queen Caroline). You can listen to these and more at https://culture.pl/en/article/10-craziest-polish-tongue-twisters.
So, if you aren’t completely put off already and want to try learning a few phrases, I recommend this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7f1ZJWITuc&t=679s. Good luck – powodzenia!
Published on Londynek.net, the biggest and most popular online community for Poles in the UK: https://www.facebook.com/Londynek/