Learning Polish as a Native English Speaker

By Stacey
Apr 6, 2013 · 3 min

As a Slavic language, Polish is one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn.

Learning Polish as a Native English Speaker

When adults ask my advice as a translation services expert on what to pick up as a second language, the one language I never recommend is Polish. This isn’t because I hate the Polish language – on the contrary, I think it’s a fascinating and beautiful language. It’s one of the most dynamic languages in the world today, in fact, and while I’m not qualified to do document translation work in Polish, it’s definitely a language I enjoy studying a bit and paying attention to. Watching where Polish winds up as it makes its way through this challenging time in its history is going to be well worth the price of the ticket.

But Polish is a very difficult language to learn as an adult English speaker, for two formidable reasons: The sounds you need to produce and understand, and the grammar.

Polish Sounds

Language is just sounds, after all, but producing the necessary sounds that comprise a language sometimes requires very specialised pronunciation, and the Slavic languages such as Polish are particularly challenging to English speakers. The sounds can be very subtly different from each other. When I first heard Polish, many of the words sounded exactly the same – it is maddening. Someone can actually repeat two different words to you and they sound exactly the same, until you start to wonder if they’re having some fun at your expense.

Over time, and with some practice and experience, you can start to differentiate between, say, “ś” and “sz”. But that’s only after some time and effort. It’s just a very different scheme of producing sounds than we’re used to in most Western languages.

learning polish sounds and polish grammar

Polish Grammar

Polish grammar, compared to English, is also very difficult. Polish uses a case system, for example. In English you can say “on the box” or “under the box” or “in the box” and the word box stays the same – once you learn the word box you can relax, you know it. In Polish, as in other Slavic languages, the word for box changes with the way it’s used. Additionally, you have to worry over modifiers and gender that change the words further. Compared to English, Polish is an incredibly complicated and frustrating language to learn or translate to if you're a beginner.

Word order is also usually different, with the organisation of thought almost reversed from English, so that the stuff you put at the beginning of an English sentence usually ends up at the end of a Polish sentence, and vice versa. Keeping all of this straight is nearly impossible once you’ve been trained in English. Of course you can learn Polish. I’m just saying that it will be one of the more difficult languages you can choose to learn.

Still, what is life without a challenge? As long as you know what you’re getting yourself into, by all means pursue a love of Polish. Just block off a few years for your studies!

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