Today’s guest post is along the lines of my own posts that Chinese, Hungarian, Turkish, Czech etc. are easier than you think, from someone with good experience learning the umpteenth “world’s hardest language“, Polish!
It turns out that it’s not that bad after all! Polish can certainly be as hard or easy as any other language, but its difficulties tend to be more loudly advertised (especially by proud natives) than what is actually pretty straightforward about it.
Given the clear need for a little balance in the universe, I asked David Snopek, from LinguaTrek an American who grew up only speaking English, but now has pretty impressive sounding Polish, to chime in and offer some encouragement to those learning this language!
This blog post is based on this popular video that he made in Polish (click “CC” on Youtube to read subtitles in English):
Over to you David!
This is a widely held view by many Poles (but not all!) and few will hesitate to share this opinion with foreigners or to defend the language’s honor if someone challenges it. I know because I’ve been learning Polish for about fives years (I’m an American – read this article in English or watch this video in Polish for my story!).
I regularly make videos in Polish on various topics and the only video I’ve ever made that still receives thousands of views per month over a year after it was publish is the one above (called Polski NIE jest jednym z najtrudniejszych języków na świecie; English: Polish is NOT one of the hardest languages in the world).
Personally, I think Polish is one of the most beautiful languages in the world! There are many great reasons to learn Polish. For me, learning this language has been a joy and, honestly, has changed my life for the better!
I don’t mean any disrespect to the Polish language – but I’ve talked with many people who rationalized giving up on learning Polish because it was the hardest language in the word and they don’t have a talent for languages. There are even more people who wanted to learn Polish – but gave up before they started, because they were convinced it was too hard.
This opinion isn’t helping anyone!
What makes Polish so hard?
I’ve seen many reasons given, but almost all of them focus the number grammatical forms:
- Nouns can have three genders (some linguists count five)
- Each noun and adjective can appear in one of seven cases
- Verbs conjugate for gender, person, mood and time (depending on how you count, this makes over 25 forms of every verb)
- Verbs come in two aspects (English doesn’t have grammatical aspect)
Are you scared yet? If you want more (although I don’t recommend it!), see the links I gave at the beginning of the article.
When something gets harder, something else gets easier
It’s my personal theory, that all languages are equally hard. I have no linguistic reference to back this up – only my own intuition and the stories of other language learners – but I think that our brains are only capable of holding a fixed amount of linguistic complexity.
So, if some aspect of the language is harder, than some other aspect is easier – or non-existent!
It’s true that there are lots of forms of each individual word in Polish. And it’s true that if you learn Polish, this will be a challenge for you. But many things that would be challenging in other languages AREN’T in Polish!
One of the most difficult pieces of grammar to learn in English, is when to use “the”, “a”, “an” or nothing at all. In fact, I don’t personally know any non-native speaker that uses them correctly all the time! This is usually how I can identify non-native speakers when their pronunciation is perfect.
(Luckily for people learning English, articles are also one of the least important parts of English grammar! If you use them incorrectly, people will still understand exactly what you mean.)
Unfortunately, for native speakers of English – when other languages also have articles, the rules for using them are frequently totally different!
In Polish, there are no articles! So, you don’t need to worry about them at all.
No word order
In English and many other languages, the order of the words in a sentence is very important to the meaning. “Jan loves Maria” means something different than “Maria loves Jan” and, of course, “loves Maria Jan” is gibberish.
When learning another language, you may encounter a word order different than that of your native language, providing you with an additional challenge.
In Polish, word order is mostly unimportant!
The following sentences all mean the same thing (“Jan loves Maria”):
- Jan kocha Marię
- Marię kocha Jan
- kocha Jan Marię
- Marię Jan kocha
You can simply speak as the words come to you and not worry about their order.
There are certain word orders that Poles would consider normal in a specific situation. But they are all understandable! This is used to great effect in music and poetry.
Few verb tenses
In English, we have very few verb forms (ie. the words don’t change much). For example, the verb “do” has only the following five forms: do, does, doing, did, done. But we have lots of verb tenses!
- Present simple – I read everyday.
- Present continuous – I am reading right now.
- Present perfect – I have read this book before.
- Present perfect continuous – I have been reading this book for two hours.
- Future perfect continuous – At 5 o’clock I will have been reading this book for four hours.
- Past simple – I read all day yesterday.
- Past continuous – I was reading yesterday.
- … and so on! In total, there are 16 tenses.
If you count tenses the same way in Polish, there are only 5! (Poles count them differently, they’d say there are 3 tenses and 2 aspects.) The following sentences: “I read”, “I am reading”, and “I have been reading” – would all be translated into Polish the same way: “czytam”.
So, forming the verb might be harder in Polish. But knowing when to use which tense, is actually a lot easier!
The alphabet is 95% phonetic!
In English, it can be difficult to know how to pronounce a word from it’s spelling. For example, compare the pronunciation of “oo” in the following words: book, soon, door, flood. It’s different in every word! And there’s no way to know that just from looking at them.
I am a native speaker of English, but even I’ve had the following situation happen to me several times: I’ll learned a new word from reading that I’ve never heard out loud. Then later in a conversation, I’ll try to use it but with the wrong pronunciation and no one knows what I’m talking about! It’s embarrassing, but it’s probably happened to everyone.
On the other hand, the Polish alphabet is almost entirely phonetic. Once you know the rules, you can look at any word and know how to pronounce it.
The opposite isn’t entirely true (hearing a word and knowing how to spell it) but it’s still a lot easier than in English!
Lots of vocabulary with Latin roots
Largely because of its relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, the Latin language has a long history in Poland. Because of this, many words of Latin origin have seeped into the language.
If you speak a language that has borrowed lots of words of Latin origin (like English!), there will be some familiar vocabulary.
For example, many words ending in -cja are directly related to English words ending in -tion:
- motywacja – motivation
- sytuacja – situation
- promocja – promotion
- … and many more!
How to get started?
I think the fact that so few people learn Polish helps perpetuate the view that Polish is so hard. I personally know dozens of people who learned to speak Polish at a very high-level. But frequently when I meet a Pole, they say I’m the first foreigner they’ve ever met who can speak Polish!
Please, help me change this!
Like learning any language, all that’s required is a little time, motivation and an effective method.
If you want to get started learning Polish, I recommend the following resources:
- Natural Language Learning (Without a Teacher!) – My FREE ebook, which you will receive if you subscribe to my blog! In it, I describe the exact method I used to learn Polish and how to create your own method that will allow you to learn any language on your own. It’s available in both English and Polish.
- Don’t start learning Polish with the grammar! – An article on my blog where I try to convince you NOT to do what most Polish language courses do: focus on nothing but grammar for years before actually having contact with the real language.
- Real Polish – A blog and podcast in Polish with some excellent content for learners.
I wish you the best of luck in your language learning journey!
Do widzenia! Pozdrawiam!
Any comments, or other words of encouragement for learners of Polish? Share them with us in the comments below!
Enter your email in the top right of the site to subscribe to the Language Hacking League e-mail list for way more tips sent directly to your inbox!
If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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