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5 Reasons Why The Polish Language is So Hard
“We have his birthday party on Saturday. Do you want to come?,” asked the mother of my 7-year-old student.
I’d long heard and was soon about to experience that learning the Polish language was a really difficult task, especially for native English speakers. But I’d also heard that Poles always appreciate it when you try to speak it. So being the people pleaser that I am, I loaded up Google Translate, typed in “Yes. I am excited,” and gave it my best shot.
“Tak. Jestem podniecony.” I replied with a smile.
There are only a few looks of horrified expressions in this world that can tell you you’ve just said one of the most appalling phrases in the Polish lexicon in response to a 7-year-old’s birthday invitation.
I learned 3 very important things from this exchange:
- I would never forget how to say “I am horny” in Polish again.
- I would never forget the correct way to say “excited” (podekscytowany).
- Google translate is not my friend.
It’s no secret that learning Polish is a monumental challenge for English natives; the way their consonants are trash-compacted together and noun endings seem to change on a whim with every sentence. There are 14 different ways to say a noun counting singular and plural forms together, a very passive approach to grammatical word order, palatalized consonants, diacritics, and many more complexities that make it an absolute headache to try to learn from scratch.
But never fear! Taking Polish lessons with a native and immersing yourself in the culture can make a quick study out of anyone. Maybe you won’t be fluent as quickly as you would while learning other languages, but the Polish people do really appreciate any of your bumbling attempts. Butcher your way through a sentence and they might just slap you on the back and buy you a shot of vodka to expedite your learning experience.
With that being said, here are 5 reasons as to why Polish is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn.
In Polish, there are the nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative, and vocative cases for nouns, pronouns, and adjectives that also double when you add the plurals. That’s 14 cases in total. In English we have 2, 1 singular and 1 plural: dog and dogs, for example. Knowing which one to use depends on how you’re using it in a sentence. Here are 7 singular cases and their example sentences.
We’ll use “dog” or “pies” as our object in these examples.
- Nominative case – This is a dog = To jest pies.
- Genitive case – I don’t like this dog = Nie lubię tego psa.
- Instrumental case – You’re a dog = Jesteś psem.
- Accusative – I have a dog = Mam psa.
- Dative case – I give food to my dog = Daję jedzenie mojemu psu.
- Vocative – Dog, please, talk to me! = Psie, Błagam, mów do mnie!
- Locative – I’m on a dog = Jestem na psie.
The locative and vocative cases have the same endings for the singular case with “dog”, as do the genitive and accusative cases. However, they can change depending on the noun, adjective, or pronoun. Difficult, I know.
If you ever fully master how to use declensions in Polish as a native English speaker, you have superpowers beyond understanding and should be treated as a linguistic savant.
Free Word Order
We may not accept chaos when it comes to grammatical word order, but the Poles embrace it. Generally speaking, they stick to the standard of subject-verb-object; however, it’s very common to jumble the order to emphasize one part of the sentence over another.
Take this sentence for example: “I will go to work tomorrow.”
Pójdę do pracy jutro. This sentence is simple enough and translates pretty easily. However, you can also say:
Pójdę jutro do pracy. This translates to “I will go tomorrow to work.” They mean the same thing, but with an emphasis on when I’m going to work, which is tomorrow.
Jutro do pracy pójdę. This is where it gets a little crazy, saying “Tomorrow to work I will go,” which sounds like Master Yoda speaking.
In English we would put “I will go” at the beginning or middle, with a heavier intonation on “tomorrow” at the beginning or end of the sentence to emphasize when.
It may not seem too difficult when constructing simple sentences like the one above, but when you get into building longer sentences and fragments, it can be a nightmare.
When you’re learning Polish, the phrase “can I buy a vowel” seems more applicable than ever.
If you’ve grown up speaking English you’re whole life, there’s little chance you’ve had to pronounce many words with several consonants packed tightly together.
Words that seem phonetically simple in English, such as “happiness”, take on a whole new level of difficulty when you say them in Polish.
The “e” on the end is a short “e”, like in “bet,” but it’s the consonants all packed together that make it a real tongue twister.
Or try pronouncing the most Polish word of all that uses only Polish alphabet letters:
The “Ż” at the beginning is like the second g in the word garage and makes the same sound. The”ł” sound is like the “w” in owl. Master this word and you’ll be loved far and wide. Use it in a sentence and you’ll be a renowned prince with the world at your feet.
Also, it means bile.
These two words in particular are ones Poles love to hear foreigners say, as they highlight the two most common difficulties in pronouncing the consonants and understanding the diacritic characters.
Numbers and Quantity
Stating a quantity in English is literally as easy as 1,2,3…but in Polish it’s a different story. There are 22 ways to say two, twice, or second, and they are noun, adjective, and pronoun dependent.
For example, two is dwa. However, it changes even more than the abovementioned declensions.
- dwa koty = two cats
- dwie kobiety = two women
- dwóch mężczyzn = two men
- dwiema rękami = with two hands
- dwóm osobom = to two people
- dwaj panowie = two men (like gentlemen/sirs)
The list goes on and on down to 22 tear-inducing ways to say 2. The numerical ways to tie it all together really coincide with the difficulty in matching them with all of the different cases. I know that doesn’t make you feel better, but just know that this little grammatical nugget has been a source of arguments and fascination for a long time even among Poles.
The word “się”
We don’t have anything resembling this in English, but its closest translation is when you’re referring to the “self,” as in oneself, himself, herself, etc.,
However, when you see it in action, it might make little sense to the uninitiated. Think of it as a reflexive article that the person, when doing something, receives the consequence of that action.
For example, when I say: “Uczę się polskiego.” This translates to “I’m learning Polish.”
However, the verb “uczyć” means to teach, thus the sentence can be read as “I teach myself Polish”. You use “się” in this sentence to signify that you are the beneficiary of this action that you’re doing and that you’re teaching yourself.
This means we wash. However, if you wanted to say “we wash ourselves,” as in all of you are washing your own bodies, you would use:
One more example is a simple one you should remember.
Ja nazywam się Adam.
Colloquially, this means “My name is Adam.” What it really translates to is “I call myself Adam”, thus you need się to signify that this is what you call yourself.
It may seem redundant to have to signify that you’re doing something to yourself because it’s so easily inferred in English, but in Polish it’s necessary to say.
Isn’t There Anything About Learning Polish That’s Easy or Fun?
I’m glad I asked. Yes, there is. Here are a few things I like about the Polish language that makes learning it easier and enjoyable:
- No Articles – there are no articles so you don’t have to learn the grammatical rules for those; however, the declensions are frustrating enough.
- Months of The Year – the Polish months are particularly interesting as they translate to different meanings about what might be going on in nature or the world at that time of the year. One example is Styczeń, which is January and means “to meet” or “join” as in the previous year meets the new one.
- The Bad Words – they’ll probably be the first ones you learn and, to be honest, they’re quite fun to say because there are so many.
- Only 3 Tenses – that’s right. There are only present, past, and future tenses in Polish.
- Spelling and Pronunciation – unlike English, the words in Polish sound exactly how you spell them, so there are no surprises if you master the phonetic alphabet.
The Polish language is extremely hard to learn if you don’t know any other Slavic cousin languages before you try to learn. However, people here are proud of their language and its difficulty; thus, try taking some lesson and speaking some whenever you can and they’ll love you for it.
I do things. On the weekends, I bob my head, wiggle my hips, and do the soulja boy while still maintaining a breathtaking credit rating. Using only a spatula and my knowledge of the Danish tax system, I once saved a tribe of Australian aboriginees from a flock of pigeons. When I hit puberty, it didn’t hit me back. Children trust me.