The Polish language is known as being one of the most difficult languages in the world. A few years ago, I started my beautiful adventure with teaching Polish foreigners. Now every day, seeing my mother tongue from the other side, I try to make Polish real for my students. Many times I was about to say: “Yes, indeed, Polish is extremely difficult”, What one can be sure of, is that Polish is a box of surprises and you will never feel bored with Polish, because everything can happen.
On one hand, Polish seems to be impossible to pronounce, especially for those who hear it for the first time. All those rustling, whispering, and jingling and tinkling sounds can make a big headache, but looking on the bright side, I would suggest to people who have this impression, to relax and just observe. It can be a very interesting experience to do some personal research. For example, listen to Polish and try to catch which words are used the most often. “Tak”? “Nie”? “Dziękuję”? „Proszę”? “Przepraszam”? “Fajnie”? “Super”? In what situations are they used? It can tell a lot about the culture and the speakers as well. From those words, we start to understand sentences, and every day Polish becomes less and less scary…
With time you will have a sigh of relief, realizing that Polish is based on the Latin alphabet and has 32 letters (Aa Ąą Bb Cc Ćć Dd Ee Ęę Ff Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Łł Mm Nn Ńń Oo Óó Pp Rr Ss Śś Tt Uu Ww Yy Zz Źź Żż) and that the pronunciation is consistently related to spelling (more so than in English). Of course there are few sounds with two different forms of spelling like “ó” and “u” (English “u” in word “book”), like “rz” and “ż” (“s” in English words “measure”and “vision”), “h” and “ch” (like the English “h” in “ how” and “history”). In written Polish, double consonants are used for some sounds (cz, sz, dz, dź, dż, rz, ch) but the rules about pronunciation are quite logical and after some practice, everybody is able to do it.
The other good news is that Polish has a regular stress pattern. Mostly, it’s the second last syllable of the word (kino, apteka, matka).
Polish can be more difficult for people speaking German, English, French, Spanish, Japanese, Korean or Arabic. For speakers belonging to the Western Slavic group of Indo-European family of languages, it is easier to learn, especially if one already knows some other related languages like Czech, Slovak, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Croatian or Slovenian.
The Polish language developed under the strong influence of other languages like Latin, German, Czech and in the following centuries took a lot from French language. Now it is marked by English, like other European languages. German speakers are amazed to find German words in Polish, like: ratusz - town hall, koszt - cost, musieć - must, have to, drukować - to print, winda - elevator. French speakers might be surprised by finding their language as well in Polish words: szantaż - blackmail, portfel - wallet, present - gift, pejzaż - landscape, biuro - office. In Polish there are also some Italian words: gracja - grace, charm, fontanna - fountain, impreza -party,event, kredyt - loan, pałac - palace, tort - birthday cake. Even Turkish is included: bohater-hero, tapczan-sofa-bed, torba-bag.
Polish began to take shape as a distinct language in the tenth century and played an important role in the establishment and development of the Polish state. As we know, Polish history was very difficult and there were periods of time when Poles didn’t have independence, but the language survived…
Nowadays, Polish is spoken by more than 40 million people all over the world, with around 38 million living in Poland and there are a number of people with Polish origin living in the USA, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, France, Germany, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, the Ukraine, and Belarus. This makes making it the second most widely spoken Slavic language.
Even though Polish has the fame of being one of the most difficult languages in the world, more and more foreigners have taken up the gauntlet and tried to learn it, with a lot of success.
Accepting the fact that learning Polish will take time helps a lot in the learning process, but it also depends on our motivation. It depends on how much time per day we can dedicate for learning; if we have a lot of opportunities to speak Polish or not; if we feel good being in Poland (or maybe some problems and horrible weather didn’t give us the chance to discover all the richness of Polish culture) and finally, if we have chosen a learning method that is good for us.
The worst thing we can do is to be frustrated. If we use the wrong ending of the word, it’s really not a big problem. People will probably still understand our message. In daily use, there are about 20,000 words, but in speaking, people use approximately 2000 words. Everyone is able to learn 2000 words. I don’t have any doubts.
Helping my students to learn Polish for many years, I’ve built a strong certainty that everyone is able to speak Polish on the communicative level. Everyone has different speed and sometimes even the teacher doesn’t know when the moment will come that a person will open to Polish. This is individual and depends on many circumstances. Every student should also choose the best method of learning for himself/herself. For some students, it is better to have individual lessons, for others, group classes are more helpful, or sometimes e-learning is an option.
I am sure that having a professional teacher’s help would make learning Polish shorter and easier, and can help to avoid some bad language habits in the future. I am always very happy to be a companion in the big adventure of learning Polish. I am even more happy when I meet foreigners speaking fluent Polish, and are even are able to correct Poles. Yes, that’s true!!! Is Polish really one of the most difficult languages in the world? Maybe, but it depends…
This article was published in The Wrocław International - Wrocław’s first English-language newspaper, December 2010.