What to Watch Out For When Learning Polish

A lot of people say that Polish is a difficult language to learn. Honestly, I don’t think its matters whether it’s true or not. The reason why you’re learning the language in the first place is because it’s somehow important to you to know it (unless you’re a polyglot and language enthusiast and then whether it’s difficult or not is even more irrelevant because surely you’re just up for a challenge).
The point is that whether it’s because of family reasons or because of career prospects, you want to know it. And yet, your perception of it as being difficult only serves as a deterrent from actually putting the work in. What you do instead of repeating to yourself that what you’re trying to do is difficult (when has that ever helped anyone?) is focus on potentially challenging areas to hack the learning process.

The Dreadful Cases

If there are no cases in your native language you may find the idea weird. This is true for any concept you encounter in a new language or in life in general so just try to be open-minded. Believe it or not, there are some things in your language that someone learning it finds equally weird.
What are grammatical cases and why do they cause so much trouble to students? In brief, cases give nouns, adjectives and pronouns, different forms according to the context. This means that we say Jem kolację (“I’m eating dinner”) in Polish but Nie zrobiłam kolacji (“I haven’t made dinner”) and Poczekaj z kolacją (“Wait with dinner.”).
There are 7 cases in Polish (actually 6 that you really have to worry about). Each of them has different endings. What’s more different parts of speech often have different endings. It’s a bit of a nightmare to wrap one’s head around them initially but you can really overcome difficulties with time and these tricks:

  • Don’t learn all cases together. Learn them one by one and practise a lot with written and oral exercises. Create easy phrases and sentences working with grammar tables.
  • Try to understand what each case is used for, apart from just memorising rules
  • But DO memorise the rules, not only endings for different parts of speech but also which prepositions and verbs require a given case

The Hardcore Pronunciation

Polish pronunciation is a bit hardcore for speakers of many languages. There are many sounds that are somewhat difficult to pronounce as well as clusters of consonants. My short Polish teaching experience tells me that Hungarian, Arabic and Italian students seem to struggle with the pronunciation the least.
The thing about pronunciation is that if you have certain sounds in your language, they’re not a problem. If you don’t, then you have to work on teaching yourself to produce such sounds. Your mouth will go to whatever it thinks is closest in your native language to whatever it is that you’re trying to pronounce. This is why “accents” are somewhat predictable and why people have ideas about how, for instance, a German speaker or a French speaker pronounces certain things in English.
How to learn Polish pronunciation then, seeing that many languages don’t have many of the Polish sounds? By practising the sounds as well as repeating phrases and sentences. Over and over again. You can also try recording yourself, if you can stand the sound of your own voice. Alternatively, pay someone to listen to you during lessons.

The Awkward Aspect

Grammatical aspect isn’t a specifically Polish feature but aspect coding in Polish is different to what you see in English. To show the focus on completion of and action as opposed to the “doing of it“, Polish has produced verbs. The perfective aspect is the one that focuses on completion. The imperfective, on the other hand, on performing.
Almost all verbs in Polish have their counterparts in the other aspect and some of them have more than one. A good example a simple pair are two verbs for “to buy”: kupować (imperfective) and kupić (perfective). Have a look at the difference between them:

Kupuję gazety. – “I’m buying newspaper.” (kupować – imperfective)

Focus on the action that I’m performing, not its completion.

Kupię gazetę. – “I’ll buy a newspaper.” (kupić – perfective)

Focus on the completion of the action that I’m performing – the fact, that the newspaper will be bought once I’m done with the action.

That may seem a bit abstract in the beginning but one really gets a hang of it with time. One thing to remember that’s pretty helpful is that the perfective aspect doesn’t have the present tense (which totally makes sense as I can’t make the action completed as it’s happening). However, I could still form sentences with other verbs in the present tense and a perfective verb:

Chcę kupić gazetę. – “I want to buy a newspaper.”

In this sentence I’m saying that I want the result of buying, that is, to have the said newspaper. If I said Chcę kupować gazetę. I’d be saying that I want the experience of buying the newspaper. As you imagine it’s unusual to hear this sentence in Polish.

Another important tip for aspect learning is learning them in pairs. This is something I’ve picked up when learning Russian as Russian has the same use of aspect in Polish. If you learn the verbs together with examples of their use, chances of you succeeding in using them appropriately increase. Alternatively, you’ll be more aware of mistakes you make which is still better than nothing!

The Final Words

I’ve given you today an overview of Polish problem areas, which hopefully will make your learning process a tad easier. It’s worth focusing on these topics because they predictably cause problems to most students of Polish. Anything else that you find particularly difficult in learning Polish? Let me know in the comments’ section!