After living in Poland for three years, I am still looking for an answer to the question ”how can such a lovely country have such a terrifying language?”.
Polish has a reputation of being one of the most difficult languages in the world. Is this true? Well, of course it depends on a lot of things, like which other languages you know, how much effort you put into it and how much you practise what you learn. Nevertheless, I can assure you that if you, like me, grew up with a Germanic language and have no previous knowledge of Slavic languages, it is a severe shock to the system.
Before I moved here, I thought I’d learn some useful words and phrases. It took me a whole morning to memorise the word for thank you, dziekuję. Finally I made up a memory hook that worked for me: gin is a cool drink and if you say ”gin, cool, yeah” quickly whilst dropping the l in cool, you’ve got it. Phew.
That was just the start, however. Moving on to learning the numbers, I remember staring at the words dziewięćdziesiąt dziewięć (ninety nine) and thinking how – how – will this language ever make sense?
Once I had settled in at work, I started taking Polish classes and this is when it got really confusing. Three different kinds of z (z, ż and ź), plus combinations like rz, dz, sz and… wait for it… szcz. Who ever thought that it was a good idea to stack consonants after each other like that? Surely it should be illegal to begin any word with szcz?
I soon realised that with ghastly words like najniebezpieczniejszych (the most dangerous), it would take more than a year to get to grips with this language. For a long time, everything seemed impossibly hard – the spelling, the grammar, the pronunciation. Spoken Polish sounded to me like a drunk wasp – bożebożeboże.
Some words refused to stick in my mind. I don’t know how many times I had to tell my head that money is pięniądze and month is miesiąc. I think I had been here a year before I realised that it was a good idea to answer tak, proszę (yes, please) when the shop assistant used the word that sounds like shotgun (szatka), because then I would get a bag for my shopping.
As if this wasn’t enough, Polish is packed with sneaky pitfalls. There are loads of words that sound pretty much the same but have opposite meanings. So wejść is entrance, wyjść is exit. Bawić się is to have fun but obawiać się is to fear. If you say kocham cię you say I love you, but if you say kocham się you say I love myself. Give me aspirin. Or a punch bag. Or maybe some of that lovely Polish wódki.
But it gets worse. The Polish language’s famous grammatical cases means that every noun has seven different forms, depending on how it is used in a sentence. After you have learnt an innocent word like mleko (milk), you have to get used to saying z mlekiem if you want something with milk. Unfortunately these different forms are not always so easily recognisable as in the case of milk, so it often feels like you have to learn the same word seven times, or up to 14 times to cover the plural forms. At least for me, it is not at all obvious that psa, psu, psem, psie, psy, psów, psom, psami and psach are grammatical forms of pies (dog).
The grammatical cases affect all nouns, including names. In Sweden I am Anja and I am always Anja, regardless of the situation. In Poland on the other hand, I am sometimes Ani, sometimes Aniu, sometimes… oh, I don’t remember. These variations are not nicknames but rather forms ruled by grammatical conventions. Hey Poland! You can’t just change my name! (No reply.)
Enough moaning. I’m secretly amused by the whole thing and believe it or not, I am improving, slowly but surely. I can read quite well, I can make myself understood in many situations, and if Poles speak to me very slowly and very clearly, I sometimes understand what they are trying to say. Recently, I have even had something that resembles a conversation with Polish colleagues. Krok po kroku (step by step), as my Polish teacher Beate used to say – or should that be rok po roku (year after year)?
Tempted to start learning? Honestly, it was not my intention to put anyone off. It is very rewarding when you realise that a word like szczęśliwy (happy) makes sense all of a sudden.
Here are my 3 top tips for anyone who wants to learn Polish:
- Adopt a positive attitude and enjoy the craziness – i.e. the opposite of what I am doing in this article.
- Check out Learn Real Polish, by far the best language teaching method ever. Seriously, this online program kicks the butt of any other Polish course, teacher, book or website I have come across.
- Find some Poles who are learning your langauge and meet up with them regularly for language exchange.