The problem a with the English

Said it so many times, but never here – compared to Polish, English is an extremely easy language to get to the stage of good conversation, advanced or even very advanced level. However, to take that next step and to get your English (British English) to the stage where you can be considered truly fluent (with a fair degree of intelligence and artistry) is, I would say very much harder than with Polish and is verging on, if not actually impossible. Not only for foreigners, many Brits can’t get there either! Once you get beyond a certain stage with the English language there are just so many different ways to play with the thing and so many very subtle nuances between the different options that it must seem like knitting fog. It becomes more of an art than a science whereas, I think, the Polish language, although equally beautiful, is more constrained, more concise and therefore easier to stop it getting away from you. I have not looked up the number of words in the English language versus Polish but I expect there’s a big difference and that’s before you start trying to put the combinations together! My deepest sympathies go out to any foreigner who’s ambition in life is to be truly fluent in English. Also to anyone who’s job is to translate novels or verse (I would have to add the word ‘quality’ in there) between one language and the other. I expect someone like Dan brown is pretty easily translated, others definitely not so.

Still, have no fear because even with English at basic up to advanced level we can all have a lot of fun! Here are a few of the main culprits that appear to have even the best English speaking Poles tripping over their tongues / typewriters:

The (with a side helping of ‘a/an’) – This one I understand. There is no such word in Polish and certainly nothing that is used in anything like the irregular ways that the word “the” (or “a/an”) is used in English. It is therefore understandable that most Poles struggle with this. Many are so confused by it that they either use it far too much or far too little. Those who get the quantity about right usually insert them in the wrong places. ;)

Numbers – This one is strange because there seems to be no excuse at all. I’ve met Poles with quite excellent English who still say 2,200 as “two hundred thousand hundred……ooo errr”. My experience is that this is an entirely one-way thing. Most foreigners grasp Polish numbers very quickly and make few mistakes. Most Poles struggle with English numbers. The words zielonego pojęcia spring to mind.

Borrow / Lend – This I understand. In Polish there is only one word for both of these – pożyczyć, so it makes sense that this might be a tricky one to grasp.

He / She – Still baffled by this one. Why he/she should be any more complicated than on/ona, I have no idea. And yet, it is one of the most common errors.

Recognising a question – I sort of understand this one because in Polish you have to send out a signal that there is a question about to follow before you embark on the question. Just slip the word “czy” up front and bingo, you have a Polish question, without “czy” you have nuffink! In English, questions are more subtle and normally you don’t find out (unless you’re advanced enough on tones of voice, sentence structure, body language and stuff) until later in the sentence, or even after it seems to have finished. This is a particularly annoying one because it leads to a serious outbreak of premature ejaculation on the Pole’s part and lot of repeating of “Let me finish, this is a question, not a statement” on the Brit’s part.

Homework – please translate back and forth the following sentence, He asked her “Do you think it would be okay for you to lend me the 2,250 zloty you got from a bank on that street behind the library?”. She told him, for what seemed like the 115th time, that he should only borrow 740 zloty. Unless he really liked hospital food?

Let’s not leave thinking that the Polish language is straightforward though. Borrowed from Wiki (to save typing time):

  • Ala ma kota – Alice has a cat (when spoken with a different sentence tempo and accentation, this sentence can be understood as mildly offensive idiom “Alice is crazy” or “Alice is a loony”)
  • Ala kota ma – Alice does have (own) a cat (and has not borrowed it)
  • Kota ma Ala – The/a cat is owned by Alice
  • Ma Ala kota – Alice really does have a cat
  • Kota Ala ma – It is just the cat that Alice really has
  • Ma kota Ala – The relationship of Alice to the cat is one of ownership (and not temporary possession)

From my own experience, I can say that tone of voice is pretty important when distinguishing between the above, especially as there are probably no more than three versions that anyone would be expecting to hear.

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18 thoughts on “The problem a with the English

  1. guest says:

    i have problems with:


    I will/ I am going to

    It totally confuses me :(

  2. scatts says:

    guest, you’re right, these things are also complicated for Poles. I was discussing just an hour ago with some colleagues who said they have a lot of trouble with things like “I would have been…”.

    These are difficult things to explain though, especially for someone like me who has little understanding of the correct terms to be used when explaining English grammar. I also think that Poles make a very good job of working around these things and therefore not displaying how little they understand them.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “Just slip the word “czy” up front and bingo, you have a Polish question, without “czy” you have nuffink!”

    Erm… No.

  4. some dude says:

    The problem with he/she is that in most English words gender is invisible. A Pole knows that ‘wardrobe’ is female, ‘shoe’ is male, and ‘mirror’ is neutral.

  5. scatts says:

    dude, yes, in which case I can only assume that the gender associated with objects is stronger in Polish minds than the gender a person has.

    Anon, sure you can make questions other ways po polsku. The point was that Polish does have a “here comes a question” word and English does not, not one that can be used in the same almost universal way.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Are we still talking about *recognising* a question? “Czy” can be omitted quite often.

  7. eenx says:

    m…. Three words ? Different order with different means. Same with Japenese.

    unfortunately in Indonesia, If you can speak English, you can speak well, but if you can’t, even one word you won’t understand. Whereas English is one of lesson in formal education (Junior to High School).

    Oh, btw, nice to be in europe (Hoping).

  8. scatts says:

    Okay Anon, try telling that to the people I talk to. Otherwise, I give up with the czy and await further education.

    eenx, you’re hoping to come to Europe, or you’re hoping already being in Europe will be nice?

  9. Anonymous says:

    scatts, sorry if I sound rude, it is just that my English is somewhat lacking, so you might get an impression that I am patronising you. In reality all I am trying to do is to reduce the amount of possible mistakes I make:-)

    Now, here is an example (I assume you do not need me to translate the words):

    “Czy myślisz, że on to zrobi.”

    You can skip the “czy” word and the result you get, depends on the intonation, context, body language, etc.

    For example:

    “Myślisz, że on to zrobi.” (statement, perhaps you have just realised the fact)
    “Myślisz, że on to zrobi?” (question, you might expect an answer, but it can be a sarcastic remark as well)
    “Myślisz, że on to zrobi?!” (question, surprise and disbelief, perhaps shock)
    “Myślisz, że on to zrobi!?” (statement, surprise and disbelief, perhaps shock)

    The last two are rather subtle.

    Now, in an informal conversation it is actually (a tiny bit) more natural to drop the “czy” word. So:

    “Czy myślisz, że on to zrobi?”
    “Myślisz, że on to zrobi?”

    The latter is *slightly* more natural (however it is not a general rule). Both forms are perfectly legal though and in a formal conversation (where you use polite forms like ‘Pan’/’Pani’), both are equally good and sound natural.

  10. scatts says:

    Many thanks, Anon, and a great example.

    Being from a country with no “czy” equivalent, I almost always forget to use it when speaking Polish and the “Myślisz, że on to zrobi?” version is what I would say because it is closest to a straight English translation.

    I, and other foreigners, may have more problems with “czy” than Poles. Perhaps because we have not mastered the right tone of voice yet, or because Polish people are expecting us to use the more formal czy?

    In any event, all this does is make it harder to understand why many Polish people interrupt before my English question is finished?!

    thanks again.

  11. darthsida says:

    Scatts, worry not. We’re lucky not to be German who wait for verb at the end of their sentences to start decoding what’s it all about :)

  12. scatts says:

    I know, darth, I there for a while, lived. It is surprisingly not as, as it sounds, problematic. Although in general is probably best, avoided. :)

  13. Anonymous says:

    Hi there, I’m giving a presentation concerning the perception of the Polish speaking “western” languages, and I have just come across this entry; in fact, I couldn’t help leaving a comment in here. as far as “czy” is concerned, I use it quite rarely and in formal situations rather than on everyday basis; we omit it very often and make questions with the use of intonation rather, as Polish is a tonical language, depending on the tone to a large degree. obviously, it doesn’t refer to the “literary” language, where it is used more often than in speech, yet it is still not a mistake. I’m quite urprised hearing that you don’t have the equivalent of this word in English…I think you do, but in various forms ( let’s consider such words as “if”, “whether” and a number of other words that mark a question quite distinctly -“do…”, “did”, and so on..).another thing is that those “nuances” you mentioned exist in every language, but they depend on their “characters”- the English may play with their words more easily than we, on account of a higher degree of ambiguity and the dynamic accent that are typical of the English language- we also play with our language, but in a slightly different way;

    as I’m hooked on British comedy shows and, being a Pole, I know Polish comedy quite well, I’ll try to explain what I mean:

    In British comedies a lot of sketches are centered around the word play, which is tinged with a hint of absurd; it is WHAT has just been said which makes you laugh, while in Polish comedies it is HOW it has been said. another thing is that the British play with the ambiguity of meanings, while we- with the possibilities of saying something in the most entertaining way. we also seem to love making certain statements rhyme, where absurd also has a great part to play; as we have less those “ambigous” words, which concerns not only where the accent has to be put, we are somehow “forced” to link certain words with others to achieve the desired effect-you do it through a similar, but still demanding less “effort”, way of placing ambigous words in an appropriate context even if the context itself and the word used in it would be quite normal in other circumstances (if there is anybody who knows what I mean ;P). i assure you, that if you master Polish one day, you will notice those nuances, which differ from the English ones to some extent. it’s obvious that you notice them in your language as you are more accustomed to it. once you know what’s the language (i.e. Polish) is all about, you will probably start laughing hearing sth that wouldn’t make you laugh at all a few months earlier; that’s what I have noticed a couple of times in my life watching English comedies. hearing some lines with canned laughter for the first time I often didn’t know whether to laugh as well, while hearing it after I have learnt some new idioms or got a little bit more familiar with the cultural context, I’d almost laughed myself to death watching the same sketch. well, good luck :)

    What I find the most confusing in English are the articles (uuuuh:() and phrasal verbs…I hope that I’ll pass the matura exam this year :)

  14. scatts says:

    Thanks, Anon! I’m sure you’re right.

  15. Pawel says:

    Anonymous, don’t be kidding! You must have already passed CAE or something – your English well qualifies for English philology at a uni… I think you don’t have to worry for your matura:)

  16. […] The problem a with the English My deepest sympathies go out to any foreigner who’s ambition in life is to be truly fluent in English. […]

  17. mikh uk says:

    why problem with she/he ? It’s simple! pronunciation :-)

    for Poles:

    he- [hi:]
    she -[∫i:]

    sounds VERY similar ( only one tiny consonant [∫] on the begining ) AND
    there are very the same lenght :-))

    compare to

    on – (he) – masculine
    ona – (she) – feminine

    the last VOWEL [A] is better hearable as well as strictly link to feminine gender ( personal ending “A”). AND there is difference in lenght between “on” and “ona”


    how to express qiuck and informal plural form YOU in compare to singular form YOU ? ;-)

  18. chaiyya says:

    To be quite honest with you, I do not think English has richer vocabulary than Polish. I am a Pole with a fluency in English working as an English teacher (and usually taken to be a native speaker). Due to my studies (I study in the UK) I have contact with really rare and bizarre English words. I don’t think English has richer vocab than Polish. I suppose you are under that impression because Polish is more agglutinative language – many new words in Polish are formed by adding one or more suffixes and/or prefixes. Because each prefix/suffix carries a specific meaning Poles can guess what a word means knowing only the stem. They know the prefix and can predict the meaning of the new word (ie. prefix+prefix+stam+suffix). It’s like a puzzle. In addition nouns in Polish have cases, so it multiplies the possibilities. Say, you have a stem to which 2 or more different prefixes can be added PLUS it can operate with another noun in 7 different cases, each case giving different sense. Yet you see only 2 words. Arriving with similar result in English is impossible. Instead of prefixes (which English has, I agree, but ian rather scarce number) you add prepositions such as “off” “to” “in” ( i.e. ward off, interested in, enchanted with, deprived of) and so on. Thus English needs more stems. Their meaning can be alternated only to a limited extent so, clearly, you need more of them. Thus you may have more stems and roots, but you surely do not have more words. You may have not realized it yet since your Polish is far from fluency, but this is the case, believe me.
    There is, of course, the issue of (almost)perfect synonyms ( i e having more than 1 word to describe the same thing) and English displays that feature, it seems, more than Polish. Yet, in English the perfection, of which you were writing, involves using very rarely employed, often weird vocab. And no one is surprised. But Polish does have all these words too. Educated and sophisticated eople just don’t use them although they know them, purely because these words are rare. So you will hear no one speaking about “swiekra”(husband’s mother) although we do have that specific word for that specific person. The whole trick is to speak grammatically correct Polish. Really, this is the peak of the language sophistication in Polish- to get your grammar right. It can’t be same in English since English grammar IS much easier.

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