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There are two reasons why this myth is so prevalent; number one because Polish looks hard to an English speaker and, number two, because Polish people are endlessly telling foreigners that it is hard. Let’s examine these two heinous misrepresentations more closely.
It looks hard
To a native speaker of English a word such as:
looks completely absurd. We have absolutely no idea how to pronounce it. The letters just don’t work together, we can’t even guess. Polish uses the Latin alphabet, which we’re familiar with, but in a completely different way. Letters, and especially combinations of letters, stand for different sounds than they do in English. The same word (which means ‘thank you’ in case you didn’t know) spelled as if it were an English language phrase would look something like:
Jin kwee eh
When I was a kid there was a standard joke that cropped up all the time on TV shows. Here’s an example from the classic British sitcom of the 1970s Steptoe and Son:
Harold and his elderly father are playing Scrabble:
Father: It’s your turn, what have you got.
Harold: z, v, x, w, r, and c
Father: You’d be alright if you were Polish!
Bear in mind this was the early 1970s. Nobody in the UK knew where Poland was and certainly hadn’t been there or met any Polish people. But still we had this image of the Polish language as an impossibly complicated thing with bizarre spelling. This was the only thing we knew about Poland, this and some vague connection to Hitler and the war.
The Polish method of spelling is far superior to the English method. In fact English doesn’t actually have a method, it’s more or less random. Once you learn the Polish method you can pronounce any word you come across. In English you’ve got no chance; in the phrase above I could have used ‘Gin’ instead of ‘Jin’ for example, how much sense does that make?
They tell us it’s hard
Poles are incredibly precious about their language. They’re convinced that it’s god’s gift to creation, despite the fact that 99 percent of the world’s population don’t speak it. Here are two telling facts about the Polish language. Number one; there are popular television programs that feature professors who rule on correct Polish pronunciation and grammar. Number two; one of the most prestigious degrees one can obtain at university is Polish philology. Both of these things are inconceivable in the English-speaking world. A show featuring the ‘correct pronunciation of English’ would be laughed off the air in five minutes and there is no such degree as ‘English philology’ nor any hint of what it could possibly mean.
Polish people generally look upon those trying to learn Polish with pity and mutter about the extreme difficulty of pronunciation and grammar for foreigners. Complete nonsense. There aren’t any sounds in the Polish language that are alien to the English native speaker. When a foreigner does speak Polish he or she is generally looked upon as a freak of nature. In reality I could teach some basic Polish phrases to my grandmother without any difficulty. I know a Japanese guy who learned passable Polish in a few months, and he’s the subject of awe from Polish people for absolutely no good reason. Of course a lot of this is down to the sheer novelty of hearing foreigners speaking Polish, a novelty that wore off about 50 years ago for speakers of English. Yes Polish grammar is complex, but it’s nowhere near as complex and random as English grammar, and when it really comes down to it, perfect grammar is the last thing to worry about when learning a foreign language.