Myth #14: Polish is hard

THERE’S MORE LIKE THIS ON OUR NEW SITE – POLANDIAN.COM

Utter nonsense.

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:

Dziękuję

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

Easy!

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.

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60 thoughts on “Myth #14: Polish is hard

  1. guest says:

    “Poles are incredibly precious about their language. They’re convinced that it’s god’s gift to creation,”……because the language and the religion were the only “Polish” things when the Polish state did not exist after the Partitions of Poland. Poles DIED for their language, when the prussians tried to germanise them.
    That’s why Polish jews have german sounding surnames like “goldman” “libeskind” “stern” and so on. They were germanised and were forced to have a surname. ;)

  2. island1 says:

    I’m tempted to say “Oh god, not the ‘Poles died for this’ argument again!” but, yes, of course you’re right. The Polish language is a powerful nationalistic totem… and understandably so.

  3. Anonymous says:

    All I know is that “Bak” should get “bonked” for his bonehead play.

    Guest, ever think that many Polish Jews came from Germany, heh?

  4. guest says:

    yes ,they were germanised in germany and poland. That’s right.

  5. Pawel says:

    island1, you didn’t get the point. Is there anything nationalistic in telling the truth that Poles were being killed and persecuted for using their own language?
    Irish didn’t have our luck.

    And guest is also right about the policy of those countries that ruled Polish lands in various periods to force Jews to have surnames. However guest should also remember that the most popular language among Jews here was Yiddish, a germanic language.

  6. Pawel says:

    great post btw. but you’re already spoilt with compliements:D

  7. Jasia says:

    I have to disagree with you on this one. True, the pronunciation isn’t so difficult. True the spelling is pretty much phonetic making it easier than say English. Having to learn the masculinity or femininity of inanimate objects is a bit of a challenge even if it’s not unique to the Polish language. But come on, 7 cases??? That in and of itself makes Polish a difficult language to master. So there’s what a dozen possible endings to words? And you don’t think that’s difficult to learn?

    Sorry. Polish is hard.

  8. Anonymous says:

    English grammar is not complex. In fact there’s hardly any grammar in English. To form the plural you simply add an “s” at the end of the noun. There are no case endings. The biggest “difficulty” in getting the conjugation of a verb right is to not forget to add add an “s” in the third person present tense.

    What makes English difficult is the discrepancy between spelling and pronunciation (though you can get a feel for it after some time) and the vast use of phrasal verbs that you have to learn by hart (how many different meanings can you convey by just using the verbs “to get” and “to put” with the right preposition?). Another major problem for even advanced English learners is the correct usage of the tense system. When do you use present perfect and when simple past, when is it present continuous and when simple present?

  9. michael farris says:

    From a linguistic point of view:

    The difficulties of Polish and English are distributed very differently.

    For most foreign learners of English, it starts easy (for maybe two years or so) and then gets progressively harder (after the typical learner has already invested enough to not want to just give up).
    The most difficult thing in English isn’t spelling but complex clause structure. That is, putting simple sentences together is easy, combining sentences is very, very hard.
    The second most diffcult thing is the idiomatic nature of both basic vocabulary and collocations which are far less transparent than in most european languages.
    The third most difficult thing is that much of the grammar of spoken English (for native speakers) is carried in intonation and this is completely ignored in foreign language classes until it’s too late.

    Polish is almost the polar opposite as the really hard things are front-loaded to a ridiculous degree. It starts hard and gets much harder for a while but after a couple of years the difficulty just sort of …. falls away. (if you’re in Poland things simplify a lot sooner).
    Combinging sentences in English is hard work even for native speakers (which is why we’re encouraged to use short simple sentences in formal writing) combining sentences in Polish is simplicity itself.

    And while the grammar guys wouldn’t be on tv in the US, there is a long history there of language columnists in magazines and newspapers. Don’t you have that in the UK?
    Unfortunately in the US they’re usually completely wrong from a linguistic point of view and dispense mysticism and mythology instead of anything useful.
    I have to say that the linguistic principles that guys like Miodek and Bralczyk use are lightyears ahead of William Safire or other self-styled US language ‘experts’.

  10. Jacek Wesołowski says:

    There are four “native” ways to pronounce “dziękuję” that I know of, but none of them seems to feature a “kwee”.

    You’re right that Polish looks harder than it really is. I mean, all the most impossible letter combinations actually stand for a single sound. People just give up too soon. One day I saw an English speaking foreigner on the New Town Market in Warsaw. He was lost and called someone for directions. Apparently, someone asked him to find the biggest sign in the area and read it aloud. Well, the biggest sign in the area said “sklep spożywczy”. The poor guy got through “sklep” all right, but after “spo” he just gave up, laughing. Or maybe he was just being told what the sign meant (it means “grocery store”).

    The “lots of people died for” song is old and tired, and most people I know would really like to put it to sleep already.

    Poles believe their language is difficult, because a) they’ve been told so by other Poles, and b) most Poles can’t speak correct Polish. Just yesterday I saw a sign in a shop saying “z powodu awarii terminala…”, which is wrong, of course, because the correct form of “terminal” in this case is “terminalu”. This is seriously something an eight years old should know.

    Polish pronounciation is such a jawbreaker that everybody just simplifies it all the time for convenience sake. In Warsaw, instead of “dziękuję”, everybody says “dzieńkuje” with no ogonek at the end, and in Krakow nobody seems to be able to say a proper “ą” if their life depended on it. Spelling is one epic struggle against relics from the past. Most Poles won’t be able to tell you why it’s “brzdąc”, “góra”, “cham”, rather than “bżdonc”, “gura”, “ham” (kid, mountain, jerk, repectively). There used to be a reason for it, but it’s no longer there, because the language has changed, and the rules of spelling couldn’t keep up.

    The whole dispute about correctness is possible, because unlike English, Polish is mostly a monolythic language. There are only six recognized dialects, and differences between them are minor. Grammar is pretty much universal, and variations of pronounciation are subtle, even for native speakers. The biggest notable difference is the word for “outdoor”, because one part of the country uses “dwór”, and the other says “pole”.

    Building complex Polish sentences is very easy, but there is too much recursion in it, and most people get lost in anything more complex than a single parenthesis.

    Philology is actually a study in literature, for the most part. On a similar note, a class all pupils attend to in school is “język polski” (Polish language). There is some grammar involved, but it mostly covers classic Polish books, and lots, lots, lots of Adam Mickiewicz.

  11. darthsida says:

    English is easy. (So the world chose to speak it, albeit with the intention of murdering – or at least breaking it from time to time.) French is harder. German much harder. Polish even mucher. Celtic languages I find the hardest of all I had to come across. Hungarian, or Finnish, or Japanese seemed fairly easy but requiring better memory than mine. (Not many cognate words there.) On the other hand, other Slavic languages (Russian for example) were easy to grasp – but only with native Polish inside.

    So, Island has sent his baloney high, with utter nonsense out of sheer ignorance. I mean, what can he know about Polish? Anecdotal evidence concerning some Japanese? The incorrect ‘English-friendly’ spelling of dziękuję? (There’s neither ‘jin’ nor ‘gin’ there.)

    With Z-V-X-W-R-C string for scrabble one cannot think of any Polish. It’d be better with Latin [V being the old way to represent U, one could think of ‘crux’.] Dead languages aside, Englishmen could play their neighbour’s scrabble: Welsh W is a vowel, and ‘cwr’ is not an expletive.] So much for the ‘UK sitcom of the 70s’ naive vision of what’s hard and what’s not.

  12. Lena says:

    One question…:)
    Do you speak Polish, Island?:)

  13. Jolanta says:

    Guest: I am afraid you are a little wrong as far as “the Germanisation of Polish Jews” is concerned.
    One should bear in mind that before the partitioning of Poland the Polish Jews did not have surnames (there was no need for them because of a different jurisdiction system, the Council of Four Lands, the authority of the kahals and so on); when the three powers partitioned Poland they ended up with millions of people who had to be included in the current state registers, taxed and conscripted. In order to do that they needed to be given surnames.
    The Jews had little or no saying in the matter; they were given surnames by Prussian and Austrian clerks so no wonder that the words sounded German. One should not associate the process with wilful Germanisation (most Jews did not speak Polish at all); it seems to me that the officials put on the registers what was easiest for them to spell. On the other hand, in the Russian partition the Jews were given the names which sounded like the names of the places of their origin (Warschauer, Minsker, Posner) or they adopted the name of the local landowner (Czartoryski, Potocki).

    J.

  14. Another Guest says:

    Of course people study English philology in Britain. I find that Poles are very quick to defer to Polish Philology graduates – or to be more precise, are very quick to refer you to a Polish graduate if you ask them a question about the use of the language. Few English speakers I’ve ever met will refer you to an English graduate, although many do boast an ignorance of grammar.

  15. pinolona says:

    I think Polish IS hard!

    I agree with Island that pronunciation is easier than you’d think: it seems to me that so long as you read every letter the way they teach you to in the language school you’re ok (like Italian). There seem to be some exceptions – from an outsider’s point of view – (such as not nasalising the final -ę, as well as certain things which might be strictly Krakowian, such as ‘szej(ś)dziesiąt’ for 60), but compared to French or English these are relatively few and things seem to be spoken the way they are spelt. Also, unlike English, there aren’t too many dipthongs and tripthongs (try ‘violin’, ‘drawer’ – bear in mind we don’t pronounce either ‘w’ or ‘r’, not to mention ‘oughtn’t’, ‘daren’t’ and so on).

    I would pronounce ‘dziękuje’ ‘jen koo (i) yeh’ (in a sort of approximation of phonetic English spelling). I have no idea how correct or incorrect this is. I think it’s hard to for us to say because the stress is on the ‘kuj’ and there’s no comforting supporting consonant for us. ‘Dziękujemy’ is much easier to pronounce because ‘jem’ feels more stable.

    The hard bit is – as Jasia said – the grammar.

    About combining Polish sentences being ‘simplicity itself’: when you’re reading something it often takes a while to work things out because of the word order. You have to track back to work out which is the object of the verb and match up the various elements by agreeing adjectives. I think this is why it’s so hard for us to understand the spoken word. An anglophone brain is programmed to recognise meaning depending on word order and prepositions and not on case endings, and this causes problems. I can’t form complex sentences in Polish and I don’t see it happening for a while (unless I go back soon…).

    I spent the first six months in Kraków (on 3 hours of Polish classes a week) feeling extremely frustrated at not being able to understand anything, and I constantly felt that if I’d spent 3 months in Spain or Portugal I’d have been more or less fluent in Spanish or Portuguese already. Polish is hard!!

    Incidentally I once played Scrabble in Poland with a ten-year-old. There are an awful lot of Z s in the Polish version of the game. The ten-year-old won.

  16. guest says:

    even the german striker can Polish ,lol.

  17. simon says:

    One thing – there are indeed many English philology students in English-speaking countries. Look for people who majored in “English” – what do you suppose that is?

    From Merriam-Webster (Oxford probably goes along the same lines, if that’s your preference):
    phi·lol·o·gy
    Function: noun
    Etymology: French philologie, from Latin philologia love of learning and literature, from Greek, from philologos fond of learning and literature, from phil- + logos word, speech — more at legend
    Date: 1612
    1: the study of literature and of disciplines relevant to literature or to language as used in literature
    2 a: linguistics; especially : historical and comparative linguistics b: the study of human speech especially as the vehicle of literature and as a field of study that sheds light on cultural history

  18. richardlith says:

    interesting comments here. Poles love to say their language is difficult because.

    1. it gives them a nationalistic kick, it allows them to say ¨aren’t we Poles clever,¨ and is a reaction to any lingering feelings of inferiority to ¨the West.¨ Lithuanians, Hungarians, Bulgarians all say exactly the same thing, our lanague is the oldes, most difficult, has the most cases etc etc.

    2. Foreigners in the country have never had to learn Polish to get by and do business. Now they can speak English, in history they could speak German or Russian (or French, the former internaional language)

    3. It reflects teaching methods and attitudes to the learning process at Polish schools, compared to modern British methods, which the bloggers of Polandian lived through. In Polish schools, you sit up straight at your desk, face the front, listen to the teacher, copy from the board and learn your grammar tables by rote (like my dad learned his Latin verbs, amo, amas, amat…). Poles renenber having to learn verb tables and rules by rote, and doing endless written exercises which were either right or wrong.

    This is not done in the UK anymore (something Polish parents whith children at British schools are beginning to find out, generally to their shock.) British children don’t face the front any more, tend to work in groups, don’t need to learn lists of vocab for tests, are not encouraged to see the teacher as an authority figue who is always right. English as a pure language is hardly taught in schools, there is very little pure grammar to learn. Traditioinalists complain of course, but they are a minority. The focus in the UK is now on expressing original ideas, learning about life through literature, self discovery.

    The difference is that Englihs in British schools is never promoted as beig difficult, whlie Polish langauge in Polish schools is promoted as a hard language.

  19. guest says:

    “it gives them a nationalistic kick, it allows them to say ¨aren’t we Poles clever,¨ and is a reaction to any lingering feelings of inferiority to ¨the West.¨ Lithuanians, Hungarians, Bulgarians all say exactly the same thing, our lanague is the oldes, most difficult, has the most cases etc etc”

    sorry but that is totally wrong.

    learning Polish as a Polish child/toddler is nothing “clever” and nothing what gives us a feeling of superiority.

    The Polish language is what kept the Poles together (when Russians ,Germans ruled here) and that’s he only “nationalistic” aspect.

  20. guest says:

    i forgot a “t”.

  21. island1 says:

    There are an awful lot of intelligent and fulsome comments here (for which I thank you all) so I can’t hope to reply to all of them individually. I’d like to make a few points in my defense however:

    Learning a foreign language is, in itself, a very hard thing to do; but learning Polish doesn’t seem to me to be particularly more difficult than learning any other. My point was that, to someone who has no familiarity with the language, it looks much harder and Polish people tend to tell you that it is much harder. Both of these are misleading. Several people have already pointed out where this over emphasis on difficulty comes from so I won’t repeat it.

    My Polish? Pathetic. But I’m fairly sure this is because I’m too lazy to learn any languages, not because Polish is a such a stupendous challenge. Yes, I know, I just invalidated my whole argument.

  22. darthsida says:

    => Richardlith

    Yups, ‘twould seem every Polish-speaking newborn kicks nationalistically in their cradle, with lingering feeling of inferiority. And every new human to speak native English would be a natural born post-imperial lazybones (‘why learn any minor language?’) with lingering feeling of superiority.

    To whether language X or Y is hard or easy there can be but one unbiased answer: Go check it out for yourself. People’s skills differ, languages differ. Expectations and aims differ: We write here, so we do not have to care about pronunciation for instance.

    => Guest
    “The Polish language is what kept the Poles together”.

    Would this kind of argument (?) be obsolete (as you used the past “kept”)? Would it not be too…obvious, too? Any language has to keep some community together. Otherwise, it could not be recognised as a language.

  23. island1 says:

    I’d also like to make a point about the persistent ‘English is easy / Polish is hard’ myth.

    I’m convinced this is down to way it’s taught. Teachers of English are trained to encourage communication over accuracy; teachers of Polish are trained to whack you over the head with a textbook when you make a mistake.

    I’ve met endless Polish people who tell me that “English is easy” in extremely bad English. The point is that English native speakers just don’t care about the mistakes. Most of the world speaks bad English, we’re used to it and we’re used to listening through the mistakes. Polish people don’t have this experience, they do care about the mistakes, they’ve been trained to.

  24. scatts says:

    Much the same as Happy Jack, I was rather bemused by the “kwee”! :)

    I agree with Island that the Poles are more ‘fussy’ about their language than English speakers but then if the English language was only found within the borders of Britain, we might be the same. As it is, the world and his wife are speaking it and thus it becomes less precious. There is obviously some history behind this but I think it has more to do with the vigorous teaching and importance attached to the subject in schools. Everyone seems to take it very seriously.

    Polish is easy from a spelling and pronunciation viewpoint with the exception of a few things with which an English trained tongue & mouth were never meant to grapple. Even the grammar or perhaps better to say ‘accepted rules of usage’ is easier than English at an advanced level.

  25. island1 says:

    I knew I couldn’t possibly win with my attempt at phonetic spelling, but I did it anyway. Act in haste, regret at leisure.

  26. scatts says:

    Perhaps you might like to try the phonetic spelling of “Podolski”?

  27. darthsida says:

    Island,

    My guess is that – less so of varieties of Polish – there are dozens of English languages. Hollywood-McDonald’s English is dominant in the media. Users of Simplified Wot Da Dickens Wuz Dickens English don’t speak “extremely bad English”. They speak their English extremey well. It’s just not your English.

    re teaching strategies

    No Polish teacher is trained or allowed to whack their student with a book, not even in your joke. In juvenile deliquency-bordering cases, the teacher has gotten access to better resources (hallowed be Giertych).
    Thus, the fairly generalised symmetry might be: “Teachers of Polish are trained to encourage accuracy” – but not “over communication” – rather out of a belief “accuracy serves communication”. (Hear, hear!)

  28. guest says:

    BTW their polish is pretty impressive

  29. Jolanta says:

    Frankly speaking, I would love to be allowed to whack some of my students with the three-tom Polish dictionary, not just with a book! In the absence of a law which would entitle me to such a practical expression of my feelings about the kind of Polish they use, I have to resort to smacking their bottoms only verbally. Pity, really.
    Strange as it may seem, they appear to appreciate and remember my comments, perhaps because they have not been spoilt by the permissive attitude to the mother tongue which is so prevalent in some nations …

    J.

    PS. I am NOT a teacher of Polish.

  30. Island 1 said “Complete nonsense. There aren’t any sounds in the Polish language that are alien to the English native speaker. ”

    What about ‘i’ (a short ‘ee’)? Example.

    ‘Rz’, ‘ż’ and ‘ź’. Please offer phonetic equivalents.

    Difference between ‘ś’ and ‘sz’, ‘ć’ and ‘cz’? Go on! Just using English letters, please. ‘Sheep’ and ‘shed’ – not to the end (nie do końca).

    Having said that, Brits should be perfectly capable of making the sound of a short ‘oo’ (‘book’, ‘took’, ‘look’, not ‘boot’, ‘loot’, ‘toot’), a Polish ‘a’ (if you’re from the South), and most other Polish vowels. Because they have but one value.

    English is way different.

    The other day, I was talking to an upper-lower-middle class Surrey English girl who was telling me about the ‘Ay Tee Dame’. It took me a while to work out what she was going on about; she holidays in Treeray.

    And who can forget weather girl Suzanne Charlton’s “The odd remble of thender bebbling epp in sethern part of the kentry”

  31. anglopole says:

    Well, it would take a book to comment on this article, Island:) You have touched on a few interesting issues.

    I will be an echo for previous posts – Polish IS difficult! It is so for Poles, let alone foreigners…. There is just one ‘exotic’ sound to an English ear in my name, and yet nearly nobody here in England is able to pronounce it the way it should be pronounced in Polish:( If it was easy, it should be enough if I repeat it once slowly and clearly voicing every syllable. I have enver met and Brit who’d remember the sound of my name without asking me for repeting it.

    Here is JUST one word and 17 grammatical forms of it:

    number 2:
    dwa, dwie, dwoje, dwóch (or dwu), dwaj, dwiema, dwom (or dwóm), dwoma, dwojga, dwojgu, dwojgiem, dwójka, dwójki, dwójkę, dwójką
    dwójce, dwójko
    How many English equivalents do you have for each of the forms? Surprise, surprise: just one and that is TWO. Now how is a native English speaker find it natural to understand why there are so many forms of what they know to be just “2”?! :)

    I have to now point to something that can be somewhat insulting to Polish teachers:
    “Teachers of English are trained to encourage communication over accuracy; teachers of Polish are trained to whack you over the head with a textbook when you make a mistake.” – you are talking about the, so to say, old school teachers who are now over 50. The were taught English with the use of the so called ‘grammar method’ which is quite passive and indeed focuses on correctness rather than effectiveness in communication. Nowadays, teachers (I am one too and used to work as a teacher trainer too:) are AWARE that it’s the compilation of methods that is the key to help students master the target language. Also, teachers have now understood language is the means to an end and not an end in itself…. in the era of massive travelling it would be hard for the teachers to be successful in what they do if their teaching motto was to bash students with grammar or other reference books…:)

    As for English, like someone rightly stressed – it wouldn’t be a lingua franca for decades if it was hard to learn:)
    It can be tricky, and it does have difficult grammatical structures or lexical complexities, but when compared to Polish, it would, I think, be considered as easier by most linguists.

    greetings to all:)

  32. michael farris says:

    “Polish, it would, I think, be considered as easier by most linguists.”

    Actually, in their sum total (from the point of view of an infant) virtually all linguists would conclude that there is either no real difference in difficulty between Polish and English. Most of the rest would contest the very idea of ‘difficulty’ as being something quantifiable that native speakers have to deal with.

    And dwójka isn’t the number two, it’s a nominalized form that means something like “the one labelled/numbered 2” (like a streetcar, tv channel etc). And it’s a perfectly regular noun.

    Numerals in Polish are difficult but it’s possible to be perfectly intelligible without getting them very accurately just as English is intelligible with poor article usage (though among natives articles are very important).

    The status of a language as a lingua franca has little to do with difficulty and quite a lot to do with economic and military power (I’d mention cultural power but those are also usually dependent on the first two).

  33. Scatts said, “The point is that English native speakers just don’t care about the mistakes. Most of the world speaks bad English, we’re used to it and we’re used to listening through the mistakes. Polish people don’t have this experience, they do care about the mistakes, they’ve been trained to.”

    Exactly right. Poles have no concept of bad Polish, especially when it’s coming from foreigners… and why would they? To be very blunt and very slightly inaccurate, only Poles speak Polish. Whereas there are between 300-400 million people that natively speak English and up to nearly 1.8 billion that speak it as a second language. Polish is spoken by, roughly, 43 million people, 38 million of whom live in Poland.

    There is no concept of Polish with a foreign accent. It’s a lot like how (British) English is taught in Poland: listen… and now say it like the Brits do. Except they don’t and I repeatedly told my Polish students that *I* don’t talk like that so I didn’t expect them to, either. It doesn’t go the other way, though and probably never will.

    That’s life in what is a fairly homogeneous country – for better or worse.

  34. hockey ma for obama says:

    Guest, is it surprising to you that a guy born in Poland with a name like Podolski can speak Polish?

  35. guest says:

    Brad wrote

    “Polish is spoken by, roughly, 43 million people, 38 million of whom live in Poland.”

    —————

    Polish is spoken by 38 Poles in Poland but also by

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polonia

    and in Israel a big part of the Jews speak or understand Polish.

    that’s about 65millions potential Polish speakers. Ok ,ok …of course the number is not that impressive :D

  36. island1 says:

    Bloody hell, I should have known this would prove to be bigger and more deadly minefield than Catholicism. Listen to the inner voice Island1, listen and take note.

    Micheal: I’ve never come across a Polish word that I couldn’t pronounce to the satisfaction of Polish native speakers. I have come across Japanese, Korean, and Chinese words of which the same cannot be said.

    Jolanta: The head trauma was purely metaphorical, although no less painful for that.

    Anglopole: Ok, but as I recall your first name is easy to pronounce (for anyone who’s spent some time in Poland – it holds no fear for me) and your second is from somewhat further afield. I don’t doubt that English people have to ask for a second listening, but they can get it in the end.

    Brad: Actually that was my comment, but never mind. Thanks for the back up, that’s exactly what I meant.

    hockey: You’re a very weird person Yossarian.

    Scatts: “Podolski” ok, I get it, football and all that. Minus 27 points on my guy rating.

  37. anglopole says:

    @ Michale Farris:

    I can see where you are getting at, and need to explain that to fully share what I think about the topic, one post is far too little a space to do it… :( I have taken, what I call, some intellectual shortcuts – the “2” factor ;) was just an example, and not THE proof of Polish being harder than English. I have read some statistics listing languages according to the level of difficulty and Polish and English where nowhere near to each other. Polish has been classified as more difficult than English by people A LOT more knowledgeable than myself. Whether studying Polish and using it is hard for you or Island as individual users is A DIFFERENT story:)
    Surely, you would be understood if you used: “dwa” in all the imaginable contexts and situations:) Yet, would it really be the Polish way of using vocabulary? I think a subject of effective communication is still a different to the one discussed here – you can have a very limited vocabulary and still communicate many things in a language, but that wouldn’t be referred to as proficient use of a language. For example, when a foreigner wants to get a teaching job here in the UK, where I live, often one of the requirements is speaking English at the native level… What does it mean? It means that fluency has to be married to accuracy/correctness:) (of course, being a native speaker of a language does not guarantee correct usage of the language;)

    I agree with you that English being a lingua franca is deeply rooted in history, the Commonwealth…. many countries having been under British rule have used English as one of their official languages, if not the only one… blah, blah, blah… The French or Portugese too colonized many places and still their languages did not conquer the world, so to speak. IMHO, the system of English does influence its wide usage in the world as it is, user-friendly, if I may put it this way. You can have your opinion, Michael, of course:)
    The great advantage of English over Polish is the huge vocabulary – it’s other languages borrowing words from English and it’s only exceptional situations where foreign words are incorporated into the English vocab. I personally love English for it:)

  38. anglopole says:

    @Island, I have no doubt whatsoever that you have both desire and skill to hear the Polish sounds and imitate them:) Yes, you are right, it is more natural and far easier when someone is exposed to a language that is foreign to them. My foreign friends who live in Poland can, indeed, pronounce the ‘z’ as in ‘zaba'(frog) the way we do it.
    I suppose an objective study in this case would be done by a non-native speaker of English or Polish who is learning both the languages. Let’s say a French person (French not being in either Slavic or Germanic group of languages) learning Polish and English – such a person could say which language is easier for them:)

  39. michael farris says:

    “I have read some statistics listing languages according to the level of difficulty and Polish and English where nowhere near to each other. Polish has been classified as more difficult than English by people A LOT more knowledgeable than myself.”

    ‘Difficult’ raises the question of ‘for who?’
    I’d be willing to bet that those those who claimed Polish is more difficult than English either weren’t linguists or were talking about relative difficulty for a specific group of people (English is easier for Swedes than for Poles for example).
    Polish is not easy for monolingual English speakers (though probably easier than Georgian) but it’s pretty easy for Russian speakers. There is simply no abstract standard against which the absolute difficulty or ease of languages can be measured.

    If Polish really were more difficult (whatever that’s supposed to mean) then one might expect that Polish children have more difficulty in learning to speak with later onset of speech or that typical errors persisted in their speech longer than they do in English speaking childrens’ speech.
    Neither has been observed.

    And yes there is a concept of Polish with a foreign accent. There was (still is?) a show on Polish TV (Europa da się lubić) built just around the concept of non-Poles speaking (in Polish) about their countries. And there’s also MP Nelly Rokita with a strong Russian accent. There’s lots more examples too. True, foreign accented Polish doesn’t pervade the media like non-native English (and is not accepted in some contexts) but it’s there.

    One thing that gets in the way is the idea of ‘correctness’.
    Poles worship it (and standard Polish is a more or less unitary standard). This leads to the maintenance of all kinds of things that might disappear otherwise (the dysfunctional number system, weirdo plurals like dziewczęta etc). But overall, standard Polish is clearly based on the speech of Poles and is more or less easily achievable with some formal education.
    English has no unitary standard and the formal standards are pretty dysfunctional themselves (since they’re usually based on Latin and make no sense in terms of real English grammar). And with its poor spelling-speech match, prestige accents are harder to mimic by those not born to them.
    This leads to the loss of lots of some features (like whom) that are part of the formal standard.
    In the US, informal standards are far more vigorously enforced than formal ones. Use the kind of language that your English teacher told you to use and you’ll be shunned (or at least not popular).

    Finally, although English is studied by millions and millions of people for (primarily) financial reasons, I can’t think of any English equivalent to Polonia, a group of English speakers (in a non-English speaking environment) who preserve and cultivate the language for purely emotional cultural reasons (with no expectation of financial gain).

  40. island1 says:

    Completely agree with a lot of these points.

    The use of English as a lingua franca has nothing to do with the ease with which it can be learned and everything to do with the economic power of first the UK and now the United States. The idea that English is widely used because it’s easy is completely bogus in my view.

    I also can’t see any likely objective standard for judging the comparative difficulty of languages, clearly it’s a lot easier to learn Czech if you happen to be Polish than if you happen to be Chinese.

    ‘Correctness’ is exactly what I was getting at when I said Poles tell foreigners that Polish is hard. They have an exaggerated view of the difficulty because Polish culture places such an emphasis on their being a single ‘good’ and ‘correct’ version of Polish.

    Is it hard to speak Polish like a native, yes, practically impossible. Is it especially hard to make yourself understood in Polish despite errors and non-standard pronunciations, no, not at all.

  41. scatts says:

    “The idea that English is widely used because it’s easy is completely bogus in my view.”

    I agree and disagree. English is very hard beyond a certain point, so yes, it’s wrong to say English is easy. However, one of the main reasons that English is so widely used is that it is so easy to get your point across in English even with a limited mastery of the language. If you don’t know past tense, just use “did” (didn’t) all the time, “I did go sailing”, just as clear as “I went sailing” or “I sailed”.

    English is like a Swiss Army knife of a language. You can get a lot done with just a few easily packed tools. That’s why people have used it and why it is now so popular.

  42. island1 says:

    No, that doesn’t wash. I’m sure it would be possible to take similar short cuts in any language. It’s just become acceptable in English because it’s used so widely, it would become just as acceptable in other languages if they were as widely used. I still say the only reason English is universal is because of the economic power of the UK and then the US.

  43. Gabriela says:

    “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.”
    You are totally right there.
    Your blog is a very nice way to learn more about your country.

  44. […] to Polandian, Polish language isn't hard. Posted by Veronica Khokhlova Share […]

  45. ik says:

    if Polish i difficut good luck with Russian Ukrainian or Belarusian

  46. Gabriela says:

    Probably someone can say the same thing about Spanish, that it is hard. By the way, if you like some help for understanding some subtleties, as you called them, just let me know. I’d be glad to help.

  47. lingo says:

    you’d better study the transcription and pronunciation Island…

    http://www.omniglot.com/writing/polish.htm

  48. Dawid says:

    ‘Busting myths’ is pretty fashionable these days. And as with fashion, it is usually skin-deep. This article is no exception.

    It is very noticeable HOW LITTLE SPACE THE AUTHOR DEVOTES TO POLISH GRAMMAR. Maybe s/he knew that it would undermine her/his argument so s/he chose to ignore it?

    Polish is a highly inflected language and Polish declension gives a headache to any foreign student of Polish. It is indeed difficult and highly irregular. Had it been easy, the US Department of Defence wouldn’t have ranked Polish in Category III of difficulty for English speakers (the top category IV includes Oriental languages).

    And don’t get me started on the laughable statement “I could teach some basic Polish phrases to my grandmother without any difficulty” – learning language is about something more than just “basic phrases”. If indeed “basic phrases” were the standard for assessing the difficulty of a language, English would be by far the easiest language on earth as people very easily pick up things like “My name is”, “Hello”, “Thank you” etc. So don’t push this argument because it will backfire.

    “Polish philology”? Don’t you Brits study English literature or linguistics at your universities? Of course you do. And that’s basically what “Polish philology” is. And where did you get this idea that it is one of “the most prestigious degrees” in Poland? People who graduate from those studies usually end up in low-paid jobs in primary schools. There’s nothing prestigious about that.

    Whether there are TV programmes on English pronunciation I don’t know. But I do know that the educated Brits lament the state of language among the youth. So maybe you should think about such programmes. Anyway, they are not as popular in Poland as you claim them to be.

    This article almost makes me think that the author feels insecure about English and needs to bust myths about Polish to feel better. Or maybe s/he met some narcissistic Pole who pushed this “Polish is difficult” thing so hard that s/he snapped. But it doesn’t mean that s/he can publicly spread misinformation and present her/his unfounded opinions as facts.

    And just for the record – I don’t think that the fact that one language is more difficult than another makes any of them “better”.

    IF YOU WANT TO KNOW HOW POLISH WORKS IN PRACTICE and why it is this way, please go to http://hubpages.com/hub/Most-difficult-languages-Polish where you will find illustrative facts and clear examples.

  49. island1 says:

    Dawid: I think you may be guilty of taking this post a tad too seriously. It’s a light-hearted piece that addresses the perception of Polish in the eyes of English-speakers, it’s not an academic study of the relative complexity of Polish grammar.

    Your, frankly, rude and arrogant tone does little to dissuade me that Poles are far too precious about their language.

  50. Dawid says:

    Rude and arrogant? C’mon. We’re adults, we can stand criticism without getting all defensive. And you seem to have misunderstood my argument. I wasn’t bending over backwards to dissuade anybody “that Poles are far too precious about their language”. Poles, especially the older generation, are indeed very sensitive about the language, which is clear given the history. Not as much as the author says though (BTW, some time ago one of those TV programmes by Prof. Bralczyk was cancelled). Rather, I simply – and convincingly I believe – pointed out that the author was wrong and the fact that Polish is hard is not “utter nonsense”.

    As for taking things “a tad too seriously”, if somebody puts forward mistaken opinions as facts, I feel entitled to counter their arguments. It’s as simple as that.

    You see, I taught English in China for more than a year. I have written dozens of articles on China for various magazines and papers. I believe in writer’s integrity, whether one publishes in print or on the Internet. And I refuse to acknowledge anybody’s right to present their biased opinions as facts. If somebody – like the author of the above piece – fails to provide reliable information, they deserve to be criticised.

    Incidentally, I have known quite a few foreigners who live(d) in Poland – Brits, Irish, Americans, Canadians, Africans, French (most of them were my teachers). All of them said Polish grammar was “crazy”. And even the French guy (French is also inflected) was struggling (he often laughed at his inability to differentiate between ‘cz’ and ‘ć’ sounds). So the “perception” you’re talking about is rather contrary to what the author claims.

    Ironically, just this morning I read Mark Mardell’s article on the BBC. Here’s an interesting bit about “getting too precious about one’s language”:

    “The French are prickly if their language is not used at the top table or is slighted in any way. And while English is in a very dominant position I have not doubt at all we would be very defensive if it wasn’t. But I have been at EU news conferences given by Austrians and Germans and they did not bat an eyelid about speaking in English.’
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/markmardell/2008/11/german_identity_angst.html

    Make your own conclusions…

    island1, you are right: “It’s a light-hearted piece that addresses the perception of Polish in the eyes of English-speakers”. Indeed it tells one more about this particular English speaker than about Polish. The snag is, it claims otherwise. And that’s why it deserves criticism.

  51. […] talked about Polish pride in the difficulty of their language before, with mixed results. For me this is the ultimate proof that, whatever they say, Poles […]

  52. Dawid says:

    To stay strictly on topic: the evidence against the over-eager “myth-busting” in the article above is piling up. The following bit comes from a sort of a practical guide to the culture of Eastern Europe entitled “From Da to Yes: Understanding the East Europeans” by Yale Richmond (pp. 62-64):

    >>Polish is a subtle language that can seem purposely ambiguous at times. Thoughts are often expressed in an indirect and roundabout way in the expectation that the real meaning will be somehow understood. … The grammar is complex and the pronunciation difficult, with many soft sounds – s, sh, cz, and szcz – which pose problems for the foreigner, and for English speakers in particular … For those Americans who plan to study Polish, the challenge is formidable but well worth the effort.<<

    A limited preview of this interesting – is sometimes slightly simplified – book is available at http://books.google.com/books?id=2Y8GNIp42ysC&pg=PR1&dq=from+da+to+yes There are some enheartening news about Polish as well, e.g. about the vocabulary.

    I have witnessed many conversations between Poles and foreigners and I do realize that this constant and – frankly – often inconsiderate “Polish is hard, isn’t it?” thing may indeed vex foreigners. But the last thing they should do is claim that this is a “heinous misrepresentation”. Because it clearly isn’t. And it’s not a matter of pride – it’s a matter of facts. And also of cultural sensitivity.

  53. scatts says:

    Happy New Year, Dawid!

    I browsed that book, looks like it might be fun to read. I spotted one error in the Polish chapter though – “History is very important to Poles” should read “Polish history is very important to Poles”. ;)

  54. Dawid says:

    And to you:)

    Sadly the Polish chapter is the only one available in full. Still, it’s largely informative, if sometimes simplistic (it’s not a history book after all).

    I’d say the younger the Poles, the less interested in history they are, Polish or any other. And there’s the whole question of the communist version of Polish history and its influence on the self-perception of Poles to this day. But that’s another story.

  55. kasia says:

    i came across this blog and wanted to just note that yes, there are a number of phonemes in polish that do not exist in english, and while some of them are easily pronounced by english speakers, others are quite difficult. polish is the only language that has two “sh” and two “zh” sounds for example, a difference many people cannot even hear.

    in terms of spelling, polish is very phonetic, making it much much easier than english for new learners.

    but grammar, now that is where the most difficulty would lie for english speakers, as we simply don’t make such detailed grammatical distinctions for case. i have been speaking polish as a second language since childhood (my parents are from poland) and even with intensive study i have great difficulty producing the correct case endings on words.

    other languages also have large case systems or extensive gender categories, so these would be equally as hard or harder to learn if coming from a language without these distinctions. that’s the main thing, that your first language determines which aspects of a second language you will find difficult.

    and yes, it’s true that polish people take pride in their language, but when they say it’s hard, they are often speaking from experience. as mentioned in a previous comment, some native polish speakers themselves make mistakes with all of those case endings.

  56. Steve G says:

    I just want to say a few things. First of all, I do not want to start up by saying anything bad about Polish as a way of defending English. Now what I think is that yes Polish is one of those languages that has 7 cases and god knows how many more grammatical complexities. English is definetely simplified but is not at the same time. Yes the grammar has been dilapitated over the centuries but a few things make English extremely hard:
    1: Absolutely random pronunciation…. this is seen clearly and is probably impossible to efface … a teacher of mine who speaks polish pronounces hundreds of things wrongly everyday because English pronunciation is so random .. and she has lived here for like 20 years now… so you can see how that’s hard: words like oven, out , over random “o” or vegetarian and vegan random “e” have random sounds that cannot be guessed by solely looking at the words
    2: Phrasal verbs… though not so difficult… but lengthy and broad
    3: People never seem to mention this : most words in the English language have at least 2 or 3 meanings or MOre… this is seen in other languages but only here and there and this is not too common.. look at the word ”
    trough” if you look it up… there’s 8 different meanings… thats gotta be confusing… and sometimes multiple meanings ALL MAKE SENSE IN THE SENTENCE YOU ARE TRYING TO DECIPHER
    4: Capitonym
    Homographs
    Homophones
    Heteronyms
    Heterophones
    Polysemes………. all of these are like same spelling different meaning and pronunciation or if its capitalized its one meaning and if it is not its another and many more… that is really confusing like ” The bandage was wound around the wound… how does a learner of english know the difference by looking at the word…
    5: English is a language absolutely filled with idioms and learning most of them is almost impossible
    6: Lastly and VERY IMPORTANT: English is a language that is extremely flexible in terms of using words that are ordinary to express completely different meanings…. I think Polish is extremely hard to learn, but like the Romance Languages , it makes sense .. english doesnt and this changes everything . Thanks

  57. Maya says:

    I’m sorry, but I don’t think you can be more wrong. First of all, are you fluent in Polish? I was raised only by my Polish mom, though I live in America, and while I’ve known quite a bit of Polish ever since I could speak anything at all, I’ve only now started to become fluent. I have no hint of an American accent when I speak Polish, since I grew up with it, but no matter how hard they try, my friends cannot pronounce it right. Only to people who actually grew up with the language are all the errors in their speaking truly laudable. Therefore, unless you grew up with the language, you might not even be able to tell how badly they are pronouncing it. Furthermore, Polish grammar is insane to master. There are 7 cases! It seems to be much easier for a Polish person to learn Polish than for an American/English person to learn Polish. Also, Polish people are protective of their language because..well, just look at out history. There’s a reason we’ve been called “Europe’s Trauma Case.” Yet, we were the ones who started to the Solidarity Movement. We have a strong national pride, and our language is tied to that. Sorry for posting this so long after the article was actually posted, I found it and felt the need to comment.

  58. flootzavut says:

    I find it vaguely amusing that “but it has seven cases!” is always brought up to prove Polish is hard. Lots of other Slavic languages have seven cases, and there are several unrelated languages out there that have way more than seven.

    If you find cases hard to get your head around, having seven of them is harder than having one or none, but cases aren’t inherently hard (so far I’ve studied four different languages that have some form of a case system, and I get on with them way way better than languages that don’t decline, where something else has to do the work that cases do in Polish).

    I’ve only been to Poland once, but when I spoke to people in the little Polish I knew, they kept answering back in rapid fire Polish, because they assumed I’d understand them, thinking from my pronunciation that I spoke the language. It helped enormously that I had a background in Slavic languages (I studied Russian and Croatian at university), but I didn’t start learning Russian till I was 19. Whatever authentic Slavic pronunciation and intonation I picked up was deliberately, as an adult, and it was good enough to ‘fool’ a number of Poles into thinking I could fluently speak their language. By the end of the fortnight, I could converse fairly freely on basic topics.

    I don’t think Polish is particularly easy, but it’s a myth that it’s “the” hardest language.

  59. ✧ Anna ✍ says:

    me like it! :D thats a pretty accurate description of how we Poles consider our language as a national treasure(e.g: with radio and tv programs on correct spelling). It is not easy to learn a foreign language esp. pronunciation. To those learning Polish – you can do it! :)

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