Five weeks of Studying Polish …

When I told my wife that I was learning Polish, she gave me a puzzled look and shook her head….

Funny, I never got this response when I was studying Georgian or Hungarian(?!?) .  I interpreted her response as a sort of: “why would anyone without Polish relatives, not living in Poland have any interest in learning this impenetrable language??”.  I suppose this would be an logical response from a non-linguist geek, like myself.  However, with a little research, one easily recognizes Polish as a much more “important” language than one would think.

Polish is, after all, the second most spoken Slavic language after Russian with 40+ million speakers.  Interestingly, there are estimated to be over 20 million Polish speakers who live outside the borders of Poland (!), making Polish a truly global language. ( http://www.cactuslanguagetraining.com/us/english/view/the-importance-of-polish-as-a-language-today/ ) One might be surprised to know that Polish is now the second most commonly spoken language in England: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/2011-census-polish-language-becomes-1564957  In addition, there are over 600,000 primary Polish speakers in the US putting it on par with Italian and Portuguese ( with twice as many speakers as Greek and Japanese): http://www.census.gov/population/cen2000/phc-t20/tab05.pdf

I was hoping that I would get a little “language bonus” learning Polish considering that I have a  good command of basic Russian.  They are, after all, both Slavic languages which I have been told differ from each other less than Spanish and Italian do….    Boy was I wrong….  I never thought that I would claim that Russian is an easy language to learn, but compared to Polish, Russian is a cakewalk.

Polish is incredibly difficult for me to pronounce.  Nevermind the two “nasalized” vowels “  ę and  ą” …  With consonant clusters such as ść, rz, szcz ,ź, ż ,   an “L” that thinks its a “w”   and a “w” that thinks its a “v”,   pronouncing Polish is a nightmare for an English speaker.  The instructor in the Michel Thomas course spends what seems to be 5 minutes trying to get her students to pronounce drzwi ‘door’ and sprzedawać ‘to sell’ properly.  I think some of this stems from the Polish alphabet being converted to aLatin alphabet from the Cyrillic alphabet of Old Church Slavonic.  The Cyrillic alphabet of Russian has letters (Щ ) which express Slavic sounds much more easily than combinations like szcz as one finds in Polish.

Russian is also much less picky about number and gender than Polish. For example, in Russian, the past tense is simply gender and number specific: simply plug in –л for masculine singular subjects, –ла for feminine singular subjects, –ло for neuter singular subjects, and –ли for plural subjects.  But in Polish, the past tense must agree with the subject in gender as well as person and number.  Thus, if one takes the basic past tense stem ( -ł;)  one must then add endings for gender and number, then personal endings must be added for the first and second person forms. Thus, for być, (to be)  the past tense forms are byłem/byłam (“I was”, masc/fem.), byłeś/byłaś, ( you were masc/fem) był/była/było; (he/she/it was, masc/fem),  byliśmy/byłyśmy (“we were” masc. personal/all other),  byliście/byłyście,( you were plural masc/fem)  byli/były. (they were masc/fem)  etc… 4 verbs to contend with in Russian compared to 13 for Polish!

Nouns have an extra case as well so one needs to contend with 14 different possibilities (as opposed to 12) when attempting to figure out the appropriate case to put on a noun! Here, for example,  is a table on how to decline noc (night).

Singular

Plural

Nominative

noc

noce

Accusative

noc

noce

Genitive

nocy

nocy

Locative

nocy

nocach

Dative

nocy

nocom

Instrumental

nocą

nocami

Vocative

nocy

noce

Nevertheless, for reasons which I still can’t explain, learning Polish is a lot of fun!  Perhaps it is trying to say things like “ W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie i Szczebrzeszyn z tego słynie.  / In Szczebrzeszyn a beetle buzzes in the reed, for which Szczebrzeszyn is famous.”  (http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/polish/soap/facts.shtml) .  Perhaps it is because of the support and enthusiasm I have received from Polish speakers when they see that I am attempting to learn their impossible language with no Polish family connection whatsoever! Who knows, but I will say I may need to revise my goals downward a bit for the end of December!

www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAsmfc5pnXM

www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9087kYtGd4

Addendum: I took an online placement test to see where my studies have put me thus far and these were my results: Maybe I’m doing better than I thought!!

You answered 15 out of 40 questions correctly.

You are ready for: Elementary (A2)*

Test score: 10-19

Choose this level…

If this describes you…

   

Elementary A2:

You can use and understand simple sentence structures and have come across different grammatical structures, but are not confident in applying them correctly/consistently.

At the end of Elementary (A2):

  • You can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas including basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography and employment.

  • You can communicate in simple and routine tasks, requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.

  • You can describe, in simple terms, aspects of your background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.

  • You can comfortably ‘get by’ when visiting the country, albeit with some difficulty.

*Your test result is an approximate indication of your ability level within the Common European and American Council Reference framework. It takes into account only your grammar proficiency.

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4 thoughts on “Five weeks of Studying Polish …

    • I enjoyed your proficiency scale I am often asked, “How many languages do you speak?
      I identify with your response. Especially with the part of why would you want to …
      I also identify with your passion. I have been traveling the world (all continents ) and this, to get to know people through language exchanges : I have posted my exchange sign in most of the world capitals( in the language of the country) on street corners, park benches, outdoor cafes, dance halls ,square in Greenwich village , square in Cusco, Bangcok ,beach in Australia, open air dance hall in Pnom Phen , on university campuses Berkeley, Thamasatt, U of Washington, State Univ. La Paz and many other places. My method is to record a woeful tale with several residents :Man walks in park sees beautiful girl crying says “Why are you crying -she “I have no mother , father ,brother sister etc. no money, friends ,house I am hungry , sick –– come with me to my grandmother’s house––she comes –– they marry – he rich ––travel to many lands eat many foods, to many pleasurable things- ––Let’s hope they live happily ever after. Play same repeatedly to have some idea of language. Great fun–still have many recordings. Why the interest in languages? No idea!
      Bill
      addendum : lived on houseboat for twenty years – have many Assimil including Arabic and Hebrew.

  1. Interesting! Polish is definitely a very complex language, and certainly not an easy one to pronounce (or anything!) However, I find it much harder to read Russian than Polish! I don’t know whether it has to do with the fact that my mother tongue is Spanish and I am very familiar with Chinese sounds (both share many “unusual” consonants), but I didn’t find it hard to get used to the “scarily-looking” consonants clusters in Polish, and I feel very comfortable with the fairly strict correspondence between spelling and sounds, like in Spanish, even though I can only read very slowly and with difficulty. In Russian, however, never knowing where to put the stress makes it a nightmare for me to figure out how to read the damn vowels. None of the languages are easy to pronounce, and while even some short words in Polish require a huge amount of repetition and practice, Russian doesn’t come easy either, and the uncertainty of the stress/vowels thing makes it -in my case- a much harder language to read than Polish (and I’m not talking about the Cyrillic alphabet, which is not hard, especially if you already read Greek and mangaed to learn several hundreds of Chinese characters). Regards!

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