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. ( ) One might be surprised to know that Polish is now the second most commonly spoken language in England:  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):

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).
























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.”  ( .  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!

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.


A Six Week Hebrew Challenge

After several months I “finished” the Assimil Norwegian course.  As for the results???? Well, I will confess that I am able to read a Norwegian news article without too much difficulty.  Unfortunately, my comprehension and speaking is an entirely different matter.  Despite working through the entire book, I still struggle to understand the most basic Norwegian conversations.  Norwegian is one of those languages where the words all meld together in normal speech.  I am aware that English does this as well   “Howyadointoday?”   so I can empathize with students of English in this respect.  I’m sure that if I had a few good, solid months of Norwegian immersion I could come a long way.  Unfortunately I don’t think that will happen anytime soon unless I stow away on a Hurtigruten ship…..


Most of this summer I have spent reviewing Mandarin Chinese and Hungarian.  I was shocked to find that I had nearly forgotten everything I had learned with these two languages.  Luckily, going through the Assimil courses, up to unit 30 or so, brought a lot of it back.  It was much easier learning these languages the “second time around”.


August brings another 6 week challenge.  I was considering using it as a review for my other rusty languages, however, another language siren drew me in.  I will be spending six weeks trying to learn as much Israeli Hebrew as possible. I am mainly interested in learning how to read the Hebrew script and to study the similarities between Hebrew and the Levantine dialect of Arabic. I’m told that although they are both Semitic languages, they are similar to English and, say, French.  The two languages have many shared vocabulary words, but are by no means mutually intelligible. That being said, I recall seeing a news article several years back where Rechov Sumsum (The Israeli version of Sesame Street) was broadcast in the Palesinian areas using dialogues that would be understood by both Hebrew speaking and Arabic speaking children!


My 6 week plan of attack will start with Pimsleur.  Luckily my library has all 90 lessons! It also has the Routledge Colloquial Hebrew course which teaches the Hebrew script.  From there I might move on to the Assimil L’Hebreu Sans Peine course.  This is a ways off, however, as it is entirely in French and the Hebrew script. לְהִתרָאוֹת. (L’hitra’ot – see ya later!)

My Crazy Multi-Lingual Day!

A few posts back I wrote about the virtues of a century-old language method called the Assimil Method.  I am currently using the Assimil course for Norwegian and it seems to be going pretty well.I came across this article on the Freakonomics blog the other day:

The article praises the Assimil method and goes into much better detail about why it works than my brief post was able to.  He goes on to propose that students should be doing a similar method for math and physics.  I can’t say that I disagree with him!
I am currently on Lesson 40 of the Assimil course.  I had my doubts about how much material I was actually retaining until I went back and listened to lessons 10-20.  Unbelievable. I could understand everything perfectly.  It was a nice confidence boost as the dialogues are getting much more complex. The sentences are more like “You won’t be able to make it back to shore. Don’t you remember last year when I had to schlep your mother back to shore and I didn’t even want to swim!” (no joke – lesson 37!!)  I need to work on my verbal skills very badly, but I think this will come in time.

Many people have asked me how I am learning Assimil from a French course when my French is only at a VERY basic level.  The great thing about Norwegian is that it is probably the closest language to the “Germanic-side” of English that I have studied.  I have heard that around 60% of English words come directly from French.  Thus, 60% of Assimil is fairly easy to figure out from French/English cognates.  As for the remaining 40%, most of these are the Germanic words which remained in English.  So even if I can’t figure out the French, by going to the Norwegian side I can almost always figure it out. Example: the French word elan. I have no clue what that is.  But then, I see the Norwegian word is elg, AHA! ELK!  (moose, actually, but close enough).

So back to my crazy, multilingual day.  At work, I spoke some Lao.  What?  You speak Lao? Heck no!  But I do know some survival phrases in Thai, which is closely related to Lao.  There was a Lao gentleman who spoke very little English. I walked up to him, smiled and said in a loud, unapologetic voice “SABAI DII!!” (which means “Hi, good day!” in both Thai and Lao). He looked up, completely shocked with a huge smile and started laughing while vigorously shaking my hand.  He then said something that must have been “Do you speak Lao?”, (I have no clue whatsoever…). I said back in Thai “ I only speak a little Thai, very badly…”. He then tried to teach me some Lao (which, unfortunately,  I immediately forgot).  He said in the years he has in in the US, that was the first time any non-Lao had shown any interest in speaking Lao to him. The experience was fun for me and I’m sure I made his day!

The day continued with me going through my Assimil lesson for the day in Norwegian.  This was followed by listening to some “easy-Norwegian-news” with the Klar-Tale podcast.

Norwegian was followed by some German. My 10 year old daughter has shown interest in learning German so I’m doing a little experiment.  I have the Assimil German course so the two of us are going through the course together.  We are only spending 10 minutes a day on it and we shall see how far she can come in 100 days.

Later that evening I read several pages of Marjane Satrapi‘s Persepolis which had been translated into Spanish. Among other things, I discovered that hijab translates to pañuelo (who knew?)

The evening ended with another Assimil lesson; but this time it was Czech.  Czech?!?  Sigh…. I know, I know.  I got the Assimil Czech course for an absolute steal and it was looking really lonely sitting on my shelf … So I’m taking 15 minutes a day and going through the Czech course in addition to Norwegian.

…I know, I’m a hopeless language geek….