Is Polish the most difficult European language to learn?

How ethical is it to start working in a country where you don’t speak the local language?

Before I started teaching English in Poland, this question didn’t trouble me in the slightest. When I taught in Sardinia, I spoke enough Italian to get by; and nobody in Cambodia expected foreign teachers to speak any Khmer at all. But Polish is inna para kaloszy (a different pair of shoes) for me as a British English speaker. On the one hand, it almost sounds vaguely familiar (Polish is now the second most widely-spoken language in England) and at first glance, looks deceptively approachable (unlike Russian, Polish is written in the Latin alphabet). On the other hand, its sibilant shushes shimmer past my ears without me being able to understand a single word. And when it comes to speaking, even common everyday words look like a collection of leftover Scrabble tiles: where do I start with wszystko (all), jeszcze (yet), or even cześć (hi)?

Why learn Polish?

Fortunately, most people in the Polish tourist industry speak good English, and communicating in restaurants, hotels, and taxis in major cities like Krakow is no problem. It’s when I’m at the bus stop, or in the supermarket, or walking by the river and a local politely asks me a question that I have to shake my head and attempt to say slowly, ‘Przepraszam…nie mówię po polsku’ (‘I’m sorry…I don’t speak Polish.’) It’s taken half an hour of coaching from patient Polish colleagues to even get this far (‘Pshuh-PRASH-em’ – ‘Again!’ – ‘Pshuh-PRASH-em!’ – ‘Faster!’)

From a social point of view, I’m ashamed I can’t reply to the questions I’m asked, for example; but there are real practical considerations too: how do I decode the washing machine settings? What does the strange sign at the bus stop say? Is the computer about to close down or restart? Guesswork and Google Translate will only get you so far in daily life, especially when you have no WiFi.

‘I’m going to learn some Polish,’ I announce to my colleagues one day. They are baffled.

‘Why?’ they ask, ‘Everyone speaks English.’

‘But they don’t,’ I tell them, remembering the time at the supermarket when the cashier patiently asked me the same question several times. She may as well have been rzucać grochem o ściane (throwing beans against the wall) as I couldn’t understand her and ended up emptying my purse onto the counter to see if more money would solve the problem. (It didn’t.)

‘But why?’ they ask again. ‘Polish is so difficult!’

Is Polish the ‘hardest’ European language?

The ‘difficulty’ of any given language will always be subjective, to a degree: Italian is likely to be more intelligible to a Spanish speaker than German, for example. But let’s not owijać w bawełnę (wrap things in cotton): Slavic languages, with their subtle shades of grammatical complexity, are notoriously difficult. Polish is a West Slavic language, sharing a high degree of similarity and mutual intelligibility with Czech and Slovak, but using a less transparent spelling system which relies heavily on diacritics. Polish shares far less similarity with Russian, an East Slavic language which uses the Cyrillic alphabet. (Krakow locals told me they could only guess at around half of what Russian tourists were saying.)

The US Foreign Service Institute has a widely-quoted system for ranking languages according to the amount of time English native speakers need to become ‘proficient’, and places Polish in category 4 out of a possible 5, trailing only Arabic and the East Asian languages. (For comparison, French is classed in category 1, as one of the easiest foreign languages to learn.)

A tricky case of beer

Why is it so ‘difficult’? Let’s start with the grammar. There are three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter) and no fewer than seven cases – meaning that every noun can appear in seven different forms, depending on its grammatical function in the sentence. To us, for example, beer is always beer, except when there are several beers on the table. But its Polish equivalent piwo changes (or declines) slyly according to its grammatical context. To take just some of these cases, the straightforward ‘Lubię piwo’ (‘I like beer’) becomes ‘Nie lubię piwa’ (‘I don’t like beer’), which is different to ‘Przygladam się piwu’ (‘I’m looking [carefully] at beer’), which is also different to ‘Rozmawiam o piwie’ (‘I’m talking about beer’), which is yet again not the same as ‘Rozmawiam z piwem’ (‘I’m talking with beer’), a sentence that is probably never uttered except by an English speaker attempting to drown their sorrows at having to learn seven times the number of words they were expecting.

You can’t have your cake and eat it

Then there’s verb aspect which, in a nutshell, uses completely separate verbs to convey whether an action has been completed or is ongoing, something we use certain tenses for in English. ‘Jem ciastko’ (‘I’m eating a cake’) uses the present tense of the imperfective verb jeść (to eat), but to translate ‘I ate a cake’ you need the past tense of its perfective twin, zjeść, so ‘Zjadłem ciastko’. Unfortunately this point is notoriously difficult to master, but it’s a key feature of Slavic languages, and kiedy wejdziesz między wrony musisz krakać jak one (when you’re among crows, you must caw), so it can’t be avoided. And I won’t even start on numbers – there are twenty-two different forms of dwie (two), depending on whether you’re talking about dwie kobiety (two women), dwa koty (two cats), dwaj mężczyźni (two men)… and the list goes on.

Pronunciation

Then there are the subtleties of the famously sibilant pronunciation. Polish distinguishes between three forms of ‘ch’ (cz, ć, and ź), two forms of ‘sh’ (sz and ś), and two forms of ‘j’ ( and ), along with ‘ds’ (dz), ‘ts’ (c), and plain old ‘s’ (just s). These are all distinctive sounds in their own right, with two ways to spell what we’d describe as a French ‘j’ (as in bonjour) (ż and rz) thrown in for good measure. This leaves English speakers in a tailspin as we shush and hush our way through phrases, grasping for familiar vowels. Beware falling into the trap of pronouncing ch incorrectly (it’s something like the ch in loch). A simple-looking word like chłopiec (boy) is pronounced ‘hwop-ee-ets’, the very useful chcesz (Would you like…) is something like ‘hwuht-sesh’, and chodźmy (Let’s go…) is ‘hwoj-meh’.

Time for zzz…

Finally, there’s the unfamiliarity of the words themselves. To English speakers, Polish words can appear to be dotted with diacritics: for example żółty (yellow) (not to be confused with the national currency złoty – literally: golden), łóżko (bed), and iść (to go). Or they might just look impossible to pronounce: for example mężczyzna (man), krzyczeć (to shout), or przyzwyczajać (to get used to). They can also often be extraordinarily long, too: take poniedziałek (Monday), dziewczyna (girl), or niebieski (blue). It’s perhaps just as well that the Polish language famously doesn’t see the need for articles (the and a), and commonly drops subject pronouns (such as I and you), otherwise it might take twice as long to get through a conversation.

It’s not always easy to guess the meaning of a word either. Months of the year and days of the week, such as niedziela (Sunday), or luty (February), often bear little resemblance to anything used in Western Europe (and in fact, the etymology of Polish months of the year is fascinating in itself: listopad (November), for example, translates as falling leaves). Other everyday words are sometimes unguessable, especially in their various declensions: pies (dog), psy (dogs); zwierzę (animal), zwierzęta (animals); or dziecko (child), dzieci (children). On the other hand, I’ve been surprised how many words resemble French (żeton (token/counter) = jeton, ekran (screen) = écran, koszmar (nightmare) = cauchemar) or Italian (cebula (onion) = cipolla, pomidor (tomato) = pomodoro), or German (smak (taste) = Geschmack, etykieta (label) = Etikett).

Swings and roundabouts

But every cloud has a silver lining: as with many things, you’re raz na wozie, raz pod wozem (sometimes over the cart, sometimes under the cart). Once you’ve mastered the alphabet, Polish spelling and pronunciation are generally considered regular, with most words being paroxytones (stressed on the penultimate syllable). Quite a few everyday nouns share Latin roots (informacja, autobus, hotel). And on a personal level, local people are for the most part encouraging when I attempt to say a few words po polsku. But it’s also worth remembering that Poles are not used to hearing foreigners speak the language to any degree of fluency (‘He could actually speak quite well,’ one local friend tells me, wonderingly, about an American visitor who’d been studying the language intensively for months) and if you’re a native English speaker, everyone will always want to practise their ‘terrible’ (read: ‘fluent’) English with you.

How (not) to learn Polish

I decided on a concrete short-term goal: to be able to order a coffee without resorting to English, which sounds easier than it actually is. To start with, I studied alone, following five or six short lessons a day on a well-known language learning app, which was heavy on repetition and audio, but short on grammatical explanations and real-life phrases (‘Jestem kotem’ or ‘I am a cat’ is only useful in very limited circumstances). Traditional online dictionaries helped a little, but required too much work from me as an absolute beginner when it came to choosing the correct declension, and while instant translators are wonderful for instantly decoding a foreign language (and the washing machine settings), I found them less reliable for encoding phrases into Polish, as they would often default to the masculine.

It quickly became apparent that I needed help from other people, so I turned to social media. Simply changing my settings to Polish gave me a few colloquial phrases such as co słychać (= what’s up?/how are things?), but a more successful move was advertising for a language exchange partner. Within minutes, my phone was overflowing with offers to teach me Polish in exchange for English conversation, and I began to meet people from all walks of life for coffee. While this was hugely enjoyable and I made many new friends, it became clear too that my Polish was far too limited to have anything like a proper conversation, so I was only able to absorb a couple of phrases each time (such as the commonly-heard ‘Na wynos czy na miejscu?’ – ‘To eat in or take away?’, ‘Masz rodzenswo?’ – ‘Do you have any brothers or sisters?’, or the handy expression ‘Pijany jak szpak’ – ‘Drunk as a starling’.)

What I really needed for the early stages was the clear structure provided by a qualified teacher, but I didn’t have the time to enrol for a formal class. I did, however, find some clearly-presented free introductory material online where I learned some more basics such as ‘Mnie również’ (‘My pleasure’) and ‘Jestem nauczycielką’ (‘I’m a teacher’), although I wonder how many other introductory lessons in other languages feature the handy phrase ‘Uff! Skomplikowany!’ (‘Uff! Complicated!’)

I’ll be honest: learning even a little Polish was no bułka z masłem (bread roll with butter). But after a couple of intense weeks, I decided it was time to go out and wypić piwo, którego się nawarzyło (drink the beer I’d landed in). At first, I made a lot of waitresses laugh whenever I attempted something like ‘Poproszę, rachunek,’ (‘The bill, please’), but then one day it happened: I went into a café, ordered a white coffee, and lived to tell the tale. I even managed to understand the price (osiem = eight), tell the waitress I’d already ordered, thanks (‘Już zamówiłam’), and say goodbye (‘Do widzenia!’).

And finally…

You can quite easily live in a tourist town like Krakow and not speak any Polish at all. But I found a few phrases extremely helpful for little everyday interactions at the supermarket (‘Nie mam go…’ – ‘I don’t have it’), in the taxi (‘Prosto!’ – ‘Straight on!’), and on the bus (‘Czy mogę…?’ – ‘Can I…?’) It’s also been fascinating to find out a few of the quirks of a language with ‘significant differences’ to my own. And it’s also hugely helped my understanding of how Polish students speak English – I can now see why they make certain mistakes.

Given the grammatical precision needed to speak Polish ‘‘correctly’’, I’m unlikely to ever come close to speaking it well – but I’m looking forward to coming back home and attempting a few phrases in England’s new second language.

Top 10 things to say in Polish

1) Dzień dobry! (jen-DOB-ray) = Hello!/Good morning!

2) Przepraszam, nie mówię po polsku (pshuh-PRASH-em, nyE MOO-vee-uh po POLS-koo) = Excuse me/sorry, I don’t speak Polish

3) Poproszę (duża) (biała) kawę (po-PROSH-uh, DOO-ja bee-A-wa KAH-vuh) = A (large) (white) coffee, please

4) Tak, to wszystko (tak, to v-SHIST-ko) = Yes, that’s all

5) Ile płacę (EEL-uh PWAT-suh) = How much is it?

6) Już zamówiłam, dzięki (YOOZ za-MOO-vee-wam, JEN-kee) = I’ve already ordered, thanks

Or for a man: już zamówiłem, dzięki (YOOZ za-MOO-vee-wem, JEN-kee)

7) Dziękuję bardzo! (jen-KOO-yuh BART-zoh) = Thank you very much!

And the response is ‘Nie ma za co’ (nyE ma za tsoh) – ‘Not at all/My pleasure’.

8) Lubię piwo. Co lubisz? Lubisz piwo? (LOO-bee-yuh PEE-voh. Tso LOO-beesh? LOO-beesh PEE-voh?) = I like beer. What do you like? Do you like beer?

The beginning of a friendly, informal conversation!

9) Smacznego! (smatch-NAY-goh) = Enjoy your meal!

10) Miło mi (MEE-woh mee) = Nice to meet you!/Nice to have met you!

This article was originally published as Is Polish the most difficult language to learn?  on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, OxfordWords, on August 4, 2016

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