Cultural Musings, Poland

Czemu język polski jest tak trudny? // Why is Polish so hard?

The single most frustrating thing about my polonization is the language barrier. I’ve been living in Poland for 5 years and I’ve only been speaking Polish about 2, so I had a late start. I think that’s a common story for foreigners here because we’re all so daunted by the complexity of it all. Luckily my Polish family doesn’t speak English, and for some reason, they accept me even though I can’t seem to stop botching their language so royally.

In hindsight, I made a big mistake. My most embarrassing moments all seem to be connected with this somehow. Having someone else speak for me or make calls for me. Feeling like an idiot at parties because I have no idea what’s going on. Then worse, the inevitable “do you understand?” and having to admit “no, I have no fucking clue” in front of all those people. Sitting there with a smile on my face while everyone else is laughing. Being asked “you’ve lived here for x years and you don’t speak Polish yet?” Add all these to the “reasons I’d like to jump off a bridge” list.

Polish is definitely not a language you just “pick up”. It takes work. Bardzo. ciężka. praca. I’ve had a teacher for the past two years, which is also something I highly recommend to any foreigner. But finding someone willing to teach you Polish is also not very easy. Why? Well of course you can talk to anyone, but who can explain complex grammatical issues? Kto może wytłumaczyć przypadki?!

So what is it that’s really so difficult? There are 3 genders, verb conjugations, strange plural forms, and 7 cases. In Polish, practically every word changes based on the “przypadek” or, in English, case. So sometimes there are many versions of the same word. The most popular is two, which has like 17 versions.

Let’s take the word milk. In English, milk is milk. It is uncountable, so that can cause problems, but in no way does this word itself need to change:

milk – mleko
coffee with milk – kawa z mlekiem
there’s no milk – nie ma mleka

Even names change you say? Let’s take my boyfriend’s name.

Peter – Piotrek
I’m going to the mountains with Peter – Idę w góry z Piotrkiem.
Peter isn’t here – Nie ma Piotrka.
I told Peter that it was a stupid idea- Powiedziałam Piotrkowi że to był głupi pomysł.

yeah. takie rzeczy.

Aside from those horrors, Polish looks crazy. Przepraszam, ale to prawda. It has different letters: ą, ę, ó, ż, ź, ł, ń, ć. Each of these has its own peculiar pronunciation. Also, there a lot of z’s and other consonants which can look really scary in the beginning. I don’t have huge problems with pronunciation, but for me the worst are words with r’s like rower (bike), Szczyrk (a city in the mountains), pochmurny (cloudy), Piotr (sorry, boo), and the name Grzegorz generally and all it’s variations (sorry to my students with this name).

The more I learn, the more I want to say “zapomnij” but then I remember that I’m getting married (and my vows will be in Polish ahh) to a Pole in approximately 3 weeks so I know I have to stick with it. Krok po kroku.

When all else fails, nod and smile.

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  • Reply Justyna 6 October 2015 at 12:55

    I don’t know if I should write in Polish or English, but I remember one morning, when I was making my first coffee that day, and you said “Cześć Justyna”. It took me a long while to realise that it was YOU speaking in Polish. It sounded very natural 🙂

    • Reply Leah Southers 6 October 2015 at 13:02

      That’s a great compliment! Dzięki Justyna 🙂 Now it’s better than it was then. I hope!

  • Reply Adaa 26 October 2015 at 18:24

    Heey, don’t worry! I guess all Poles are aware of these difficulties, Polish language is extremly hard due to its pronunciation, grammar and so on. Keep calm and learn, believe me, we admire foreigners learning our mother tongue 😉

    • Reply Leah Southers 29 October 2015 at 20:56

      Hi Ada 🙂 I know you all think it’s adorable when someone says even “dzień dobry”, which is so embarrassing sometimes! of course I can say dzień dobry!!

  • Reply Marcela 30 October 2015 at 13:33

    Hi Leah,
    Being married to a Polish gentleman from Gliwice, I can totally understand you. 🙂
    Unfortunately we re not living in Poland therefore my language skills are embarrassingly poor. Glad to read though that is it not impossible to learn the language when determined.

    • Reply Leah Southers 30 October 2015 at 14:58

      Marcela – Oh so we’re in the same boat, huh? 🙂 It definitely helps to be here. Otherwise I don’t think I’d ever learn. You need the motivation of not looking like an ass each time you leave the house!

      • Reply Marcela 4 November 2015 at 20:44

        Haha…I get it!!! Then is not soooo bad.. I just seem to be mute whenever we re visiting but not much of a problem:))
        Keep the posts coming, it’s nice to read them:)

  • Reply Marta 15 November 2015 at 09:28 :))

    Yeah, Polish is difficult language. It’s different between “robić komuś łaskę”, a “robić komuś laskę” 😀

    • Reply Leah Southers 15 November 2015 at 21:00

      Marta – hah yeah I guess that could be slightly uncomfortable if you get that wrong. I once said fiutki instead of frytki, of course having no idea what fiutki meant…

  • Reply Dominika 16 November 2015 at 09:16

    I speak polish, what’s your superpower? From what I see You’ll become a real superwoman. Wish You best!

    • Reply Leah Southers 16 November 2015 at 12:14

      I wish that were my superpower 🙂 thanks Dominika!

  • Reply Luiza 30 November 2015 at 11:19

    I love your blog! It’s just that You have such a talent for writing! I wish You all the best:)

    • Reply Leah Southers 30 November 2015 at 11:46

      Luiza – you’re so sweet. I really appreciate it! Wszystkiego dobrego 🙂

  • Reply Peter 6 December 2015 at 20:35

    Please don’t complain and stop using english when you talk to Poles 😉

  • Reply hollydolly 15 December 2015 at 17:33

    Polish might be a hard nut to knack for you, but judging from what I’ve read here you’ve certainly got potential

    • Reply Leah Southers 15 December 2015 at 17:39

      Well, I do appreciate that. I manage my official documents at Urząd Wojewódzki so I’m not a complete failure 🙂

  • Reply Adrianna 15 December 2015 at 21:19

    Przeczytaj z ciekawości podręcznik do historii jezyka/gramatyki historycznej i wszystko zrozumiesz 🙂

  • Reply Magdalena 3 January 2016 at 22:38

    Adrianna, even Polish native speakers dp not read Polish grammar or (sic) historical grammar books. Even Polish filology students! The best way to learn Polish is the same way to learn another language … Listening, a lot of reading and speaking and writing 🙂 I think in the future Leah will be write an articles with English and Polish translate for those who not understand English. I love your blog, for now, I am your the best fan!

    • Reply Leah Southers 4 January 2016 at 06:38

      Magda – yes a ton of practice. that’s what I need 🙂 You’re so sweet, thank you!

  • Reply Piotr 9 July 2017 at 19:50

    Polish is one of the few oldest languages with regular grammar in the world. This is the answer.

  • Reply Z Katowic jestem B) 10 December 2017 at 21:45

    A tam zaraz trudny…

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