Cultural Musings

How to get over the fear of speaking Polish

You always hear that Polish is one of the hardest languages to learn. There’s are even memes that makes the rounds from time to time about the various version of the word “two” or “play”. And the memes have like 30 versions of the word and this is somehow proof that Polish is “unlearnable”. I have to say, I hate those stupid memes because it makes people think they can’t learn the language. But they can. Here’s my experience.

So here’s my story about learning Polish. I’ve lived in Poland for 12 years now. We’re now in “long term” territory. I’m no longer fresh to this country I’ve chosen to call home. But back when I was, I didn’t make the effort to use Polish for about the first three years I was here. There are various reasons for that, but what it really came down to for me was the lack of motivation. I worked as an English teacher and it seemed most people I knew could speak English, so why even bother? Anyway, it’s something I deeply regret because it set me way back and kept me from being happy here.

Why do English-speaking people suck at learning languages?

I think as English-speaking people it’s very hard for us to get over the hurdle of even starting to learn another language. European people just grow up around other countries where people speak other languages and it’s perfectly normal. That’s not to say people don’t speak other languages in America, but rather that we don’t feel the need to learn those languages to communicate with them. Plenty of people are Spanish speaking, but we expect them to learn English and not the other way around. And this kind of idea that English is more important or that others should learn English and we don’t need to bother is what I think makes it hard for us to even start.

The real fear

For that reason, there are plenty of English-speaking people living in Poland and a great deal of them don’t speak Polish even though they’ve chosen to live here long term. And in a lot of ways I can understand those people – they’re just scared. They don’t want to look like fools. Who does? And the funny thing is many of them teach English, so it’s their job to teach people not to be afraid and they themselves can’t get past their own barriers to speak.

But imagine the horror of being worried that someone will talk to you or ask you a question any time you go anywhere. You can’t live normally in a place where you feel like that every time you go out. Or worse yet having to say “nie mowię po polsku” when they actually do talk to you. The utter shame you feel from those kinds of interactions is just the worst. Or when people back home ask you, “So do you speak Polish fluently yet?” and you’re like “umm, no” and you want to just melt into a puddle. All those things collectively should be enough to motivate people, but often it’s still not enough, and it’s what’s keeping them from truly assimilating.

Where’s the motivation?

For me, ultimately, it wasn’t until I met my husband, and really his parents and other family members, that I felt true motivation to learn. The majority of my Polish family doesn’t speak English, so it was, in fact, essential for me to learn Polish in order to communicate with them, which was something I desperately wanted to do. One thing I really hated about not speaking Polish was the feeling of being left out and not being able to take part in or contribute to the conversations I was physically in but mentally absent from. It was an absolute terror for me and my self-esteem to be in an environment where I felt clueless and foolish. I hate not knowing what’s going on and still will ask for clarification or help if I can’t fully grasp the context. Those feelings were the ultimate motivation I needed to start learning.

No more fear

I just can’t imagine being one of those people who has to rely on their partner to do everything for them. I’m a 30-something-year-old woman with a business and kids, I can’t ask someone else to call to order a pizza. I’m lucky enough to have a partner who pushed me to use the language and wouldn’t allow me to use him as a crutch. If needed to call someone, I had to do it. At a party? He wouldn’t sit there and translate everything for me. That was also helpful in a kind of indirect way, which I can now really appreciate – maybe not so much at the parties at first – but eventually I learned to appreciate it. But also, and this is a big one, living in fear is something I refuse to do. I couldn’t bear the stress of worrying about every interaction. I still prepare for meetings or situations that I know are new for me or will have new vocabulary, but that’s just my character. I like being prepared and perhaps that trait is what led to me to this point.

How did I do it?

Perhaps there was never a moment when I said “I’m going to learn Polish”, at least I don’t really remember. Mostly for me it was just a natural thing. I took classes with a couple different teachers so that I could understand grammar better, something which I really enjoy to be honest, but I wouldn’t say that’s where the actual learning took place for me. It was rather in the time spent with other people like parties and get-togethers, or just being with my in-laws, where the only language spoken was Polish. Spending hundreds of hours with them is really where the learning happened – full immersion, as they say.

It’s never over

Nowadays, this translates into living a normal life for me, but don’t get me wrong, I don’t speak perfectly. Far from it. I just now in the last maybe 2-3 years feel comfortable using Polish in front of my peers. I can finally hold conversations that don’t make me feel like I need to take a shame nap after. And it’s such a fucking relief. It only took idk almost 10 years, but I finally made it. So, what I’m trying to say is, don’t be like me. Don’t take a decade to feel good about living in Poland. Just starting learning and using the language as soon as you can.

Some things I believe to be true about learning Polish

You’ll feel foolish – just gotta deal with this one. It was the hardest part for me for sure. If you’re one of those people who doesn’t care about what people think or whether you look silly – you’re one of the lucky ones.

You won’t know the correct grammar most of the time – you can try to use correct grammar, but don’t sweat it if you use the wrong forms. Just worry about speaking and being understood at first.

You’ll feel extremely accomplished when you can manage an interaction in Polish – this is truly a great accomplishment and the more often you do this, the easier it becomes.

You will find yourself in the spotlight – unfortunately people will want to hear you speaking Polish and if you’re in a group people will watch you. As an introvert, I can tell you I don’t appreciate this, but I do understand it. Most Polish people have never heard a non-native speaking their language and it sounds cute to them.

People will be impressed – The annoying thing at the beginning is when people are like “omg” when you just say “dzień dobry” because then you feel like a child. Once people realize you can say more than that then it’ll stop happening, but they will always be impressed. When I tell people “ok, but I’ve lived here 12 years” they usually say something like “ok, but still, Polish is hard and you speak well”, so I guess it’ll always be impressive for a non-native to speak Polish. I can deal with that 🙂

On the whole, if you’re able to overcome these obstacles, you’ll be able to assimilate into Polish culture and finally feel comfortable living here. I’m not saying it easy, but it is worth it. So stop fighting it and just go with it!

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  • Reply Kamil 17 August 2022 at 19:07

    Cześć Leah,

    na Twój blog trafiłem trochę przypadkowo, ale przeczytałem kilka tematów i uważam że poruszasz ciekawe zagadnienia. Twoja postawa jest budująca i zachęcająca do nauki języków obcych. Ja na studiach miałem problem ze zdaniem języka angielskiego na poziomie B2 (zdałem za … 4 razem). Do matury przykładałem się do nauki angielskiego, ale w trakcie studiów odsuwałem ten temat zupełnie na ostatni plan. Uważałem że zawsze są ważniejsze egzaminy itd. Być może trochę miało na to wpływ styl życia, gdyż oprócz pracy w mieście prowadzę z rodzicami małe gospodarstwo na wsi i język angielski jest tutaj zupełnie nie potrzebny. Tak czy owak w pracy w mieście jest potrzebny i codziennie staram się przeczytać jakiś tekst po angielsku.

    Polecam kanał na youtube “Easy Polish”


  • Reply Leah Morawiec 18 August 2022 at 08:09

    Cześć Kamil – no to słyszę bardzo często, że angielski na studiach jest dużo gorzej niż w liceum, co dla mnie nie ma sensu. Rozumiem, że inny tematy mogą być bardziej ważne, ale skoro obcy języki są aż tak ważne w życiu i wcześniej w szkole/liceum cisną aby wszyscy zdali egzaminy itd… no naprawdę szkoda, że nie można kontynuować nauki na wyższym poziomie. Super, że czytasz i chcesz mieć kontakt z językiem – o to właśnie chodzi! pozdrowienia

  • Reply Tomasz 23 August 2022 at 11:00
    Nie wiem czy pani zna ten kanał youtube. Polecam. autor tego kanału pokazuje, że Polski nie jest aż tak trudny jak się na początku wydaje, w cztery lata tak opanował Polski. że gramatykę i różne inne aspekty języka, moim zdaniem zna lepiej niż 90% polaków. Mimo tego że sam nagrał film pt. “CZEGO NIE ROZUMIEM W POLSKIEJ GRAMATYCE” -> To i tak duża większość polaków nie byłaby wstanie merytorycznie drugiej osobie wyjaśnić tych aspektów, o których mówi w tym ostatnim filmie.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 23 August 2022 at 12:00

      Tomasz – dzięki za te link. Jak będę miała chwilę to sprawdzę. P.S. Nie trzeba do mnie pisać “pani” 🙂

  • Reply Ben 23 August 2022 at 15:51

    Hi Leah,
    Hard relate to this post and your journey! I had a very similar experience. To begin with I was lazy and afraid of failure to really commit to it. I blamed the fact that I was always tired after a long day at work to prioritize what little free time I had for studying Polish. I think I just wanted everyone else to speak to me in English so that I could remain in control of what was happening around me therefore, in reality, what I ended up with was the opposite effect! Everyone continued speaking Polish around me, which made me feel more alienated and excluded. The best way forward would have been to jump in head first.

    Happily, I stuck with it and after 9 years, about 5 different teachers and a couple of intensive language courses I can finally say that I can communicate in Polish. Most of the time I still have no idea whether I’m using the correct grammatical form, but I just go with the one that intuitively feels the most natural to me, and people seem to understand me most of the time!

    Incidentally, before I got married, my future father in law said that it would take me (a non-Slavic language speaker) about 7 years to be able to reach a level of Polish good enough to work in. I didn’t think it would take that long, but he was absolutely right! Thankfully I never needed Polish to do my job, but it would have been easier had I spoke it.

    P.S. I recently joined you as a newly minted Polish citizen! Feels good to never have to deal with karta pobytu again. Looking forward to the next election when I’ll be able to vote…finally taxation AND representation! 🙂

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 24 August 2022 at 08:35

      Ben – ooh, congratulations!! Isn’t it such a relief not to have to go to UW and apply for a karta pobytu ever again? I travelled with just my Polish passport recently and that was pretty cool and a bit scary.

      Yeah… I think it’s all about getting past that initial failure to commit because it is daunting. I’m glad to hear you got through it and feel comfortable now. That’s what it’s all about! Take care.

  • Reply G 24 April 2023 at 07:55

    I find foreigners who try to speak Polish anything but cute. In fact, I have a hard time understanding those Ukrainian ladies on various hotlines, and even when they speak fluently, the accent is jarring. I can’t even imagine how a non-Slav would mangle the language.

  • Reply Stefan 3 February 2024 at 01:15

    “The majority of my Polish family doesn’t speak Polish”
    Please don’t assume that I am such a nitpicker (I am) – I am bringing this to your attention only as a proof that I read everything here very carefully. 😉

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 20 February 2024 at 09:59

      I will take care of that – thank you!

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