Polish is a awesome language and anyone hoping to immerse themselves into it will find the process both fun and rewarding. It is one of the Slavic languages and many of the Slavic languages are said to be quite tricky to learn.
So, how hard is Polish to learn?
It is pretty difficult, mainly due to the irregularity of the grammar, the heavy use of cases and the strange spelling of words.
- Vocabulary – As a Slavic language there is a significant amount of shared vocabulary between Polish and the other Slavic languages. If you are familiar with a Slavic language, in particular Slovak or Croatian you will have an advantage. That being said, there are some loanwords from German and English to get your started.
- Grammar – The major problems with Polish grammar are the cases, the genders and the word order. There are 7 cases in Polish which need to be used when forming a sentence, this level of complexity can be quite baffling for newbies to case grammar. There are 3 genders, so for each noun you have to learn the gender and then make changes for any adjectives or possessives attached to that noun and also keep an eye on the plurality change. Also, the word order isn’t as fixed as in some other languages and things like topic or focus define the order, this can seem quite erratic at first.
- Speaking/Listening – There are some completely new sounds to an English speaker learning Polish. These can take a lot of practice to overcome. There are a lot of nasal sounds that aren’t as common in English.
- Writing/Reading – The writing system uses a Latin alphabet with some alterations and removals. The spelling is quite regular but uses consonant clusters to create unfamiliar sounds. The add a lot of diacritic to existing letters. This can be difficult at first to learn and overcome as a problem.
But we are really only scratching the surface. Lets dive in further!
How Hard Is Polish to Learn Really?
Polish is a Slavic language, more specifically western Slavic. Consequently it has a large shared vocabulary root with many of the other Slavic languages. On top of that, Polish has adopted many loanwords from other very different languages like Latin, Italian, French, German and most recently from English. The Polish spelling is imposed upon the original word and this often means the words are altered dramatically.
- Inauguration – inauguracja
- Computer – komputer
- Devestation – dewastacja
These altered prefixes and suffixes are very common in Polish. Be prepared to see this type of strange spelling.
The keys problem areas of Polish grammar are the variable word order, the complex case system and the use of 3 genders for nouns.
- Word Order – Polish has a subject-verb-object word order, but this isn’t as fixed as in other languages. The use of cases allow for more flexibility but keep note that the word order is usually set by topic or focus.
- Cases – So now we come to one of the big difficulties with Polish. There are 7 cases in Polish. Cases are used to denote the role of nouns, pronouns and adjectives in the sentence. You have to use these cases in every sentence you form. This can slow down your sentence formation and make your speech sound really clunky.
- Normative – This is used to show the subject of a sentence.
- Accusative – The direct object is shown with this case.
- Genetive – This is used to show possession.
- Dative – The indirect object is shown with this case.
- Instrumental – This shows the how something is done part of the sentence.
- Locative – As can be guessed from the name, this shows the location.
- Vocative – This is used to when showing who you are addressing in a sentence.
- Pronouns – There are subject pronouns in Polish, however they are not always necessary as the ending of the verb also denotes the subject. There are both informal and polite forms for you in the singular and plural usage.
- Nouns – In Polish all nouns have a gender, either masculine, neuter or feminine. You can often tell the gender from the ending of the word. You have to learn the gender for each and every noun and memorise it. Nouns also change for plurality.
- Prepositions – There are a whole load of useful propositions in Polish and they are placed before the noun. They also have a specific case which you would have to apply when using them in a sentence.
- Adjectives – The adjective in a sentence goes before the nouns and agrees with the noun in terms of gender, case and plurality.
- Verbs – There are verb forms for past, present and future. These change for subject and plurality. There are also two aspects for the verbs. Perfect and imperfect which denote unfinished and finished respectively. There are verbs for both be and have and they have straight forward rules for usage. The major time sink is learning all the different verb conjugations for all the tenses, aspects and subjects. In a way it isn’t complex, rather it is just a time consuming task.
- Direct and Indirect Objects — The direct and indirect objects have specific cases which have to be attached to the noun. These are the accusative and the dative case forms.
- Questions – To form a yes/no question you only need place the word czy at the start of the sentence. Alternatively there are a number of important specific question words to be learnt.
- Consonant sounds – There are a large number of consonant sounds in Polish. However, most of the sounds are found in English. The major differences are the kh and the rolled r sound. A lot of the vocabulary is consonant heavy, and to beginners learning the language this can seem quite daunting. Take the word for beetle chrząszcz. Here we have 4 consonant groupings and one vowel grouping.
- Vowel Sounds – There are 4 vowel sounds with around 6 diphthongs in Polish which are similar to sounds found in English. The Polish also make use of nasal vowel sounds which add another 4 nasal vowels to the toolkit. This nasal sound is similar to the ng sound in wing.
- Stress – Stress is simple enough as the second to last syllable in a word is usually stressed.
In Polish there are 32 letters in the alphabet. That is the basic 26 of the English alphabet minus q, v and x. To these are added 9 other letters which look different because they have a number of diacritics markers added.
In Polish vocabulary there are many consonant combinations that you wouldn’t find in English. For example dz, rz or sz. There are many more which make sounding out words difficult to begin with.
That being said, the spelling in Polish is quite regular so once you have mastered the rules you can progress relatively quickly.
Why Learn Polish?
- The Polish language is a western Slavic language and is therefore very similar to other languages like Czech and Slovak. This gives you access to a number of other fascinating countries, not just Poland. It is also a gateway language to the other Slavic languages and once done with Polish you could be taking on Ukrainian or Russia if you really like.
- There are lots and lots of Poles in other parts of the world. The Polish people have spread out across much of Europe and the Americas. You can find people to practice with everywhere and it is becoming a truly international language. Therefore, if you learn a little of the language you can put it to use in the most unexpected of places.
- The history of this region of Eastern Europe is powerful and fascinating. The local people have a long, diverse and at times tragic set of experiences. In learning the language you give yourself the opportunity to take a deep dive into some of this history and to discuss some of the topics with the local people.
- The economy in more recent years has developed rapidly and looks like one of the more confident members of the EU. The people are eager to improve their living standards and the future looks bright. In learning Polish you position yourself well to benefit from the country’s positive moves forward.
- The country has produced some impressive literary output. There are Slavic poets and some amazing authors of fiction. Many people talk positively about the long tradition of literary ability and learning Polish allows you to appreciate that better.
Who Speaks Polish?
Within Poland around 95% of people speak Polish as their first language. But that’s not all. Polish is spoken by minorities in many of the surrounding countries like Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Slovakia and Czechia. The Polish diaspora have maintained the language in the new countries they live in so Polish can be heard in the USA, further flung areas of Europe and South America.
In total it is thought around 45 million people speak Polish worldwide with around 37 million speakers in Poland. The language itself is very similar to Czech and Slovak and many claim speakers of these language can understand quite well when Polish is spoken.
Where Did the Polish Language Come From?
A number of tribes arrived in the area around the 6th century speaking a number of different Slavic languages. These evolved over time into Polish. In terms of geographic reach, Polish reached its height around the time of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth which was around the 16th century to the 18th century. The commonwealth stretched from Poland through Ukraine all the way to western Russia and Polish was the most commonly spoken language.
In the 19th century, much of the country was carved up by competing great powers and Polish lost much of its impact as a dominant language. That being said, during the 20th century under the rule of Germany and then the USSR the language was surprisingly resistant to attempts to limit its use. It certainly adopted loan words from Russian but maintained its own linguistic integrity.
Is Polish Harder Than German?
These two languages share a border and there are many people in Poland who speak German and many people in Germany who speak Polish. But, which language is harder? German is a Germanic language while Polish is a Slavic language. If you have experience with a language in the same language category then your experience of learning the language would be made easier.
The key areas of difference in terms of difficulty will be cases, spelling and grammar rules. There are 7 cases in Polish and only 4 in German, Polish had lots of consonant clusters which take a lot of time to get used to pronouncing, and German is much more logical in terms of the grammar while Polish is more irregular. On balance, most people would say Polish is harder than German.
Is Polish Harder Than Chinese?
On the face of it this may seem like a silly question. But to some people, Polish is one of the most difficult languages within the Slavic language. But can it really compare to Chinese?
In terms of vocabulary, both language have tricky word formation but Polish shares many more loan words with English. The grammar for Polish involves cases and lots of irregularities with verb formation. Chinese grammar doesn’t change verbs and is pretty regular and logical by comparison. The Chinese pronunciation involves a number of new sounds to a English speaker and also involves tones which change the meaning of a syllable. Polish has some new sounds but nowhere near the complexity of Chinese pronunciation. Finally, the Polish alphabet is very similar to the English alphabet, while the use of characters in Chinese add a level of complexity far exceeding that of the Polish writing system.
In answer to the question putting all of those points together, Chinese is harder than Polish overall.