Polish is a difficult language. I know with that statement I am not “discovering America” (nie odkrywam Ameryki) as you say in Polish, but it is worth stating.
When I first came to Poland, I didn’t know a word of Polish. Well, except for szafa and dupa which are not especially helpful in everyday life. I didn’t even know tak and nie. (szafa=wardrobe, dupa=ass, tak=yes, nie=no)
Stupid, huh? Travel to a country for an extended stay not knowing the language at all. For an American, not really. As a 22- year-old American girl, I had the utmost confidence in myself and truly believed I’d just learn the language. Just like that. I mean I figured I’d have to spend about 4-6 hours a day every day for about 2 months, but that for sure, it’s learnable. It just requires some effort and a lot of memorization.
All of that would be true if I had been learning, I don’t know, English perhaps, but it just doesn’t work for Polish. Not that I didn’t try…until I finally gave up and stopped trying, my effort seeming futile ‘cause I couldn’t say anything anyhow.
I did learn a lot of vocabulary though. I loved sitting in my Archiwum reading the dictionary, making lists of words and memorizing them. I also tried to learn the vocabulary lists of the 1st and 2nd classes of high school (9th and 10th grades). I wanted to show my students that I was making an effort and on test day, they also prepared a test for me. I didn’t always do too well.
I had my favorite words, too. One of my all time favorites is smakołyk and its plural, smakołyki. It means a delicacy or treat as in a food treat, but I just love the sound of it – smak-o-łyk. Cool.
My favorite expression, I learned from my neighbor in the Village. It is lepszejszy. It should be dobry, lepszy, najlepszy (good, better, best,) but in his version it is dobry, lepszy, lepszejszy (good, better, bestest). This expression is totally awesome and I use it all the time. (Remember, Professor Miodek says the first rule of language is to communicate and next is to speak correctly.)
One of my least favorite words is wdzianko. It means something like outfit or smock, but somehow sounds like a dirty word to me.
Misiu’s old school mate who studied both Polish literature and English has his least favorite word – ruchać – (say it like you mean it and don’t forget to roll your “r” for dramatic effect). In old literature, it simply meant “to move”, but now it means “to fuck”. Another word from this base is ruch meaning movement, motion, traffic. And by the way, if while hitchhiking somebody stops to pick you up and asks you if you are going to Ruchaczewo, say no.
With a large vocabulary in Polish, you can understand a lot more of what people are saying, but you yourself cannot say very much. In English, it is quite the opposite. With just basic grammar and some vocabulary you can express a lot, even after only a few lessons.
Let’s take a look.
Today I go school. (Today, I’m going to school)
Tomorrow I go school. (Tomorrow, I will go to school.)
Yesterday I go school. (Yesterday, I went to school.)
Understand? Pretty much.
Let’s try in Polish.
Dzisiaj idę szkoła. (Dzisiaj idę do szkoły.)
Jutro idę szkoła. (Jutro idę do szkoły.)
Wczoraj idę szkoła. (Wczoraj poszłam do szkoły.)
(Wczoraj poszedłem do szkoły.)
Not convinced. What about this?
Using the same verb form in English we can change the subject to “he” or even “she, we, they” and still be more or less understood.
Today he go school. (Today he is going to school.)
Tomorrow he go school. (Tomorrow he will go to school.)
Yesterday he go school. (Yesterday, he went to school.)
In Polish, it is more difficult to figure out who we are talking about.
Dzisiaj on idę szkoła. (Dzisiaj on idzie do szkoły.)
Jutro on idę szkoła. (Jutro on idzie do szkoły.)
Wczoraj on idę szkoła. (Wczoraj on poszedł do szkoły.)
Kumasz? Coraz trudniej.
After learning food, I couldn’t order in a shop or restaurant. I had to learn whole sentences by heart.
Poprosze dziesięc plasterków szynki…
…which was good if I wanted 10 slices of ham. If I wanted 5 or 15 slices I was out of luck and how to explain to the lady that I don’t want the ham located near the hairy pig’s leg in the display case. That was beyond me.
After learning numbers, I couldn’t tell time because you tell time in Polish in ordinal numbers.
Która godzina? Pierwsza…
…which means 1st o’clock, not one o’clock and don’t get me started on the 24-hour clock and how that screwed me up at the beginning.
After learning days of the week, I couldn’t make an appointment.
Kiedy się spotkamy?
Na Poniedzałek? W Poniedziałku? W Poniedziałek?
Somehow, I managed to learn Żywiec and how to get 2 of them, practically from day one.
A girl has to have priorities.
So, I started to make sentences. I mean, I couldn’t just learn endless lists of vocabulary forever, could I? And one day walking with Misiu, I lamented that I didn’t have a hat. “Nie mam czapka,” I said. “Nie mam czapki,” he corrected. “What?” I asked. “It should be ‘nie mam czapki’ not ‘czapka’,” he further explained. And that was the moment I realized Polish was hard.
hat = czapka
I have hats. Mam czapki.
I don’t have a hat. Nie mam czapki.
I don’t have hats. Nie mam czapek.
I have a blue hat. Mam niebieską czapkę.
I have blue hats. Mam niebieskie czapki.
I don’t have a blue hat. Nie mam niebieskiej czapki.
I don’t have blue hats. Nie mam niebieskich czapek.
And if you want to buy a hat and you ask the lady, “Czy są czapki?” her answer may be “Są czapki” (there are) or “Nie ma czapek” (there aren’t). But hey, why isn’t it “Nie są”???
UGGGHHH! What did I get myself into?!?
StardustMarch 10, 2010 at 3:54 pm
Chris, you right!! The only hard thing about English is pronunciation, the rest is easy compare to Polish. And you don't need the heck of vocabulary in English either. If you have a comb, then you comb your hair. In polish you need \”grzebien\” to \”czesac\” your hair:)) Quite stupid, yes? I know. I came to US without one word in english, but after 1 year, I was pretty good communicating and from there you can only get lepsiejszy:))
michaszyjMarch 10, 2010 at 4:51 pm
my professor from my uni who is English but who's been living in Poland for over 15years;) gave me a similar example to yours. he said:\” i went to the shop and wanted to buy 5 buns. so i say 'poproszę 2 bułki' and then 'o, poproszę jeszcze 3 bulki'\” he knew that 5 comes with a different bułki but just couldn't remember that it was BUŁEK;)so you can always find a way to ask for your 5 bułek;) hehe
ChrisMarch 10, 2010 at 5:49 pm
Stardust – When we went on vacation I asked our neighbor to wodować (water)our houseplants :)michaszj – I have many similar tricks, some that I will share with you later.
małgośkaMarch 10, 2010 at 5:50 pm
Mam podobny problem, ponieważ próbuję te dziwne polskie zdania przekładać słowo w słowo na angielski. To dopiero wychodzą dziwolągi :))Ale to prawda. Końcówki słów są zabójcze 🙂
AnetaCuseMarch 10, 2010 at 6:17 pm
Brilliant insight into intricacies of our language. Obviously you're doing great :). I had several American teachers from Peace Corps, and one of them learned Polish quite well within 2 years. She was extremely determined. It always seemed to me that Polish people were eager to speak English to native speakers whenever they could, which conflicted with some native speakers' desire to learn Polish. Have you experienced it?
ChrisMarch 10, 2010 at 6:43 pm
Małgośka-Don't give up!Aneta- I generally find that nobody wants to speak to me 😉 I usually aim for a captive audience that cannot escape so most of my conversations in Polish are with Pan Sławek our local butcher. You should see his face when I walk through the door.
StardustMarch 10, 2010 at 7:55 pm
One more story. When I met Wspanialy, he wanted do be nice and decided he'll learn polish. So we bought small book, and went to polish restaurant to eat. On the first page there were some words with cz,sz,rz itp and how to pronounce them. And there was \”czapka\”. Can you imagine my face, when I came out of the restroom to find my boyfriend saying \”cipka\” aloud:))) For his life, he couldn't master the sound of \”cz\” and that was the last lesson of polish.
LizMarch 10, 2010 at 8:41 pm
OMG, I can only imagine how hard this is for you.Polish can be a pain in the ass ( excuse my language).
ChrisMarch 10, 2010 at 9:19 pm
Stardust – Ha, ha something like when my mother-in-law said that she knows some English, \”Motherfucker, czy to jest żle?\”Lukrecja- A total pain in the ass is right, but now the only thing that is keeping me going is plain old humiliation. I mean, I've been here for like 10 years. I should speak better than I do. That's why I keep foreign friends who speak worse than I do. It makes me feel better about myself 🙂
AnetaCuseMarch 10, 2010 at 9:32 pm
What is it about dating foreign men and their attempts at your language? They try sooo hard when you date them, and stop as soon as you marry them ;). Stardust, you gave me a good laugh :).
Szeherezada StiepanownaMarch 10, 2010 at 9:35 pm
:DDwie bułki i jeszcze trzy bułki ( z komentarza Michaszyja), to stary zbójecki sposób na radzenie sobie z obcym językiem!I prawdą jest, że w języku angielskim wystarczy podstawowa gramatyka i słownictwo i już sie komunikujesz. Nigdy nie uczyłam się angielskiego (ale przyjdzie czas) a MÓWIĘ (jak trzeba;-) )
StardustMarch 10, 2010 at 11:33 pm
Aneta–> And I am very happy that Wspanialy doesn't speak polish, can you imagine all the embarrassment I save myself from when we go shoping to Greenpoint;))
UnknownMarch 11, 2010 at 2:01 am
My teacher used to tease her students by saying \”chory, chorszy, trup\” every time one of us made a mistake doing stopniowanie przymiotników. It always made me laugh 🙂 So give yourself huge credit for doing good job because this isn't easy even for us Poles.
IvonekMarch 11, 2010 at 12:12 pm
Star your just made my day 😀 buhahahahahahAAA!!!Chris great note!I can only imagine how hard it was for you, to learn Polish 🙂 but, like Bee said, is not easy even for us Poles 🙂
heksitaMarch 11, 2010 at 1:12 pm
Hah, I can imagine how hard you may feel sometimes.I am trying to learn some German now and when I have some difficulties I keep saying to myself that nothing is worse than Polish :D. It helps!
małgośkaMarch 11, 2010 at 1:55 pm
Staram się, ale wciąż wpadam w panikę kiedy na telefonie komórkowym wyświetla się \”zagranica\”:)Boyfriend mojej koleżanki to Niemiec dobrze mówiący po angielsku. W ostatniego Sylwestra spędzanego w Polsce chciał sie nauczyć słów znanych mu jako 'happy new year'! Kiedy usłyszał \”szczęśliwego nowego roku\” zrezygnował z pozdrawiania innych świętujących :)Pocieszyłam go, że w noc sylwestrową niewielu Polaków potrafi bezbłędnie wymówić te słowa i spokojnie może zostać przy wersji angielskiej.
dsMarch 11, 2010 at 2:30 pm
\”And that was the moment I realized Polish was hard.\” – how I laughed at that ;)once I've met a Spanish girl who spoke really good Polish, not living there and not being of Polish origin – she just had wanted to learn the language so she did. some people are like that.
RinonkaMarch 11, 2010 at 7:31 pm
tak nie w temacie, to ja się chciałam przywitać 🙂
nielotMarch 11, 2010 at 9:46 pm
Chinese is supposed to be harder to learn than Polish. I don't know – I have never tried to learn it. ;-/There is a Polish joke about a German who wanted to master Polish and tried to practise by saying \”nosić kalosze\” in all singular and plural persons. And he said:Ja noszę kalosze,ty nosisz kalosisz,on nosi kalosi,my nosimy kalosimy,wy nosicie kalosicie,oni noszą kaloszą. I have no idea how to say it in Chinese…;-/
Szeherezada StiepanownaMarch 11, 2010 at 10:31 pm
Mój mąż miał niezłe początki z językiem polskim, pół blogoświata było jego fanklubem :-)A Niemcy są w stanie wymówić wszystkie polskie szelesty, bo znają te dźwięki, tylko się im nie chce.;-)
ChrisMarch 12, 2010 at 6:52 am
Firstly, greetings to Ivonek, Rinonka and Nielot :)Szeherezada Stiepanowna – I understand those Germans, sometimes I don't want to learn Polish or try to say anything either. If we didn't live in Poland, I probably wouldn't even try.
Szeherezada StiepanownaMarch 12, 2010 at 8:46 am
To normalne przecież 🙂
resvariaApril 13, 2010 at 3:40 am
Hello Chris. What a terrific blog you have! My wife gave me the link. We used to live in Krakow with our very close friends from Berlin – E&G. E. mastered Polish really fast and at some point she spoke quite well. G. on the other hand knew tons of Polish words but struggled horribly when he had to say something. Don't give up, I agree, Polish is hopelessly difficult. And I don't know how a foreign speaker can ever master things like dac/oddac/zadac/wydac/zdac/rozdac/dodac/podac/wdac and so on… English phrasal verbs are tough, but at least there are some rules to this madness, whereas this…Good luck from Toronto (where we've been taming the Canadian reality for the last seven years).
ChrisApril 15, 2010 at 2:21 pm
Hi Resvaria! Thanks for the encouragement. I use the Polish \”phrasal verbs\” all the time. Soemtimes I make a word which doesn't exist such as wodować as in water the plants or I make a word that does exist such as your examples starting from dać but I use it in the wrong context. I'm still chugging along but I still haven't started formal lessons. I don't know what I'm waiting for.
resvariaApril 15, 2010 at 3:27 pm
Actually, 'wodować' does exist, but the meaning is different:) Don't worry, it works both ways. Most Polish speakers have a tendency to use \”flowers\” in English whether the particular plants they are referring to do blossom or not. Of course, it is a direct translation of \”podlać kwiatki\”. Very few Polish speakers would say \”podlać rośliny\” and even fewer \”nawadniać rośliny\”, unless they are talking about their garden. In addition, there is a huge gap between formal and everyday language in many fields AND tones of regional differences nobody mentions. Moreover, sometimes it just goes over the top. For example, I would normally never use the word \”strug\” (plane) as I have always called it \”hebel\”. And so do all the people I know. Yet it is not a \”proper\” name of the tool.
ChrisApril 16, 2010 at 6:23 am
I caught Lizzie on the flowers things because she used flowers for plants in English. Doesn't the word \”hebel\” come from German?I like to use \”dzyndzel\” for everything. It is such a useful word.I always like when my farmer neighbor asks me how to say tractor or combine in English 🙂 (It's the same of course)
resvariaApril 16, 2010 at 3:06 pm
Yeah, \”hebel\” does come from German \”Hobel\” and so do many technical words. Most cities in Poland were built by the Germans, who settled there and assimilated over time. If you look at old city council documents from Krakow or Lwow you will see that the early volumes are in German. Hebel is a well established word and \”strug\” is one of those hyper-correct neologisms I really hate.
Titania yng NghymruMay 13, 2010 at 7:32 pm
Awww! bless ya! u are doing very well! u will get there, u will ;)my bf, who is english, also knows a few polish words of no use in everyday life LOL eg: pipidówka = podunk, bąbelki = baubles, wielbład =cammel 😉 he also remember some words from the context like supermarket names: biedronka, stokrotka, and also fotoradar = speed camera when we drove from the uk to poland a year agodont give up! 😉 good luck with exploring the polish language
UnknownMarch 15, 2011 at 1:42 pm
You can not give up. Study until you learn how. I am also so I have only the English, then the interpreter. nie poddawaj siethe tip a little difficult but you can make itcześc;D
sedirelaMarch 22, 2011 at 3:08 pm
Cześć Chris,czytam Twojego bloga i jestem pod wrażeniem jak dobrze idzie Ci z językiem polskim,owszem nasz język jest trudny,ale myślę,że sobie poradzisz,trzymam kciuki:))pozdrawiam,sedirela.
ChrisMarch 22, 2011 at 6:33 pm
Hello sedirela and thanks for the compliment. I have a lot of help from Misiu 🙂
AnonymousMay 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm
Hi Chris, I had a great time reading your post. I'm going to go through your older posts. It's funny which words people learn in Polish. My English friend knows how to say \”Can I have a white tea, pls\” lol quite useful for an Englishman. My favourite word in English is \”thingy\”:) Good luck!!!
ChrisMay 9, 2012 at 6:45 pm
Anon- Welcome and I hope you enjoy the rest of the blog 🙂