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Introduction to the Polish Language

Polish is spoken by 40 million people worldwide, mostly in Poland but with other minority communities in Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. There are also large Polish-speaking communities worldwide, including in countries such as Argentina, Canada, Germany, the United States, and Romania, to name just a few. In Canada, for example, there were 242,885 speakers of Polish in 2006.

Polish is an Indo-European language, part of the Balto-Slavic family. It is thus related to Czech, Serbian, Croatian, Russian, and numerous other languages spoken in the region. The Polish language has several dialects but fewer than most European languages. There are small differences in "standard" Polish, but all speakers can understand one another, and non-native speakers often cannot notice the differences. There are four main dialects of Polish: Greater Polish, Lesser Polish, Masovian, and Silesian. Several other dialects exist, such as Kashubian, but some consider this a separate language.

The reasons for studying Polish would vary from individual to individual. Some might wish to read such epic works as Pan Tadeusz (Sir Thaddeus) in the original language; others might want to tour Poland more thoroughly than the average traveler and get to know some of the most sociable and hospitable people in the world; still others may be of Polish extraction and wish to explore their family history and roots.

Polish culture is inextricably bound up with Roman Catholicism, and the family structure is at the center of Polish society. Relationships may seem reserved at first but can be quite warm once established. In general, Poles judge people by their personal qualities, and honesty is highly prized both in personal and business relationships.

What’s similar between English and Polish?

Very little, sadly. We have borrowed a number of food-related words, such as pierogi and kielbasa; the word ogonek (little tail) describes the small hook appearing on certain letters in Polish and other languages, such as ę and ą; the Yiddish word “schlub” (a clumsy or unattractive person) comes from the polish żłób (manger).

Challenges for an English Speaker Learning Polish

  • Polish pronunciation is not especially difficult and is quite regular. That said, some sounds will be new to an English speaker and will take some getting used to. The nasal vowels ę and ą will be unusual.
  • Polish spelling makes the language look a lot worse than it is. Karol Józef Wojtyła, otherwise known as Pope John Paul II, pronounced his last name “voy TI wa”, which is hardly difficult, but a learner must get used to some different ways of pronouncing letters.
  • Polish nouns have three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter, and adjectives must agree with the gender of the nouns they modify. The Polish language has seven cases, used to express whether nouns are the subject, the object, something possessed, etc. Verbs are categorized based on whether they are perfective (indicating completed action) or imperfective (expressing incomplete or ongoing action).
  • As a result of the case system, word order is freer in Polish than in English. In English, "The boy bites the dog" is quite different from "The dog bites the boy", but in Polish one could use either order without confusion.

People wonder how long it will take them to learn Polish. This will depend a lot on the individual and also the method of study used. A good audio-lingual course will enable you to get around without much difficulty in a year or so, whereas a grammar-translation course may enable you to read fairly well but speak or understand very little. Count on at least 12 months of diligent study for basic fluency, and anywhere from three to five years for mastery in unfamiliar situations.

Examples of Polish Words

horse: koń

mother: matka

father: ojciec

tea: herbata

come: przyjść

teacher: nauczyciel

friend: przyjaciel    

Useful Polish Sentences

Hello. Dzień dobry.

What is your name? Jak masz na imię?

My name is … Nazywam się ....

Good morning. Dzień dobry.

Goodbye. Do widzenia.

Where is the toilet? Gdzie jest toaleta?

I don’t understand. Nie rozumiem.

Learning Polish will set you apart and make you a welcome guest in the land of Poland. Whether your roots are there, or you simply want to learn more about the history and culture of this fascinating people, learning Polish will open doors to a new world of literature and culture.

Are you ready to start?

If you're ready to start learning the Polish lanugage, go to the Polish homepage for more information.