Today is May 3rd, the Day of the Polish Constitution, and the third day in a row I’m writing a Language-specific article.
If you have Polish-speaking friends, there is no doubt that they will bring scientific papers and studies and BuzzFeed articles that prove that Polish is the most difficult language in the world, bar none.
I remember the first time I heard that, and I thought “well, why not Czech or Slovak or the Sorbian Languages?” (Note to those unaware: these are the closest relatives of Polish, as they are all Western Slavic)
Polish pronunciation is tricky for the uninitiated, probably the biggest hang-up I had as a beginner was the fact that there are “n” sounds that are pronounced but not written, one example most commonly used is “ja pamiętam”, meaning “I remember”. The “ę” is a nasal “e” sound. Polish is the only Slavic language to have retained these nasal vowels in the present time (they are originally from Old Slavonic).
As a result of this combination, it is actually pronounced like “pamięntam”
Anyhow, you came here for an article and that’s what you’ll get:
- The Tongue Twisters are Probably the Most Difficult in Any Language
Polish tongue twisters are among the most “get ready to throw your computer out a window” in the world. For the truly masochistic, I recommend the short verse “W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie” (“A beetle buzzes in the reeds in Szczebrzeszyn”).
The sz is a sh sound, the cz is a ch sound, and you can combine them (other Slavic languages do so as well) to create a “shch” sound.
Rz is pronounced like a combination of a sh sound and a z sound, like a French J.
Ch is the classic guttural sound, like the “ch” in Bach (too many other languages have them, Hebrew and Dutch are probably best known for theirs).
C or s followed by an i is pronounced “chi” and “shi” respectively.
W is a v sound in English.
The letter “ą” is also nasal.
Now you know everything in order to pronounce that sentence.
Impress your friends today!
- In Poland, I felt as though Polish-speakers were comfortable using Polish or English to whatever degree I was comfortable with. Other countries where English is commonly spoken (some would classify Poland as such) need to learn to do this, too.
In some places, like Sweden, Israel and the Netherlands, I felt considerably afraid about messing up, knowing that if I did I would get answered in English without a second thought (thankfully the better you get and the more natural you sound, the less of this will happen. Fun fact: in the Netherlands I’ve even heard stories of Dutch native speakers being answered in English!)
Poland’s not like that! Especially if your pronunciation is good!
Even as a beginner, you’ll get plenty of encouragement (aside from being told that Polish is absurdly difficult all of the time) and you seldom need to worry about being answered in English. But even if you DO want to speak English, the locals will gladly accommodate that, too!
The more I look back at my time on Poland, I saw that there was a nigh-PERFECT balance between using global languages (like English and German) and using the local language (although Polish is also a global language as well, because…)
- Polish People Live Everywhere as Expatriates
Maybe it had something to do with lots of people fleeing the country during the tribulations of the 20th century, but you’ll run into Polish-speakers all over the globe. As far as I can tell, Poland is the only country that has Polish as its official language (despite the fact that there are sizeable Polish minorities in all of the surrounding countries and even further afield).
Despite that, the Polish diaspora will ensure that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice!
Not only that, but even now there are Polish citizens that are discovering that they have distant family members everywhere, from the United States to the British Commonwealth countries to…well, everywhere else, actually.
People of Polish heritage have brought their culture everywhere. The various histories of the United States and Poland, both countries that had constitutions guaranteeing full religious freedoms, are also intertwined, and they share a lot of the same mindsets and struggles.
Polish culture (as well as the language) also influenced Ashkenazi Judaism and the Yiddish language to no end, and thanks to the fall of communism as well as drastistically improved relations between Polish people and Jews all over the world, the true extent of how much they share is finally being revealed to all.
- Polish Music had a Fantastic Reputation during the Communist Period
A lot of people are feeling uncertainty with the global politics of the present moment. It wasn’t the only time, and I doubt it will end up being the last time.
My favorite Polish band is Republika, one that masterfully captures a lot of lyrics that encapsulate rebellion, the tragicomedy that is hoping in despairing times, and fantastic musings that can be applied to personal hardships as well as those on a global scale:
Here’s a taste of the lyrics of the above song, “My Lunatycy” (“We, the Lunatics”)
My lunatycy – coraz więcej lunatykó pośród nas
my lunatycy – każdy własny wulkan na Księżycu ma
tabletki na sen to komunia święta dla każdego z nas
my lunatycy – coraz więcej lunatyków pośród nas
We, the lunatics – even more lunatics among us
We lunatics – everyone has his/her own volcano on the moon
Dream tablets, this is our worldly communion for every one of us
We, the lunatics, even more lunatics among us
Somebody understands politics better than most.
(Sadly, the leader of Republika, Grzegorz Chiechowski, died in his forties as a result of heart disease.)
And a song you are probably guaranteed to hear after an extended stay in the country:
It’s a tongue-twister song!
On the other side of the quality spectrum, I wrote a piece (for April 1) about Disco Polo here. But maybe there is some of you that actually like that stuff. If I didn’t have a class to teacher right after finishing this, I’d actually, y’know, translate the lyrics in that post.
- Recognizing and Appreciating the Culture of Poland will instantly earn you friendships!
“Everyone thinks my country is backwards”
“Everyone hates my country”
And the quickest berserk button? Blindly associate Poland with anti-Semitism and/or xenophobia.
(Truth: it is no different than the US in this regard. Poland was, up until World War II and then Communism, an astonishingly multicultural society, although not without tensions, it should be mentioned)
The best way to show that you are willing to engage with the culture is to take up the “absolutely impossible world’s most difficult language”. Even if you know a few words, it will help build trust. In a lot of Central-Eastern European countries, there is a culture of a silent distrust sometimes unless you actively choose to build that trust. (Being sandwiched between multiple empires will do that to you!)
A lot of political problems with many countries have to do with a sense of national victim mentality (see the quotes at the beginning of this section). You can help alleviate it, even just a little bit, by choosing to show that you are willing to engage!
I got asked at a dentist office if Poland was still communist (in 2012). I can imagine that Polish nationals throughout the world have probably gotten something similar and sometimes plenty worse.
Learning this language is like a cupid’s arrow, except for friendships instead of infatuation. Trust me on this one!