How To Learn Polish By Yourself (From Beginner To Fluency)
- Mille Larsen •19 mins read
So you want to learn to speak Polish?
Polish is the second biggest Slavic language in the world, next after Russian. It is spoken as a native language by roughly 50 million Poles in the world. Most of them in Poland, but also quite a few millions across the globe.
This makes Polish an international language with a lot of speaking opportunities.
Polish has the reputation of being a quite difficult language to learn. Like, for example the German language, it's got Cases. Only Polish has 7 cases where German has 4. Polish, unlike English, has three genders. And then there's the pronunciation. With Polish, you need to be able to pronounce 35 different consonants and eight vowels.
Yet - Polish is not as bad as people make it out to be.
Despite being very different from English, it has loanwords from many of the same sources. Latin and French word-stems are current in Polish like they are in English. The alphabet used, is the Latin one that English employs too. Only with a few additions. Like any language, Polish takes a lot of work, dedication and patience to learn. It's not something you do in an afternoon, but you don't need any special talent or high intellectual capacities to learn it. Here's an article I wrote about the difficulty of Polish.
So how do you learn Polish?
Tip: If you're looking for the perfect starting point for learning Polish, then I personally recommend PolishPod101. It's hands down the best resource I've used.
Getting one or two beginner's courses
First, to get the very basics of Polish down, you need to get your feet wet.
You can start by looking up videos on Polish pronunciation, repeat after the speaker, and try to get used to the spelling. You might also want to study some of the most frequently used words in Polish to establish that feeling of recognition when you listen to Polish.
I'm more inclined, however, to start by picking up a beginner's course for Polish. I always recommend Assimil. The problem is, that Assimil hasn't published a Polish course for English speakers yet. If you speak German or French, however it's a great course that I warmly recommend. See my review of Assimil French for reference on how I study with Assimil.
Another course, that I can recommend for English speakers is Teach Yourself Polish. Teach yourself, like Assimil, is a language course based on Polish dialogues along with their audio recordings. Teach Yourself, generally, is more focused on grammar than Assimil, which is fine. I personally, however, prefer to learn grammar more intuitively and I tend to only skim over grammar explanations. The dialogues, however, should be studied in depth. Listen, while referring to the English translation, repeat aloud and revise every day. I like to revise 5-10 lessons each time I move on to a new one.
Grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary through a beginner's course
As you move ahead with your daily lessons, you'll gradually learn to pronounce the Polish alphabet. Even through Polish is written with the Latin alphabet - the same as English - it has a few additional characters. Diacritics, additional letters and specific letter combinations are all something that you will notice and get used to as you progress. If it all seems very complicated and difficult, don't worry. You don't need to force it, and if you feel like information is not sticking, rest assured, that you're learning.
If you can, I recommend that you do two courses simultaneously. One could be studied in the morning and the other one in the evening. The advantage of doing two courses is, that you'll be addressing the same kind of content from two perspectives. Some courses rely mostly on dialogue, some on exercises. The setting of the dialogues, the theme and the voice all help creating variation.
Variation in language study methods is something that people often neglect when studying Polish or other languages. It is, however, extremely effective. When you study Polish from more than one source, you get the advantage of recognition. Whenever you recognize a concept that you've recently addressed in your studies, wether it be a word, a conjugation or an idea, you create strong bonds in your brain. Something you'd otherwise forget after a few days if you'd only briefly studied it will help create a web of information in your brain, if you get to see it again in another context.
Do an audio-course in parallel with your Assimil or Teach Yourself Polish
Assimil Polish and Teach Yourself Polish are courses based on the written word. While you move along with these courses, I recommend that you add another course to the mix. One that's focused more on audio.
One course that many people use is Pimsleur. Pimsleur Polish is a thorough audio-course that is quite slow paced. You get instruction in English and words and sentences in Polish that you're asked to repeat. Pimsleur is very repetitive and slow paced. This can be an advantage if you have a hard time getting down the pronunciation. You're also taught very basic sentences and grammar concepts. Again - this is in a very slow pace. Each lesson dwells a long time on the same sentences and words. As you move along, words you've already studied will be repeated again and again.
To some people, the slow nature of Pimsleur is off-putting. If you've already studied a foreign language, you know that you don't need to master each and every new concept that's thrown at you before you move on. You might want to look for something else than Pimsleur in this case. But if you're not yet entirely sure what you're doing, and if you feel the need to be able to say at least something in the beginning - Pimsleur will help you do just that.
Study Polish sentences with Glossika
This brings me to another audio-course, Glossika.
Glossika is a course that I have recently discovered and become a big fan of. With Glossika, you study pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary through sentences. You can study several thousand sentences of Polish along with their English translations. The system is really simple.
Studying Polish with Glossika
When studying Polish in Glossika's interface, you study a batch of 5 sentences at a time. I recommend that you do 5-20 new sentences each day. Don't overdo it, because you're going to review these sentences a lot! You first listen to an English sentence, then the Polish equivalent twice. As you hear the Polish sentences, try repeating as well as you can. Do it in the same speed as the native speaker and in the same intonation. Don't worry if you're not pronouncing perfectly or even if the speed forces you to mumble. You'll get the sentence down later.
The sentences you study will then be scheduled for review. This is the key concept that Glossika is build upon. Each day you have to review earlier studied material. For each time you review it, a new repetition is scheduled a little further into the future. The idea is that you review the sentence just before you forget.
How to learn Polish through studying sentences in chunks
The idea is that you study the language in chunks. Through seeing and repeating words and grammar points in multiple different sentences, you'll gradually get used to them. This resembles the way children learn languages. Everywhere around you, you hear correct examples of grammar points while growing up. You get used to them. In the beginning, as a child, you make mistakes, but gradually the mistakes will start sounding wrong to you. The same thing goes on when studying sentences with Glossika. The difference, however, is that children are exposed to mostly random spoken context every day. With Glossika, you're studying and repeating related sentences that move along a progression. The fact that the content is organized in this way, and every new sentence is related to the one preceding it, is a clear advantage.
I recommend that you continue to study your daily sentences with Glossika for several thousand repetitions. Read more about Glossika.
Study Polish in several, short daily sessions
It's much better to study Polish through several daily study sessions that are relatively short, rather than just studying a few times a week for several hours. I recommend that you study Polish at least two times per day, but more is better. Do 20 minutes of Assimil in the morning, one or two 10-minute sessions of Glossika during the day and then 15 minutes of Teach Yourself before you go to bed. Later you'll be adding reading and speaking to your routine as well. Doing several short sessions help you stay submerged in Polish during the day. When you put down the book in the morning, the Polish language is still fresh in your head when you listen to Pimsleur in your car on your way to work. And if you read an article while you're on break it's even better.
The more short bursts of learning Polish you can fit into your day, the better. If you feel like you don't have the time, go read this article on studying languages on a busy schedule.
Start reading in Polish
When you've got the basics down in Polish, it's the time to start dedicating more time to reading. Reading is the single best way to learn vocabulary - be that in Polish, English or any language. Look at it this way: Even if you lived, worked and spent all of your free time in Poland, surrounded by Polish speakers, how much of the Polish language would you be exposed to daily? The answer would surprise you. If all of our daily conversations were transcribed on paper, we'd have a long list of unfinished sentences, filler words, and text with very little value. The way we speak doesn't carry that much information, even though we can speak between 7-20.000 words a day.
When you read, however, the sentences are constructed from the beginning to the end with well chosen words that fit the specific context. Reading just a few pages in a book gets you more variation than a whole day of speaking.
But how to learn Polish through reading?
Using tools and techniques to make Polish text easier to read.
You want to start reading Polish, but you don't know how to go about it. Everything seems difficult, and the only texts that might be close to your level are children's stories. So what do you do?
Other than just jumping in, and start reading stories and books written for children, there are a number of techniques you can use to make Polish more transparent.
The first one that you might think of is reading with a dictionary. For every word you don't know, you look it up in a dictionary. I don't recommend this. This kind of "intensive reading" approach can be extremely tiring. You'll find yourself constantly pausing to look up words, and you won't be able to follow the plot, because you're constantly disturbed in your reading by undecipherable text. Then when you do look up the words, you tend to forget them very quickly again, sometimes before getting to the next unknown word. This constant desiccation of a text can easily kill all of the enjoyment in your studies and it proves not very helpful in the end.
Looking up words instantly with Google Dictionary in a Polish Wikipedia article
Instead, you can try reading texts online using Google Dictionary to instantly look up words by simply clicking on them. Google Dictionary is a browser extension for the Chrome browser but you can find alternatives for other browsers too. Using an instant popup-dictionary like this allows you to get very quick translations to unknown words. You don't have to put down your reading material, search through the dictionary and find the right word before moving on. The translation is right there on the screen.
Learning Polish with LingQ
Another tool for learning Polish through reading is LingQ. With LingQ, you import the Polish texts that you want to study into an app. When reading through LingQ, the text that you import is analyzed and compared to previous material you have already studied. You'll be able to instantly look up words by clicking on them. You then save hints or keywords that helps you remembering this word. The word is now registered as a word you're learning, and it will show up flagged in all future texts you will study until you mark it as "known". Such words that you're in the process of learning show up in yellow in LingQ's interface. Words you haven't seen before are blue - and only words that you have previously marked "known" show up without color-markings.
So when studying Polish through LingQ, you can easily keep track of your progress, seeing how many words you learn week for week. Similarly you can use the known words statistics to analyze new texts. If there is a very high percentage of unknown words in a new text, it's probably above your level. If there are almost none, you've better spend your time studying something a little more challenging. Go read my review of LingQ if you want to know more.
Techniques for learning Polish by reading paper books
Even though using technology as an aide in learning Polish, can be extremely helpful, old fashioned paper-books still have their utility.
One technique I've had great success with previously is parallel reading. The idea is that you read a book in Polish at the same time as the translation in English. You can keep the two books side by side and switch language for each sentence, paragraph, page or chapter, depending on what you're comfortable with. Reading books in parallel has the advantage of making Polish language books transparent for you. You might not know a significant percentage of the vocabulary you're looking at, but since you just read the same paragraph in English, you know what it's supposed to say. This can be extremely helpful in deducting information by yourself.
If you think it's quite the hassle to hold two books in the same time, there are bilingual books available with the English and Polish text facing one another, but there isn't much choice.
Reading books in Polish that you already know well
If you enjoy reading in English, you probably have quite a few favorite books. Try picking up the same books, but in Polish.
This obviously is a slightly more advanced approach than reading the text in parallel, because the material isn't that fresh in your memory, and you'll have to figure a lot out by yourself. If it's a book you truly enjoy, however, it can be extremely helpful. I've read the Harry Potter series in multiple languages. Harry Potter has the advantage of being extremely long, difficult to put down, and quite an easy read despite how heavy the books are. You can get hours upon hours of useful Polish reading out of this book series.
I've lost count how many times I've read "L'etranger" by Albert Camus, and in how many languages.
Reading while listening to the audio book
As you get better at Polish, you might want to try and read along while listening to a Polish audio book. Some people imagine that it's difficult to focus on the two in the same time, but it's actually quite an easy approach. Listening and reading at the same time helps you stay focused on what you're doing. When you only listen, the sound sometimes has a tendency to become "white noise". It's something you can easily be distracted from, and you find that even though you're hearing, you're not really listening. The same goes for reading. Who hasn't found themselves reading something only to realize that you remember nothing from the last three pages? The mind quickly begins to wander when you read. Especially difficult texts. When you listen and follow along the text in Polish, it's much easier to stay focused.
Reading and listening at the same time also has other advantages. One is reading speed. You need to follow along, so you don't have the time to dwell on difficult words - you're simply forced to read and listen at a natural pace. Similarly, listening to audio books while reading helps you with understanding Polish when spoken by a native speaker. Audio books aren't slowed down and the words are articulated in a natural way.
Learning Polish by listening to audio
This brings me to the subject of listening. There are a number of ways you can study Polish through listening to native content. Some we've already covered, like the use of Pimsleur, Glossika and listening to audio books while reading.
Often when people speak of methods for learning languages, the subject of immersion is evoked. By immersion people refer to completely surrounding yourself by the language all of the time to force yourself to learn it. I believe that many of these ideas about immersion are false. I don't think you learn Polish from switching your cell-phone's operation system to Polish. And I don't think you can learn it from watching hours upon hours of Polish soap operas. Not if you're a beginner, that is! If you already have a solid base in Polish, surrounding yourself by content that you mostly understand, can be a really good thing. But what to do as a beginner then?
There are various ways you can spend dead time learning Polish. Listen to easy material while you drive or do the dishes, for example. PolishPod101 or Real Polish or One Minute Polish can all be good examples.
There's also the possibility of listening to radio news in Polish or audio books, but these options are generally for the more advanced learner.
A great tool for studying Polish through good, entertaining content is Language Learning with Netflix. LLWN is a browser extension that you install on your computer in order to study languages while watching Polish TV and movies. Two sets of subtitles are shown at once, and you are able to jump back and forth between sentences easily. This allows for a great study environment with quality TV-shows as the main content.
How to start speaking Polish
As you're gradually finishing your Assimil or Teach Yourself guides, you progress with Glossika and do daily reading sessions with LingQ, it's time to start speaking Polish.
For this, I recommend finding a tutor. There are numerous ways of getting into contact with great Polish teachers and tutors, but one example is through Italki. I recommend that you find a good teacher that you like and that you take charge of your study sessions. You're going to pay someone to help you learn Polish, so my advice is to not be shy. Get your money's worth, and if your tutor doesn't suit you, go look for another one.
How often you'd like to schedule discussions with your Polish tutor is up to you. I recommend that you do it at last 2-3 times a week. Schedule 30-45 minutes, and spend this time conversing about a subject that you've agreed upon before hand. Ask your tutor to only make corrections if it's extremely important. Otherwise he or she can write a report afterwards with a few tips and pointers. I also recommend that you stay away from grammar explanations, and focus on conversation. After the discussion, sit down and write a short essay about the same subject. It might be 100-300 words of length in the beginning. Send it to your tutor and have it corrected.
If you keep up this routine, you'll experience tremendous improvements in your Polish in no time. You might eventually start writing longer essays on more and more complicated topics. The sky is the limit!
If you'd rather not spend the money on hiring a tutor to help you learn Polish, there are other options. One is to find a language exchange partner. The concept is that you both have a language to offer. You help your partner with English (or another language) and he or she helps you with Polish.
There are, however, a few disadvantages to this procedure. First of all, you'll be spending half of the time speaking English, which is helping your partner, but not you. Secondly, you have no guarantee that your tutor is a skilled teacher and he or she might not be as motivated and ambitious in language learning as you are.
Make Polish part of your daily life
So we've worked our way thorough a lot of different methods to on how to learn Polish. If you do all of the above mentioned techniques consistently, you will progress, there's no doubt about it. But you do need to stay consistent. A lot of people have set out to learn Polish with great intentions, but ended up giving up only a few months in.
The key to be consistent in your Polish studies, is to keep it enjoyable. Try to make it seem less like work and more like a hobby, so it's something you'll be looking forward to doing rather than a task that needs to be fulfilled.
So how do you keep it enjoyable? One way could be to do things in Polish you'd otherwise do in your native language. If you enjoy reading articles on gardening, look some up in Polish. If you like reading comics, buy some in Polish.
You can also look at all the little things you do during your daily life. How can you turn your groceries into a Polish lesson? Write your shipping list in Polish! How about your daily studies? Write your notes in Polish! And try thinking in Polish whenever you have the possibility. Speak to yourself. Describe what you see around you, or make up stories. All of these require very little effort, but they can be extremely helpful.
As we discussed earlier, Polish is a difficult language according to a lot of people. But it's not impossible to learn, and you don't have to study grammar and do drills to learn the language. Even children can learn Polish. So why shouldn't you be able to?