Polish is a West-Slavic language spoken mostly in Poland, but Polish expatriates can be found all over the world. It's the second most spoken Slavic language in the world after Russian, and one that many people are interested in learning.
There are many reasons to learn Polish. Some do it because they have Polish heritage, and would like to reestablish a bond with the Polish culture. Others do so for business opportunities and then there are people who wants to learn the language for travel, pure linguistic interest or maybe a love interest?
But when researching the Polish language and looking into how to learn it, there's one question that most people ask even before getting started.
How difficult is the Polish language to learn?
Generally, I'd say that no language is inherently hard to learn. All languages have their complexities, grammar and a huge lexicon of vocabulary to be learned by heart. This isn't difficult, and Polish is no exception, but it takes time. And for Polish it might take a little longer than some of the languages that are closer to English.
Look at how children learn languages. They spend years just running around in a "foreign" language environment without understanding much. People speak to them or they overhear conversations, but it takes a little while before the meaning gets through.
It takes even longer before the child starts to speak, but eventually it will happen.
Kids can learn languages. They even do so without having a first language to use as a base. It takes time, but it's not difficult. It's even automatic.
So learning Polish is not about mastering a difficult skill, it's about getting used to a ton of new words and grammar structured that are very foreign to you!
What about Polish demands some extra focus to learn?
So the answer to the main question "is Polish difficult to learn" would be no!
You don't need to analyze and dissect the Polish language and understand everything in order to put it back together and start speaking. That's how linguists learn about languages.
But you don't learn to speak them that way.
You need to spend time with the language until it starts to stick.
With Polish there are a few things that might take a little longer to get used to than if you were learning Dutch or Italian.
One is Polish pronunciation.
Polish has a few letters that don't exist in English. They might take a little time to get used to, but they're actually not that bad.
Most of these Polish letters actually resemble sounds we have in English. They just don't necessarily have their own letter in English.
So the real challenge with Polish pronunciation is in fact not pronouncing the individual sounds. It's about pronouncing them together.
You'll often see very long words with many consonants and very few vowels in them. But even this appears more difficult than it actually is. A word might look intimidating when you see it written, but it's not that difficult to pronounce when you hear an example first.
To get a good walk-through of the Polish alphabet and its sounds, I recommend watching the video below.
Polish grammar takes time to get used to
Polish grammar is quite different compared to English and it does demand a little extra focus.
Some of this is due to cases. Polish, like the other Slavic languages, uses cases the make precisions in sentence meanings. Although some simple cases exist in English, Polish has more and they are are not more complex.
In English, a lot of the meaning in a sentence is defined by word order. "John goes to the baker's" has one meaning, but "the baker's goes to John" means something else. With Polish cases, the word order is less important. The meaning of the sentences are defined by inflections, or small changes in the individual words instead of the word order.
This means that you don't have to worry too much about word order in Polish. On the other hand, you do need to use the right case and thereby make the correct modification to the word. (But you'll be understood even when you make mistakes, so don't worry)
People tend to make a big deal out of cases in Polish. Don't worry though. While you've got to learn a few extra word-forms, it's not that complicated to learn.
Things about Polish that will be easy to learn
While there are things that you need to focus your attention a little more on while learning Polish, other aspects of the language are a fair bit simpler.
One is cognates and loan words.
Polish, being a Western-Slavic languages has quite a few loanwords from German. This can be helpful to someone who speaks German, but these words may also resemble English words a little more than words of Slavic origin.
Examples include "burmistrz" which comes from the German "Bürgermeister" (mayor) or "rada" which comes from the german "Rat" (council)... (OK, those examples don't resemble English that much)
Likewise, you'll notice a lot of Polish words with Latin origin. English also has a lot of words with Latin origin, so this might be helpful when learning vocabulary.
These words include "edukacja" (education), "obserwacja" (observation) and "litera" (letter).
The Polish language, unlike many other Slavic languages uses the Latin alphabet. This means that you can skip studying a foreign alphabet when learning Polish.
There are a few additional letters in the Polish alphabet, however, and you do need to focus a little more on the pronunciation of those.
Polish has the advantage of being pronounced almost exactly as it's written. The alphabet is mostly phonetic, so you won't have to learn both how a word is spelled and how it's pronounced. You might not realize it, but this is a nightmare for someone who's learning English!
Grammatically, Polish only has three tenses. There's the past, the present and the future. No "has been" or "shall become" and that kind of thing. In Polish, time is a little simpler!
And finally, with Polish, you won't have to bother with articles like "the" and "a" like in English. "Kubek" means both "A cup" and "the cup". No need to differentiate!
How hard is it to learn Polish according to linguists?
The Foreign Service Institute is an American government institution charged with teaching US diplomats foreign languages. They have a lot of experience in classroom teaching and have published their estimations as to how many classroom hours are needed to become professionally proficient in a number of languages.
Polish is in their third category, meaning that FSI judges that Polish takes around 1100 classroom hours to learn to a high level.
Now, their estimates are obviously based on a number of factors. FSI teaches in classrooms, they have their own specific approach to language learning, and they have very specific goals as to when a student is "professionally proficient" in Polish.
All of this means that it's difficult to compare the number of "1100 classroom hours" to your own self-studies.
The estimate can be used, however, to compare Polish to other languages.
French, Spanish, Dutch and Danish are in their first category. These languages take some 5-600 classroom hours to master according to FSI. On the highest category we find languages like Arabic and Mandarin Chinese. These take 2200 hours.
So you can roughly say that Polish needs around double as much work as Spanish to master for an English speaker. And half as much as Chinese.
So is Polish difficult to learn? It would seem it's time consuming at least!
Is there some truth to the Polish language's reputation of being hard?
Whenever you read articles about Polish, or hear people speaking about the language, it's brought up how hard it is. Some people say it's among the ten most difficult languages in the world.
All of this is hugely exaggerated. Polish is complex and needs some time, but it's not impossible.
If you dedicate an hour a day and you're strategic with your study method, consistent and above all - patient - you can learn Polish. I'd even say that you're guaranteed to become fluent eventually if only you put in the work.
No language talent needed!
If you'd like to know how I recommend that you go about teaching yourself Polish, please read my article on the subject!