Secrets to Speaking Polish Like a Pole
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Like a Pole, Photo: artwork by Katarzyna Piątek, 00_title_artwork_kasia_piatek.jpg
You’ve made the smart decision to learn Polish. Great! But how do you start speaking Polish like a Pole? Culture.pl has asked Polish learners around the world for their top tips to get your language skills going.
Did you know that the first-ever Polish grammar book was written by a Frenchman? His name was Pierre Statorious, and his Polonicae Grammatices Institutio was published in 1568. Right after that, Nicolaus Volckmar, a German, wrote Compendium Lingua Polonicae and a Polish-German-Latin dictionary.
As you can see, interest in the Polish language abroad has centuries of history, so millions of other people before you have had to figure out how to get to grips with those enigmatic Slavic tones. To help you do the same, we’ve interviewed some contemporary language adventurers from different parts of the world who have a high-proficiency level of Polish language. Collectively, this may just be the secret recipe to becoming part of the multicultural Polish-speaking community.
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We strongly encourage you to first make yourself a cup of black tea with a slice of cytryna (lemon) and get ready to make some notes!
1. Polonise yourself
Chang Il, a PhD student of Polish Philology at the University of Silesia, gives us his most important tip for learning Polish: Polonise yourself. As crazy as this might sound, it may be the only key to success.
‘This does not mean that you’ll become Polish, but we need to do our best to become one of them.’ Il argues that it’s important to do this in order to understand the cultural differences. ‘In Korea, we normally don’t shake hands, and we hug far less.’ For Il, this physical distance is still a challenge. He isn’t used to close physical contact, and he was also not used to speaking as much back in Korea.
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‘For Korean students, it is sometimes a big challenge to participate during class. Here, it’s important, and I encourage other students to do it too. We have to speak up and adapt to the culture.’
2. Be brave!
Hsiung Chieh of Taiwan, a sociology student at the University of Łódź, has a similar opinion. ‘In Taiwan, we call it: to lose your face.’
For Chieh, there’s no way we can learn Polish if we’re afraid to make mistakes. ‘One of the most important parts is the motivation I get from Polish people’, she says. It does not matter whether you only say dzień dobry (good morning) or recite a poem by Adam Zagajewski or Wisława Szymborska – Polish people will always value your knowledge.
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3. Don’t worry about grammar
Chang Il says he would not advise new Polish learners to obsess over grammar. Polish teacher Ania Rabczuk agrees, saying that ‘grammar is important, but just get to know the rules without stressing yourself. Remember: your aim is communication, not perfection.’ Ania is currently a visiting professor at the University of Toronto, and she has a great deal of experience teaching Polish at the University of Warsaw.
She would never tell her students not to study grammar at all. However, most of the people interviewed said they learnt it thanks to the time they spent within a Polish environment and not necessarily with grammar books.
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Ania has specialised in teaching Polish to natives of Arabic and Slavic languages, and she emphasises that the recommendations she would give vary from nationality to nationality.
4. Well… do care a little bit about grammar
When it comes to other Slavic language speakers, she stresses the importance of learning the grammar and avoiding literal translation from their mother tongue. ‘Due to the fact that the languages are very similar, students from Slavic countries think they speak Polish from the very beginning.’ Ania acknowledges that very often, Poles will understand them and will not tell them whether they are making mistakes or not. ‘The most important advice for them would be to practice the pronunciation and care about the grammar.’
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5. Fall in love with a Pole!
The next advice she gives is to become part of the Polish community. ‘(Speed) dating in Polish is something I strongly recommend. Fall in love with a Pole!’
Artiom Czernyszew, a Russian student at the University of Warsaw, seems to agree with Ania. ‘You will never make any improvement if you keep hanging out with people who speak the language you already know,’ he says. ‘You need to take part in cultural life, go to the theatre, cinema, parties, study, use the dictionary, read and speak.’
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6. Pretend you understand what you read
Sotiris Karageorgos, a Greek teacher at the University of Warsaw and a lover of Bruno Schulz, says that if you are starting to learn Polish, you need to be patient and make your own strategy. ‘I don’t trust fast methods,’ he explains.
Sotiris reads literature in Polish and insists that reading difficult texts might help very little. First, you need to be a passive reader, which means you have to read everything you come across: that is, street signs, advertisements, headlines, subtitles at the movies, and, most importantly, keep repeating these out loud.
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Polish phonetics demand some practice, and a good way to reach perfection is repetition. Some of the methods proposed are watching Polish TV, foreign TV series in Polish or with Polish subtitles, and then trying to memorise whole sentences from them.
‘Just read whatever is in front of you, and you will figure out the meaning once it shows up again,’ says Sotiris. The latter will considerately improve your pronunciation too. It doesn’t matter whether your mother tongue has the Polish rolling ‘R’ or its variety of fricative consonants. It’s all about practice.
7. Move to Poland
Arent van Nieukerken, a Polish literature professor at the University of Amsterdam, said that for him it was not very difficult to learn the language, since he already knew other Slavic languages. However, he acknowledges that the year he spent living in Poland meant a big improvement in his Polish proficiency.
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8. Be prepared for cultural differences
When it comes to Latin American Polish learners, Marcin Raiman, a language teacher at the Faculty of Polish Philology at the Universidade Federal do Paraná in Brazil, puts a special emphasis on teaching his students to be sensitive to cultural differences before they go to Poland.
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‘Sometimes they think I am mad at them,’ he says. ‘I have to explain that we are just more serious, but that does not mean that I don’t want to joke with them.’ Marcin considers the latter relevant in order to adapt to Polish society faster.
9. Make your own strategy
Another point he raises is the need for a plan. He and Ania Rabzuk agree on the need to devise your own strategy. In order to learn the language, you need to have as much contact with it as possible. Helpful options include chatting online, watching movies, listening to the radio, attending courses about things you like, singing (even if you don’t understand), and keeping yourself motivated.
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10. Trening czyni mistrza (Practice makes perfect)
Only you can evaluate the progress you have made. Sometimes, we are ready to express ourselves, and other times we feel that we’ve forgotten everything. Nevertheless, always keep in mind: trening czyni mistrza.
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And finally, if you actually start regularly putting a slice of cytryna in your tea, there’s no doubt that you are on the right track!
Written by Alexis Angulo, Feb 2017; edited by AZ, Feb 2017