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Good news – you don’t need to learn grammar rules to speak correct Polish.
Read the previous sentence over and over again until you believe it. It sounds too good to be true, but it’s not – rather than learning grammar via rules, you can learn via examples instead.
You can actually work out grammar rules by comparing Polish sentences to their English equivalents and paying attention to how words and sentences change depending on what you’re trying to say. Of course, you can still supercharge your progress by using a a grammar book, but rather than learning the grammar rules, you can just learn the corresponding examples that accompany them.
Behold! The powers of deduction!
To illustrate, here are a few Polish sentences along with their English translations:
Lubię to. I like it.
Nie lubię tego. I don’t like it.
Lubisz to. You like it.
Nie lubisz tego. You don’t like it.
Widzę to. I see it.
Nie widzę tego. I don’t see it.
Widzisz to. You see it.
Nie widzisz tego. You don’t see it.
If I told you that “I drink it.” is “Piję to.”, you could work out how to say “I don’t drink it.”, “You drink it.” and “You don’t drink it.” just by following the pattern above. Congratulations – you’ve learned how to negate sentences and how to talk in the first and second person without learning grammar rules. Sure there are exceptions to every pattern, but you’ll learn those as and when you need to.
Getting a grasp on grammar
You can learn all Polish grammar in this way. By adding examples into your Anki deck, you can learn everything there is to know. So how do you make sure that you learn all of the necessary grammar? Easily – add the examples from a grammar book. By systematically adding sentences which illustrate certain points, you’ll learn the grammar simply by learning the sentences!
Although there were a few typos in the edition which I used, the only grammar book that I can personally recommend is Iwona Sadowska’s “Polish: A Comprehensive Grammar”. Totalling 671 pages, it covers every grammar point you’d find in Polish speech and, in it its own words, “is the essential reference work on Polish grammar for all learners and users of the language.” I agree with that and wholeheartedly recommend it to you. You can even get it in e-book form and have it on your computer so that it’s always accessible.
Although it is worth it, adding sentences in this way can take a while to do. In fact, it took me almost FIVE MONTHS to type in more than 1,625 sentence examples that were in Iwona Sadowska’s “Polish: A Comprehensive Grammar”. If you’d prefer a ready made solution to save yourself the months of typing that I did, you can download the HowToSpeakPolish.com Conversation Pack which contains more than 80,000 flashcards to stop you speak ungrammatically without the need to remember grammar rules.
Why do the words change?
@How2SpeakPolish what about with nouns that can be written differently? like with Kot, it can be kot or kotem, why?
— Wally (@beardkiddo) 14 January 2017
Before I answer this, I just want to say that this is a great question. (Please ask me questions. It makes me feel useful!) I am now going to explain both why this is and why we all need to stop asking questions like this.
What you’re looking at are cases. In English, “kot” is “cat” and “kotem” is also “cat”. The reason the word supposedly changes in Polish is because of what is happening in relation to the cat.
Sounds confusing, right?
The best explanation I’ve ever seen is Mark Biernat’s. Here is how he explains the seven cases using George Washington as an example.
This is George Washington.
George Washington’s house.
I am giving a dollar to George Washington.
I see George Washington.
I am talking with George Washington.
The hat is on George Washington.
George Washington! Come here. Did you chop down that cherry tree?!
So really, it’s just the Poles way of being really specific about what they’re talking about. Because of this, you can sometimes swap the words of sentences around and they’ll still make perfect sense. (Providing you use the right cases, that is.)
You’ll notice I said “supposedly changes” earlier. There are two schools of thought here.
- The endings of words change depending on their role in the sentence (e.g. subject, object).
- These words are different words that are spelt similarly, but only used in specific contexts.
I fall into the latter camp, thinking that the words are actually separate. Instead of trying to change one word from one case to another, I remember the examples for specific cases. It makes things much easier, for me at least.
Why you need to stop asking “Why?”
It’s not just in Polish that words change. For example, “I go to school” turns into “He goes to school” when talking about a third person. Why does “go” change to “goes”? It just does. That’s the way that people speak. You could say “He go to school” and be understood, but it’s wrong.
This is exactly what you’re doing when you ask “why” something is the way it is in Polish grammar. It just is. That’s the way that people use the language. There may not be a reason and there doesn’t have to be. Knowing why won’t help you to progress either.
So every time you find yourself asking “why” something is, stop. You just need to know how to say it correctly. If you know the correct way to say something, move on. It’ll save you searching for an explanation that you don’t need.
It’s very, very easy to fall into the trap of learning about Polish as opposed to learning Polish. Accept things as they are and you might save yourself a lot of time and headaches!
What grammar rules do you know?
Simply by adding sentences from a grammar book, you might pick up the odd grammar rule anyway. I learned that you use ‘w’ in front of words which don’t start with a consonant cluster beginning with a ‘w’ or an ‘f’ and “we” otherwise. To help clarify, here’s an example. You would say “Jestem w Warszawie.” (“I’m in Warsaw”) and “Jestem w Krakowie” (“I’m in Krakow”), but you would say “Jestem we Wrocławiu.” (“I’m in Wrocław”) and “Jestem we Francji.” (“I’m in France.”) Confused? That’s exactly why I don’t learn from grammar rules! I recommend downloading a HowToSpeakPolish.com Polish Perfection Pack and learning grammar implicitly instead.
What grammar rules, if any, do you know? See if you can describe them in the comments!