Learning Polish is simple, but it’s not easy. This is the method which I have been using to learn Polish. If you do the same, you’ll get the same results. If you tweak anything, I can’t promise you the same success.
Here are the two steps that I used to learn how to speak Polish from scratch:
- Learn sentences
- Speak to people
You were probably expecting something more complicated, but this is the very basis of what I’ve done. You might already be doing these things, but probably not the way that I did.
1. Learn sentences
I learned Polish sentences, not individual words. For most of the Polish sentences, I had a translation into my native language – English. The translations were used to check my understanding. My aim was not to translate sentences, hence I never attempted to translate from English into Polish.
I created thousands of flashcards with these sentences on them. The Polish sentence was on the front and the English equivalent was on the back. These flashcards were electronic, not physical flashcards. Using electronic flashcards meant that I could bring them with me and study them wherever I went. Every time I had a spare minute, I studied my cards.
Thanks to Anki, the software I was using to make my flashcards, I saw the Polish sentence exactly when the programme’s algorithms calculated that I was about to forget what it meant. Each time I tested myself, I reinforced my memory, making it almost impossible to forget the meanings of the sentences. When I saw the sentence, the meaning came to me instantly after constant training.
The grammar myth
As a side effect of studying these flashcards, I discovered that when Polish people spoke to me, I could understand what they were saying. Through the exposure, my brain how worked out several of the grammar patterns and also the meanings of individual words.
I never explicitly studied grammar. Instead, I put the examples from a grammar book (and their English translations) into Anki. Once I could understand those sentences, I started to understand the grammatical structure too.
Once I knew about 2,500 sentences, I started practising speaking with natives. I knew that these sentence were cemented in my memory because Anki had marked them as mature cards – sentences which I’d remember even if you asked me what they meant in three weeks time.
That’s all I did and all I have ever done to learn how to understand Polish speakers. No lessons, no books and no audio courses. I tried a few books and courses, but I would usually give up after a chapter or two. They never worked for me.
2. Speak to people
Speaking to people has been the main contributor to my success. While I may have been able to understand what people were saying, it was only by practising my speaking that I actually learned how to speak Polish at all. Just like many Ukrainians and Russians who can understand spoken Polish, I was able to understand Polish despite not having the ability to speak the language myself.
I’d heard about language exchanges and decided to scout out a language exchange partner – a native who was happy to trade time speaking my language for time speaking theirs. I went onto a language exchange website and after messaging a few Poles on the site, I had more than 50 requests from people who would be happy to trade Polish conversation for English practice. I said yes to about seven people…which was at least four more than I should have agreed to chat with.
None of this was in person. Every conversation was done via Skype from the comfort of my own home. It didn’t cost me anything but my time.
My first language exchange was awful, but I persisted, using English to get my point across. After several language exchanges with my partner, Michał, I decided to look for another partner who I had more in common with and actually wanted to talk to. If there’s one thing that is really important, it’s enjoying talking to the person you’re talking to. Even if it’s difficult actually making conversation, you should at least like the person you’re communicating with.
Like dating, I’ve learned that it takes a few conversations for the awkwardness to fade and for you to work out whether you want to spend your time with this person or not. I like to have at least three conversations before deciding whether I want to commit or quit. One of my favourite people to talk to is a yoga-loving former librarian who is 40 years older than me. We have nothing in common
Informal tutors vs language exchange partners
Each language exchange partner had different levels of language proficiency and commitment which sometimes made organising conversations difficult. I was never sure if people would actually show up when they said they would. After 247 language exchanges, I finally made the decision to seek out a paid tutor – someone whose sole job was to speak to me in Polish (and only Polish) for as long as I paid them to do so. My tutor almost always showed up – if she didn’t, she wouldn’t have gotten paid.
I still flip flop between using informal tutors and language exchange partners for my speaking practice, especially since some of my partners have been extremely helpful. One thing is for certain though, practising my Polish with natives via Skype is the reason I can speak Polish as well as I can today. The more I practised, the better I became.
It’s not as simple as putting in the time though. It has to be concentrated effort, speaking only in Polish wherever possible.
If your speaking partner doesn’t give you feedback, it’s pointless having a conversation with them. Usually, if natives can understand you, they won’t correct you. To combat this, I explicitly ask my speaking partners to write down corrections if I make any mistakes or say something in a way that a native wouldn’t say it.
During the conversation, I read aloud the correct way to say the sentence. After the conversation, I take all of those corrections and put them into Anki. This allows me to learn the correct way to say the sentences and stops me from making the same mistakes again in the future.
The most important factor in learning Polish
There’s one factor which is more important than any other when it comes to learning how to speak Polish: Minimising the amount of time since you last spoke Polish. The more recently you spoke Polish, the better your Polish will be. If you leave it, it’ll become rusty and eventually you’ll forget it all. That’s why I use flashcards to get regular practice. While I don’t always practise every day like I should, the constant contact helps keep my brain prepared to switch into Polish at a second’s notice and use all of the words, structures and concepts that I’ve acquired over time.
This is just one of the reasons that many people recommend immersion. It keeps your brain in the language.
Khatzumoto explained it best with his boiling water analogy: “[L]earning a language is like boiling water. When the water has boiled, you have reached fluency. Thereafter, you can keep the water at boiling point with less input (of thermal energy) than it took to get it there in the first place. Where a lot of people right now fail with language-learning is, they try to boil water…but then they keep turning off the fire, and when they do turn it on, it’s only for a short time…so they wonder why their water isn’t boiling[.]”
Stay consistent and do a little bit to improve your Polish every day and you’ll see the results. Anki certainly helps, but conversations with natives who give you feedback are better.
With the benefit of hindsight, here’s what I would have done differently:
- Set a low limit on my Anki cards. Because I studied so many cards every day, the number of reviews I had to do got bigger and bigger taking more and more time each day. Instead, I would have set a low limit and studied my Anki cards for no more than 10 minutes a day.
- Had two informal tutors, one male and one female, instead of language partners. This would have given me more speaking time in Polish, plus the benefit of working with someone who has a vested interested in helping me speak better Polish. I’d have chosen two teachers, one of each sex, in order to practise using the masculine and feminine forms of the Polish language.
- Spoken from day one. I would have pulled up Google Translate next to my Skype window and used it to muddle my way through a conversation until I reached a point that I didn’t need to use it anymore. Even if I made mistakes, it wouldn’t have mattered as I’d then have been able to practise eliminating those mistakes in Anki much sooner.
How you can learn
This is just a small glimpse into the many things that I did to learn how to speak Polish. I haven’t gone into details here in order to keep things brief. If you’d like to know more, as well as receive a free copy of my ebook “Ten Top Tips To Instantly Improve Your Polish”, sign up to my free email course below.
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