Your pronunciation is part of your personality. Your accent defines who you are – or at least part of it. However, if you want to be understood while speaking Polish, it’s important that your native accent doesn’t mask what you are saying. Although you may not necessarily want to emulate a Polish accent, achieving something similar will ensure that you’re easily understood. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to nail Polish pronunciation.
There are many ways to improve your pronunciation whilst speaking Polish, but all of them involve the same thing: Copying native speakers. Cantus agrees:
— Cantus (@_Cantus) 29 November 2016
@How2SpeakPolish If I say a word and they look confused then it’s a good indication I’ve said it wrong. Usually people are very helpful.
— Cantus (@_Cantus) 29 November 2016
To find out how to find a native speaker to practise with, read my post about conversation exchanges.
Even if you don’t have a native speaker to help you, there are other alternatives which I share below as well as the most effective ways to learn how to speak Polish with perfect pronunciation. Let’s look at a few useful techniques, starting with shadowing. (If you’re more a visual person, you can watch this video instead.)
Shadowing – how to do it
One of shadowing’s biggest proponents is Professor Alexander Arguelles. If you want, you can watch a video of him explaining the technique in detail on YouTube.
Personally, I’ve never had the time to watch the whole video (Does it really take a whole hour to explain?), but the general gist from the bits that I have seen is to listen to recorded audio whilst trying to say the words that you hear at the same time (plus there’s an additional part about walking that I don’t think anyone except the professor himself actually does). While a transcript isn’t compulsory, it certainly helps.
Why I don’t like shadowing, even though it might work
I’ve tried this method myself (although admittedly not for a significant length of time) and…I didn’t like it. Plus, I looked really strange doing it. It could be that my Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone book and audiobook combination just wasn’t a good fit. To be honest, trying to find transcripts for Polish audio is hard enough in the first place, so maybe shadowing just isn’t as suitable for Polish as it is for other languages.
I also think that there’s another reason I couldn’t stick with it – it was really, really, really hard. Even doing it in English, I struggle. Imagine watching a TV show with subtitles and trying to say the speech along with the characters. You’d never know when they were going to say a line or how they were going to say it unless you’d seen the show before and watched it over and over again…and that’s just boring.
Repeat what you hear
A better method to improve your Polish pronunciation is simply repeating what you hear. When you hear something in Polish, every so often, just try and repeat it out loud. Get your tongue moving – it’s all practice. You won’t catch every word at first, but it’s a good start.
Some people suggest that you should record yourself to find out where you need to improve. If you’ve got a native speaker to critique you, this might be a good method, but if you haven’t, I personally can’t see much benefit. Perhaps later on when you’re more aware of how words are supposed to be pronounced, you might be able to self-critique your own accent, but for many people, even the sheer thought of recording themselves would make them cringe. Surely there must be another way?
Sing your way to successful Polish pronunciation
Fortunately, there is a much better way – a far superior way of improving your accent that doesn’t look weird, doesn’t sound weird, doesn’t involve any recording, doesn’t require any critiquing and is actually fun. Yes, you read correctly – FUN! What is it? Singing!
Seriously – pick a Polish song you like, look up the lyrics and just sing along. You’re listening and repeating after a native speaker with a transcript, just in musical form. The closer you can mimic the artist performing the song, the more native you’ll sound. After all, they are native!
Does that mean that you’ll sound like you’re singing every time you speak? Of course not! But the more you practise, the more you’ll be able to pronounce things exactly how a native speaker would – even when speaking.
If you add the lyrics alongside their translations into Anki, you’ll learn all of the lyrics of the song as well as their meanings, meaning that you can sing along even without having a copy of the lyrics handy. Tone deaf? Sing in the shower, in the car or while walking the dog. No other humans ever have to know!
I cannot repeat this enough: The secret to improving your Polish pronunciation is imitating native speakers. That includes when they’re singing too. Singing along to Polish songs really does improve your pronunciation! Regardless of how bad a singer you are, get searching for some lyrics and sing along. You’ll soon see the effect on your speech. (Thank me later.)
Play music now and keep listening
Have you ever noticed that when you hear a song that you haven’t heard for a long time, you immediately know the words to sing along – even though you never actually tried to learn the words? That’s the power of music. Play music now. Put on any Polish song right this second. If you’ve ever had a song stuck in your head, you can get Polish stuck in your head too.
Music is the secret weapon of the successful language learner. Sure, it’s enjoyable to listen to, but Polish music also provides many additional benefits to those learning the language: Not only will singing along to the lyrics help you improve your Polish pronunciation, but listening to Polish music count as listening practice too. Plus, if you like the song, you’ll remember the words better. Here’s Dr Daniel Levitin of McGill University looking at why music has a special power over our minds:
Even if it’s the cheesiest song ever, providing it’s in Polish, it’ll still improve your listening skills. Keep listening to Polish music and learning new words from it. You’ll struggle to find a more enjoyable way to both build your vocabulary and work on your listening comprehension. (If you do, please tell me – I’d love to try it out!)
How to build your Polish playlist
If you aren’t sure how to start building your Polish music collection, here are three easy ways to find a range of Polish songs for you to listen to later:
- Search for the music genre on the internet. For example, if you were looking for Polish psychodelic rock, you could either search for “polish psychodelic rock” or, to find the Polish name of the genre, search for the article about the genre on (the English) Wikipedia and then click to read the article in Polish. Then you’ll be presented with the Polish equivalent (Rock psychodeliczny) which you can then search for.
- Browse popular charts. If you head to the iTunes store in iTunes, you can change your country to Poland and then browse the latest hit music. Not sure how to change your country? On a PC, click on the little flag at the bottom and then choose Poland. On a Mac? I’ve got no idea. Probably the same. (Maybe.)
- Listen to Polish language radio. The next sentence is very important. Pick one similar to what you would normally listen to, even if they play (mostly) English music. The DJs and the commercial breaks will be in Polish, meaning that you’re still increasing your exposure to the language. While not all of the music will be in Polish, if you hear one you like that is, you can use a music identifying service to find out what it is. Personally I use the Shazam app on my phone. There are plenty of other similar services, so find one that you like and get tagging.
Where to get hold of music
If you’re not content with just streaming songs via YouTube/Spotify/insert your favourite music streaming service name here, you can get hold of loads of tracks via the iTunes Store.
If you’re looking for physical copies, I’d suggest buying through a site like empik and getting it shipped to you. Since we live in such a connected age, I tend to just stream online and have only ever bought one Polish language music CD: Donatan / Cleo : Hiper Chimera*. It was totally worth it for the better sound quality, but unlike mp3s, you do have to wait a bit longer for it to arrive!
* As a birthday present for my wife, Anna. She’s a huge fan of Cleo’s music. I’m also a fan of Cleo, but for entirely different reasons.
Lyrics: The fun way to learn Polish pronunciation – even if you don’t sing
Songs are a great resource when it comes to learning Polish. Once you have found a few Polish language songs which you like, you can look up each one on a Polish song lyrics website so that you can both sing along and look up the words which you don’t know.
Where to find song lyrics
The easiest way to find lyrics for a particular song is by searching in your favourite search engine for the song name, artist and the word “tekst”. For example, if I wanted the words to find the lyrics to “Cisza” by Kamil Bednarek, I’d search for “cisza bednarek tekst”.
Some websites like Lyrics Translate even provide English translations for you. That makes it really easy to copy and paste the original lyrics and their translations into Anki.
The website that I tend to use is Tekstowo.pl. It’s a great resource to find correct lyrics for Polish songs. It also offers a translation option for many songs, although in my opinion, Lyrics Translate’s translations are of a (marginally) better quality.
Why you shouldn’t learn from songs alone
If you’re planning to learn to speak Polish solely this way, it’s not a good idea. Artists sometimes use slang or incorrect grammar in their songs which could therefore influence your speech. Also, as most songs tend to centre around certain themes such as love, money and partying, the chances are that you wouldn’t pick up on some of the vital vocabulary that you’d need to communicate on a daily basis. (Assuming that you don’t only want to talk about love, money and partying.)
Although lyrics shouldn’t constitute the bulk of your learning material, I still recommend adding them to your Anki deck in order to learn a new song and boost your vocabulary at the same time. By learning songs, you also have to remember the tune, voice and rhythm of the song which strengthens your memory. Ever wonder why you were taught the alphabet using a song? Learning from music has added benefits. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, memory expert Henry L. Roediger III, professor of psychology at the Memory Lab at Washington University in St. Louis, said:
A catchy melody encourages us to repeat it, which in turn leads us to commit it to our memory.
Of course, rather than inputting the song lyrics themselves to Anki, you could just add some sentences which contain the words in the song which you don’t know. That way, not only can you prevent your Anki deck from being overrun by love songs, but the grammar is also more likely to be correct. If you don’t have a decent translation of the lyrics themselves, I highly recommend doing this instead.
The benefits of learning Polish song lyrics
Learning song lyrics is beneficial for a variety of reasons:
- You understand what the song means. By reading the song lyrics alongside their translations, you make the song comprehensible. That means you actually understand the song that you’re singing.
- You expand your vocabulary. Sure, maybe you’re never going to use the phrase: “Szukaj u nas idealnych żon.” (“Search for ideal wives here./Search for ideal wives at ours.”), but pretty much every Polish song you listen to – even “My Słowianie” by Donatan & Cleo – should contain a few new Polish words for you to learn. If there aren’t any new words in the songs that you’re listening to, either you’re fluent already or not searching hard enough. (You’re probably not searching hard enough.)
- You learn the song lyrics. That’s right – you stop singing misheard lyrics like Anna does to EVERY SINGLE SONG. Instantly, the world will become a nicer, less irritating place.
Wouldn’t you like to know what they’re singing about in this video? Of course you would! Click here for an English translation of the lyrics and get learning! If you like music like this, you can get a copy of Donatan & Cleo’s album “Hiper Chimera” here:
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Which song lyrics couldn’t you translate?
The first time I tried this, I made great progress by adding the words from a number of songs, but then deleted them all. Why? After I encountered the “untranslatable” words “cząstkowiązałkom” and “polukruję” in “Wieliczka” by Hey. I now have a new, separate Anki deck just for Polish song lyrics. I don’t put any lyrics in there unless I have a translation.
Which song lyrics couldn’t you translate? Tell me in a comment below and we can try and work on them together!
Which Polish songs do you like to listen to?
Help me build my playlist!
I’ve been curating my very own Polish music playlist which I like to sing along to while I’m driving. Give me the names of some of the Polish songs that you like to listen to in the comments below so that I can add a few more to my list.
Singing isn’t for me. Any other alternatives?
If you hate all Polish music or don’t fancy singing either in public or in private, there are other options. Text-to-speech software, also known as TTS, allows you to input whatever Polish you’d like to know how to pronounce before reading it to you in a computerised Polish voice. They’re not perfect, but the voices on Google Translate and Yandex Translate sound near native and are definitely good pronunciation models for when you don’t have a (patient enough) native to repeat themselves over and over again. Try them out yourself – type something in Polish into the text box, select Polish as the language and then click on the sound icon to hear it pronounced. Replay it and repeat after it as many times as is necessary to nail down perfect Polish pronunciation. Short sentences work best.
What’s the most efficient way to pronounce words like a Pole?
The absolute best way to acquire an amazing Polish accent is to practise saying Polish tongue twisters. As even Poles struggle to say them, practising them until you can say them even remotely close to how they’re supposed to be said will work wonders for your Polish pronunciation skills and impress any of the Poles that you come across. Whenever a Polish person tells me how difficult Polish pronunciation is, I usually reply “W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie” and then go back to drinking my beer. After all, if you can say that, then you can say anything!
Don’t be discouraged!
Here was my attempt to take on the “nine most unpronounceable words in Polish” back in December 2016: żółć, szczęście, Pszczyna, następstw, źdźbło, bezwzględny, Szymankowszczyzna, Szczebrzeszyn and Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz.
If I can do it, so can you! (Even if I can’t spell Szymankowszczyzna properly.)
Want more? Read these.
- You’ll never learn Polish pronunciation from just reading about it, you need to actually hear it and practise saying the words and sentences aloud. However, Wikibooks does have a great guide to Polish pronunciation with descriptions and audio clips. Doesn’t get much better than that.
- Mówić po polsku also has a nice little pronunciation guide to help you with your Polish, but you might need to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet to really benefit.
- I never thought I’d link to a Duolingo forum post as a resource, but apscis’s reply about how to pronounce Polish’s notorious consonant clusters is so helpful and well through out that it makes me want to invest a way of sending beer through the internet.
- This is THE Polish pronunciation cheatsheet. Its English pinyin-esque transliteration might be a bit forced, but short of listening to audio, it’s a handy resource to work out if you’re even pronouncing things in the same ball park as the natives.
- If you’re looking for native Polish pronunciation audio, there aren’t many places better than Forvo. More than 131,000 words have been pronounced on its Polish pronunciation dictionary by a super useful 9,024 natives. (One native, “Wojtula”, is responsible for more than 45,00 of these pronunciations alone.) If there’s a particular word or phrase you’re looking for, check here first. And make sure you say thanks to Wojtula while you’re at it.
Who are your favourite artists?
Although it probably makes no difference whatsoever, you may want to only mimic those singers and rappers who are the same gender as you. Personally, I sing along to Natalia Przybysz, Monika Brodka and Cleo just as much as I sing along to Kamil Bednarek, Igor Herbut and Dawid Posiadło and so far no one has suggested that I talk like a girl. Whose songs do you like? Let me know in the comments!