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Don't Start Learning Polish with the Grammar!

5 Nov 2010
Adult students in a Spanish language classroom
Adult students in a Spanish language classroom. Photo by joeshlabotnik on Flickr.

When we were in Kraków, Poland, I met a lot of foreigners just starting to learn Polish. One of the main complaints was that Polish grammar is so complicated. Most Polish language courses, textbooks and teachers start by saying, "Learn all the grammar rules first and then we can continue."

This can kill your motovation and won't really get you any closer to your goal: to speak and understand Polish!

I started learning Polish in the traditional way. My first year with Polish was at the University where we learned all the rules for conjugating verbs and declining nouns and adjectives into all seven cases. We didn't learn much else. But I can't say it was a bad course -- I enjoyed it, the professor was great and I learned the grammar rules very well.

Of course, I'm a computer programmer. I like systems and rules. Polish grammar is a little like math with letters and words.

But even though I knew all the grammar rules, I couldn't use them in speaking. In fact, I couldn't say much at all, because I learned very little vocabulary in that whole year -- only enough to cover the grammar points. Even now, there are many rules which I know but still make mistakes with when speaking.

For example, I know its correct to say, "dużo Polaków pije herbatę". No question, I know it. But when speaking, I almost always say, "dużo Polaków piją herbatę" ("piją" instead of "pije").

How can you know the rules but not use them?

Rules are something you learn consciously. Speaking and understanding a language is something that happens unconsciously. (Some links to the linguistics behind this)

When you speak your native language, you think a thought then simply open your mouth and speak. When you listen to someone speaking, you don't dissect it grammatically, the meaning simply appears in your head. Completely unconsciously. You don't do any grammar mathematics.

Consider the grammar rules required to make this thought into an English sentence:

The situation: book (blue), person (female), to read.

The person is doing the reading, so they're the subject and in English subjects go first. The female 3rd person singular pronoun is "she", so we start with:

> She

Ok! Now, English is SVO, so the verb come next: "to read". Used with a person we drop the "to" and, oh yeah, its 3rd person singular, so we add an -s:

> She reads

The object is "book". In English, adjectives come before the nouns they describe. So its:

> She reads blue book.

Right! Wait, no.

Its happening right now, which is a different tense: present continuous. The formula for that is: be + present participle. The 3rd person singular form of "be" is "is" and the present participle of "to read" is "reading".

> She is reading blue book.

Awesome! Done...

Not correct you say? Let me get out the 20 page list of rules about the use of articles and decide to use one of those:

> She is reading a blue book.

And now speak!

To native speakers of English: Do you ever do that kind of thinking when you speak English? Nope! So, how do you expect to do it when speaking a foreign language? Also, I hope this helped you realize that English grammar is complicated too!

To non-native speakers of English: I plan to write an article about the use of articles. Don't worry if you have problems with them, they are very hard.

When and how to learn grammar?

Later and slowly! ;-)

Even after you learn all the rules, you won't be able to use them correctly. It will take time and exposure to the language to really use them unconsciously. So, why waste a whole year in the beginning to learn the rules first?

It can seriously hurt your motovation to spend a lot of time and energy learning the grammar, only to find out afterward that you still can't speak or understand much Polish!

Comming soon on LinguaTrek!

Articles on the same topic (getting started, Polish grammar) which I plan to write in the near future:

  • How to get started with Polish: If not with grammar, how should I get started learning Polish?
  • What grammar to learn first: Eventually, you will have to learn some grammar rules. Which ones should I learn first?
  • Good grammar resources for Polish: Once you are no longer a beginner, you will need to learn more and more grammar. Where can I find good information on Polish grammar?

Linguistic resources:

There is a lot of discussion in linguistics about the distinction between language learning (conscious) vs language acquisition (unconscious). If you want to get deeper into the linguistics, you can read this book online (free!) called Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning (1981) by Dr. Stephen Krashen. There are other, newer books available but not quite as free. ;-)

Anonymous's picture

[...] They do tend to complain about how hard it is to get the cases right. They try to do so much mental mathematics to speak and understand [...]

Anonymous's picture

[...] don't advocate starting to learn Polish by studying the grammar. But having a general idea of what the grammar is [...]

Anonymous's picture

[...] I've written before, learning Polish shouldn't start with grammar. You should start by doing a lot of listening, [...]

Anonymous's picture

[...] Occasionally I write articles about grammar (like I did last week). I always feel a little weird writing about grammar, because, in general, I don't advocate studying grammar, particularly not in the beginning. [...]

Anonymous's picture

[...] Don’t start learning Polish with the grammar! – An article on my blog where I try to convince you NOT to do what most Polish language courses do: focus on nothing but grammar for years before actually having contact with the real language. [...]

Anonymous's picture

[...] written an entire article about why this is a bad idea. [...]

Anonymous's picture

I could not agree more with your headline, which caught my eye while browsing Google page one. As a British English native speaker from Oxford, England I have spent the last nine years living in Poland.

During this time I have learnt to speak(Pigeon)Polish by avoiding the rules of grammar as at my age (69) I cannot remember all the different variations of plural and gender. My vocabulary comes from listening to others when they speak to me or about me! Then putting 2 & 2 together afterwards, when the moment has passed to comment!

My Polish wife is always correcting me by showering me with multiple grammatically correct words that just pass over my head! I know my lack of grammar makes me seem to be an unintelligent Brit to poles that don't know me but usually my knowledge of Polish is far greater than their knowledge of English!

I am glad I found this website so I will be back to read more!

By the way I am a Community Tutor with italki helping students mainly from Eastern Europe and the Far East with their oral and written skills. I have no formal qualifications but as you say "Unconscious" use of a language is far better than "Grammar mathematics"

Posted by: Morgan Madej (not verified) | Saturday, May 18, 2013 - 00:42
Anonymous's picture

I totally agree with you. Grammar is a horrible way to begin, especially when it is so complex, like in Polish. Just like you said, the best way is unconscious learning.
What I found to be an excellent way of learning is to read books that you are familiar with, and read parts of it out loud to practice prononciation. For example, I am learning Russian by tackling the Harry Potter books. I read them many times as a child in English so when I don't understand a word or sentence in russian I can infer the meaning based on what I know from the book. The first few chapters of the book were difficult, I used the dictionary very frequently, but by the end of the first book I understood around 95% of words on a page and could read through the pages effortlessly. One Harry Potter book took me from beginner level to intermediate, with very little effort on my part. Its so much more motivating and efficient to learn a language when its fun and you want to keep coming back to it.

Posted by: Ari (not verified) | Friday, August 9, 2013 - 00:34
Anonymous's picture

Firstly, everyone learns a language differently, has varying needs, capabilities and expectations etc.

Having said that, I think comparing Polish to English from a learning perspective is misleading. English as a language is based on context not rules; therefore, starting with phrases such as ‘I would like chicken and chips please’ or ‘where is the railway station?’ is the best way to get to grips with English. In fact, it is possible to learn practical English i.e. speak and communicate relatively quickly (English gets difficult at proficiency level) Polish is based on rules – as are most languages and are set apart from English. By this I mean that for example verbs are conjugated based on rules or maths as the above article suggests. If you get an ending wrong in Polish you will not be understood.

Therefore, learning these two languages should be approached differently. When I moved to Poland 9 years ago I ran from my first Polish lesson when the teacher presented me with a list of case endings and told me to learn them. I thought that this was the totally wrong methodology and it completely de-motivated me. I thought in my infinite wisdom that the ‘organic’ approach would work. I rejected Polish lessons and decided to learn from the streets and listening to people on trams and so on. I speak Polish, but realise now that I had made a serious mistake. My grammar is appalling and I still guess at case endings with the consequence that I get them wrong. Don’t misunderstand me, I can use Polish in all situations and have conversation on all topics, but! This is a big but, it is not beautiful Polish and I am still faced with the fact that I have to learn the rules – they cannot be ignored. Remember too that unlike English kids, Polish children learn grammar at school?

Put it another way my friends who have learnt the rules from the beginning are now reaping the benefits. Trying to learn Polish without having grounding in the rules is (if I may continue the maths analogy) like trying to add up or multiply before you can count to 10.

I agree that learning cases and verb endings is boring and difficult and even painful, but it will save you a lot of time and heartache in the future. I notice the author advocates not learning the maths first. However, I suggest that their Polish would not be as good as it is without this initial knowedge.

Do the hard work first! I am living proof that trying to cut corners (which is what it is) does not work. Polish, culturally and linguistically cannot be compared to English. So why try to learn Polish as if it were English. It is like saying swimming is like driving a car because they are both forms of transport.

An American friend once said to me about 5 years ago ‘learn the rules, you will have to face them one day, it might as well be now, they won’t go away.’ He now speaks beautiful Polish!

Posted by: Tim Barker (not verified) | Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 12:27
Anonymous's picture

Hello there :),
I totally agree with Tim regarding the Polish grammar.
I find myself in the same situation, its been two years in Poland and I still make a lot of grammar mistakes which is irritating and discouraging. I use to think that if I put a lot of hard work and concentrate on the language I will be able to speak correctly in a short period of time as it was in case of English and other languages. However, I must admit that Polish has turned out to be a hard nut to crack therefore a month ago I decided to take Polish classes which I expect will sort out the mess I have in my head.
I have all the words in my head but once I try to construct a sentence or articulate a storyline I end up wondering how particular words end.
I find the most difficult the cases, negative forms and noun gender.
My advice to anyone trying to learn Polish would be to take it serious, especially the grammar because once you learn something wrong I gets stuck with you and unconsciously you always say it wrong even though once you say it you are fully aware its wrong :).

Greetings,

Posted by: Bes (not verified) | Monday, October 14, 2013 - 02:01
David Snopek's picture

Hi Tim and Bes!

This is actually very different from my experience.

In the beginning I spoke really ungrammatically, but after lots and lots of listening it improved over time. I never felt like I was "stuck" - after each period of massive listening it got noticably better!

To put "lots and lots" and "massive" into context - each Harry Potter audiobook has 10-30 hours of audio (depending on the length of the given book). Also, with the earlier books I listened to some parts several times.

After completing each book, I could really tell that my sense for what was grammatical or not had improved. Of course, I'm still not perfect and make mistakes. :-) But it is always getting better! I don't make many of the mistakes I used to make all the time.

By comparison: I've pretty much "known" the rules to Polish grammar from the very beginning - my first year of Polish was learning nothing BUT grammar in a university course. However, all that study and "knowing" the rules really didn't mean I could actually use the grammar - in fact, I spoke totally ungrammatically! For me it was only when I stopped trying to use the rules and just experienced the language that I finally begin to improve.

I'm really not sure where the difference in our experiences come from... Living in Poland should allow you to listen to 30 hours of solid Polish without having to try too hard. :-)

Or maybe it's that you do all your Polish listening in situations where you need to accomplish something? So it's not the same as quietly listening to when you have time to really focus on the language? What do you guys think?

Best regards,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Monday, October 14, 2013 - 07:41
Anonymous's picture

Hi David,
My congratulations on your Polish skills :).

Well, I would say that different people have different approaches towards language learning, a given method its not suitable for everyone. However, I totally agree with you that listening to audiobooks or reading books it really improves your language skills and it makes it easier to express yourself.
I don't believe in grammar either, I rather prefer communication face to face, if you are capable of managing to be fluent whilst talking to people and be understood then well done :).

Polish is a flexible language unlike English therefore it's very difficult to deal with, especially if we are talking about a certain level of proficiency.
I personally am a bit embarrassed when I make grammar mistakes or am unable to explain something correctly which has a negative influence on my willingness to speak without been absolutely sure that I will speak correctly. It is a different matter when you are in the class room, where you are expected to mess around with the language. Another negative factor for me has been the fact that many people in Poland speak English and that makes me switch to English instantly rather than struggle with Polish which in the long run has a negative impact on your Polish skills :).
Anyway, I don't want to sound negative, I love the language and hope I will be able to command the language in the near future :).

Regards,

Posted by: Bes (not verified) | Monday, October 14, 2013 - 08:22
Anonymous's picture

Hi David and Bes

What I am trying to say is that due to the construction of the Polish language it would make more logical sense to learn the rules first. I agree that learning by listening is a fantastic natural way to learn a language. In fact I think I have learnt most of my Polish by listening to conversations on the tram. However, this method is painfully slow, a little hit and miss and I find that I never feel quite 100% in control of the language.

Furthermore, David mentioned that he had been on a course at the University where he was presented with just the rules. In my opinion, the problem here relates to the teaching methodology. i.e. learning rules without any practical application. I know of these types of courses and it seems that they are based on negative criteria as opposed to for example positive marking. Perhaps the real issue here is not whether we should learn rules first or not, but how they are taught. I hope you follow what I mean.

Bes suggested that Polish is a flexible language and English is inflexible. Surely, it is the other way round. English is based on context and any kind of word order or any piece of incorrect grammar can still be understood. This is why the whole world is able to speak English. I ask for forgiveness in saying this – let’s be honest most people speak it badly, but are understood and so it doesn’t matter. Get one ending wrong in Polish and everyone is confused.

If I may push my point further with an example. A bad speaker of English might say ‘with milk me wants coffee’ or even ‘to me give coffees milk’ Bad grammar, for sure, but most people should understand that the speaker wants coffee with milk. However, if in a Polish café I ask for ‘Kawa bez mlekiem’. What is it I want? Have I made a mistake meaning to say ‘kawa z mlekiem, which is with milk? Or have I made a mistake with the ending and meant to say ‘kawa bez mleka’ without milk? The result is that I have just confused the waiter who doesn’t know if I want with or without milk.

My point is that Polish is not flexible like English and herein lies the problem when it comes to learning it. Or perhaps I have misunderstood Bes?

Cheers

Posted by: Tim (not verified) | Monday, October 14, 2013 - 10:01
David Snopek's picture

Thanks for sharing, Tim! Actually, I think both English and Polish very flexible but in different ways. When speaking Polish I frequently "invent" new words and constructions ;-) - which other than being funny to Poles, are completely understood 90% of the time. Even when they're not, it's a good platform for discussing the correct way to say something.

The "Kawa bez/z mlekiem" is definitely a good example for your point! But I think examples that are that close are relatively rare. And in fact, there are situations in English too which are equally close and potentially ambigous (although, I don't have any examples at the moment - however, I've definitely encountered them while speaking with non-native speakers).

I definitely agree with Bes's point that different methods are better for different people. However, I stand by my experience that knowing the rules isn't actually what allowed me to speak grammatically (or at least more grammatically ;-)). Of course, I can't ever go back in time and undo that year at University, I feel like I'd be just as good if I had never learned the rules.

Thanks, Bes and Tim, for such a stimulating dicussion!

Best regards,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Wednesday, October 23, 2013 - 10:19

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