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How to get started learning Polish (from zero!)

12 Feb 2013

When you're first starting a new language, everything is unfamiliar. There is sooo much that you don't know, it's hard to know where to get started.

The truth is: there's a million ways to get started... and most of them will probably work. However, some may go smoother than others. :-)

Today I'm going to give you my personal recommendation - based on my experience learning Polish!

Of course, I've already written lots of articles about learning Polish that would be useful.

Unfortunately, as a blog, these articles aren't organized in any particular way. When someone asks me for advice on getting started, I have usually have to send them at least a half dozen links. :-)

Today I'm going to organize this information into a short, step-by-step guide!

Read more for 5 simple steps to getting started with Polish!

1. Get your feet wet

At the very, very beginning, I recommend just getting a feel for the language.

Most language textbooks begin with the alphabet and some crazy explanation of what the letters sound like. For example: 'c' in Polish sounds like 'ts' in the word 'cats'. And so on for every letter.

However, it's going to be very difficult to imitate Polish pronunciation if you've barely had a chance to even hear it spoken.

Every language has it's own rhythm. A textbook can tell you that "stress in Polish almost always lands on the penultimate syllable of every word." But that stress pattern actually sounds like something!

Humans are designed to imitate rhythmic patterns. Before you can imitate, however, you need to spend some time hearing it.

I recommend spending a week or two just listening to Polish language in the background.

Here is an internet radio station that plays songs in Polish. There are several channels: click on any of the red buttons which read "Włącz to radio". The first one labeled "Tylko Polskie Przeboje" is Polish hits.

And here is a talk radio station - click on "Posłuchaj" (direct link).

You won't understand anything - but that's OK! That's not the goal of this first step.

2. DO NOT start with the grammar

Most Polish courses and textbooks go straight from the alphabet to grammar.

I've written an entire article about why this is a bad idea. :-)

However, knowing a little about what to expect from Polish grammar can be useful. This will help you to know what to look out for in the future.

Here is a Polish grammar overview for complete beginners.

3. Learn some simple phrases and vocabulary

There are lots of materials and products for learning some simple phrases and vocabulary in Polish!

I've written a few reviews of Polish learning products. The one I personally like best at this stage is Pimsleur Quick & Simple Polish. Click here to read my review!

You'll learn how to introduce yourself and order something at a restaurant. It isn't anything revolutionary but I like it because it's easy (which is important at the beginning) and it's audio only.

But there's lots of stuff out there! The main goal at this stage is to have fun, start learning something and not stress out too much. :-)

I recommend spending 2-4 weeks learning some simple words and phrases.

4. Start learning the alphabet

In my opinion, the best time to start learning the alphabet is after you already know some words and phrases.

Before you know any words, the alphabet is going to seem very abstract and it'll be difficult to understand or remember. However, at this point it will be practical and make more sense to you.

Luckily, the Polish is alphabet is actually quite easy! Even so, I recommend learning it gradually. Don't attempt to master it before moving on. That's why this step is "start learning" and not "learn". ;-)

Click here to read my full article about learning the alphabet.

5. Find some Polish content you love!

Here is where the real learning begins. :-)

I learned Polish primarily by reading and listening to the Harry Potter books in Polish.

You don't have to read Harry Potter. You could also watch TV shows, listen to music, talk with people or play video games.

In my FREE ebook, I write in detail about how to find the best content for you and how to use it to learn. If you subscribe to my blog, you'll receive an e-mail with information about how to download it.

However, my personal recommendation for someone who is just starting out with Polish, is Real Polish. (click here to read my review)

Piotr from RealPolish regularly creates free videos and podcasts for learners of all levels. He also has some paid products. I haven't tried them all, but the one I did was very good!

Anyway, no matter what content you choose, I recommend using the techniques from my ebook to learn from it.

After a few months, you'll no longer be "getting started" - you'll be well on your way to mastering Polish!

What next?

This is when it can be useful to take a look at the grammar rules from time to time. I wrote an article about the first grammar you should learn in Polish.

And, of course, all of my more advanced advice starts to apply to you! For example, how to get over your fear of speaking and how to practice speaking over the internet.

Are you just getting started with Polish? What are you struggling with? Or, if you're more advanced, what DID you struggle with in the beginning? Write a comment below!

Anonymous's picture

'it's hard to know where to started'
Tak jest w mailu. Where to start or where to get started, moim zdaniem:)

Posted by: Sylwia (not verified) | Tuesday, February 12, 2013 - 10:44
David Snopek's picture

Cześć Sylwia!

Dzięki za poprawkę. :-) To po prostu literówka w mailu - za szybko to napisałem. Niestety już nie mogę poprawić maila. :-/

Pozdrawiam serdecznie,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Tuesday, February 12, 2013 - 10:56
Anonymous's picture

Hey David,

Quick question about Polish content in Step 5. What do you think of subtitles while watching movies? Are they helpful or a hindrance?

Thanks,
David Isenhower

David Snopek's picture

Hi David!

This is a personal preference thing. I don't really like subtitles for language learning, because I can't focus on two things at once. I'm really either reading or listening, but never both.

Other people don't have this problem! There are lots of people who swear by the simultaneous nature of subtitles - but they're just not for me.

I'd say give it a try both ways: (1) film and subtitles and (2) film and transcript - and see which one works best for you!

Regards,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Tuesday, February 12, 2013 - 13:10
Anonymous's picture

This has nothing to do with the topic, but...I have found in one of earliest entries "don't do any" and so on. How it is really with "doesn't do", "don't do" being grammatically incorrect? Sometimes I don't get it...

Posted by: Piotr (not verified) | Wednesday, February 13, 2013 - 04:51
David Snopek's picture

Hi Piotr!

I'm not sure that I understand the question... All of the examples you gave are grammatically correct! Can you give a full sentance that's giving you trouble?

Also, this would be a great thing to ask about on the Bibliobird forum:

http://pl.bibliobird.com/forum

There's lots of people there who know grammar English well (including me!).

Regards,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Wednesday, February 13, 2013 - 05:01
Anonymous's picture

I think the most difficult part when learning Polish is the conjugation of the verb and the declension of the noun.
I mean not only the spelling or the grammar,but also the understanding of hearing.
For those who speak English,I think it is normal for us to recognize a word by it's ''sole''sound, which is, a vocabulary matches only ''one''sound/pronunciation.But in those languages which we need declensions or conjugations, the vocabulary become unfamiliar to us(or only to me?)because both the spelling or the sound/pronunciation change.It is not easy to catch because one infinitive verb or the nominative case of noun may turn into several forms and when others speak, you tend to miss it since the unfamiliarity exists.
I don't know whether non-English speakers have this kind of problem.
:-/ (for example Spanish or Italian speakers,maybe they have some skills already since their language inflect just as part of Polish does.)

Greetings from Tajwan,
Krzystof.

Posted by: Krzysztof/Morris (not verified) | Friday, February 15, 2013 - 02:47
David Snopek's picture

Hi Krzysztof!

Thanks so much for sharing!

Yeah, this can be difficult. Particularly with some words which change more than just the ending. Here are some random examples:

  • dotrzeć -> dotarł (this one drove me crazy when I was reading Harry Potter - I was able to guess from context what "on dotarł do miejsca" meant, but it was weeks before I found "dotrzeć" in the dictionary! ;-))
  • jechać -> jadę -> jedzie
  • artysta -> artyści

However, with enough exposure to enough words, it becomes easier and easier. The thing is, these changes are all systematic. There really is only a handful of possible ways that a word can change! In the beginning, it seems infinite because every new change is a complete surprise. But once you've seen them all, you can actually guess pretty accurately what the base form is, even for words you've never met before.

So, I think you're right when you say it's about acquiring the skills to recognize these things. If you've never had to do it in your native language (or other 2nd language you know), it may take you a little longer to even get used to the idea that words can change that much. :-) But with time it becomes second nature!

Thanks again for sharing!

Best regards,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Friday, February 15, 2013 - 11:06
Anonymous's picture

To be honest with you, this it the thing we're (Poles) learning at school when we're about 8 years old. Children normaly learn how to speak copying their parents, but you learn all grammar and ortography at school. And we learn it just like you do... declensions, conjugations, everything seperatly. When you catch all the exceptions in this how to use them, then you start to understand. There are lots of adults which dont speak proper polish, only because they 'didn't like grammar and ortography' at school, like for exempe we don't say 'poszłem', we say 'poszedłem', so don't be worry if you make a mystake. The rooth word you always recognize of the beggining of the world, because it mostly this same.

Sorry for my mystakes. I'm just learning english just as you're learning polish.

Posted by: Ania (not verified) | Thursday, November 21, 2013 - 08:24
Anonymous's picture

Hi David,

Wonderful post. It's so helpful to have a process to begin with when learning Polish. I am interested in picking up the Assimal Polish for English speakers but cannot find it anywhere. The Assimal sight seems to only have English for Polish speakers as does Amazon. Any suggestions whee I might find it? Your blog is very motivating and is packed with helpful advice.

Regards,
Michael

Posted by: Michael (not verified) | Saturday, February 16, 2013 - 01:24
David Snopek's picture

Hi Michael,

Thanks! I'm glad you liked it. :-)

I've heard a lot of good things about the Assimil courses in general, but I've never personally encountered a Polish for English speakers course. I just did a little Googling and only found a Polish for French speakers and a joke on a forum:

http://how-to-learn-any-language.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=31445&PN=11

Note the "C4: For beginners and false beginners" in the lower left corner of the image. :-)

But if you do track down the real course, please post a link here! I'm sure it'd be useful to other learners.

Best regards,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Saturday, February 16, 2013 - 08:39
Anonymous's picture

Hi David,

Hmmm, I`m from Poland so for me polish is easy and I never had a problem with this language. Sometimes I have only problem with spelling, but it's no surprised, Polish has a lot of different words.
I hope you`re polish getting better and better. :)But I think this article is good :) Well done for you :)

Posted by: Ada (not verified) | Saturday, February 16, 2013 - 10:38
David Snopek's picture

Hi Ada!

Thanks! It's always interesting to hear what Poles think of my articles about learning Polish. :-)

Regards,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Saturday, February 16, 2013 - 11:26
Anonymous's picture

Hi David

Have you heard about polish certificates http://certyfikatpolski.pl/ which are equivalents of english FCE, CAE etc. (here page with sheets: http://certyfikatpolski.pl/materialy/egzaminy/ ) You could try to do it. I've been wondering for a recent time how high score would you have if you did those exams. Maybe, would you even pass polish exam on level C2, equivalent of CPE, when your polish is so good?

Regards,
Rafał

Posted by: Rafał (not verified) | Saturday, March 9, 2013 - 16:25
Anonymous's picture

What I really appreciate from this article is the idea that, before starting to learn Polish or another language, it's important to try to catch its melody and intonation before dealing with grammar and anything else.

Anonymous's picture

It is well known that babies start speaking when they understand 70-80% of what they hear. So we probably need to achieve that level of language comprehension before even trying to say a word?

Posted by: Aleksejs (not verified) | Thursday, April 18, 2013 - 12:20
Anonymous's picture

This is interesting - I didn't realize this! Thanks for sharing.

Jeff

Posted by: Jeffrey Nelson (not verified) | Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - 00:00
Anonymous's picture

I agree that biggest mistake in language learning is to start with grammar. It's the most boring thing when it comes to learning a new language.

It should be learned when you are already good in conversation. It should be used to improve knowledge

Posted by: Vladimir (not verified) | Monday, May 6, 2013 - 08:11
Anonymous's picture

[...] http://www.linguatrek.com/blog/2013/02/how-to-get-started-learning-polis... (Even though this is about learning polish specifically it has some really good incite that supplements the last link) [...]

Anonymous's picture

I suppose that if you learn Polish you should have a dictionary and some other apps on your smartphone. It helps me a lot. I can study in a bus or tram.

Posted by: Grzegorz (not verified) | Wednesday, June 26, 2013 - 02:30
Anonymous's picture

I agree to some degree with the grammar. I feel like the first step in language learning is to get 'comfortable' with the new language. To get to a point where when you hear it/see it, it doesn't seem like something so incredibly foreign. Once you get to that point, the learning seems to go smoother.

My two cents :)

Jeff

Posted by: Jeffrey Nelson (not verified) | Monday, August 26, 2013 - 23:56
Anonymous's picture

For years I've studied Russian -- taken all the Pimsleur courses, Michel Thomas, studied the grammar, etc., but I have never been able to speak it. Is it me, that I have poor language skills, or what? Having met no success with Russian, I am now trying to move to Polish. One thing I've learned about languages: if you don't admire the culture, then don't study the language. I have lost a lot of respect for Russian culture. Polish people, I admire. Never, ever have the Polish people been cruel and warlike. In fact, just the opposite. I'm hoping I'll have better luck with Polish than I've had with Russian. Only problem I'm having is that I feel my poor little brain not big enough to hold so many languages. Will learning Polish cause me to lose my knowledge of Russian?

Posted by: Dan (not verified) | Monday, September 2, 2013 - 13:17
David Snopek's picture

Hi Dan,

It's unlikely that it's because you have "poor language skills" - I also studied Spanish for 6 years and learned pratically nothing, then studied Russian for 3-4 years and only got to an intermediate-ish level. It was only with Polish, when I drastically changed my approach, that I had such success.

There's likely something stopping you, for example: fear of speaking, not enough listening, lack of vocabulary, etc. There's loads of potential problems.

Have you read my free ebook? I'd recommend reading it and seeing if it helps you figure out where you're stuck.

Will learning Polish cause me to lose my knowledge of Russian?

That depends on your level of Russian. The higher your level, the less of it you're likely to lose. I made a similar transition (from studying Russian to studying Polish) and, unfortunately, I lost a lot of my Russian - but not all of it!

I wish you the best of luck with your Russian and Polish!

Regards,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Tuesday, September 3, 2013 - 07:43
Anonymous's picture

I am new here & i am polish-american, i want to learn polish 100% & go there one day. Where can i get started to learn?

Posted by: Nick (not verified) | Friday, November 29, 2013 - 12:57
David Snopek's picture

Hi Nick,

Well, I hope you found the advice is this article useful! It gives a few pointers on where to get started. :-)

If you want get more of my advice, I really recommend my free ebook. You can get it by subscribing to my blog:

http://www.linguatrek.com/subscribe

I hope that (along with the links in this article) helps!

Regards,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Saturday, November 30, 2013 - 16:05
Anonymous's picture

Hi everyone

My name is Arek I am from Poland. I am looking for a person who are interested in language exchange. I can help you with polish and I am going to make progress with my english as well. I have studied english for six months I am not able to speak fluently at the moment but I understand a lot what people say. If you are interested in language exchange send me a message.

Great
Arek

Posted by: Arek (not verified) | Thursday, December 19, 2013 - 08:57
Anonymous's picture

I move to disagree with your point regarding grammar. For many learners grammar feel intimidating and that's why they will be glad to skip it at first.

But without grammar, the only thing left is to memorize phrases and sentences as they come which, in my opionion is not that effective.

It does not hurt to learn the basic grammatical rules first and start constructing simple sentences. Thus, grammar can be learned along with the other aspects of language i.e. vocabulary and pronunciation patterns.

Posted by: Krimo (not verified) | Saturday, January 18, 2014 - 16:43
Anonymous's picture

I created an app that might be useful for people that start learning polish. The app contains a number of flash cards for learning polish words. Of course it is for free.
If you wish to give it a try it is here: http://openflashcards.org

Enjoy your day :-)

Posted by: elrayoverde (not verified) | Friday, January 24, 2014 - 09:45
Anonymous's picture

I have just started attempting to learn Polish within the past month. I know someone who is fluent in Polish, but it is still difficult to get going. I have attempted to learn German in the past, so I can see the similarities and that makes things a little easier.

I have attempted to start with the grammar route and it is so intimidating I almost gave up. I tried conjugating the present tense of 40 verbs or so and got so frustrated because there didn't seem to be any rules! I'm going to try reading/listening to Harry Potter and see if that helps.

What I have found so far in my month of starting out, I can read/recognize a lot of Polish on the page and understand the gist of what the sentence is trying to say, but I can't pronounce or reply to anything. I'm hoping that will change within the next couple of months.

Also, the link for 'Real Polish' is no longer working. Does anyone have the new link?

Posted by: Kelly (not verified) | Monday, January 27, 2014 - 05:17
Anonymous's picture

A ja chciałabym podszkolić swój Angielski czy mogę? Chętnie porozmawiam z kimś po Polsku i Angielsku

Posted by: malgos2805 (not verified) | Sunday, February 2, 2014 - 11:51
Anonymous's picture

Interesting. I learn languages differently, mainly by focusing on grammar (I actually learn languages for the grammar, I just adore noun declensions and verb conjugations. I have this obsession with it... am I weird?) But I never achieve speaking until I spend a lot of time on it after focusing on grammar. I enjoy it, though.

Posted by: evelyn (not verified) | Thursday, February 20, 2014 - 18:51
Anonymous's picture

David, I am so glad I found your site!!! I have been learning Polish for a while now (on and off) and even though I'm not starting from nothing this page has been very useful already! I'm headed to Poland this summer (finally!) and I'm so glad to have this kind if resource!

Thanks again!
Jolene

Posted by: jolene (not verified) | Saturday, May 10, 2014 - 20:30

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