How I learn the Polish language

What has my language journey been like so far?

Am I even fluent yet?

And what must I do to actually improve?

So let's get one thing straight - I am not a language learning expert, I am not a teacher and I am not qualified to tell others how they should learn. I am just a guy who wants to speak Polish to a decent, conversational level. What I want to do here is just explain how I learn Polish, the methods that I use now and tools that I have used over the years. I have provided a number of links to useful material (none of which I am paid for - they are just sites I have used and found useful).

As I have written in other posts, I met Kinga in 2004. I was twenty four years old and so a long term relationship was not in my plans. I had no need or want to learn Polish at the start. Of course, like all stupid young men, I wanted to learn how to say the naughty, rude and vulgar words. The first sentence I learned was; "myślę ze masz seksowny tyłek". A very important phrase for me so that I could tell my girlfriend that I thought she had a sexy bottom! Other than that, I had no interest.

Over the next few months, I picked up all the basic greeting words and phrases and I'm naturally quite inquisitive, so asked Kinga what certain words meant. Especially if I heard them a lot. Just to be polite to Kinga's family I learned to say: cześć, dzień dobry, dziękuje and do widzenia and similar things. I then advanced to small sentences such as: "Mam na imię Adam", "Jestem Anglikiem" and "Nie rozumiem po polsku".

Above: The phrasebook Kinga's Mum bought me

My first Polish language book

We went to Wrocław for Easter 2005 and Kinga's Mum bought me my first Polish phrase book - it was a wonderful gift but I also remember thinking that I would have no interest in this language and probably wouldn't use the book. How wrong I was! I started to use the book as a dictionary just to translate words that I saw on the bus or on a shop sign. I then started making notes about simple verbs and referring to them each time I wanted to say something very simple like "I am going to the shop" and I would say the most basic form with no prepositions so would say something grammatically incorrect like " ja idę sklep" but Kinga's Mum knew what I was saying.

Above: Some of my early notes in my phrasebook

I used this book constantly and would take it with me when we went out, continuously making notes. I remember Magda (Kinga's Mum) and I were having a conversation over a cup of coffee in the kitchen. She would say something in Polish and used the book to translate it then I would respond by using the dictionary. I used to make all my notes phonetically, so that I could read them and pronounce them. I still have this book - it is a great reminder of where my language journey started.

My first Polish lessons

For a number of years, I didn't bother learning much more. I bought a few books and some CD's - I learned a few more basic phrases like asking for directions. I found that asking for directions was easy; the problem was understanding the person's reply! In 2013, I registered for Polish classes at evening school. I travelled every Monday to Oxford and had these beginners language lessons. It was a great way to meet like minded people who also wanted to learn Polish and they all had different reasons to learn. Some had Polish partners, one lady had a Polish father but had never learned to speak and other people were just taking lessons as they wanted to visit Poland. By the time I started the lessons, I pretty much knew all of the things they were teaching but my reason for attending this class was more about gaining confidence. I was hoping that speaking in front of all these strangers would help me to become more confident. This is still the biggest problem I have today - the fear of making mistakes.

Above: Magda with Kinga and the kids a few years ago

My unofficial teacher

Once I had completed the course in Oxford, I really wanted to get some 1 to 1 lessons. I didn't want to learn in a class with other students, I needed a teacher who could focus on my learning. I searched the internet but didn't want to commit to a teacher I didn't know or hadn't been recommended. Plus this was around 2014 and online teaching wasn't as popular as it is now. Oliver's Godmother, Magda, is one of our closest friends - just like family to us. She has always helped me with Polish - Mainly because she hardly ever talks to me in English even though her English is awesome. Magda is also a language learner and speaks: German, Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, English and Polish of course. Magda knew that I could understand many things so she pretty much forced me to speak to her and listen to her speaking Polish. In addition to this, Magda offered to have lessons with me online - we wouldn't have structured lessons but would just have general chit chat about the weather, family and things like that. Magda gave me a bit more confidence to talk and tried her best to get me to just try to speak and not to worry about grammar or mistakes.

Moving to Poland

In 2017 we moved to Wrocław for a one year 'trial' (I have lots of videos on YouTube about this if you are interested) although I was commuting and spending Monday to Thursday in the UK, I still wanted to improve my Polish. I had contacted Patrick Ney earlier on in the year and had some chats about Poland (this was before he was as popular as he is now - and rightly so) - Patrick had a video on YouTube about how he learned Polish which I found very helpful. You can find a link to Patrick's tips below:

Above: some basic flash cards I made

I followed most of the tips on this video and one of the tips I followed regularly was the use of 'flash cards'. The idea being that the card had a Polish word on one side and the English word on the reverse side. I made these myself and I would sit on my weekly, Thursday night flight from the UK to Poland and test myself using the cards. So I would see the word 'posiłki' for example and would have to remember this word meant 'meals'. I found this very easy but it was much harder to read the English side and try to remember the Polish word.

Above: Flash cards I made with sentences

I soon realised that learning just one word was not very useful, so I started to make flash cards with phrases and sentences. I thought that I could then change the nouns to make different sentences and this would be more useful than learning just one word. Again, I would pack these into my hand luggage and practice them when I was on my weekly flight back to Poland. This method enabled me to really build my vocabulary in quite a short space of time. I would also tailor these for my own use which is better than buying generic flash cards. I would make sentences about my life so that the things I was learning could actually be used in conversations.

Podcasts, radio & duolingo

I started to use Podcasts simply to listen to people speaking Polish. Often, I have to spend forty minutes driving to see a customer so I would use this time to listen to a podcast in Polish. There are quite a few now, but I found 'Polski daily' and 'Real Polish' the best. you can find links to both websites below. I often would listen to the Podcast and I would have an old fashioned voice recorder in my car. When I heard a word that I didn't know, I would record this word then check it when I got home.

Polish radio is something else I listen to in order to surround myself with the language. I often have 'Radio Wrocław' or 'Polskie radio Londyn' playing when I am cooking. I am not always fully concentrating on the words but just being surrounding by Polish helps I think.

Duolingo is another tool I use alongside the other methods I have mentioned. It's useful because it repeats over and over and also each 'lesson' can just take a few minutes so I often do them during a break at work or whilst in the bath. The free version can become frustrating as you quickly run out of 'hearts' if you make mistakes, which means you cannot continue learning until the following day. At the end of the day Duolingo want you to buy the full version so it makes sense. I'd recommend it just to use when you have a free few minutes.

My first Polish teacher

As soon as we moved to Poland, I asked my friends in Wrocław if they could recommend a good language teacher. There are plenty of schools for foreigners in Wrocław but I wanted private lessons and didn't want to travel into the city centre - I was only in Poland at the weekend so I didn't want to spend an hour on a bus to get into the city. My friend Anna recommended a lady named Magda (yes - I know this post is full of wonderful ladies named Magda) to me who taught English. Magda is an 'English as a foreign language' teacher and had never taught Polish to a foreigner before. We had a couple of conversations over text message and we agreed to have some trial lessons. I could then see if the lessons were what I wanted and needed and Magda could see if she actually enjoyed teaching Polish to this English guy. The first couple of lessons went really well I thought and Magda agreed to continue the lessons, so I assume she was happy with how they went too! Magda is a great teacher and she allowed me to tell her what I wanted to learn. The lessons would be prepared in advance and I always had homework which really helped. She continued to teach me every Saturday and this carried on for two years until we decided to return to England. What I found out after we left Poland, was that Magda had decided to complete a postgraduate qualification at university. I recently spoke to Magda and she tells me that she has almost completed her studies - she will then be fully qualified to teach Polish as a foreign language. I like to think I had a very small part to play in her decision!

Learning Polish now we are back in England

Before we actually moved back to England, I put a post on my personal Facebook page and also on The Super Commuting Dad Facebook page asking for any recommendations for Polish teachers in my town. I received a couple of emails and comments but none that really appealed to me. I really didn't want online lessons - after learning with Magda in Wrocław, I realised I actually enjoyed the face to face interactions. I decided to join a website called Verbling - a language learning platform where you could choose from a bunch of teachers. I started lessons and they were very good, reasonably priced and with a well qualified teacher called Paulina (she also runs the 'Polski daily' website I mentioned above where you can find lots of great information). I learned with Verbling for a few months then stopped around November time, planning to start again in the New year. Once 2020 arrived though, I was again adamant I not only wanted face to face lessons - I wanted some intensive lessons. By intensive, I mean three or fours hours per day. I felt that I was at the stage where I had developed a large vocabulary and a week of intensive lessons would give me the boost I needed. Again, I asked some friends in Poland for some recommendations and they again helped me out. I was given the name and email address of a teacher named Lucyna. She is based in Wrocław and we agreed that during the Easter holiday, we would meet for maybe three or four days of intensive lessons. I had planned to be in Wrocław with my family for Easter so this was ideal. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 virus had other plans; Poland closed it's borders, our flights were cancelled and therefore I could not meet Lucyna. I then received an email from her asking if I would like to try online lessons. I had been placed on the UK government job retention scheme (furlough) by my employer whilst they closed the building, which meant I was going to be spending the next few weeks at least, at home. A perfect time to learn whilst I had no distractions of work and plenty of time on my hands. Pus, I'm not the type of guy who likes to sit around and do nothing - I would rather be productive with my free time. We had our first lesson at the start of April and have been having two, one hour lessons per week. Lucyna is a wonderful teacher and we get on very well. She now understands my weaknesses and we work on them together - every lesson is planned, I have access to a Polish language learning portal and I get plenty of homework. I had a lesson today (Tuesday), our next lesson will be Thursday this week and I have two pieces of homework to complete. Once I have improved a little more, I'd like to train for a European recognised exam so I can officially say I have achieved a certain level of Polish. I have plenty of practice to get in before that time though! I do hope that we will manage to get to Wrocław in August as planned and if so, I will hopefully meet Lucyna for some intensive lessons.

Above: Some of my collection

This is my language journey so far - I seem to be collecting Polish language books at the moment. Some are too basic for my needs now and others are far too advanced that I haven't yet used them - but I will. I am very determined to have a great level of Polish within the next few years.

What could I do better?

Speak! My biggest problem is having a lesson then walking away and not speaking Polish. Even though my wife, kids, sister-in-law and many friends all speak this language. Partly this is just convenience - its faster to speak English at home, especially when you need to get your point across. Secondly, I still have that confidence problem - I just have to speak! I read, I listen, I watch and I have lessons but none of that is any good if I don't speak. I have to start speaking at home, it's a simple as that.

So to answer the key question at the start of this post: Am I fluent? No way! I do think however, that I am 'conversational', basically meaning that I can have conversations in Polish but I make lots of grammatical errors and occasionally I need something explaining to me in a simpler way. With Kinga's Mum for example, we only ever speak Polish to each other. She seems to understand everything I say even if I have to use hand signals and point sometimes. I can see that I have improved so much, especially since 2017 when we moved to Poland. I have lots of old videos on YouTube and when I watch some of them it is quite embarrassing but at least now I can spot some of the mistakes. If you are considering learning Polish but are afraid of taking the plunge of having online lessons - my advice is to just go for it. What's the worst that can happen? If you don't enjoy the lessons, stop them and find a new teacher. At least give it a go though, or you'll regret it. The most important thing is to enjoy the journey - if you enjoy it then it will be much easier for you to learn.

Below you'll find a link to an old YouTube video explaining the methods I talk about above.

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