How To Learn Polish (For Russian Speakers)

A large part of the reason for my ability to rapidly pick up on Polish was the fact that it is a Slavic language, and as such, it shares a lot of similarities with Russian, a language which I already know quite well. I had already overcome many of the most difficult aspects of learning a Slavic language, such as noun declension and verb aspects. There are still many differences, and plenty to be learned — I myself hope to become fluent in Polish soon — but there's no denying that being a speaker of Russian gives a huge head start.

In writing

On paper, Russian and Polish don't look anything alike — they don't even use the same alphabet — so it would be easy to assume they're too different. But in actuality, the sounds in use are mostly the same. Russian is written in a Cyrillic alphabet, and there is only one sound per letter, with no digraphs, whereas Polish is full of digraphs and even has one letter (ż) with a matching digraph (rz) to make the exact same sound.

Most of the letters map up pretty easily:

Russianабвгджзийклмно
Polishabwgdrzzijklmno
Russianпрстуфхцчшщыэ
Polishprstufchcczszszczye

Polish does away with the hard and soft signs, though it retains palatalization on the most common letters. This is accomplished by use of the grave over the consonant.

Polishćńśźż
Polishцьньсьзьжь

While Polish frees you from the burden of those softened Russian vowels, they do introduce three new ones: two nasals (ą and ę) and the ó, which is essentially just a reduced o. And there is also a new consonant ł, which is more or less a glide over the u, akin to the w in English, but completely missing in Russian.

In practice, a handful of generalizations make the switch from Russian to Polish pretty easy:

  • Russian ть becomes Polish ć
  • Russian ль becomes Polish l
  • Russian л becomes Polish ł
  • Russian ю becomes Polish ę
  • Russian р becomes Polish rz when followed by e

Working with this small handful of over-simplified assumptions, it's easy to quickly get
up to a working use of the language based on guesses from your Russian knowledge.

For example:

Russian
Сижу около реки.
Polish
Siedzę kolo rzeki.
Russian
Вижу автобус на улице
Polish
Widzę autobus na ulicy

In speech

There are really only a few challenges in going to Polish speech from Russian, and they're not difficult to get past.

The most significant difference is that, unlike Russian pronunciation, Polish does not have vowel reduction. Every vowel is pronounced in its pure form, as it is spelled. This feels a little weird coming from Russian, but it's easy — just say it as it's spelled. Few rules could be simpler.

Russian, like English is a stress-timed language. But Polish is a syllable-timed language, like Spanish. Every syllable gets more-or-less equal timing. This fact actually makes most things easier to pronounce, because it's actually wrong to shove a bunch of consonants together. Syllable-timing usually goes hand-in-hand with a lack of vowel reduction.

And, on the topic of stress, Polish words find their stress on the penultimate syllable. But unlike Spanish, this is almost completely, dogmatically, robotically, always true. So true, in fact, that there are no accent marks. I have yet to encounter a single Polish word which is pronounced with stress anywhere other than on the penultimate syllable.

The aspect that I find most difficult with Polish was the lack of soft vowels. Changing my ye to e proves to be quite a challenge, but it gets easier to remember after repeating a word correctly a few times.

Also, in conjuntion with that, the implicit softening of certain letters when followed by an i was difficult to remember. In fact, particularly in the case of the letters c and s, Polish softening seems to have a dual effect of converting them to cz and sz (respectively), and then softening them. I find it really easy to understand this when I hear it, but incredibly difficult to remember when I speak.

Grammar

While there are a few constructs where the verb "to be" can be omitted in Polish, the copula is generally used, whereas it is almost never used in Russian, except for it's presence in "there are [thing]" constructs. As a native English speaker, this isn't terribly difficult to get used to, but I can imagine it would be as hard for a Russian as any other language is for them.

There are two grammatical differences between Polish and Russian which, in my opinion, give Russian a huge advantage in ease of use. The first of those advantages is the added attention to gender on plurals in Polish.

In Russian, genders are observed in the singular, but plurals are genderless. However in Polish, there is one form for plurals which include men, and another form for all other plurals. In practice the non-masculine plural is usually the same as the neuter single, so it's not difficult to form, but it's still difficult to remember the need to do so.

The second major grammatical difference, and no doubt the most frustrating, is in the formation of the past tense. In Russian, past tenses are easy to form, by just adding one of four endings to a verb stem to match the subject's gender. In Polish, however, you have 12 possible endings, consisting of six possible subjects plus two possible genders for each subject.

I have repeatedly found it quite difficult to remember this fact both on hearing others and in speaking myself... often to the point where even when I know a word, it doesn't register for me mentally. While everything else makes the transition a fairly easy one, this is the only detail which I have found to be a hindrance to understanding Polish as a fluent Russian speaker.

Summary

All in all, I think the path from Russian to Polish is a fairly smooth one — much more favorable than going in the opposite direction. I can imagine where a Polish speaker would have a lot of trouble going to the overly palatalized, stress-timed, and vowel-reduced Russian language with its unpredictable stress. Taking something that's unpredictable and making it formulaic is always easier than taking something formulaic and introducing a bunch of chaos.

Based on my experience of the four major Slavic languages, I find Russian and Polish to be the most distantly separated, with Czech and Ukrainian falling somewhere in between them. I imagine that with a strong knowledge of both Russian and Polish, a person should be able to drop into Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Belarus and immediately be able to communicate with little or no trouble at all, and picking up Ukrainian, Belarussian, Czech, Slovak, Macedonian, Bulgarian, or Serbo-Croatian should be extremely easy tasks.


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  • Very interesting information. You've demystified Polish (at least a little bit) for me. Though I don't think you're correct about how much knowing Russian and Polish would help one pick up Serbian. Obviously knowing Russian and Polish would help, but (in my experience), Serbian has some strange grammatical structures and vocabulary going on. But Slavic languages are so much fun, aren't they?

  • Nice guide! Remind me to look at this link when I finally get around to Russian. I don't know any Polish, but the few scrapes of Czech still in my head could get me ahead here. I could see the Czech-Polish similarities as I got by basically pretty well when I visited Zakopane for New Year's 2010.

  • Yeah, from what I know of Czech, it's remarkably similar to Polish.

  • I do love the Slavic languages... and moreso, the culture. I don't have much exposure to Serbian, so I admit my assumption could be wrong there, but I'll bet there's still a lot of similarity upon which a person could draw.

  • I'm interested in getting into the Slavic languages at some point, particularly Russian and Polish, so this is good to know, thanks. Also Czech and I see from your and Benny's conversation down there that it's also quite similar, so that's good as well. Where's Ukrainian in all this?Cheers,
    Andrew

  • So far, I have experience with Germanic, Romance, Slavic, and Turkic languages, and the Slavic languages are by far my favorite. I find them to be wonderfully logical and efficient, highly specific and expressive, and there is a beauty in them that's hard to describe.I don't have a great deal of experience with Czech, but after a basic look into it, it appears to share a nearly identical grammar, and practically interchangeable vocabulary, with the main difference being simply the fact that Polish stress is penultimate (like Spanish) while Czech stress is on the first syllable (like German and English).Ukrainian falls closer to Russian grammatically, and like Russian it has an irregular, moving stress, but it contains a lot of vocabulary from the Polish/Czech side. Also, of these four, Ukrainian has the most pleasant collection of phonemes, and it's really quite nice to hear spoken.

  • Well with that said, I've lived with Czechs the wife spoke English with them and when we visited the CR my wife couldn't communicate at all.I was told that Slovakian is sort of the link between the languages. I'm not sure what that means though..Czech is similar to the first half and then I suppose Polish is similar to the other half? lol

  • Yes Randy you are wrong. Serbian is like Death Metal where Polish is like Speed Metal. Completely different.

  • Thanks for the post, Randy.I absolutely agree on the fact that Polish looks both familiar and foreign to a Russian speaker. Most recently I experienced that feeling when listening one of the audio contributions on your blog. The text was strange, but the speech made quite more sense (not complete, of course, because there is still an issue of all that unfamiliar vocabulary). It was a bit weird and exciting.Anyhow, this is a great introduction to the language, I'll be adding it to my secret folder of cool stuff for the languages I have yet to discover.

  • I don't know how hard it is to learn Russian when you know Polish but you're not native. What I do know, that if Russian doesn't speak too fast, for Pole it's easy to understand him. The only difficulty is the vocabulary - there are some words which are completely diferent, like воскресенье/niedziela. But it isn't really a big problem. And while learning Russian the only difficulty for Poles is the alfabet.And about Czech - Poles have almost no problem in understanding it. The same thing in the opposite direction. Of course you won't get 100% if the other person speaks really fast, but you'll understand enough to talk about pretty much everything. However - you'd better avoid the word "szukać" while talking to Czech, use "hledat" instead.The same thing about Slovak. I believe American and British English differ more than Czech and Slovak.

  • Thanks, Randy, I really appreciate the analysis. It's so fantastic to know that these languages are all so related, it's very encouraging because you know that if you just learn one it makes learning the rest easier.Cheers,
    Andrew

  • Yesterday I started learning Macedonian, just for kicks, and I'm finding exactly what you said: knowing one makes learning the next easier. After Russian, I got a really good knowledge of Polish in just 8 days. Now, knowing both, I got a solid understanding of Macedonian in just 1. It's rather fun!

  • Yup, I think a lot of people underestimate how common this is with languages and how much it helps. I understand how different Spanish and French are (I took French in high school) but because the two are Romance languages and therefore there's a LOT of crossover in grammar and syntax, not to mention vocabulary, I definitely think that knowing Spanish will help me a LOT when I start learning French.

  • Even more than that, French and Italian are more than 90% similar, just with slightly different pronunciation and spelling. If you went Spanish to Italian to French, it would be a super-easy transition each time.

  • That's awesome :DI'm actually more interested in French and Brazilian Portuguese, Italian might be in the distant future...maybe Romanian, too, I'd have all the Romance languages then. And, of course, there's TONS of crossover between Spanish and Portuguese.

  • You should add Catalan to that list.Also, be prepared to Romanian to be quite unlike anything you know about Romance languages.

  • I'm 24 hours into Macedonian — which I understand is very similar to Bulgarian — and I'm already able to read and understand things, and even write simple (yet grammatically correct) responses without using a translator. Sure, there are a few new grammatical structures (postfix definite articles are neat!) and some vocabulary strangeness, but it's proving to be every bit as easy as I expected.

  • HAHAHAHAHAHAH

  • Hi, not sure if you're still interested :) but Polish does have some words with stress on syllables other than penultimate. All first and second person plural verb forms in the past tense (zrobiliśmy, poszliście...) find their stress on the third-to-last syllable (zroBIliśmy, POszliście). Same for words of Latin origin ending with -yka or -ika, such as graMAtyka, mateMAtyka, FIzyka. But I know, such exceptions sound pretty random :) and to be honest most people don't even know about them

  • If you are looking for easy polish learning, visit https://preply.com/en/polish... for more information!

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