The Polish language is often listed among the most difficult languages to learn, especially by Poles themselves, who take peculiar pride in this fact. Although Polish grammar is indeed tricky (especially for people who have no grasp of any Slavic languages), the obstacles facing learners of Polish are often exaggerated and discouraging. Here you can see a polyglot who has mastered the language and explains in flawless Polish why he disagrees with the popular opinion that Polish is the world’s hardest language to learn:
Why to Read in Polish?
Reading in a foreign language will consolidate and enrich your vocabulary as well as help you use the language in a natural way. In terms of learning Polish in particular, reading will help you navigate your way through the tricky terrain of orthography, which is notoriously difficult even for native speakers.
Polish pronunciation is another area that can be improved by reading passages out loud. Nursery rhymes are best suited for this exercise given that rhymes constitute a rough pronunciation guide, and rhythm makes it easy to learn them by heart. Later on, I will give you some examples of good Polish nursery rhymes.
How to Read in Polish?
Try to avoid relying on a dictionary excessively, as this will distract and frustrate you. It is crucial to choose books that are adequate to your level –you should be able to comprehend the gist of what’s being said even if you don’t understand every single word.
Brzechwa Dzieciom. Bajki by Jan Brzechwa
Jan Brzechwa is known to every Polish child. Children’s literature is probably the best place to start reading in Polish given its fairly uncomplicated vocabulary and structure. This volume contains every single fable ever published by Jan Brzechwan. It is beautifully illustrated by Jola Richter-Magnuszewska: the merging of text and image will give you a unique reading experience and aid your comprehension. Brzechwa dzieciom. Bajki comes in hardback.
Jan Brzechwa was the hero of my childhood, as my mum would read me Brzechwa’s stories at bedtime. My favourite ones include "Szelmostwa lisa Witalisa", "Przygody rycerza Szaławiły", "Baśń o stalowym jeżu", "Trzy wesołe krasnoludki", "Pchła Szachrajka" and "Kanato.” I would also learn some of them by heart in primary school. Nursery rhymes are particularly good for learning a foreign language, as they tend to be short and memorable. This means that working with a dictionary on new vocabulary is much less frustrating than in the case of novels. Learning nursery rhymes by heart is also a great way to boost your vocabulary and pronunciation.
Admittedly, some of Brzechwa’s nursery rhymes will be difficult for learners given his tendency to use diminutives and colloquial language. But this can be perceived as an opportunity to deepen your grasp of the Polish language.
Still not sure if Brzechwa is for you? Here you have a taster of his style:
Kruki i krowa
Dlaczego krowę nazwano krową?
Mam na ten temat bajkę gotową.
We wsi Koszałki, gdzie skręca droga,
Stała pod lasem chatka uboga,
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W chatce mieszkała stara babina,
Która na wojnie straciła syna.
Była więc sama jedna na świecie,
We wsi Koszałki, w zduńskim powiecie,
I miała tylko zwierzę rogate,
Zwierzę rogate i nic poza tym.
Zwierzę wyrosło pod jej opieką
I co dzień babci dawało mleko.
Babcia się zwała Krykrywiakowa,
Piła to mleko i była zdrowa,
A zwierzę, które wiersz ten wymienia,
Dotąd nie miało we wsi imienia.
Jedni wołali na nie Mlekosia,
Inni po prostu Basia lub Zosia,
Sołtys przezywał zwierzę Rogatką,
A babcia - Łatką albo Brzuchatką.
Nad chatką stale kruki latały,
Dwa kruki czarne i jeden biały.
„Kr-kr!” - wołały, bo babcia owa,
Która się zwała Krykrywiakowa,
Karmiła kruki i co dzień rano
Stawiała miskę z kaszą jaglaną.
Otóż zdarzało się też nierzadko,
Że zwierzę babci, zwane Brzuchatką,
Gdy swego żarcia miało za mało,
Kaszę jaglaną z miski zjadało.
Kruki dwa czarne i jeden biały,
Babcię wzywały, „kr-kr!” - wołały,
„Kr-kr!” - skrzeczały z wielkim przejęciem,
Rogate zwierzę dziobiąc zawzięcie.
Do „kr” ktoś dodał końcówkę „owa”
I tak powstała ta nazwa „krowa”.
Odtąd się krowa krową nazywa. -
Ta bajka może nie jest prawdziwa,
Może jest nawet sprzeczna z nauką,
Lecz winę tego przypiszcie krukom.
Pan Samochodzik i tajemnica tajemnic by Zbigniew Nienacki
Pan Samochodzik is a series of detective fiction books for adolescents. The title protagonist is an art historian who works for the government by solving crimes pertaining to the theft, smuggling, or forgery of pieces of art. The secret weapon of Pan Samochodzik is an amphibian; a car that can go by land and water. Pan Samochodzik has extensive knowledge of history, archaeology, art history, ecology, and even folk poetry and sailing.
In Pan Samochodzik i tajemnica tajemnic, Pan Samochodzik is trying to catch a smuggler of paintings. The investigation turns out to be of international importance as the smuggler appears to work in Vienna, Prague, and Czechoslovakia.
As a teenager, I used to be a voracious reader of the Pan Samochodzik series. The gripping plots and interesting characters would keep me awake till late at night. Pan Samochodzik is the Polish equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators – another juvenile detective series I was adoring at the time.
The language in Pan Samochodzik i tajemnica tajemnic is not overly complicated although I wouldn’t recommend these books to anyone below A2 level. Apart from improving the language, you will learn more about art history and the realities of living in a communist Poland.
Rozmówki polsko-polskie by Andrzej Mleczko
Andrzej Mleczko is a Polish illustrator known for his hilarious comic strips loaded with social and political satire. His illustrations have been published by hundreds of magazines, among others, by the Polish newspaper Wyborcza. This book is perfect for people who want to learn what tickles Poles; the book ridicules everyday situations and conversations in Polish restaurants, bedrooms, and surgeries. Moreover, the book will be perfect for learners of Polish, as it contains very little text and loads of pictures. This makes it very easy to look up new vocabulary in a dictionary.
I immensely enjoy Andrzej Mleczko’s sense of humour, although, admittedly, it is quite idiosyncratic. I found that Rozmówki polsko-polskie contains more culture-specific and everyday humour than Mleczko’s other works on the current political situation in Poland. Here you can get a free feel for the author’s style and sense of humour.
Nursery rhymes by Julian Tuwim
Julian Tuwim is another author of nursery rhymes that every Polish child knows. Among his masterpieces are ‘Lokomotywa’, ‘Rzepka’, and ‘Ptasie radio’.
As every Polish child, I used to know these nursery rhymes by heart. Tuwim’s masterful use of sound and rhythm makes it extremely easy to learn them by heart, thus broadening your vocabulary and practising this tricky Polish pronunciation. Admittedly, not all of Tuwim’s nursery rhymes will be easy for non-native speakers due to their idiosyncrasy.
Buying a collection of Tuwim’s nursery rhymes is an excellent idea, as they usually contain helpful illustrations. If you are looking for a way to start your adventure with Tuwim, I recommend Lokomotywa i inne wierszyki dla dzieci. I recently bought it for my little sister’s birthday, and I read it to her at bedtime. This allowed me to rediscover the childhood joy of encounters with Tuwim’s nursery rhymes. In addition, this book is brilliantly illustrated by Jan Marcin Szancera – text and image fuse into one unforgettable experience.
You can also read Tuwim online for free, as there are many websites that feature his work.
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Another way of learning a foreign language is to read translations of books that you are familiar with. In the case of English-speaking audiences, this is fairly easy, as most of the English masterpieces and lesser works have been translated into Polish.
I especially recommend reading children’s classics, such as Harry Potter. If you are anything like me, you will probably have read it multiple times already. The Polish translation is extremely good, and knowing the series in the original will help you get through it without looking up every single word. It may also be a good idea to have the original at hand to compare the two.