What a foreigner learning polish must know?

I dedicate this series of articles to all my Dear Students who deeply fathom the secrets of the Polish
language. When I heard yesterday for about hundredth time : “Edyta, this is impossible!” , I decided
to react more comprehensively.
First, I have to tell you that learning Polish will always be very interesting because when you think
that you know something, the next day you discover list of exceptions, so with Polish you can expect
the unexpected!
Getting down to business I would like to start analyzing this problems from the very first lessons.
During the first few lessons students are surprised that the word “ No” which looks like English “No”
colloquially in Polish means “Yes”. “No” is also a method to start the phrase (like in English
“so”…”well”…). This use of “no” in Polish provides time for thinking as in: “ No i co tam”? (And… how
are you? And…what’s up?), or ”No to powiedz mi, jak było na konferencji”. (So…, tell me how was
the conference!) .
Another funny thing which often takes a foreigner learning Polish by surprise is the answer “fatalnie”
for a very neutral question like “Co słychać? (How are you?). It does not mean that somebody in the
family is dying. Rather Poles treat this question quite seriously and want to tell you all the truth
about their mood. It is probably strange for you to answer “fatalnie” to signify a little headache or
awful weather or problems with the boss but nothing really tragic.
Poles like to play with language and often mix neutral words with negative words. You will especially
hear a lot among youngsters: “Strasznie ci dziękuję! (I terribly, horribly thank you!) or even more
strange “Strasznie się cieszę! (I am terribly/horribly glad!), “Jestem strasznie szczęśliwa” (I am
terribly/horribly happy!). But my students love the answer “jako tako” (so, so) for the question “Co
słychać? (How are you?). In their opinion this is like element of Japanese in the Polish language.
What also confuses students a lot? The names of nationalities and countries in Polish. It take some
time to learn this. If we want to use the proper form, we have to change the form of the nationality a
little bit, for example: “Jestem Anglikiem.” (m)” Jestem Angielką.” (f) (I am English). “Jestem
Francuzem.” (m). “Jestem Francuzką.” (f) (I am French). “Jestem Hiszpanem.” (m) Jestem Hiszpanką.”
(f) (I am Spanish), “Jestem Włochem.” (m)” Jestem Włoszką.” (f) (I am Italian). “Jestem Niemcem.
„(m) “Jestem Niemką.” (f) (I am German). Words for nationalities are the nouns in Instrumental
form and we write them with capital letters. A very typical mistake is using the adjectives instead of
the nouns, saying: “Jestem angielski, francuski, hiszpański, włoski, niemiecki”. This is because the
translation in English is the same (English, French, Spanish, etc.) Hovewer, in Polish adjectives are
used for describe objects and products: „angielska herbata” ( English tee), “hiszpańskie miasto” (
Spanish town), “francuska kuchnia” –(French cuisine) , “niemiecki samochód” ( German car), not
Another question I have to answer very often is why the name of Italy and Germany are completely
different than in other languages. The name “Włochy” (Italy) comes from the German word “Walh”
which we took over and adopted in Polish in the past. The name “Walh” was the name for all the
Celtic and Roman tribes and later , in old Slavic language meant only the people from Italy. The
sources say that there was also word “Italia” in old Polish but it disappeared.

The name “Niemcy” (there is a similar form in Czech, Croatian, Russian, Hungarian) originates from
the old slavic core “niemowa”/”nie mówi” (mute, dumb person) which defined the people with
whom the old Slavians could not properly communicate, except through the use of body language
because they did not understand their very different language.
What else can surprise the students during the first sixty lessons? A lot of things.
Quite interesting is the fact that if we decline names, every name can have a minimum of 5 forms.
There is an exception for some names which we do not decline according to the grammar rules, such
as Lourdes, Grace, Mav, Deborah, Soledad, Dulce, Matthew, Andrew, Cesare, Jose. To demonstrate
this, let us decline the masculine name John and feminine name Yolanda. “To jest Yolanda, a to jest
John” (Nominative form – This is Yolanda and this is John), “Nie ma tutaj ani Yolandy, ani Johna”
(Genetive form – There are neither Yolanda nor John here.) -, “Życzę Yolandzie i Johnowi wszystkiego
najlepszego” (Dative form – I wish Yolanda and John all the best) , “Lubię Yolandę i Johna”
(Accusative form – I like Yolanda and John), „ Idę z Yolandą i Johnem na piwo” (Instrumental form – I
go with Yolanda and John for a beer), „Mówię o Yolandzie i Johnie” (Locative firm – I talk about
Yolanda and John), „Yolando! Johnie! Proszę tutaj! (Vocative form – Yolanda and John please come
I hope now you are more and more intrigued! Why, when ordering beer, do we have to change the
form with the number 5? (“Proszę 1 piwo” , “Proszę 2,3,4 piwa”, but “Proszę 5, 6, 14 piw”) Why do
we have so many forms of numbers? How do you not go crazy with figuring out the imperfective and
perfective forms of verbs in Polish? Which cases in Polish hide more secrets? I will give you the
answers for those questions soon.
Edyta Juszczyszyn
This article was published in “The Wrocław International”-THE FIRST LOCAL
RESIDENTS OFWROCŁAW, April 2011, Issue 6, ISSN 2082-730X