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The Definitive Guide to Learning Polish

Plac Zamkowy, Warsaw, Poland. Photo by Alexey Topolyanskiy.

Polish has never been known as an easy language to learn. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it the most difficult in the world (as some do), I can’t help but feel admiration for all those determined to become fluent in my native tongue.

Before we get into the details, let me make this clear: learning Polish requires effort, and I can’t offer you any shortcuts or magic bullets.

If you’ve never learned a Slavic language before, you’ll need some time to get used to the many quirks, nuances, and exceptions of Polish. At times, you will feel stuck, confused or perhaps even defeated.

But none of this means you can never reach fluency. If you put in the work and see obstacles as part of the process, every single day will bring you closer to your goal.

The purpose of this article is to guide you through all the important aspects of learning Polish and show you the best way to achieve fluency. I hope the techniques and resources I’ve gathered here will make the language seem much more approachable, and one day you’ll be able to speak it with great ease.

This article comes with a companion piece: The Best Resources for Learning Polish. Be sure to check it out to find an extensive list of resources that will help you learn Polish in the best way possible.


Contents

The basics

Tips and strategies

Final words


The basics

If you’re just starting out with Polish, you might feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of courses, apps, and learning strategies available to beginners.

Instead of jumping right into the language, you find yourself browsing dozens of websites and checking out several apps before finally settling on something that looks “good enough”. By the time you’re done, you feel tired and discouraged.

This is clearly not the optimal way to start your adventure with Polish.

When you’re taking your first steps, you want to minimize the friction and build positive associations with the language, not tire yourself out researching the available possibilities.

To help you navigate through all this complexity, here is a small selection of resources and activities that should work for most beginners.

Use Duolingo to get a feel for the language

The Duolingo Polish course is one of the most popular routes taken by self-taught beginners, and for a good reason. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable, user-friendly way to quickly get introduced to the basics of the language.

Sure, Duolingo might not be the perfect long-term solution that will satisfy all your language needs, but I would still recommend it to every beginner who is looking to kick-start their language practice.

With Duolingo, you hardly have to worry about anything. The app dictates the order of lessons, decides what vocabulary you should review at any given moment, provides you with immediate feedback to help you improve, and even reminds you to practice every day.

Duolingo’s exercises involve translating sentences with the help of vocabulary hints, matching words to their translations, arranging jumbled words into sentences, and listening challenges. Even with its heavy focus on translation as a teaching technique, there is still enough variety in the lessons to develop a solid foundation of basic language skills.

Duolingo teaches you vocabulary and grammar through simple translation drills

For a beginner, I would recommend doing somewhere between two and six lessons (or review sessions) every day. Finishing the entire tree should teach you about 2000 Polish words and all the basic grammatical structures.

Finally, to avoid common mistakes and make the most out of your practice with Duolingo (or any other similar app), try to follow these three simple rules:

  • Don’t practice too much in a short period. Finishing 15 lessons in one sitting is definitely an overkill. Your brain needs time to rest and process what you’ve learned, so try to space out your learning sessions accordingly. Many people find it optimal to practice with the mobile app whenever they have a few minutes to spare, whether they’re commuting or waiting in a checkout line.
  • Don’t rely on Duolingo as the only way of improving your language skills. As soon as you’re done with the basic skills, start mixing Duolingo with other types of practice—the number of available options will only increase as you make further progress.
  • Don’t make it a point of honor to finish the entire course. Being awarded with Duolingo’s Golden Owl won’t take your Polish to a whole new level—in fact, you’ll probably start experiencing diminishing returns towards the end of the tree. If you’re not finding the practice useful or enjoyable, give yourself a permission to quit and move on to other activities.

Learn the Polish alphabet

Apart from the standard Latin letters that you already know, the Polish language has nine distinct characters that denote its specific sounds.

Don’t ever think of replacing Polish diacritics with “vanilla” Latin characters (e.g. writing zolty instead of żółty). You’ll develop poor habits that will result in frustration and miscommunication.

A systematic list of all Polish letters along with their pronunciation can be found in the Wikipedia article on the Polish alphabet. The table covers everything you should know as a beginner, and even points to the closest equivalents in the English language.

I highly recommend checking out the animated Foreigner’s Guide to the Polish Alphabet, even if you’re already familiar with the Polish characters. It’s a treasure trove of useful and interesting information on Polish characters presented in a pleasant visual way. Pay special attention to the chapter on digraphs and trigraphs (combinations of two or three characters that denote a single sound).

These two basic resources should be more than enough to make sense of the Polish alphabet. Of course, you’ll still need to work on pronouncing the sounds, but more on that in the next section.

If you’re wondering how to type Polish characters on your keyboard:

  • On Windows, set up Polish (Programmers) as your default layout with the help of this simple guide. Switching the layout will enable you to enter Polish special characters by pressing right Alt + the respective Latin character (press Alt + L to get Ł, and so on).
  • If you’re on a Mac, follow this guide.
  • On mobile devices, simply add and enable the Polish language in your text input settings.

Study pronunciation early on

Polish orthography is largely phonemic, which means that individual letters consistently represent the same sounds.

In other words, the key to pronouncing each Polish word lies in its spelling. There’s only one catch: to benefit from this wonderful feature of the Polish language, you’ll need to learn the rules of correct pronunciation first.

Knowing how to pronounce all the individual letters and their combinations (there aren’t that many of them) will let you pronounce every Polish word, even if you’ve never seen or heard it before.

If you think about it, the skill we commonly refer to as “pronunciation” is actually a combination of two distinct skills.

The first component is knowing what sounds you need to produce to say a particular word.

Thanks to the phonemic nature of the Polish alphabet, most learners find it fairly easy with some practice. If you’re familiar with the sound represented by the digraph cz in words such as cześć (“hello”) or klucz (“a key”), words like cząsteczka (“a particle”) will no longer seem like unpronounceable strings of jumbled consonants.

A beginner’s guide to Polish letters and their pronunciation can be found at Mówić po polsku. Don’t rely on the English approximations in the table—make sure to listen to all the audio examples in the table, or simply watch the short video Polish Alphabet & Pronunciation.

Mówić po polsku pronunciation screenshot
Though you might be tempted to rely on English approximations of Polish sounds, you should always listen to recordings of native speakers pronouncing the sounds

The second component—and this is where it gets tricky—is knowing how to correctly pronounce each of the word’s individual sounds.

Sure, if your only goal is to be understood, you’ll be perfectly fine pronouncing the Polish cz just as the initial sound in the English cheese. However, if you don’t want to give away that you’re a foreigner the second you open your mouth, you’ll have to learn how to pronounce it the Polish way.

This applies to many other Polish phonemes as well. Most English-speaking learners need plenty of practice before they learn how to roll their tongue when pronouncing the r sound.

Even “plain” vowels such as a and o and consonants such as d and t are articulated a bit differently in Polish than what you’re used to. And then there are the nasal vowels ą and ę, which can’t really be compared to any English sounds.

If you’re serious about getting fluent in Polish, you should learn correct pronunciation as soon as possible. Once again, it’s all about building good habits early on.

A good first step would be watching this 40-minute YouTube playlist of seven lessons introducing Polish sounds one by one made by Tiengos. The videos are short enough to hold your attention while covering all the important points. Ideally, you should repeat every sound after the speaker.

If you’re ever unsure about how to pronounce a particular Polish word, there’s a simple way to find out: search for it on Forvo and listen to the audio recordings uploaded by native speakers. If that doesn’t help, you can also check Wiktionary, which has recordings for a quite large number of Polish words.

For more resources to help you learn Polish alphabet and pronunciation, check out the Alphabet and pronunciation section in our extensive resource list.


Tips and strategies

Once you pick up the basics and start feeling a bit more confident, new exciting ways of interacting with the language will become available to you. If you’re just a bit lucky, you should be able to find a learning strategy that is both effective and engaging.

Of course, ambitious learners will not shy away from activities that challenge their skills and make them a little uncomfortable—after all, this is exactly how you make fast progress.

The resources, techniques, and areas of focus described in this section should help you develop a solid learning routine that will take you all the way to fluency. Give them a try, see what works best for you and stay consistent in your practice—you’ll see significant improvements in no time.

Practice declension and conjugation in context

Let’s be honest: to a learner like you, Polish declension might seem like a complete mess.

The seven cases, three genders and two numbers that determine a noun’s ending add up to a staggering 35 combinations. Sure, the endings might be identical in some cases, but you’ll still need to know which ones these are. As if it wasn’t enough, other parts of speech—such as adjectives, numerals, and pronouns—each have their own endings as well.

Even if you somehow manage to memorize the endings, it won’t help you much when you’re not sure what grammatical case you should use in the first place.

Polish conjugation has its quirks too. It’s not that hard to find pairs of seemingly similar verbs such as spać (“to sleep”) and stać (“to stand”) that take different endings in the present tense (compare the first person forms śpię and stoję), only to revert to the original similarity when conjugated in the past tense (e.g. spałem and stałem).

How could you even begin to make sense of this? Should you just accept the fact that you will never learn to speak good Polish without memorizing entire declension and conjugation tables?

Heck no. While you might want to consult the tables quite regularly, staring at them for hours won’t do much for your conjugation skills (and sanity).

The best way to learn declension and conjugation is to simply keep interacting with the language. If you regularly expose yourself to well-formed Polish sentences, your brain will start to pick out the correct endings for the most common words without much effort.

It’s all a matter of intuitive pattern recognition. The more you read and listen to the language, the stronger your intuitions will get. This is why as soon as you learn the basics, you should start looking for ways to stay in touch with correct Polish. I’ll share some actionable ideas in the sections below.

However, if you’re an ambitious (or just plain impatient) learner, you may not want to wait until your brain finally “gets it”. There are certain things you can do if you want declension and conjugation to become second nature as soon as possible.

Most of all, you should seek opportunities to test yourself, even if you still feel that your Polish is atrocious. Research has made it clear: you’ll much more likely to memorize a piece of information if you quiz yourself, get the answer wrong and receive corrective feedback, rather than just read about it without any engagement on your part.

So how do you go about self-testing your declension and conjugation skills?

Fill-in-the-blanks exercises are a great place to start. You can’t go wrong with the old-fashioned way: find a good grammar book with an answer key, read up on the theory and go through the exercises, each time comparing your answers with the key. Many learners recommend 301 Polish Verbs, which focuses exclusively on conjugation.

If you’d rather avoid the hassle of buying a textbook, there’s another option that should be at least as effective.

With the language learning app Clozemaster, you can practice filling in the blanks (clozes) for thousands of sentences. Since the feedback provided by the app is immediate, you’ll be able to quickly weed out errors and reinforce correct conjugation patterns, which should translate into a considerable return on your time investment.

If you’d like to test (and improve) your declension skills, Clozemaster’s “Nouns” and “Adjectives” Grammar Challenges will let you practice this competency in isolation. Your task is to carefully consider the context and choose the correct form of a specific noun or adjective. This mimics the decision-making process that you go through each time you speak or write in Polish.

Clozemaster Grammar Challenge screenshot
Clozemaster’s Grammar Challenges let you practice declension and conjugation in meaningful contexts

In the “All Verbs” Grammar Challenge, you can specifically practice conjugating Polish verbs in all tenses. The app also offers separate Grammar Challenges for each of the most difficult types of Polish verbs, among others imperative verbs, verbs of motion, and verbs in the past tense.

Thanks to the combination of mass exposure and testing, the thousands of sentences in Clozemaster’s database should help you build a solid intuitive understanding of the Polish grammatical system.

To make sure you’re learning from your incorrect answers, compare them against declension and conjugation tables. These become much more helpful once you have some context for the word you’re checking.

Here’s another tip to help you improve your grasp of verb forms: whenever you learn a new verb, try to quickly conjugate it in at least one of the tenses (ja maluję, ty malujesz, on maluje, and so on). Don’t forget to check if you were right—immediate feedback is key to effective learning.

The easiest way to check a word’s declension or conjugation is to search for it on the English Wiktionary—it has complete and well-annotated inflection tables for thousands of Polish words. Pretty decent conjugation tools can also be found at bab.la and Cooljugator.

The Noun cases section of the Polish course on Wikibooks is probably the most concise guide to grammatical cases you can find online. You might also want to take a look at the pages outlining most common noun declension patterns in the masculine, feminine, and neuter gender.

To help you learn how to decline adjectives and pronouns, I’ve compiled all the essential information in the post Understanding Polish Adjectives and a series of seven articles focusing on various types of Polish pronouns on the Clozemaster blog.

Finally, if you’re looking for a quick overview of the key verb conjugation patterns, Mówić po polsku has separate articles for each verb tense: Present tense, Past tense, Future tense.

The earlier you start explicitly practicing Polish declension and conjugation, the sooner you’ll be able to consistently choose the correct word endings, which should leave you free to focus on other aspects of the language.

If you’re looking for resources that would help you understand Polish grammar better, check out these grammar explainers listed in The Best Resources for Learning Polish.

Immerse yourself in the Polish language

Using flashcards and language learning apps is a great way to learn a ton of useful phrases—but if you’ve never heard them uttered by a native speaker, will you feel confident enough to actually use them?

A few decades ago, in order to surround yourself with a foreign language, you had to physically move to another country, enroll in an intensive course or go on a scavenger hunt for materials such as textbooks, audio tapes, and foreign language fiction. Those looking to learn less popular languages (like Polish) had to make do with whatever they could find.

Nowadays, ambitious learners can immerse themselves in a constant stream of foreign language content without leaving the comfort of their homes. Television series, movies, blog posts, books, audiobooks, podcasts, music—if you put your mind to it, you could fill every spare second of your time with Polish.

The availability of foreign language content is just one reason why immersion has become so popular among self-taught language enthusiasts. Let’s be honest—for a vast majority of learners, watching movies or listening to podcasts is simply much more enjoyable than traditional language learning activities such as browsing flashcards or studying grammar books.

Because of this, opponents of immersion discount it as an “easy way out” that makes time-killing feel like meaningful progress. However, they tend to miss one important fact: weaving some entertainment into your routine can be an effective way to build positive associations with the language and motivate yourself to keep learning.

If you’re engrossed in the plot of a television show (however silly or naive it might be) or genuinely interested in the topic you’re reading about, your brain will be naturally inclined to work harder when processing the language. A useful expression heard from a movie character is more likely to get stuck in your memory than one uttered by the robotic voice of a language learning app.

Regularly exposing yourself to spoken and written language is the best way to develop an intuitive grasp of everyday Polish. So what should you be reading, watching or listening to? Let’s break it down bit by bit.

Reading practice

To spare you the frustration of having to look up every second word in a dictionary and getting lost in the convoluted sentence structure, I recommend that you start with a few beginner-friendly text types:

  • Children’s books and young adult fiction. These tend to use simple vocabulary, so following the plot shouldn’t be too hard. For free e-books, check out the collection of fairytales at Wolnelektury.pl (under the “All matching works” header), as well as the children’s literature and young adult literature collections at Wikisource. You could also try to get your hands on the Felix, Net i Nika series, the Pan Samochodzik series or the books on adventures of Tomek, all of which make for engaging young adult fiction.
  • Books you’ve already read in your own language. Reading Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings in the Polish translation won’t teach you anything about the Polish culture, but it’s still effective as a way of staying in touch with the language. Knowing what to expect, you’ll be able to punch above your weight and understand vocabulary that would otherwise baffle you. If you own copies of the book in both languages, having them open side-to-side will make it easier for yourself to interpret the Polish text.
  • Wikipedia articles. The trick is to stay away from technical articles (unless you’re really interested in the topic) and focus on the introductory parts. Once you’re done with the introduction, click any link in the text to jump to the next article. This kind of semi-random exploration can be pretty entertaining and should result in exposure to diverse vocabulary.

If you’d like to take your reading practice to the next level, be sure to check out Cloze-Reading at Clozemaster. This nifty feature turns passive reading into a much more interactive experience: each sentence in the text becomes a cloze exercise, requiring you to fill in a gap with the correct word. 

By default, Cloze-Reading gives you access to hundreds of Polish Wikipedia article introductions turned into cloze-texts. As I’ve mentioned before, Wikipedia intros are just perfect for expanding your vocabulary—and Clozemaster’s approach based on the testing effect only makes them more useful. Each time you quiz yourself on a word used in the text, you greatly increase the chance that you will memorize its meaning.

But Wikipedia articles aren’t all that Cloze-Reading has to offer. One of its recently added functionalities (currently in beta) lets you upload your own texts and convert them into interactive cloze-texts. This means you can fully customize your practice and fill in clozes in virtually any material that you’d like to read—just paste in your text and give the app some time to process it.

On top of that, Cloze-Reading has instant in-text translations for individual words and entire phrases, which will save you the effort of searching in a dictionary. This is a game-changing improvement that makes it much easier to focus on the text and decipher its meaning. You can also see example sentences for each of the words you highlight, making it much easier to put them in context.

Clozemaster Cloze-Reading screenshot

Clozemaster’s Cloze-Reading feature lets you upgrade your reading practice by turning your reading materials into interactive cloze-texts

If you keep reading learner-friendly material and expanding your vocabulary, your need to consult the dictionary will gradually diminish.

When you start feeling like you’re reading to learn rather than learning to read, you can start engaging with more difficult material—bascially anything that seems like a good source of useful vocabulary or is somehow relevant to you.

Don’t limit yourself to “serious” reading materials like books or long-form articles. To expose yourself to all kinds of written Polish, you should read across a wide range of contexts. Try reading various forums, personal blogs, Facebook fanpages, user comments under online articles, and other types of texts that are likely to use a more informal tone.

If you’d like to see more specific reading suggestions, take a look at the Reading materials section in the post The Best Resources for Learning Polish.

Listening practice

Hearing Poles using the language in everyday situations is quite a different experience to listening to a speaker carefully enunciating each word in an audio recording.

In the beginning, you might not even be able to tell where one word ends and another begins—and that includes both everyday speech and learner-directed materials.

The easiest way to get past this initial hurdle is simply to listen to a large number of sentences and test yourself on comprehension.

This is where Clozemaster’s Cloze-Listening mode comes in handy. The feature has been designed to help you practice picking out individual words: after hearing a Polish sentence, you’ll be asked to fill in a gap by choosing the word you’ve just heard. With its huge database of sentences and quick turnaround, Cloze-Listening will let you get tons of practice in a relatively short time.

Once you feel more comfortable with Polish speech, you can advance to the next level and shift your focus towards longer audio pieces, preferably those targeted at learners.

But before you move on, it is important that you understand the difference between active listening and passive listening.

Active vs. passive listening

In active listening, the audio content gets your full attention. Since you’re not doing anything else, you can carefully contemplate the meaning of each sentence and catch things you would otherwise miss.

When you listen passively, your attention is divided between listening and other tasks. This includes activities that aren’t cognitively demanding, such as cleaning the house or playing a simple video game. The level of your engagement with the recording might vary throughout its duration—in other words, you’ll most likely tune in and tune out as your attention turns to other things.

So which mode of listening should you emphasize when learning Polish?

I can tell from experience that active listening brings noticeable results much faster than passive listening. If your goal is to improve your comprehension as fast as possible, that’s where you should invest your time. To make active listening even more engaging, try taking notes, summarizing the contents or testing your comprehension—this will stop your attention from drifting away by constantly keeping you on your toes.

Passive listening has its place too, as it can easily be squeezed into your daily schedule. Put on a podcast or an audiobook whenever you’re doing chores, commuting or showering—your mindless activity will become a little bit more entertaining, and you’ll make some extra progress in learning Polish.

Whether you’re listening passively or actively, be mindful of your attitude. You can’t expect to always catch all the details. In the beginning, you’ll mainly be listening for the gist, and even that will require a lot of guesswork. Don’t get discouraged if some recordings prove to be too difficult for you. Even failed attempts at comprehension will bring you closer to your goal.

After listening to simple Polish speech for dozens of hours, you should be ready to tackle “the real thing”. But don’t rush to consume just any spoken content you can find—just as with reading material, various types of media will vary in their “learner-friendliness”.

Ideally, you should aim to supplement your learning with both pure audio content (podcasts, audiobooks, music) and audiovisual media (TV shows, movies, short videos). This way, you’ll expose yourself to various kinds of language, from the rather formal Polish used by radio presenters and audiobook narrators, to the colloquial tone of soap operas or vlogs. And of course, you’ll soak up some Polish culture too.

Pure audio content—for both active and passive listening

When it comes to improving your listening skills, you can’t go wrong with audio content such as podcasts or radio shows. Their focus on the spoken word makes them very versatile. Whether you’re at your desk, on a bus or in the garden, a mobile device and a pair of headphones will be enough to arrange both active and passive listening practice.

Polish radio

Polish radio is a rich source of news and general interest content presented in clear language. Of course, you don’t have to tune in to a particular frequency, or even own a radio. Most radio stations broadcast their programs online, which means you’re literally two clicks away from listening to live broadcasts straight from Poland.

If you’re going to listen to just one radio station, make it one of the programs broadcast by Polskie Radio, the Polish public radio. To start listening, go to Polskie Radio’s online player and choose one of the stations at the top. Jedynka (news and music) and Polskie Radio 24 (news) tend to have the most spoken content. Beginners might also want to check out the kids’ station Polskie Radio Dzieciom, as the language used there is much simpler.

To learn more about Polish radio stations, check out the relevant section in the article The Best Resources for Learning Polish

Polish podcasts

Another way to expose yourself to spoken Polish (and interesting information) is to start listening to Polish podcasts.

There are plenty of podcasts that cater specifically to foreigners learning Polish. The most basic ones use short snippets in Polish and follow them with explanations in English, while others are pretty much regular podcasts, albeit with a slower rate of speech and simplified vocabulary.

First, you’ll need to pick a specific show—here are a few quick recommendations:

Real Polish podcast screenshot
With over 300 episodes available, Real Polish is one of the best resources for listening practice

Once you decide to give one of them a try, queue up a bunch of episodes in your podcast app, press play, and enjoy. Of course, you can also listen to individual episodes straight from the podcast’s website or even download them to your hard drive. Some are also available on YouTube and Spotify.

Most podcasts focus on a specific area of interest, which is why many people find them so engaging. With a huge number of podcasts available free of charge, you should have no trouble finding something for yourself—even in Polish.

Try to check out at least a couple of them, and remember you don’t have to start from the very first episode. Podcasts tend to get better with time, and you can always come back to the early episodes later.

Polish audiobooks

While podcasts are great for picking up colloquial expressions, audiobooks are usually full of more formal, literary language.

Another thing that differentiates them from podcasts is their length—it is not unusual to find audiobooks which are 20- or 30-hours long. This makes them much easier to manage, as you definitely won’t be forced to look for a new audiobook every single day.

Probably the largest catalog of free Polish audiobooks can be found at Wolne Lektury. To see the available titles, look under the heading “List of the audiobooks”. These include fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen (page 1 of the list) and the Brothers Grimm (page 4), translations of Robinson Crusoe, The Jungle Book and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Henryk Sienkiewicz’s young adult novel W pustyni i w puszczy.

Polish music

Listening to Polish music may not strike you as the most obvious thing you can do to improve your comprehension, but it is still an effective way to regularly expose yourself to the language.

I’m sure you know how it feels to get a piece of a catchy song stuck in your head on repeat. If you start listening to Polish music, you can make this work for you: each persistent earworm will leave behind a trace of useful Polish vocabulary.

The easiest way to have an endless stream of Polish music served straight to your device of choice is to play an online radio station. For exclusively Polish music, check out RMF Polskie Przeboje and Radio Wawa.

If you’re a Spotify user, you can type in “Polish” into the app’s search bar to quickly access a wide selection of playlists with Polish music of various genres. This should work in other streaming apps as well.

Audiovisual content—for active listening

Audiovisual media are somewhat less flexible than pure audio content, as following the events on the screen requires your full attention. Because of this, I mainly see them as learning materials for active listening practice.

Probably the most reasonable way to incorporate Polish video content into your schedule is to substitute them for the media you usually consume in your free time. For example, if you’re used to watching YouTube at breakfast, check out what’s new on Polish YouTube every once in a while. If your idea of a relaxing evening is watching TV shows on the sofa, put on a Polish series for a change.

Note that if you’re looking to improve your listening skills, you don’t necessarily have to limit yourself to content produced in Poland. Here are the four main types of media you should consider, ranked from the easiest to the most difficult:

  • Polish content subtitled in English. This is where you should start. Try to focus your attention on the audio as much as possible. If you have no problems following the plot, force yourself to take your eyes of the subtitles and see how much you can make out from the audio.
  • English-language content subtitled in Polish. It certainly won’t be the core of your practice, but if you’re watching something anyway and have the option to turn on Polish subtitles, it doesn’t hurt to give it a try. If you’re lucky, you might catch some useful expressions while peeking at the bottom of the screen.
  • Foreign content voiced/dubbed in Polish. Poland has a long voice-over tradition, so many foreign programs released on the Polish market have their dialog read by a single voice-over actor. You can use it to your own advantage—since voice-over is usually enunciated very clearly, it should be easier to follow than normal speech or dubbing. On top of that, you can decrease the difficulty of this task by watching Polish translations of movies you’ve already seen in English.
  • Polish content with no subtitles. This is your end goal. If you’re able to comfortably watch content with Polish audio and no subtitles, you should be really proud of your comprehension. But of course, that’s not the end of the road—staying in touch with Polish multimedia will help you keep your skills sharp.

Polish television and movies

The number of Polish soap operas and other television programs available online these days is truly remarkable. There are several local streaming services that you can use, and most of them offer a wide selection of free content.

The one I recommend the most is vod.tvp.pl run by Telewizja Polska (TVP), which provides easy access to nearly all of the public broadcaster’s programming. You can pick any of the series available on the platform and watch all episodes (except for the most recent one) without paying or even registering.

With TVP’s huge library of soap operas, movies, and documentaries, you’ll have access to more materials than you could ever process. Unfortunately, there is no option to enable subtitles, so you’ll have to rely solely on your listening skills.

If you find it hard to choose anything particular, I recommend checking out Poland’s beloved TV series Ranczo. It’s a family-friendly comedy set in a small Polish village, with plenty of light-hearted humor and quintessential “Polishness”.

Vod.tvp.pl gives you access to hundreds of Polish TV shows and movies that can be streamed for free

Note: If you live in North or South America, you might not be able to access vod.tvp.pl (though you could probably still experiment with proxy).

If you’d like to get a taste of Polish cinema, take a look at the lists of most critically acclaimed Polish movies at IMDb and Filmweb.pl and see if you can get your hands on them (the more popular ones should have English subtitles available).

Some of the Polish classics can be streamed for free from Adapter, a site financed by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. Adapter’s movies have been adapted for the visually impaired and hard of hearing, which means they come with an audio description track and Polish subtitles.

To learn more about Polish VOD platforms and see more suggestions for things to watch in Polish, check out the Multimedia section in The Best Resources for Learning Polish.

Polish YouTube channels

Watching Polish YouTube is probably the most casual way to expose yourself to spoken Polish online. Pick a video and press play—whether you intend to spend 5 or 50 minutes there, you’ll have no problems finding enough content to keep you going.

For beginners, there are a few good channels putting out learner-friendly content in Polish. The two most popular ones are MrRealPolish and PolishPod101, and they both have dozens of videos covering diverse topics and catering to various levels of proficiency.

A great way to combine learning with entertainment is to subscribe to Polish channels publishing videos on topics that interest you. Here are some suggestions taken straight from the companion post The Best Resources for Learning Polish

Finally, you might also simply check what’s popular on Polish YouTube, though don’t expect to find any highbrow content there. It’s mostly about viral videos, pop music and memes.

While most videos don’t offer pre-made subtitles, you can use YouTube’s auto-generated subtitles on every video to make it easier to follow.

Use frequency lists to identify valuable vocabulary

Most language courses introduce new vocabulary by grouping them into topics—one lesson will teach you expressions that might come in handy when talking about time and date, while another will focus on vehicles and transport. This approach has its advantages, and it certainly makes it easier to create engaging course content.

However, many of the crucial expressions in a language cannot be neatly sorted into categories and topics. As a result, they are introduced in a half-baked way somewhere late in the course, or they slip through the cracks altogether.

When you’re at the beginner or intermediate level, being able to recall a relatively simple word like żartować (“to joke”) or wypadek (“an accident”) might mean the difference between getting your point across and being completely misunderstood.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the 80/20 principle: in many settings, 80% of results can be attributed to just 20% of the effort. This rule can also be applied to the context of learning foreign vocabulary: the vast majority of the potential meanings can be expressed with a minority of the words in the language’s lexicon.

Mastering the fundamental Polish vocabulary is a necessary step on the way to an intermediate, or “conversational” level of proficiency. If you suspect you might have missed some important Polish words, the most reasonable solution is to run through a couple of frequency lists and identify the missing parts.

Here are two Polish frequency lists you can scan to find common words that you haven’t learned yet:

While both lists are slightly contaminated with words that just don’t belong, spotting them shouldn’t be that hard.

If that isn’t enough for you, you can also take an English frequency list and work your way back from there, checking whether you’re able to recall the Polish equivalents of the words in the list. In that case, I recommend using this 2000-word excerpt from the New General Service List.

Another noteworthy source of important vocabulary is phrasebooks. While they may not be as objective as frequency lists, they’re biased towards conversational, idiomatic expressions (which isn’t such a bad thing after all). The phrases are often divided into topics, which makes it easier to find the vocabulary that is most relevant to you.

If you can’t get your hands on a good paper phrasebook, use the phrase banks at Forvo and Travel Polish—though they don’t have as many phrases as traditional phrasebooks, they all come with clear audio recordings.

Learn better with spaced repetition

Identifying words and phrases that are most worth your attention is just the first step towards building a strong foundation of essential vocabulary. To make sure that you can recall it when you need it the most, you’ll need to work on committing it to your memory.

For this reason, many learners decide to collect their vocabulary in flashcard software such as Anki—and this is also what I recommend to anyone who encounters new vocabulary on a regular basis.

Anki is one of those rare cases where a free computer program is arguably the best solution in its category. It lets you enter your own vocabulary and build flashcard decks that you can later study and review, just as you would with paper flashcards. To access your flashcards, you can use Anki’s desktop and mobile apps, as well as the AnkiWeb client—the entire collection will be automatically synchronized between your devices.

Though Anki has many powerful features and customization options, you don’t need to know or use them in order to take advantage of the app’s most important component: a spaced repetition algorithm.

Spaced repetition is a learning technique in which reviews are spaced out at intervals that have been found to work best for retention. The intervals are meant to compensate for the forgetting curve—the natural pace at which you forget information if you don’t review it. Thus, Anki’s implementation of spaced repetition will optimize your review sessions, helping you make the most of the flashcards you’ve gathered.

Aside from new vocabulary that you’ve stumbled upon when reading Polish texts or scanning frequency lists, you can also use Anki to memorize grammatical information, such as verb conjugation or noun declension patterns. 

Anki Polish screenshot
Though most learners use Anki to learn vocabulary, it can also be used to memorize the tricky aspects of Polish grammar

Once you create your own Anki deck, memorizing new vocabulary will become as easy as adding it to the deck—just remember to review it regularly, and the system will take care of the rest.

Clozemaster: harnessing the power of frequency lists and spaced repetition

Introducing frequency lists and spaced repetition algorithms into your everyday practice is a great way to take control of the process of expanding your Polish vocabulary. But what if you are still not satisfied with the number of new phrases you’re learning, or simply don’t have the time to build your own deck?

While Anki lets you download decks created by other learners, their selection of vocabulary seems somewhat random. Moreover, using a deck prepared by someone else takes away the context that you would most likely have if you had found and added the vocabulary yourself.

The language learning app Clozemaster solves both problems. The order in which it teaches you vocabulary is based on its frequency, and each new word appears in the context of a realistic sentence. What is more, Clozemaster uses spaced repetition system to determine the best moment to review sentences that you’ve already seen. All this combined makes it an efficient way to enrich your vocabulary with relatively little effort on your part.

Of course, there is no reason why you couldn’t use Clozemaster in parallel with your own vocabulary deck stored in spaced repetition software—the app won’t eat up much of our time anyway, as even 5 or 10 minutes daily are enough to go through dozens of new Polish words.

Practice speaking by chatting with Poles online

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to study the language for years (or even months) to start using it in conversations. Your ability to communicate your thoughts in the language is not simply the sum of your skills in areas such as vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.

Too many self-taught learners skip the “speaking” part altogether. When they’re finally forced to use the language in a real-life situation, they often find themselves unable to formulate a coherent response to a simple question—despite all the months they’ve spent cramming vocabulary and practicing grammar.

Staying in touch with native speakers of Polish—preferably by arranging friendly video chats—will help you develop your communication skills and prepare you for all kinds of situations.

Let me be blunt: your first attempts at talking in Polish will probably be awkward or even embarrassing, and there’s hardly anything you can do to ensure that everything goes swimmingly. However, the one thing you can do to make it less stressful is to adjust your expectations. Keep reminding yourself that those first steps are supposed to be hard—and that’s why you’re taking them in a safe, low-stakes environment.

Finding speaking partners

The growing popularity of online communities bringing together language learners from around the world makes it really easy to find people who are willing to exchange languages, or just chat with you in their native tongue.

Polish is no exception: many Poles are looking for someone to practice their English with, and will happily help you with your Polish in exchange.

To find Polish-speaking partners, browse sites such as HelloTalkSpeaky, Interpals, or Meetup. Though each them offers slightly different features, the basic premise is always the same—find a person whose profile matches your expectation, get to know them a bit, and start arranging regular conversations.

If that doesn’t work out, you can also look up communities created specifically for Polish learners. Check if you can find any Polish natives looking for language exchange there—if not, create your own thread (to boost your chances of success, make it clear that you’re willing to help with English in exchange).

Key things to remember

Once you’ve found your speaking partner, discuss your expectations and arrange a voice chat (preferably with video). Most learners find 45 or 60 minutes to be the optimal chat duration. If you’re exchanging languages, you’ll have to account for that too—you can set separate dates for conversations in Polish and English, split the entire session in two, or alternate between languages every 15 minutes or so.

When it’s time to work on your Polish, try not to switch to English unless it’s necessary. If some word or expression escaped your memory, don’t panic—no matter what you want to say, it’s almost always possible to say it in other words. If everything else fails, ask your partner to help you out (but do it in Polish!)

One thing you should keep in mind is that while your partner is a native speaker of Polish, they might still not be able to explain every little nuance of the language. So if you want to discuss some highly technical grammatical concept, it might be a good idea to give them some context by showing them the materials you’ve been using.

It’s always a good idea to prepare some questions in advance. If you study Polish every day, you will most likely collect plenty of them over the week. You can even prepare a specific topic you’d like to practice talking about. Think about things such as personal finance, pets or job grocery shopping—in other words, anything that is useful or interesting to you, yet general enough for your partner to keep up with the topic.

Don’t let your partner dominate the conversation with their corrections. When you’re not discussing technicalities, you want your exchange to resemble a casual chat as much as possible. To help you with this, you can ask your partner to jot down some notes with your errors and forward them to you later—this way, you’ll avoid breaking the flow of the conversation.

At the same time, you should be taking your own notes. Don’t trust yourself to remember every single piece of feedback and advice you get.

If at some point in the conversation you notice that you don’t know how to conjugate some verb, jot it down too, and remember to research it later. There’s also the option of recording the video chat to review it later (but make sure to get your partner’s permission first).

If for some reason you’re unable to set up a voice/video chat, using text chat to talk in Polish is also a quite effective way to improve your conversation skills. After all, texting tends to imitate the tone and pace of informal spoken language. Getting used to texting in Polish can also be useful in itself, as it’s one of the key modes of communication in today’s world.

What areas should you focus on if you want to make the best use of your and your partner’s time? Here are some suggestions:

  • Word usage: This is one of these areas where a native speaker can teach you much more than any dictionary. Does this word have positive or negative connotations? Is it okay to use this expression in a formal conversation? Does it sound old-fashioned, colloquial or perhaps even vulgar? These are just a few questions you can use to easily extract valuable information from your partner. Remember to ask them for some additional examples to get the full picture.
  • Customary/idiomatic expressions: Another thing that you won’t find in your average dictionary. What phrases can you use to congratulate someone on a job well done? What should you say if you accidentally misdial a number? How do you ask someone to spell out their name? Expressions like this are often far from being direct equivalents of the English phrases. Asking a native speaker is the most straightforward way to find them.
  • Sentence stress patterns: Polish has a relatively predictable stress pattern, but you will still need a lot of practice before it becomes second nature. Ask your partner to say some relatively complex sentences and repeat them after them until you get the stress right. Of course, you can also try to say something in your own words and have your partner correct you whenever you misplace the stress.

On top of that, Polski na wynos has a long list of topics and questions that you can use in your conversations whenever you run out of ideas for things to talk about.

Polski na wynos has a large collection of question sheets that you can use in conversations with your speaking partner

Last of all, you should always remember that it’s okay to stumble and get things wrong. Your speaking partners will certainly be understanding and supportive. After all, it’s not often that they see someone making the effort to learn their language. Moreover, if you’re exchanging languages, they probably feel the same way about speaking English with you. Making mistakes is just part of the process of getting better, so that one day you can speak Polish clearly and confidently.

Try your hand at writing in Polish

If you want to write in Polish, it is necessary that you know all the basic grammatical structures and vocabulary. However, writing natural, coherent paragraphs requires something more than that—you must know which register to aim for, what rhetorical structures to use, how to connect sentences with transition phrases, and much more.

To develop all these little skills, you’ll need plenty of dedicated practice. The exercises described in this section will help you express your thoughts more clearly and smoothly—and not just in writing.

Everyday writing

In your everyday writing, the focus should be on developing a smooth, natural flow that will let you quickly get your message across. For this purpose, it’s okay to prioritize quantity over quality and practice by just writing whatever you feel like writing.

A brilliantly simple technique used by many learners is to keep a journal in your target language. If you decide to document your everyday life and thoughts in Polish, you should be able to easily write a paragraph or two on a daily basis, without stressing too much about the content.

To create a sense of commitment, get a nice notebook and dedicate it solely to journaling in Polish. If you’d rather keep it digital, use a text file on your hard drive or a Google Doc in the cloud. You can even set up a simple blog to give your writing a more concrete structure—it’s up to you whether you want to keep it private or make it public to show off your ever-improving Polish skills.

If you’d like to practice writing in a conversational tone, try to write a couple of letters to your (real or imaginary) friends in Polish. Tell them about what’s happening in your life, about the book you’ve read recently, or about your progress in learning Polish. And don’t forget about the little pleasantries—ask them how they are doing and try to get some specific piece of information from them. If you’ve ever learned a language in a classroom, you’re probably familiar with this kind of exercise.

Another little thing you can do to write in Polish more is to start making your shopping lists in Polish. Sure, you won’t get to write full sentences and paragraphs this way, but you’ll still force yourself to use tons of handy vocabulary in a context that is meaningful to you. After all, if you’ll ever need to know the Polish name of some product, it will likely be one of the things you buy on a regular basis.

These are just a few ideas you can use to get more practice in writing non-formal texts in Polish. Perhaps they will inspire you to come up with other similar exercises—the point is to get as many words on paper (or screen) as possible, and make them somehow relevant to your everyday life.

Feel free to use the dictionary as much as you need, but try not to overcorrect your writing. If you start overthinking something as simple as a journal entry or a message to a friend, you’ll only make it harder for yourself to get the practice you need.

Formal writing

Compared to everyday writing, writing for formal purposes requires a greater focus on form and quality. While your main goal is still to get your message across, you also want to give your text the right structure and use expressions that are traditionally associated with the given formal “genre”.

Of course, you don’t need to learn the right formal registers for all kinds of formal purposes—if you don’t plan on studying in Poland, you won’t benefit much from learning the ins and outs of the Polish academic style.

One specific skill that should be valuable to almost every learner is writing formal letters and e-mails. The ability to say why you are writing and what you want to request from the reader in a clear and elegant way will come in handy in all kinds of situations—whether you need to make a reservation, inquire about a product or service, file a complaint, or invite someone to your wedding.

Once again, the best way to practice writing specific text types in Polish is just to give it an honest try. Sit down with a piece of paper, come up with a topic and start writing. If you have no idea how to even start, there are certain resources you can use to find the expressions you need.

Linguee will help you find Polish equivalents of English phrases. Enter the expression you are looking for—for example, “I would like to request”—into the search box and press Enter to see the results, which are taken from Linguee’s database of translations.

If you don’t find what you’re looking for, you can also try searching on bab.lathe relevant results will appear in the “Translations & Examples” and “Context Sentences” sections.

Linguee Polish screenshot
Thanks to Linguee’s database of parallel translations, finding equivalents of English expressions in the Polish language becomes really easy

Additionally, bab.la has a phrase dictionary listing all kinds of useful expressions used in formal writing, divided into categories such as “academic”, “business”, “personal”, and “travel”. To access the English-Polish phrase dictionary, choose the category that interests you and switch the language direction to English-Polish (you can also do that by replacing the default “spanish” in the URL with “polish”).

Writing with the use of resources like this might feel like cheating, but imitating good patterns is precisely what you want to do if you want to internalize Polish formal writing. It’s even better if you manage to find examples of entire texts in the genre you want to practice.

Besides writing your own texts from scratch, you can also improve your written Polish by rewriting existing texts. This works especially well with all kinds of articles and essays. Your task is to express the main points of the original in different words—the more advanced you are, the further you can depart from the original sentence and paragraph structure.

To find synonyms of Polish words, use synonimy.pl—the words listed first will usually be your best bet. It’s a good idea to double-check them by looking up their meaning in Wiktionary (which is in itself a pretty good source of synonyms) or another dictionary.

By deconstructing and manipulating well-written texts, you will deepen your understanding of the norms and conventions of Polish written language. To add some variety to your practice, you can also set out to change an existing text to express different, perhaps entirely opposite ideas.

Some extra writing advice

Working with Polish texts will teach you a lot about how to write in good Polish. However, if you’re not completely sure that you’re actually getting better—or would like to accelerate the rate at which you improve—try asking a native speaker to correct your writing and give you feedback.

If you already know somebody who could do that for you, that’s perfect—just remember to make it clear to your friend that you’re interested in honest feedback, not empty reassurance.

For those who don’t have access to a Polish native speaker, practicing with The Great Translation Game is a fun alternative way to improve your writing skills in Polish. You simply choose or upload any Polish text you like, read through it in Polish with English translations, and then work through it again translating from the English back into Polish. In some ways, this kind of writing practice is more effective than having your writing reviewed by a friend or a tutor – the instant feedback from the game helps ensure that you can immediately catch and correct any mistakes in your Polish writing.

LanguageTool is another useful resource you can use to check the quality of your writing. It’s basically an advanced spell-checker that also checks for common grammatical and stylistic errors. While the tool won’t replace human feedback, it is quite good at weeding out the most glaring mistakes.

Whether you’re writing formal or informal pieces, try not to make your writing more complicated than it has to be. Using sophisticated vocabulary and complex grammatical structures will not necessarily help you get your message across, and will only increase the probability of committing a major error.

Finally, be careful not to develop a habit of writing all your texts on a keyboard. Writing by hand has been proven to help students better internalize the content, and not just when making notes. Many language learners report that writing longhand yields better results, as their brains somehow interpret the words they put down on paper as more important.


Final words

Learning Polish is an ambitious project that can be approached in dozens of unique ways. In writing this article, my goal has been to point some of the most effective techniques and give you the tools necessary to include them in your own practice, so that you can build a strategy that works best for you.

If you have any ideas on how I could improve the advice in the article, or think that some particularly useful approach or resource is missing from it, let me know by posting in the comments.


Ready to take your Polish to the next level? Try out Clozemaster right in this post by playing a selection of Polish sentences below!

Sign up to save your progress and start getting fluent with thousands of Polish sentences.


Remember to check out the companion post The Best Resources for Learning Polish, where you’ll find over 100 suggestions for resources to use when learning Polish.

Special thanks to AlexG71, who contributed to the article by sharing his experiences as a learner of Polish.

 

7 thoughts on “The Definitive Guide to Learning Polish”

  1. Pingback: The Best Resources for Learning Polish - Clozemaster Blog

  2. Thank you for this Adam, this is an amazing guide for someone starting to learn Polish and also for others, who are more experienced. It is a very well written, well researched and well considered article. I really wish something like this could have been available to me, when I first started to learn Polish! Having said that, this article, plus the accompanying article, has suggested new strategies and resources for me to try. Cheers!

    1. Adam Łukasiak

      Thank you for the kind words, Alex! I’m happy you like it, hope the techniques and resources will be helpful for you even at the advanced level you’re at right now. Feel free to let me know if you have any suggestions or tips.

  3. This is the best article I have come across online that provides a very detailed guide for learning Polish language. You provided the best resources, and summarized the best techniques, God! you’re a genius. I have done everything right, except immersion and listening which are very important. Now I have a direction. Thanks man, God bless!

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