1. Is Polish hard to learn? A child in just a few years will learn whatever language is spoken around him or her. In this regard no language is harder than any other. But once we have learned our native language (e.g., English), once we have come to associate certain combinations of sounds (words) with certain concepts and settled on one particular way of arranging them to express our thoughts (grammar), it takes a major effort to learn a different set of sound combinations for those concepts and different ways of arranging them them (e.g., Polish). Learning the new arrangements (grammar) is often harder than learning the new sound combinations (words). For example, "cold" in Polish is zimno. As English speakers we are predisposed to express "I am cold" by taking the word for "I" (ja), the word for "am" (jestem), and the word for "cold" and stringing them together as *Ja jestem zimno. But this is not how Polish speakers express it. They say Mnie jest zimno, which is literally "Me is cold". What makes this hard for us English speakers is that several centuries ago we stopped using me in this way. We no longer say Me thinks I am right. We now say I think I am right.

2. Is Polish hard to pronounce? For the two-year-old, no language is harder to pronounce than any other. But once we have gotten used to a certain set of tongue and lip movements, other movements with our tongue and lips are unnatural for us. The challenges of speaking Polish (pronouncing the words) are of several kinds. First, there are Polish sounds which do not occur in English. We have a k-sound as in caught and a g-sound as in got, but we don't have the corresponding scraping sound like the ch in chopiec (boy), which occurs in a German word like Bach. So here the English speaker learning Polish must learn to make a new sound.

A different challenge is posed by the hushing sounds of Polish. English has hushing sounds in chin, ship, judge and pleasure. But Polish has TWO sounds corresponding to each of these. For example, it has a low-pitched shushing sound as in znasz (you know) and a high-pitched shishing sound as in Sta (Stan).
In addition, the sounds in Polish often occur in combinations and in positions that are foreign to English. We have no problem with a k-sound followed by a sh-sound; we have it in action and in anxious. But we don't have it at the beginning of a word, and this makes it hard to say Krzysztof (Christopher), which begins with the k-sound followed by the Polish sz-sound.
A fourth challenge is more a matter of spelling than of pronunciation. A sound that in English is familiar to us in Polish may have an unfamiliar spelling. The w-sound in water is spelled in Polish , with the barred l. The em combination, as in resemble is often spelled with the nasal vowel letter , e.g., in zby (teeth).
When confronted with a Polish word with a daunting string of letters, such as Zebrzydowice (town in Southern Poland), the learner is well advised to break it up into syllables: Ze-brzy-do-wi-ce.
Pronunciation is sometimes more important, sometimes less. A Polish word may be mispronounced and still be understood. But sometimes it will not be understood at all, or it may be understood as a DIFFERENT word. In English, how we pronounce the final vowel in a word is often not that important. Although we are careful to distinguish between the vowels of reed and rid, which of these sounds occurs as the final vowel of, say, very is not something we pay much attention to. In Polish, on the other hand, the final vowel in a word is very important, often the case ending, which indicates the word's role in the sentence.

3. The word in Polish. In learning Polish we need to get used to a somewhat different idea of word than in English. In English, "boy" is boy and not much happens to it except we add -s when it's possessive or we mean more than one. In Polish, "boy" is chopiec and "boys" is chopcy, and these words keep changing their form according to how they are used in the sentence. Which brings us to ...

4. Case. In English, the role a noun plays in the sentence is indicated mainly by its position. When we hear Stan loves Barb we recognize Stan as the subject of the sentence (the source of the affection) and Barb as its object (the direct object of the sentence). In Barb loves Stan the different word order assigns different sentence roles to the two nouns. In Polish, where "Stan" is Sta-, "loves" is kocha, and "Barb" is Ba-, it is CASE that communicates who loves whom. Case is indicated by the noun's case ending. NOMINATIVE case, which is indicated by a nominative-case ending (let us represent it as NOM), marks the subject of the sentence. ACCUSATIVE case, which is indicated by a accusative-case ending (let us represent it as ACC), marks the direct object of the sentence. So "Stan loves Barb" may be represented as Sta-NOM kocha Ba-ACC, and "Barb loves Stan" may be represented as Ba-NOM kocha Sta-ACC.

4.1 Word order. Because a noun's role in the sentence is indicated by case markings like NOM and ACC, word order in Polish is flexible. This flexibility is used in conveying what might be called the information structure of the sentence, which is the following. The TOPIC of the sentence (what is being talked about) normally precedes, and the COMMENT of the sentence (what is being said about the topic) normally follows. So in the sentence Sta-NOM kocha Ba-ACC, Stan is the topic, and the comment is that he loves Barb. But when we wish to make Barb the topic and convey the information that she is loved by Stan (something we might do in English by saying Barb is loved by Stan), we put Sta-NOM in the final, comment position and say Ba-ACC kocha Sta-NOM. Despite its word order, this sentence still means "Stan loves Barb" (or "Stan is the one who loves Barb"), because the NOM ending marks "Stan" as the subject and the ACC ending marks "Barb" as the direct object. Sentences like this, which are ordered Direct Object - Verb - Subject, uncommon in English, are quite common for Polish, and this is why in learning Polish is important to learn to produce and to recognize case forms.

4.2 Besides subjects and direct objects, sentences may also have indirect objects. In English the difference between direct objects and indirect objects is likewise handled by word order. When we hear They gave the boy the soldiers we know that the (toy) soldiers were the direct objects of the giving and the boy was the indirect object or recipient. And when we hear They gave the soldiers the boy we know that the boy was the direct object (of some kind of hostage exchange) and that the soldiers were the indirect-object recipients. In Polish this contrast is handled by case markings. The direct object is marked ACC) and the indirect object is marked with DAT, the the dative-case marker. So whether the Polish sentence is Dali chopc-DAT onierz-ACC or Dali onierz-ACC chopc-DAT, we know that either way "boy" (chopc-DAT) is the indirect object (the recipient) and that "soldiers" (onierz-ACC) is the direct object (what was transferred).

5. Prepositions. So as not to exaggerate the differences between Polish and English, let us note that in Polish the noun's role in the sentence is often, as in English, marked by a preposition. In the sentence "The boy was surprised by his parents", the agent phrase "by his parents" is similarly expressed in Polish by a prepositional phrase--przez rodzic-ACC. But although the preposition przez (pronounced with "psz" as in option) does the job here of marking the agent of the giving, we still have to mark the noun with accusative case, the case required by this preposition. In English, all prepositions take the same case; thus by, with, from, to, under, for, etc. are all followed by the same me, him, her, them. In Polish, different prepositions take different cases. For example, "from the concert" is z koncert-GEN with the genitive case, while "to the concert" is na koncert-ACC with the accusative case. Also, the same preposition can take different cases in different constructions. To express "under" (pod) as a location, e.g., to say that something is located "under the table", we use the instrumental case: pod sto-INSTR. But to express "under" as the goal of motion, e.g., to say that something "ran under the table", we use the accusative case: pod sto-ACC.

6. The meanings of the cases. Some occurrences of case in Polish are meaningful and contribute to the meaning of the sentence; others are purely conventional and do not. Here are the cases of Polish, in the order in which they are presented in this course.

6.1 NOMINATIVE is the case that simply names the entity in question and does not mark its dependence on any other word in the sentence. It is the case of the subject of the sentence and also of the predicate adjective. Thus "My sister is smart" is Moj-NOM siostr-NOM jest mdr-NOM.

6.2 ACCUSATIVE is the case of the direct object, as illustrated above. It is the default case marking for the object of verbs that don't have a special case use (see below). It also occurs with certain prepositions, e.g., with przez (through) always and with na (on) sometimes.

6.3 GENITIVE, in the most general terms, is the case of limitation or quantification. For example, "to buy tea" can be kupi herbat-ACC with a normal accusative direct object, or the object can be quantified, kupi herbat-GEN, which means "buy some tea". The ultimate limitation is no tea at all, so "There is no tea" is Nie ma herbat-GEN.

When a verb is negated (preceded by the negative particle nie), its direct object instead of being in the accusative case is in the genitive case. Therefore we say Sta-NOM kocha Ba-ACC with an accusative object if he loves her, but if he doesn't love her we say Sta-NOM nie kocha Ba-GEN with a genitive object.
Genitive case marks the place from which movement proceeds. Thus in "from the house", "away from the window", "out from under the table", etc. the noun is marked with genitive case. When two nouns occur together in a phrase, the dependent one (the one preceded by of in English) is in the genitive case. Thus in "the beginning of the lesson," "lesson" is lekcj-GEN and in "the meaning of the word," "word" is sow-GEN (regardless of the case of "beginning" and "meaning" in the sentence).
Other uses of the genitive are less systematic. Some verbs, especially those accompanied by the particle si, take genitive objects rather than accusative objects. Many prepositions call for genitive-case complements.

6.4 LOCATIVE case expresses location: "in the house" is w dom-LOC, "on the table" is na sto-LOC, and "by the window" is przy okn-LOC. Locative case is used only with a preposition. It occurs also in phrases which do not express location, such as "after dinner" (po obiad-LOC) and "about you" (o ty-LOC).

6.5 DATIVE is the case of the indirect object. This is clear in "Mary gave John a book", where we have both a direct object ("book") and an indirect object ("John"). But there are verbs, such as "help" (pomaga) and "thank" (dzikowa), which take only dative-case indirect objects. With such verbs, the case that is required by the verb must be learned along with the verb's form and meaning.

6.6 INSTRUMENAL case marks the instrument of the action, as in "to write with a pencil" (pisa oówk-INSTR) and "to go by bus" (jecha autobus-INSTR). This is its most meaningful use, since here the instrument is expressed by instrumental case alone without a preposition. A related use of instrumental case is with verbs of governing and controlling, e.g., wada jzyk-INSTR polsk-INSTR (to have a command of the Polish language).

In addition, instrumental case has a number of semantically arbitrary uses. It is used to mark the predicate noun after a linking verb: "John is a student" is Jan-NOM jest student-INSTR.

7. The form of case markings. Here is where learning Polish gets complicated. It's not so hard to remember that subjects are marked with NOM, direct objects with ACC, indirect objects with DAT, etc. But each of these case markings has multiple and varying realizations. Multiple because, for example, the DAT marking in "to that young student" is not a matter of a single to, as in English. In Polish, "that", "young", and "student" must each have a DAT marker (ending). What's more, the DAT ending varies from one class of words to the next. For pronouns like "that" and adjectives like "young" it is -emu, thus temu modemu, but for the noun "student" it is -owi--studentowi. And a noun of a different gender calls for a different set of endings. "To that young (female) student" the DAT ending is -ej for the pronoun and adjective and -e for the noun. Nouns of the same gender can belong to different declension classes and take different endings. Student- takes the the first-declension endings NOM (zero), GEN -a, INSTR -em, but koleg- (classmate, friend) takes the second-declension endings NOM -a, GEN -i, INSTR -. The familiar form of "George", Jurk-, takes the same DAT ending as student---Jurkowi. But the official form, Jerz-, belongs to the adjective declension class and takes the DAT ending -emu--Jerzemu. The plural case endings differ from the singular: corresponding to singular temu modemu studentowi is plural tym modym studentom.

8. Stem changes. When a stem is followed by an ending beginning with e or i it often "softens". For example, student- (student) and studentk- (female student) both take the LOC ending -e, which "softens" the stem, with student- shifting to studen- and studentk- shifting to studentc-. (The pairing of "hard" consonants like t and k with their "soft" counterparts and c has a historical explanation but is sometimes arbitrary from the standpoint of modern Polish.)

9. Ending choice. While the choice of case ending sometimes affects the shape of the stem, it also happens that the shape of the stem influences the choice of ending. For example, the noun studentk- selects the LOC ending -e because it ends in k, a "hard" consonant. But Ba- (Barb) ends in a "soft" consonant and therefore selects the LOC ending -i. The shape of the stem influences choice of ending also in nominative and genitive plural forms of nouns.

10. Mastering declension. The question arises, if all these factors have to be taken into account in determining the form of each individual word, how does the learner ever manage to produce a complete sentence in real time? Learning that "student" in Polish is student- is obviously not the problem. (Actually, this Polish noun is something of a "false friend" of the English noun because it denotes only a student at the post-secondary level; for younger students Polish has a noun corresponding to pupil.) Determining what case is called for by the noun's role in the sentence is also not the problem.

The REAL problem is learning that student-NOM is student; student-ACC is studenta; student-GEN is studenta; student-LOC is student-e (which "softens" the stem to studen-e and is spelled studencie); student-DAT is studentowi; and student-INSTR is studentem. And those are only the singular forms.
In the plural, student-NOM is is student-i (which "softens" the stem to studen-i and is spelled studenci); student-ACC is studentów; student-GEN is studentów; student-LOC is studentach; student-DAT is studentom; and student-INSTR is studentami.
One must also take into account the fact that modifiers of "student" and "students", e.g., "this young...", take on their case, number, and gender and that these features translate into endings different from the noun endings (although partially similar; for example, "with these young students is z tymi modymi studentami).

10.1 How does a person--other than the two-year-old who was born into a Polish family and has no choice--learn to do all this? For the adult learner step one is to understand what is involved in producing a Polish sentence. Steps two, three, four, and so on are repetition, repetition, and more repetition, with recursion to step one as needed. The learner needs to imagine settings in which he or she might want to ask, for example, "Excuse me, ma'am; do you know those young students?" His/her thought processes might run as follows. Let's see now, for "Excuse me, ma'am" I'll go with Prosz pani, which we've had since day one. This is a question, so I'll begin with Czy. "You", since I'm addressing a woman I don't know, is pani. For "know" I'll use zna (know persons and things), not wie (know about persons and things). The accusative of "those young students" is the same as the genitive because "students" has Male-Personal gender. So here goes: Czy pani zna tych modych studentów?

This may not be "thinking in Polish" (whatever that means), but that doesn't matter. Your listeners don't know what you're thinking, they only hear what you're saying. As long as what issues from your mouth are more of less the right sounds in the right order, your listeners will praise you for how well you speak their language.

11. Conjugating verbs. So far we have concentrated on declension, i.e., how nouns, pronouns, and adjectives are inflected to reflect their role in the sentence. Experience has shown that declension is what is particularly difficult for English speakers learning Polish. The Polish verb is somewhat easier to handle. In English we are familiar with paradigms like I love, you love, he/she loves, we love, you love, they love. We are used to making the verb agree with the subject, following a singular subject with a singular verb (he loves) and a plural subject with a plural verb (they love).

Verbs agree with subjects also in Polish, but there are more distinctions to be made. "I love" is ja kocham, "you (singular) love" is ty kochasz, "he/she loves" is on/ona kocha, "we love" is my kochamy, "you (plural) love" is wy kochacie, and "they love" is oni/one kochaj, depending on whether "they" are male persons (oni) or other than male persons (one). "Love" belongs to the first conjugation, which has -a- preceding the personal endings. There is also a second conjugation, which precedes the personal endings with -i- or -y-, and a third conjugation, which precedes them with -e-.

11.1 In Polish the verb is simpler than in English. In English, to describe actions in the past we must choose between the simple past tense (I wrote it) and the perfect tense (I have written it), and we must observe the difference between strong (irregular) verbs like write-wrote-written and weak (regular) verbs like try-tried-tried. Polish has neither of these complications. For past actions there is no simple past tense but only a perfect tense. Forming the perfect tense in other European languages requires that you choose the right helping verb, e.g., German ich bin gekommen (I came, lit. I am come) but ich habe gesagt (I said, lit. I have said). In Polish the helping verb in every case is "be". The participle used in Polish has none of the unpredictability of English, e.g., fly-flown but buy-bought. It is regularly formed on the stem of the infinitive, e.g., pisa- (write), by adding the suffix -- and a gender-number ending that agrees with the subject, e.g., -a for a feminine singular subject. The helping verb is - for "you" (singular). Therefore "you wrote" (speaking to a woman) is pisaa.

11.2 Verbal aspect. Although its tense system is quite simple, Polish has verbal ASPECT. There are verbs with PERFECTIVE aspect, which present the action in terms of a single completion, and verbs of IMPERFECTIVE aspect, which present states and actions that are in progress or repeated. An imperfective verb like pisa (write) can refer to action in the past (pisaa: you wrote/were writing), action in the present (piszesz: you write/are writing), or action in the future (bdziesz pisaa: you will write/will be writing). A perfective verb like napisa (write) can refer only to action in the past (napisaa: you wrote it/got it written) or to action in the future (napiszesz: you will write it/get it written). A present-tense reference is precluded by the fact that perfective verbs specify completion.

12 "You". In Polish you address adults you are not on first-name terms with in the third person. Thus "you" is pan (lit. the gentleman) when speaking to an adult male, pani (lit. the lady) when speaking to an adult female, pastwo (lit. ladies and gentlemen) when speaking to mixed groups, panowie (lit. the gentlemen) when speaking to plural men, panie (lit. the ladies) when speaking to plural women, babcia (lit. grandma) when speaking to your grandmother, ksidz (lit. the priest) when speaking to a priest, siostra (lit. the sister) when speaking to a nun, and so on.