Back to Polish

I’ve started dedicating time to learn Polish again, finally.

For now I’m using this Anki deck I had a programmer use Amazon’s text-to-speech API with a native Polish voice to add audio to each card. So far it’s helped tremendously. This deck with the audio is better than any app I’ve used. I’ve memorized most of the basic verbs now and moved on to simple phrases, which I’m actually using here and there in Ubers and such.

Polish pronunciation is very difficult. So difficult that there is not a single app or guide that explains how to make the non-English sounds properly. Most of the guides and apps don’t even tell you that Polish has different sounds than English. They just tell you stuff like ź is the j in jeep, while dź is the j in jerk. Which isn’t even correct English—j in jeep and j in jerk are the same (just like ch in chalk, chap, cheek, chin, are all the same, but they love to tell you otherwise!) Very bizarre.

But they might have a point. After reading a bunch of IPA charts and university studies on how to produce Polish in particular, and trying to correctly produce the sound using audio recording software comparing myself to native Poles from YouTube clips, I’ve given up. I got very close, to the point some native Poles say my is correct (sometimes). However, recording software shows I’m still off. While I believe (knock on wood) that I’ve figured out the tongue placement/movement, I believe the rest of the issue is that English consonants (including the comparable ) are aspirated while Polish is not, which is another layer of complexity to confuse all but the most linguistically adept. In fact sitting here I can’t even recall what that means or how I could possibly not aspirate that sound. It’s such an alien concept to an English speaker. Properly producing the sound consistently is simply going to slow my learning down too much.

Funny aside, I emailed a professor in the US that wrote a very popular Polish guide for beginners, to ask him about producing the sound. He admitted it’s the one sound he was never able to pronounce properly! Polish Americans never properly learn it even if they’re fluent, simply substituting English .

The other retroflex consonants are much easier, however they’re so close to English (e.g. vs ) that there’s no point in bothering. You can’t tell them apart in normal speech, only in over-exaggerated isolation. However, the non-retroflex (“alveolo-palatal”) consonants like <ś>, <ć>, <ź>, etc. have a very distinct sound and as such should be learned properly. They’re easy. Hearing the difference in normal speech between <ś> and is difficult, but I can still hear it a little bit… so I’m sure to Poles it’s very pronounced. These consonants are common in many languages and have a lot of guides available to show you how to produce them (e.g. this video on <ś>), which has helped tremendously, while has virtually 0 guides available, only very complex linguistic studies that are exhausting to parse.