Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Here is a list of some of the things I have noticed students doing since I arrived in Poland three years ago. Caveats:

  • My numbers here are based on impressions – there is no formal research to back it up! If you want more scientific and in-depth information about problems which Polish learners have with English, look at pages 162-178 of Learner English: A teacher’s guide to interference and other problems edited by Michael Swan and Bernard Smith [affiliate link]. 
  • I realise that some of the things I’m correcting might not be in line with English as Lingua Franca, but they should be useful if you have students who want to take exams like Cambridge Proficiency. They’re often things which teachers don’t notice in my experience.
  • Having said that, I’ve skipped /th/ (who cares?!) and features of connected speech like weak forms because everyone has trouble with those things in English!

Please feel free to add to the list, or correct anything which you think I’ve got wrong!

Grammar

The following do not exist in Polish (or, indeed, any Slavic language) so students tend to avoid them initially, then over-use them for a long time before they get them right:

  • Perfect tenses
  • Continuous tenses
  • Articles

By my estimate, they tend to start getting them right at around high upper-intermediate (B2) level, and are normally pretty consistent by advanced. Articles are the last things to stick – I think at C1 they get about 90% of them correct, and C2 is when they’re 99% correct.

In Polish, conditional sentences are marked in both clauses. When producing English conditionals, Polish learners often use would or will in the ‘if’ clause: *If it will rain, I won’t go.

Nouns are gendered in Polish. When replaced by a pronoun, masculine nouns become on (which is ‘he’ or ‘it’ in English), and feminine nouns become ona (‘she’ or ‘it’). At low levels, students sometimes therefore use ‘he’ and ‘she’ in English.

Vocabulary

As in many languages, a single Polish word can be used for each of the following groups of English words:

  • make, do
  • say, tell, speak
  • borrow, lend
  • teach, learn, study
  • fingers, toes

come and go are also very confusing, though there are many, many different translations for these verbs. On that note, in Slavic languages ships and boats ‘swim’, rather than ‘float’ or ‘go’.

In Polish, you ‘make a photo’, rather than take a photo.

The preposition with is often added after verbs like contact and telephone, by analogy with Polish: *I need to contact with his parents. *I’ll telephone with Mark tomorrow.

My new favourite mistranslation is ‘guarantee guard’ instead of security guard 🙂

Ordinal numbers are used in Polish in places where cardinal numbers are normally used in English. The main time I hear this is when students are referring to exercises or questions, so they say ‘first’, ‘second’, ‘third’, where I would say ‘Question 1’, ‘Exercise 2’, or ‘Number 3’.

The nouns ‘colour’ and ‘shape’ are often used when they are unnecessary in English. For example, *It has green colour. rather than It’s green. or *It has square shape. not It’s square.

Pronunciation

Stress almost always falls on the penultimate syllable in Polish words, so students do this by extension in English too. For example, I heard students saying /viOlin/ in a recent observation. Not necessarily super important for international communication, but useful to know about when predicting problems.

The intonation range of Polish is much narrower than in English, so students often sound pretty bored or robotic. I find this is less common if students watch/listen to a lot of English (so teens!). Students need to be really encouraged to be expressive in English and push themselves to use intonation to carry/emphasise meaning.

Sound-spelling relationships are very transparent in Polish, in contrast to English. Some spelling combinations in Polish cause confusion when encountered in English words, particularly for low-level students. For example, ‘ci’ in Polish is pronounced like ‘ch’ in English, but ‘c’ alone is pronounced like ‘ts’ in English. The word specialist particularly confused one group I had – some pronounced it with ‘ch’ in the middle /spe-cha-list/, and others with ‘ts’ and an extra syllable /spe-tsy-a-list/.

The most confusing vowel minimal pair for Polish/Slavic learners is /æ/ and /ʌ/, which is important for me as I often get called Sunday 🙂 This causes confusion with pairs like cap/cup, hat/hut and began/begun.

I tend to group problematic letters together when teaching the alphabet, rather than using an alphabet song. Here are the groups I use, ranked by my opinion on the most to least confusing for Poles:

  • a, e, i, y
  • g, h, j
  • c, s
  • k, q
  • u, v, w
  • x, z
  • r
  • o
  • f, l, m, n
  • b, d, p, t

I don’t normally include the final two groups apart from for beginners, as these letters are pretty similar in Polish I think (though I haven’t learnt the Polish alphabet properly myself yet – oops!) Here are some alternative groupings:

  • f, v, w
  • i, j, y
  • g, k, q

Punctuation

In Polish, the equivalents to ‘you’ (Wy, Pan, Pani…) are capitalised when they are polite, and ‘I’ (ja) is only capitalised at the start of a sentence. Look out for sentences like this: *He helped me so i understood. *What are You doing? Some of my upper intermediate students still did this – I guess nobody had ever pointed it out to them that our capitalisation rules are different!

Months and days start with lower-case in Polish, not capitals as in English.

Clauses introduced by ‘that’ (że) take commas in Polish, so learners produce sentences like *I know, that he is famous. In general, commas are used much more often in Polish than they are in English, and with a much wider range of conjunctions.

As in most European languages, dots and commas in numbers are the opposite way round in English to Polish, so Polish 0,5 would be English 0.5 (nought point five) and Polish 1.234 would be English 1,234 (one thousand, two hundred and thirty-four).

Slackline games, Bydgoszcz

Another challenging thing I’ve seen in Bydgoszcz!

Comments on: "Typical problems for Polish learners of English" (4)

  1. I love this post! So interesting, just the kind of thing I love to geek over even though I have no Polish students currently!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Sandy,

    While I would normally be interested in a post like this regardless of the language, I found it especially relevant because my sister-in-law is Polish. Her Croatian has improved tremendously since my brother’s family moved to Croatia but until recently we used to communicate in English.

    Some of the problems you describe are definitely problem areas for speakers of Croatian as well, despite the fact that Polish and Croatian are hugely different. I may have said at some point – I sometimes tweet about this – that I get very annoyed when other Croatians say you can carry on a regular conversation with a Polish person if they speak Polish and you respond in Croatian. I wonder if they’ve ever actually tried that!

    Regarding your observation that sound-spelling relationships are transparent in Polish, I wanted to add that Croatian has almost complete 121 grapheme-phoneme correspondence, so from the point of view of Croatian speakers Polish spelling can be pretty confusing. For example, I found “rz” being pronounced as “zh” really hard. We have “z” with a little diacritic on top representing “zh”. There may be greater consistency in sound-spelling relationships in Polish than in English though; my Polish is pretty non-existent, so I can’t tell.

    Thanks for an interesting post!

    Like

    • Hi Vedrana,
      I’m glad you found the post useful.
      I think ‘rz’ is one of the hardest combinations for anybody learning Polish, but at least Slavic speakers normally have an equivalent sound already 😉 I suspect that if you remove any ‘z’ in Polish and put a diacritic on the preceding letter, you probably have Croatian sounds – that’s certainly true of Polish/Czech in almost all cases. My impression is that it’s just different orthography with a similar range of sounds (not that I’ve tried to learn Croatian!)
      When I was learning Czech I managed to have some very basic conversations with Polish people to give directions or order food – my level was pre-intermediate. Not sure I’d have been able to manage anything much more complicated 🙂 I also know that a lot of my Czech friends used to say they holidayed in Croatia or Slovenia because they could make themselves understood without English if necessary.
      Thanks for your comment 🙂
      Sandy

      Liked by 1 person

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