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!
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
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.
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 🙂 Another favourite is *I like eating Polish kitchen instead of I like eating Polish cuisine, or I like eating Polish food, which is the sentence I try to get students to say in this case. My students can sometimes be resistant to using food instead of cuisine!
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.
For Polish learners (in Bydgoszcz at least!) ‘communication’ means the transport system, rather than being connected to sending information. A ‘karta komunikacja’ is a kind of travel pass, which they sometimes translate as a *communication card. I’ve heard sentences like *In Bydgoszcz we have a very good communication. meaning In Bydgoszcz we have a very good transport system.
‘Actually’ is a false friend. As in many languages, it means something like ‘currently’ or ‘up-to-date’ in Polish, depending on the context. ‘Buty’ is the general word for ‘shoes’, not just ‘boots’. ‘Pilot’ in Polish means ‘remote control’ in English.
My students overuse the word ‘hour’ in place of ‘time’. Examples of mistakes include *We start work at different hours. *It’s break hour. and *The hour of the concert was changed.
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
- 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
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).