10 typical mistakes Polish people make when they speak English

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This post highlights some of the typical mistakes Polish people make when they speak English.

First of all, I touch upon the subject of language interference: the impact of linguistic transfer on Polish people’s Second Language Acquisition (SLA) due to the interlingual differences between Polish as a first language and English as a second language.

Thereafter, I provide a more general assessment of how Polish speakers of English tend to fair in the areas of phonology, grammar, syntax (word order) and vocabulary choice.

In the second part of this post, I reveal 10 typical mistakes Polish people make when they speak English with a brief analysis of why they may make these mistakes. I’ve taken these typical errors from lesson notes I’ve been recording for students since I started teaching online in 2012.


POLISH AS L1, ENGLISH AS L2 - THE IMPACT OF LINGUISTIC TRANSFER ON POLISH PEOPLE’S ACQUISITION OF ENGLISH

I started teaching English in Poland in September 2006, and continue to teach Polish students today. 

Owing to my fairly decent knowledge of the Polish language, I have become familiar with the types of errors Polish learners of English make due to their reliance on word for word translations from Polish into English. 

Polish learners of English encounter a great number of difficulties, many of which are explained by the concept of negative linguistic transfer.

Essentially, negative linguistic transfer is the language interference (errors) that occurs when speakers and writers transfer items and structures which are not similar in both languages. 

For example, a Polish learner might say “I very like strawberries” (“Ja bardzo lubię truskawki”) - a clear instance of word for word translation from Polish into English. 

Instead of “I very like strawberries”, Polish learners of English should produce either of the following: 

  • “I like strawberries VERY MUCH"
  • “I REALLY like strawberries”
To acquire the chunk very much, a typical Polish learner of English would need a great deal of auditory input and immersion in English in order to avoid the production of I very like.



HOW DO POLISH LEARNERS OF ENGLISH FAre IN THE AREAS OF PHONOLOGY, GRAMMAR, WORD ORDER AND VOCABULARY CHOICE?

Before we look at ten typical mistakes Polish people make when they speak English, let’s first of all dive into a general overview of some of the phonological, grammatical and lexical differences between Polish and English.

PHONOLOGY

Polish learners of English at elementary levels must despair at the inconsistent relationship between spelling and pronunciation.

Stress

Given the common penultimate-syllable stress of the Polish language, the sheer volume of stress patterns in English confuses Polish learners of English. 

Poles may pronounce all words with almost equal stress, and full vowels instead of schwa (/ə/) in words like banana and teacher. They often pronounce function words such as and, as and a, in their strong forms in all contexts. 

Linking

As an Englishman, I’m well accustomed to ‘eating my words’, in other words, link everything together with vowel glides (combining a vowel at the end of a word with a vowel at the beginning of the following word) and consonant to vowel glides (combining a consonant at the end of a word with a vowel at the beginning of the following word). 

When it comes to vowel glides, Polish does not have linking /j/ or /w/, hence sequences such as my aunt and go away are pronounced separately. 

Regarding consonant to vowel glides, Polish learners struggle to blend sequences like: have an apple (havənapəl) and for a (fərə).

Vowels

Given that Polish has a total of eight vowels, compared to the 22 vowels of English, vowel sounds represent an area of significant difficulty for Polish learners of English. 

Examples of confusion include: 

  • schwa and /ɪ/: are regularly replaced by full vowels due to the absence of weak vowels in Polish
  • The lack of open vowels (only one) in Polish: For example, /a:/ may be confused with /æ/, causing the mispronunciation of words such as rather 

Intonation

Intonation patterns in English and Polish are wildly different.

Many Polish speakers of English claim that English intonation sounds exaggerated, thus leading to considerable resistance to imitating English intonation patterns for fear of sounding silly.

English wh-questions, for instance, typically have a falling pitch. Poles, however, might mispronounce such questions by opting to use a fall-rise pattern.


GRAMMAR

In terms of the typical grammatical mistakes Polish people make when they speak English, here is a selection of areas in which they struggle:

  • Reliance on inversion when not required - a Pole might say "Do you know where is the train station?", a literal word for word translation from Polish. However, is should be shifted to the end of the question: "Do you where the train station IS?"
  • Countable/uncountable nouns - the concept of the uncountable noun is difficult for Polish speakers of English to fathom, thus they might say something like: "The informations was/were really useful." The correct way is "The information was really useful" because information is an uncountable noun
  • Wrong verb forms - for example, "I would like to found" and "I want to started"
  • Multiple negation - Polish requires multiple negation, whereas double negatives etc. are generally discouraged in English. Hence, a Pole might say: "Nobody doesn’t understand nothing" instead of the correct "Nobody understands anything"
  • Past tenses - The present perfect tense is something of a strange concept for many Polish speakers of English. Polish requires a past tense in cases where English requires a present perfect. For example: "Were you ever in Japan?" (for "Have you ever been to Japan?") and "I saw that film" ("I’ve seen that film" is correct)
  • Reliance on the present continuous tense due to an inability to distinguish between the present simple tense and the present continuous tense - "I’m working as teacher" ("I work as a teacher" is preferred) 
  • Infinitive as -ing forms - English -ing forms usually correspond to Polish infinitives, so a Polish person might say "I enjoy to play chess" instead of "I enjoy playing chess"
  • Articles - There are no articles in Polish, so there is a tendency for learners to use them at random or overuse them: * He is the doctor (a is required instead of the) / * He lives in the Warsaw (no article required) / * A film I saw yesterday was awesome (the instead of a)
  • Prepositions - For example, the Polish na can usually be translated to on in English, but not always: * on Christmas (at is correct) / * on university (at is correct)


WORD ORDER

Polish has a much freer word order than English, which leads to difficulties in the following areas:

  • Adverbial position - “I very like bananas” (also a word for word translation) / “I don’t speak well English” (“I don’t speak English WELL is correct)
  • Prepositions - Final prepositions are more common in English, so an utterance like “At what are you looking?” might be common for Polish learners of English (“What are you looking AT?” is right)  
Place names and position - “In London are” / “At the side of the road is …” ... Therefore, the use of ‘there is/are …’ is avoided by many Polish learners of English. 


VOCABULARY

Compared with word order, phonology and grammar, vocabulary selection is not such a troublesome area for Poles as there are many words that are identical in Polish and English. Nevertheless, here are some traps which some Polish learners of English fall into:

  • English pairs of words with only one Polish equivalent - Pairs such as clock and watch and house and home, are commonly associated with only one Polish equivalent
  • False friends - "This schedule is not actual" (instead of outdated - nieaktualny) or "He is very sympathetic" (instead of nice - sympatyczny)


10 TYPICAL MISTAKES POLISH PEOPLE MAKE WHEN THEY SPEAK ENGLISH

Now that I’ve given an overview of the areas in which Polish learners of English tend to struggle, I will now reveal 10 typical mistakes Polish people make when they speak English.

I’ve taken these typical errors from lesson notes I’ve been recording for students since I started one-to-one teaching online in 2012. As I have some knowledge of typical language interference patterns between Polish and English, I am also able to provide a brief analysis as to why my students made these mistakes:

1. 

YOU SAID: it’s not very comfortable (pdf book)

CORRECT: It’s not very convenient

Analysis:

The Polish word wygodny can mean both comfortable and convenient, hence the confusion.

2. 

YOU SAID: trainings

CORRECT: training sessions

Analysis:

A common error, and a clear example of how Polish learners of English assume all English nouns can be made countable. The Polish treningi should be translated to training sessions.

3.

YOU SAID: to be very good in playing the guitar

CORRECT: … good AT …

Analysis:

A preposition issue. To say that someone is good at something in Polish, one would need to use the preposition w, which can usually be translated to in in many contexts in English. When it comes to ability, however, the preposition at is preferred.

4.

YOU SAID: little people have such a talent

CORRECT: FEW people have such a talent

Analysis:

The Polish word mało covers both few and little in English. Therefore, it’s tough for Polish learners of English to pay heed to the fact that varying contexts determine whether few or little should be used

5.

YOU SAID: You can call to me

CORRECT: You can call me

Analysis:

A clear example of word for word translation. When it comes to calling someone on the phone in Polish, the preposition do (roughly translated into the English to) is used after the verb zadzwonić. For example:

  • Zadzwonię do ciebie jutro = I will call you tomorrow 

6.

YOU SAID: I regret nothing

BETTER: I don’t regret ANYTHING

Analysis:

A clear example of negation misuse. The learner directly translated "Nie Żałuję Nic" as "I regret nothing".

Don’t/didn’t + anything go together in English to produce negative sentences.

7. 

YOU SAID: make something better than someone else

CORRECT: DO something better ...

Analysis:

In my experience, Polish learners of English have serious issues with the use of make and do. They tend to rely on the use of make, particularly when it comes to undefined activities with the use of something.

8.

YOU SAID: It's a restaurant in Warsaw, I wasn’t

CORRECT: It's a restaurant in Warsaw I HAVEN'T BEEN TO

Analysis:

The use of past simple instead of present perfect. Poles tend to overuse I wasn’t (in), which has a Polish equivalent of Nie byłem (w).

For example:

"Nigdy nie byłem w Paryżu" should be "I haven’t been to Paris". However, a Polish learner of English might say "I was never in Paris".

9. 

YOU SAID: have right (mieć rację)

CORRECT: to BE right (He is usually right)

Analysis:

Poles often say to have right in English when they should say to be right. This is a clear example of negative transfer because the Polish verb mieć means have in English.

10.

YOU SAID: If somebody is travelling a lot

CORRECT: If somebody travels a lot (generally)

Analysis:

Use of the present continuous tense for habits, when present simple should be used.


CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

I’ve provided a comprehensive overview of the types of typical mistakes Polish people make when they speak English, and the extent to which negative language transfer between Polish and English occurs.

In order to lessen their dependence on word for word translation, and to become accustomed to the way sentences in English are built, I always advise my Polish learners of English to immerse themselves in authentic materials, such as TED talks, which allow for high quality listening practice and analysis of transcripts. 

Polish learners of English also need to begin to create personalised sentences which contain newly learned words and collocations, as I advocate here and here. With regular revision of these personalised sentences, Polish learners will begin to use them automatically in conversation without thinking about grammar and rules.

There’s still a long way to go for Polish learners of English to shake off the effects of negative language transfer and word for word translation.

Instead of teaching tenses and getting children to complete gapfill grammar exercises, teachers are advised to think about familiarising students with the way sentences are built in English through the analysis of authentic conversations and transcripts.


Further reading:

Smith, B., and Swan, M., 2001. Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and Other Problems, Second Edition, Cambridge: CUP

Jaskulska, M., and Łockiewicz, M. 2017. Polish as L1, English as L2: the linguistic transfer impact on Second Language Acquisition stemming from the interlingual differences: implications for young learners education, Problemy Wczesnej Edukacji: Issues in Early Education, 2 (37)


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