Why you should learn to pronounce new words backwards

Today, I have a tip which I’ve found has worked for me for a while, but I’ve been trying to figure out WHY it works before I posted something.

At its core, it’s very simple.  You find a new word in Polish and it’s full of complex sound clusters & you inevitably stumble over it syllable at a time and wonder how badly you’re mangling the Polish language when you’re done.  Been there, done that a few hundred times..

Let’s start with an example which you may or may not find a challenge, but it helps me illustrate the point.

Your new word is Szczęsnowicz.  Don’t worry – if you find that one too obvious, just bear with me for the sake of the example!

So, if you do it the obvious way, you’ll start by saying something like:

Sz…  Szcz… Szczęs… Szczęsnow… Szczęsnowicz..

Success!!  🙂

Now compare what you’re saying to this native pronunciation : Szczęsnowicz

Go ahead and click that link and play it a few times… I’ll wait..

Ok, so if you’re anything like me then you’ll find you were emphasizing entirely the wrong syllable.  Listen again and you’ll notice that the emphasis is here : SzczęsNOWicz.

Now the Polish language is full of wonderful complexities, so I like to celebrate a common rule when I come across one, just to remind myself that fluency is achievable one day.  The rule with Polish spoken language is that the emphasis is always on the penultimate (next to last) syllable in the word.  

I’ll say that again because it’s a really important point and I finally realized that this was the cornerstone of why learning new complex words backwards was a great idea.

The rule with Polish spoken language is that the emphasis is always on the penultimate (next to last) syllable in the word.

So let’s go back to the way you’ve been stumbling through vocalizing new words :

Sz…  Szcz… Szczęs… Szczęsnow… Szczęsnowicz..

Because you’re focusing on the syllables as they rush up to meet you – you’re not going to spot the fact that you’ve reached the penultimate one.  Sure, you’ve reached the end and you’ve finally managed to say Szczęsnowicz, but if you’re anything like me, you’re probably emphasizing the częs part.

Instead of this let’s work backwards syllable by syllable :

icz… NOWicz… częsNOWicz… szczęsNOWicz..

Success!  Because it was the 2nd syllable you encountered, you can immediately start emphasizing it right and then hang on to that emphasis as you add successive syllables to your pronunciation.

Dog barking? Shhhh.. Wait!!

Sometimes I have a total mental block on a certain word.  While I’m on Skype with my teacher, my dog has a habit of wanting to join in the conversation.  As a result, I must have asked her the word for “bark” a dozen times in the past year and I was still failing to remember it.

Looking back through my notepad, I’ve written it down 8 times at least that I can quickly see.  It sticks in my head as a word with “sz” and “k” in it, but the rest just fades, yet today for the 1st time I noticed something obvious and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it again.

It comes right back to my usual mechanism for remembering words, which is anchoring some aspect of them to another word or image and it reinforces for me just how important it is to hold that web of connections.  This is a word, I’d just been keeping in isolation in my head.  I hadn’t really looked at it and made the effort to decompose the word or link it.

So, the word in question is Szczekać (to bark).  Take a second to sound that out a couple of times..  It’s just a series of shh and k sounds, which is where I fell down.  There’s a lot of other shh and k words in my head already & I didn’t make the effort to figure out how this one was special.  As a result, when I was searching my brain for it,  I kept coming up with words like skręcić (to turn) or skakać (to jump).  Similar sounds at some level, but totally unconnected words.

But today when I skimmed my word list for revision, this leaped out at me :

Szczekać = Sz  czekać

Czekać is a word I’ve known for ages.  It means to wait.

So now, when my dog is barking and being impatient, I’ll just tell him “Shhhh!  Wait!”


Challenging word of the day – źdźbło

I try to write down a handful of new words every day.  I won’t guarantee that I’ll learn them straight away, but at least they’re in my notebook in the appropriate section and I’ll read them out loud a few times, sometimes using this site to try to improve my pronunciation if it’s a tricky one.

Every now and then though, I stumble across a word that makes me ponder how the human tongue is supposed to make a sound like a bumble bee trapped inside a glockenspiel.  So I thought I’d celebrate these words when I find them with a new category of post, my Challenging word of the day.

Today is :


It means a blade or stalk

źdźbło trawy = a blade of grass

You can listen to how it’s meant to sound here