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!”


Directions vs Time of Day

For some reason, for a long time I had a mental block when it came to remembering the Polish words for North, South, East and West.

For reference, here they are :

Połnoc = North

Południe = South

Wschód = East

Zachód = West

I could often remember the 2 words for North/South, but not which was which.  The same for East/West.

I needed a pattern or something to help my brain tag them.

North and South

Then I realized one day that the word for afternoon was Popołudnie and since my habit when learning words is to pull apart the prepositions (po, od, na, etc) to break them down into other words, I looked it up and found that popołudnie could be thought of as po + południe (after + noon) and that południe is the word for noon or midday!

It’s amazing what you don’t notice until you look at a word from a different angle or context.  So, if południe means both South and Midday, what about Połnoc?  Well it turns out that it also means midnight!  Which when you think about it is fairly obvious..

Poł = half

Połnoc = Poł + noc

= half + night

= midnight

On a similar tangent :

Południe = Poł + udnie

= Poł + u + dni + e

= half + ? + day + ?

= midday

Ok, so that’s not perfect with the extra u and e, but it’s close enough to help me remember it..  One day I may find a logical grammatical reason for the u and e & I’ll come back and update this post.

East and West

So that spurred me on to look for something similar in the words for East (Wschód) and West (Zachód).  What I found wasn’t quite as satisfying, but it’s a start.

On this big spinning globe of ours, the sun rises every morning in the East and it sets in the West.  Lo and behold, the phrase for sunrise in Polish is Wschód słońca, which you could literally translate to East Sun as the word for Sun is Słońce.

Consistently, the word for sunset in Polish is Zachód słońca, or West Sun.

I would love to be able to say that chód meant something connected, then I could tie the prepositions of Za and Ws in a logical way, but so far I haven’t found one, so we just have to memorize the two words.  Again, if I find something, or if anyone reading this can suggest a link I would be very happy to update this.

My final problem then is remembering which of Za+chód and Ws + chód is East and which is West.  I have a mental note here which I try to remember it by – it’s not great, but it’s the best I have come up with & it’ll do until I consistently remember which is which & don’t need the help anymore..

  • Za = Behind, so Zachód is West because Sunset is when the sun goes behind the earth (and sun sets in the west)

  • W = In, so Wschód is East because Sunrise is when you are in the sun (and the sun rises in the east)

I’ve also produced a couple of pictures for my wall, laying out the compass directions next to the times of day if you visualize the day as a 24 hour clock.


I hope some of the rationale above or the pictures help someone else remember these words.  When learning new words, I recommend looking at the words carefully and seeing if they’re actually compound words made up from other words.  It not only helps to remember the word itself, but it can often lead to learning several other new words.

More examples on this theme to follow in future posts.

Learning Words by sound clusters

Now this idea is either going to work really well for you, or you’ll find it confuses the heck out of you and you never try it again!  But it works for me, so I’ll share it.

The idea is that trying to memorize one new word in isolation is difficult.  This goes back to the idea that some of those amazing memory record holders use – you know the ones who do things like memorize the order of packs of playing cards, etc.  A common trick from them is to build a story which you can visualize, which connects one item to the next and then build a chain of words.

That plainly doesn’t work straight away when you don’t know the words in the first place, so I build little clusters of words which have similarities in their Polish word and then link them together with mental pictures.  I write each group of words on a post-it note with a little stick drawing to help me get started.

Example 1

Kosz (basket), Koszt (cost), Kostować (to cost), Koszula (shirt)

My image is a basket full of shirts, with price tags

This helps me with that feeling of having the right word on the tip of my tongue, but not quite being able to get started.  Once I have a few letters, the rest flows straight out.  So by tying the four words together in my memory, I can remember that the word I need is like ‘basket’, or like ‘cost’ and I find I can recall much faster.

Next I might add a very similar word like Koszmar (nightmare), so I build out my image to include myself having a nightmare about the cost of the shirts in the basket.  The key is to add more words only when you have a good recollection of the set you have so far, so they don’t become confused with one another, but are connected words you can still maintain separately in your memory.

Once you’re comfortable with the cluster of words, then you can start to build out from it with words which aren’t quite so close, but still worth building a mental bridge to.

Example 2

Kość (bone), Kościół (church)

So now, my mental image expands to have some bones sat in the basket on top of the shirts and the setting is now a church.

You might find that adding in more words which have similar roots like this will confuse you and you end up spelling them wrong, but I find that as long as I give myself time to learn the new cluster of words separately from the first group I don’t have that problem.

Example 3

Gość (guest), Gościć (to have a guest), Dość (enough)

This might be one step too far, but once I’ve linked the words which have a common root, I like to find other words with common parts of the word.  In this case, Gość because it’s so close to Kość.  My picture then expands to me handing the basket to a person who in my mind is my guest.  Then the question of how many bones?  Just enough..

The connections might be tenuous, but often the stranger connections or links are actually the ones which become easier to recall, so aim for something striking, colourful or just plain silly.

I’d be interested to know if anyone else finds this approach useful.  I’ve built up a vocab of about 500-600 words in the last few months that I can reliably recall & this has been one of my primary techniques, so it works for me.  I’m sure it’ll work for some other people too, but I’m also sure that some will find it more confusing than helpful!  Good luck and please let me know if this is useful for you and I might post some of my word cluster maps.