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Learning Czech – tips and thoughts

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It is probably fairly obvious from this site that the Czech language and culture are every bit as important to me as crosswords are. In what follows I offer some thoughts and tips for those who have a similar interest and would like to pursue it.

Why learn Czech?

Why bother to learn any foreign language? After all, English is a global language, spoken widely all over the world… This narrow-minded and arrogant attitude, combined with poor language teaching in many of our schools, explains why many Brits abroad won’t even try to use the most basic phrases in other languages when they travel. It takes less than half an hour to learn “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me” and “Do you speak English?” in the language of the country one is visiting from the phrase book, but while many people will spend hours agonising over which clothes to pack, this little essential for foreign travel is nearly always overlooked. Obviously there’s no point in spending years becoming fluent in the language of a country you’re only planning to visit for a weekend, but it’s also true that many Brits, and Americans too, will happily work in a European country for years without bothering to learn all but the most rudimentary phrases of the local language. Perhaps a greater respect for foreign language and culture might do something to reduce the number of drunken British yobs found on the streets of Prague and other East European cities, but I mustn’t get started on that one!

When choosing a foreign language Czech is unlikely to displace French, Spanish, German or perhaps Russian as a top priority. Nobody would seriously suggest Czech as a component of the school curriculum, although it would be more useful than some of the trendy nonsense that apparently is essential learning for our pupils these days. Yet the Czech Republic is probably the most socially and economically advanced of the former Communist countries in Europe, and more and more businesses are forging useful links with the CR. This is likely to increase now that the Czech Republic is part of the European Union. Many companies have branches in Prague these days and a knowledge of the language is obviously a clear advantage if you work for one of these and are likely to be travelling.

Prague, along with other Czech cities, is also a popular destination for cultural activities. Many people who visit like to return, and there is no better way to learn about the real culture of a place than to meet the people who live there. The English pubs and restaurants with English-only menus on the Old Town Square in Prague really could be anywhere and you get ripped off there anyway – if you travel further afield in Prague you can learn far more about the place and how the Czechs live. Less English is spoken outside the tourist areas and communication is certainly facilitated if you can speak their language to some degree. In addition, if communication is limited to English-speaking Czechs you miss out on the opportunity to meet some of the warmest, most generous, kindest people there are.

Is Czech difficult?

Students struggling with Czech may well put this question in the same category as “Is the Pope a Catholic?” and “Does a large ursine mammal defecate in an arboreal plantation?” It is true that Slavic languages have a reputation for being difficult and Czech, with its clusters of consonants and complex grammar, can be very daunting for the non-Slavic foreigner. It is generally considered to be much harder than French or Spanish but not as difficult as Finnish or Hungarian. I’ve always wondered why the manufacturers of those audiotape courses advertised as “Speak Italian/Spanish/German fluently in 3 months” haven’t been prosecuted under the Trades Descriptions Act, since such an achievement is almost impossible – but you can gain some competence in these languages in a relatively short time whereas Czech requires considerably more study, practice and perseverance. Yet it can be done – not only by the 10 million or so Czechs but by anyone who is prepared to put in the time and effort. It is very rare for foreigners to speak flawless Czech in the way many Scandinavians and Dutch speak English, but it’s still possible to become very proficient if you have the right motivation. I have lived in the Czech Republic for several years now and while no Czech will ever mistake me for a native speaker, I can deal with pretty well any real life situation (e.g. buying a house, medical stuff, insurance and dealing with officialdom) without any problems.

What makes Czech so different from “easier” languages?

There are as I see it three major differences between learning, say, Spanish and Czech. These are:

1. Cases. Now that Latin is no longer taught in most of our schools, many people have little or no idea what grammatical cases actually are. Of the common languages studied in Britain, only German uses cases to any extent and in comparison to Czech or other Slavic languages the case structure of German is quite straightforward. Czech has seven cases, which are used to indicate the subject, direct or indirect object of a sentence, as well as possession, motion towards, motion from, location and many other situations. The cases are nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, locative or prepositional, instrumental. Even for those who know enough grammar to understand the idea of case, Czech can be baffling as the case used to describe something isn’t always obviously logical. For example the genitive case, which in most languages including Czech represents motion from or possession, is also used to indicate motion to in some situations, usually motion to cities and countries.

Technically these cases exist in English too – although they present no problem to the student of English as they are not immediately apparent. For example the following sentences indicate the use of the seven cases in Czech of the word “book”.

The book is blue
I learned it from a book
I attached it to the book
I have a book
O wonderful book!
It is in the book
It came with the book

The word “book” remains unchanged, as do all English nouns – the only modification ever made to nouns in our language is to indicate the plural. In Czech, however, the ending of nouns changes according to case – hence in the various contexts above the Czech word kniha (book) appears as kniha, knihy, knize, knihu, kniho, knize and knihou. There are different case endings for nouns in the plural too.

What’s more, there are masculine, feminine and neuter nouns, which further divide into different types so that essentially there are at least 10 common types of noun, each with a different set of case endings, as well as some uncommon ones and irregular variations of the basic types. And as if that’s not enough, the endings of adjectives, possessive pronouns, demonstrative pronouns (“that”), and even some numbers change according to case and gender of noun. For example:

dobrý muž – good man
dobrá žena – good woman
dobré pivo – good beer

and if you want five good beers, and you’ll probably need them when trying to get your head round case in Czech, that’s

pět dobrých piv

2. Variations in spoken and written
Czech. It’s possible to acquire a pretty good mastery of Czech vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation from a textbook, go to Prague and find you don’t understand more than a few words many people say. This isn’t your fault – it’s just that many words are pronounced differently according to whether the formal, written style or the informal, spoken style is being used. The reason for the difference is that German replaced Czech for a long time in the former Czechoslovakia as the official language so the spoken language developed while the written variant didn’t. This is not a regional variation like the way “bath” is pronounced differently in various parts of Britain – Czechs learn both the written version (spisovná čeština) and the spoken version (hovorová čeština) and are equally capable of using either. The more informal the situation, the more Czechs tend to use slang – particularly in Prague – which often bears little resemblance to what you will learn in a textbook, and they tend to speak it at a very fast pace! There is no shame however in asking people to speak more slowly and use the formal version you’ve learned – many Czechs will do this automatically anyway. Czechs are always surprised when a foreigner speaks their language with any degree of proficiency – and are quite happy to repay your efforts in learning the language by recognising that you may need a little help.

3. Idiomatic differences. English students of Italian, Spanish, French or even German to some extent can often make reasonable headway by translating what thay want to say directly into these languages. It may not be perfectly idiomatic but usually makes sense. The reverse is true too – even when a German who’s only just starting English says “I in Berlin have been born” you know what they mean. In Czech direct translation is often a bad idea – even if you have an excellent vocabulary you often won’t make sense if you simply translate your thoughts by substituting English words with Czech ones. For example the common English phrase “How are you” translates directly into Czech as Jak jste but this won‘t make sense to anyone unless they speak English well enough to realise where you’re coming from. The correct phrase is Jak se máte which literally means “how do you have yourself?”. Likewise “I’m not well” in Czech is expressed by Je mi špatně which literally means “it is to me badly”. Hence you need to learn quite a few basic phrases before even starting to make polite conversation.

Is anything easy in Czech?

This section will unfortunately be rather shorter than the foregoing! But if your head is spinning from the apparent complexity of this language, there is some solace. Czech is pronounced almost exactly as it is spelt, which means that once you know the pronunciation rules you can say any word without fear of mispronouncing it. Compare that to the poor student of English getting to grips with a sentence like

Though the cough was rough, I got through Slough

Czech tenses are also considerably simpler than English ones. The future and past tenses have two forms called aspects, which differentiate between extended and single activities – and there is only one form of the present tense. For example:

Dělal jsem – I was doing (for some time)
Udělal jsem – I did (once, and finished it)

are the two past tense forms of the first person singular of the verb dělat, to do. There are no forms like “I have been doing”, “I had been doing” etc. – Czech verb forms are very simple compared with those in English and, in addition, there aren’t lots of woulds and shoulds that make English verbs so complex.

What are the best ways to learn?

Some people have the skill to pick up a language from their environment with little training. If you are or will be living and working in the Czech Republic, and are lucky enough to be able to learn this way, you may reach a decent standard by just being there. I know people who have done this quite successfully. Obviously this is easier if you have Czech friends, colleagues or even a Czech partner.

For those of us (including me) who are less linguistically talented, a textbook is probably the best way to learn the basics. There are a number of Czech textbooks available in this country – the one I used was Teach Yourself Czech by David Short. This book introduces the all the various aspects of Czech grammar chapter by chapter, as well as useful vocabulary and expressions. A tape is available too. Some of the expressions you learn from this book are a little outmoded but it gives as solid a grounding as any in this language and softens the blow of learning all those cases by introducing them gradually. A useful reference book is Contemporary Czech by Michael Heim – it moves too quickly to be recommended as a book for beginners but has very clear appendices of all the conjugations and declensions as well as a very useful chapter on irregularities. There are plenty of useful exercises but, for some reason, no answers to these so you can’t check your work. Other books I haven’t used myself but that are well spoken of are Communicative Czech (Elementary and Intermediate) by Ivana Bednářová and Magda Pintarová and Czech for Everyone by Karin Rigerová. Yet textbook learning on its own can have its pitfalls as I have mentioned in a previous section – chiefly that it doesn’t help much with oral skills. For this you need to find a teacher or a suitable course.

The best way to find a teacher is via the Internet. Not surprisingly there aren’t all that many in the UK but in the first half of the noughties, before I moved to Prague, I had no trouble finding native speakers for Czech conversation. For students of any level – but particularly beginners – a teacher is essential. You’ll want to ask questions, as well as practise speaking and listening, and guided study is much more profitable than learning alone.

There are a number of Czech courses offered in Prague. I attended one of these several times between 2001 and 2005 – it was run by a company called SF Servis and called Summer Prague University. It is largely due to the SPU that I made as much progress as I have in Czech – certainly it was not linguistic talent on my part. The links I had for this company no longer work and I can’t find any new ones, but a quick search will come up with a good choice of Czech language courses for foreigners.

I would advise that when taking a course, even an intensive and well-taught course like mine was, it is wise to have realistic expectations. It’s not uncommon to find a few students on these courses, usually complete beginners, who kick up a fuss because they are not speaking Czech like a native after two weeks. One particularly obnoxious student at the SPU demanded her money back and attempted to defame the school, because she was unable to realise that while a course is an important and useful tool for learning a language, hard work and perseverance are also needed.

Will Czechs let me practise my Czech on them?

Once you have a good grounding in Czech, the only way forward is to practise. There is no other way. But in the CR, especially Prague, this can be easier said than done. The country and its capital are flooded with a huge number of tourists each year, and almost all of them speak no Czech at all. Hence even if you ask in correct Czech for a beer, the menu and directions to somewhere the chances are that unless you speak like a native you will receive a reply in English. This applies mainly in the tourist areas, and in fairness to the people who work there they can’t be expected to know that your Czech is good – they’ll probably assume you are one of the rare breed of tourist who has bothered to learn a few phrases. And in fairness too, you are not paying the waiter/shopkeeper for Czech lessons – if they assume that they can go about their business more quickly by using English then they will try to do so. This can happen a lot and it can be a bit insulting – but usually if you point out that you can speak Czech or prove it by saying something that shows this you will receive an apology and often some praise. There are occasions though where even after demonstrating that you can speak Czech the other person will insist on speaking English. This may just be pure disbelief that a non-Czech can speak their language, even when you have shown that you can, or that they want to practise their English, or that they are just being bloody-minded. I was once in a restaurant in Prague with a friend who also speaks Czech well, and although we indicated this to the waitress she pointedly refused to speak Czech to us despite several requests to do so. Such blatant rudeness is uncommon, but if confronted with it the best thing to do is keep your cool and don’t take it personally, refuse to speak English yourself and, provided you are confident enough about your own Czech, a useful trick can be to pretend that their English doesn’t make sense and you don’t understand. After all, they’re not paying you to teach them English either – you are paying them as a customer!

Better still is to avoid the tourist areas. Out of the centre of Prague most people speak little or no English and you will find many people willing to have a chat in many of Prague’s bars and pubs. I realise it is probably easier for a man to confidently strike up a conversation with strangers in a bar although in the Czech Republic when a lone woman enters a pub it isn’t usually interpreted as “she’s on the pull” like it sadly is so often in Britain. I found that you can get a conversation with all sorts of interesting people by doing this, most of whom will be impressed if you speak their language and want to learn about your reasons for doing so – hence you have a good conversation starter. If you don’t like hanging around in bars there are of course other ways to meet people – and most Czechs are so friendly and sociable that you shouldn’t have any problems on this score. And if your work or reason for being in Prague or the CR automatically brings you into contact with Czechs so much the better.

So it’s Czech for everybody?

Of course not – unless you have an interest in the country and its culture and people you’d be wasting your time. And much of what I’ve said applies to learning any language, not just Czech. For me learning this difficult but fascinating, beautiful language has been one of the best things I have ever done. I started learning after visiting Prague in the 90’s because I fell madly in love with the city and also because I found the language absolutely intriguing. As a result I have met many wonderful, warm-hearted and lovely people in Prague through my studies over there, some of whom speak no English and I would therefore have been denied their company had I not learned Czech. So if you’re at all interested, give it a go!