Czech as a second language

The world my Czech language tapes occupy is a surreal and shallow landscape, where everyone is  constantly asking for directions, for food and each others’ nationalities. Its citizens are slow-speaking people who wander around repeating phrases, pointing at monuments and having conversations such as this one (my translation, it’s in Czech on the tape):

(The woman is you, the man is described on the tape as a passerby on a street corner.)

Woman: Excuse me, do you speak English?
Man: No.
Woman (pointing at a building): What is that?
Man: This is the national theatre.
Woman: Thank you.

Or, my personal favourite:

Man: Good day (or the formal form of hello).
Woman: Good day.
Man: Excuse me please, is this a post office?
Woman: No, this is not a post office. This is a restaurant.
Man: Tell me please, where is the post office?
Woman: The post office is over there.
Man: Okay. Thank you.
Woman: You’re welcome. Are you Czech?
Man: No. I am American.
Woman: You speak Czech well.
Man: Thank you. Do you speak English?
Woman: Yes, a little.

Most conversations begin with the very formal ‘dobry den’ as a greeting and generally include someone talling someone else they speak Czech well.

I, unfortunately and despite the tapes, do not. I can say “please”, “thank you” and “you’re welcome”. I can order a beer or a schnitzel and potatos. I can ask for a menu. I can tell someone that no, I am not Czech and could they please speak more slowly or at least write it down for me. But that’s about it. My favourite phrase so far has been, “kde je vaše manzelka?” or, “where is your wife?”, which the guy on the tape says really urgently. Disappointingly, I haven’t been able to use it yet.

When I do have to speak Czech in practice, to real live Czech people behind counters at banks or pharmacies, I immediately forget everything I’ve learnt and end up just gaping and gesturing and speaking English anyway. Then they speak to me in rapid Czech and we mime for a while and usually we work something out.  It’s a frustrating process, though, and I always come out of it embarrassed that I’m not able to speak the language of the country I will calling home for six months or more.

There’s an arrogance you inherit growing up in an English speaking country. There’s the expectation that when you enter another country, the people should speak your language, even if it’s a rudimentary form of it. It’s a sentiment best captured in the stereotype of the American saying something in English to a non-English speaker and, when the person they’re speaking to looks at them uncomprehendingly, just repeating themselves louder and slower and expecting them to understand. It’s there in the low level of importance we place on languages in school, the way Italian class, in my high school anyway, was considered an easy bludge subject.

On the other hand, there’s a reality to it as well. English is the international language and, if you want to travel outside of your country, it’s a good one to know. The Dutch are actually offended if you ask them if they speak English: of course they do, they learned it in school. It’s like asking them if they failed academically.  The Czechs are constantly apologising for their language and the fact that only ten million people speak it. “It is not a useful language to know” they explain.

I do know how lucky I am to know the most-spoken language in the world inside out, back-to-front, to the point of absolute, deep-seeded instinct. But I very much envy how pretty much everybody I’ve met in Germany and the Czech republic so far speaks two or three languages, either fluently or at least to the point where they can carry out a conversation without too much trouble.  It would be so good to go into a pharmacy here, understand their instructions, ask them for a receipt, tell them, no, I wouldn’t like a bag and leave without feeling like a tourist. I would love to discern what people are talking about on the tram, what the guy on the radio just said, to be able to read the instructions on the back of a soup mix packet. Simple stuff like that.

A good friend of mine, Geoff Lemon, was explaining in his blog that he didn’t realise the sheer amount  of his time, previous to travelling to South America, was made up of banter, plays on words, subtle alterations of tone (which says as much about his as it does about the topic). And then you go overseas and it’s taken away. He explained it as “the mental equivalent of a full-body cast.”

When I got to Alex in Berlin, he had been communicating in broken German or slow, carefully pronounced English for so long that it took him a little while to recover his vocabulary. He said he sometimes caught himself asking his friends or family over the phone if they understood what he means when he says… Of course they do. They speak English.

I’m just really hoping that one day, sometime before I leave Prague, I will be able to ask at least one person where their wife is. Just once. After that, I’ll be able to die happy.

– Zoe Barron

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1 Response to “Czech as a second language”


  1. 1 mary February 5, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    I know what you mean about English in Europe. Whenever I entered a restaurant or a pharmacy with a prepared question or a handful of useful phrases to get me by, they would fly out of my head and I’d stand there open-mouthed and finally blurt out English. Then I’d feel guilty for reverting to the mother tongue.

    It’s an odd balance. On the one hand, I feel lazy and kind of rude when I don’t try and muddle my way through, but on the other hand, speaking English after the confusion of a foreign language is like pulling on a jumper in the middle of winter. So comfy. Amsterdam was probably the only place where I didn’t feel rude for not speaking the language. They spoke English to me immediately.

    And I applaud you for tackling Czech. ‘Dobry den’ and ‘prosim’ are the only ones I remember, and I’ve probably spelled them incorrectly.


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