Learning to Speak Czech

Getting to grips with the language is a challenge but the effort pays off in the end

Some of you have probably decided to start learning Czech. Many of you have probably given up after a few months or even weeks.

With so many systems of declension, the language seems almost impossible to grasp.

Though challenging, this is not the case. The trick is a bit of patience, realistic goals and learning what you need.

The Most Difficult Language in the World
You will hear this epithet a lot when you start. Mostly from Czech speakers.

From a strictly linguistic point of view, no language is any more difficult than another. This view persists, however, and it is, I think, one of the major hurdles for beginners.

When you do try to speak Czech, your attempts are often met with amusement.

Nicolas Roose, a student from Belgium studying Czech in Brno, said that when he first tried to use Czech in Prague most people would switch to English or German. I have to admit I found this happened to me too at the beginning.

Of course, there is a good historical reason for this. Czech has only been an administrative language for a relatively short time.

During the Middle Ages, the educated and powerful in this region used Latin.

By the 18th century, it was supplanted by German.

Czech only gained a greater political foothold following the 1848 national uprisings.

This means that your greatest educational asset will be a sympathetic and patient teacher.

In Which Case
I'm not trying to downplay the grammatical complexity of Czech.

It has seven cases and three genders. When you include plural forms, that's a lot of endings to remember.

Marek Vysloužil, who has taught Czech to foreigners for a few years, says that even simple sentences can be quite challenging for beginners.

His approach is to "teach basic everyday vocabulary and only gradually teach them simple sentence structures."

As for quick solutions to learning cases and the prefixes for perfective verbs, Marek says that he doesn't know of any.

The solution is simply to study.

Say What?
Czech phonology seems to be as difficult as the grammar.

Who would conceive of a language in which "strč prst skrz krk" is pronounceable?

Apart from these consonant clusters, there are sounds quite foreign to English, such as the guttural "ch" and the trilled "r".

Don't be too disheartened if you can't roll your r's. Václav Havel can't pronounce them properly either.

The Czech word for this speech impediment is ráčkovat. Perhaps it's a sign of that famed Czech black humor that the very sound some people have problems with is contained in this word.

The most notorious consonant though is "ř".

The reality is that most of us will never master it. If you wish to try, here's a tongue-twister all Czech children learn:

Tři sta třicet tři,
Stříbrných stříkaček,
Stříkalo přes,
Tři sta třicet tři,
Stříbrných střech

Silver fire hoses,
Sprayed over,
Silver roofs)

One advantage is that Czech is spelt phonetically, meaning that the letters correspond to a single sound.

Nicolas has found that "there is no big difference between everyday Czech and the Czech from our books."

Keep It in Perspective
Marek says that a realistic perspective is one of the most important factors when learning.

"Students often expect quicker progress maybe sometimes due to their previous experience or lack of experience with learning other foreign languages.

"A way to overcome this problem is to explain to the students from the very beginning that they shouldn't have exaggerated expectations."

He also adds that previous experience with a foreign language is an advantage.

Students with previous experience "easily conceive the concept of the existence of completely different language structure and relations among words.

"They understand the concept that you cannot simply take a sentence in your native language and translate it word for word."

This opinion is confirmed my Nicolas who found his knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin from school helped him "to understand how Czech works."

"But to use Czech was something of a different order," he added. "The most common problem is that Czech people speak very fast, so often I have to ask: please say it again, a bit slower now.

"In the end, Czech has proven to be a bigger challenge than I expected, but now that I've got through the basics, my Czech gets better almost every day."

Nor does he encounter that former problem of people wanting to speak to him in English or German.

"The young people really appreciate that I am learning their language and they are always keen to teach me some new things."

Why Bother in the First Place?
Despite the widespread use of English in Prague, it could be useful to know some of the local language.

Czech can vastly speed up your dealings with government departments.

I think it is to their credit that clerks try to use a foreign language. How many of their counterparts in the USA, UK or Australia are fluent in another tongue?

It only helps them and us, however, if we can meet them halfway and use their language.

For the seasoned traveler the language adds to the experience.

Learning some Czech will give you an insight into the culture that can't be found in guidebooks.

It will open up films, music and even books outside your culture.

For the expat here for the long haul, the language can make the place seem more like a second home.

Perhaps all your friends and associates speak English and it's unlikely they will stop.

Speaking and using Czech can make you feel less of an outsider, however, and allow you to function more as part of the society.

I know I felt more comfortable when I could follow the jokes and anecdotes my Czech colleagues told at work.

Of course, I could have got by without it, but I would have spent all this time isolated from the country I was living in.

People here know I'm a foreigner, but I don't feel so much like an outsider.

"Yes, I'm all for this, and I agree that if one is spending some time in another country it's only courtesy to learn at least some of the language. However, in the UK it's incredibly difficult to find anyone that is willing/able to teach Czech and the majority of the language schools stick to the more popular French, German and Spanish. Believe me, it's not for want of trying!"
Peter Garner
January 4th, 2008

"Don't bother. I spent a lot of time and effort learning the language here and I speak it quite well by all accounts. In the majority of situations I am taken for a Slovak or other Eastern emigrant because of my accent and thus treated with the general rudeness and prejudice afforded to such people (who don't deserve it). I'm sorry if I can't imitate the exact pronunciation of 'chicken' but I've never in my life found it necessary to be so intolerant of people who's first language isn't English in my own home country. Spend the two dollars to hire an interpreter, you'll be better off."
Wasted my time
July 28th, 2008

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