by Amanda Crittenden
I didn’t leave for the Czech Republic with a plan to learn the language. My intention was to earn University credit while teaching English and learning about Czech culture. While I expected to pick up a few words here and there, I didn’t imagine that in a month’s time I could acquire enough language to actually have a conversation in Czech.
Two months before I left for the University of Utah’s Project “New Eyes” ® study abroad program, I checked out a Czech-English dictionary with the intent to learn some basic words. Reading through the pronunciation guide perplexed me. I tried to produce the sounds described and was entertained at my efforts, but did not feel as if I were accomplishing much. Still, the book was sleek and I carried it around, reading bits and pieces when I had a free moment.
As part of the study abroad program, we were given a Czech phrasebook and audio CD. I tried to read the phrasebook but didn’t get very far. With no context to apply what I was reading, and in the middle of Utah not knowing any native Czech speakers, I failed to use the Czech I was studying. I would read a few phrases and then revisit them in a week, finding that I’d forgotten everything.
I then downloaded a free language software called byki. The interface resembles electronic flashcards with a Czech word and pronunciation on one side and English on the other. I practiced this a few times, but not enough for many of the words to stay in my long-term memory.
Prior to the program, my language background included two years of French and one year of Spanish university courses. During the spring semester, I was studying both French and Spanish. In addition to this, I was living with a Japanese roommate in a University dorm building with mainly international students. Most of my spare time was spent with my international friends from France, Germany, Uruguay, Peru, the Netherlands, South Korea & Japan. Teaching each other foreign phrases was our means of entertainment. However, I rarely had the chance to use Czech. As a result, I boarded my flight for Prague with an inventory of four Czech words: Ahoj, prosím, sobota, and pivo. (Hello, please, Saturday, and beer).
On the 18-hour plane ride, I assembled a photo language-learning project, given by the program director Professor Steven Sternfeld as part of our Czech language component. Using my Czech phrasebook, I labeled 100 photos with Czech words and English translations. I remember feeling frustrated that my phrasebook didn’t have many of the words I wanted to use. Upon arrival at our program destination, we’d receive a compact, more comprehensive Czech-English dictionary.
Before this five-week trip to the Czech Republic, I had never traveled overseas, nor had I been in a situation where English was not the dominant language. In the Amsterdam airport, I had my first real experience of someone speaking to me in a foreign language and fully expecting me to understand. While waiting in line for the restroom, the custodian said something in Dutch and pointed at an empty bathroom stall. I stood still for a moment and then realized that she probably meant for me to go ahead. This sort of deductive inference would be my most frequently used tool when communicating cross-linguistically.
On the Czech Airlines plane from Amsterdam to Prague, the flight attendant said something, which I assumed was, “What would you like to drink?” I had looked up ‘water’ and replied by saying, “[vodu] prosím.” She corrected me by saying, “[voda].” This would be the first of many, many corrections I would receive on my pronunciation.
When I arrived in Prague, I was fascinated to be surrounded by people speaking all sorts of languages. I often thought I was hearing French, but after learning the Czech alphabet, I realized that it was the Czech /že/ sound I was hearing. In my mind, I had been representing this sound as the French counterpart to this sound – “je” the French word for “I”.
Sarah (one of the other program participants) and I spent a week in Prague with her American uncle, Welsh aunt, and their three small children. They had been living in Prague for a few months prior to our visit. In this city where many people cater to the English-speaking tourists, it was easy to get by not knowing any Czech. My friend’s aunt and uncle had mastered a few phrases to use as a courtesy with the Czech waiters and shopkeepers.
While I carried around my Czech phrasebook to all the castles, museums and shops we visited, I learned only four words in Prague. Two I learned from talking with waiters and shopkeepers: Dobrý den, and Děkuji (Good day & thank-you). From watching Sarah’s four-year-old cousin talk with people around the city, I learned díký – a less formal version of thank you. I learned lahodný from a waiter at a small café. I wanted to say that the croissants and hot chocolate he served us were very good so I looked up ‘delicious’ in my Czech phrasebook. When he came to ask us how our food was, I smiled and tried to say that it was lahodný. He politely gave me a confused look. Embarrassed, I pointed to the word and he told me how to say it correctly. Sarah, my friend from the program, listened to his pronunciation and told me to “lower my ‘o’.”
Getting from Prague to the Southern Bohemia countryside was the first confusing cross-linguistic interaction. Six of us had met in Prague and planned to take the bus to Sušice. When we arrived, the ticketing office was closed. After a confusing conversation at the metro ticketing window, I tried to ask another traveler for help. I looked up the word for “Excuse me” and walked up to a guy who looked to be about my age and said, “Promiňte, do you speak English?”
He replied with, “[no]”
I said, “Oh sorry.”
He smiled and said, “Yes. I speak English.”
I then remembered from our pre-departure sessions that in Czech, “no” is the shortened version of “ano,” which means “yes.” This would take some getting used to but ended up being a source of entertainment.
When we arrived in Sušice, a small city of 11,000, five other students and I tried to get lunch. We soon realized that we were no longer in the tourist-friendly, English-catering city of Prague. I whipped out my Czech phrasebook and started translating the menu, looking for vegetables. Some of us decided to randomly point at an item and order it.
My host family lived in the small village of Čejkovy with a population of 150. I was several kilometers from any of the other students and only came in contact with them a couple days a week. After school I spent all my time with my host family.
My host family was nervous at first to speak around me. They showed me my room and motioned for me to put my stuff away. After doing so, I walked upstairs to the kitchen and my host mom asked me if I wanted ‘chai.’ I’d had ‘chai tea’ before and said yes. Then she opened a drawer full of different kinds of tea and asked what kind I liked. That was how I figured out that čaj is the general word for tea.
I excused myself for the bathroom by saying, “Promiňte.” I noted that my host mom gave me a slightly strange look when I said it. I then proceeded to use the word, “Pardon” which I read in my Czech phrasebook meant ‘Excuse me’ as well as ‘I’m sorry.’ Four months after returning home, in a conversation with a Czech friend I met, I learned that ‘Pardon’ is used when talking to someone of a much higher class than oneself.
My host sisters Lucka & Monika, twin 14-year-olds, had studied German for five years and English for one year. At first, we pointed to objects around the room, and they’d say the Czech word and I’d say the English word. I found out that they speak German and they discovered that I knew French. We sectioned off four columns on paper and wrote the English, Czech, French & German words for each object. We were trying to learn four languages at once and it was getting a bit ridiculous. After a day or two of this, we gave up and instead taught each other language in other ways.
That first night we went to watch Slumdog Millionaire in English with Czech subtitles. On the car ride there, Monika showed me the bottle of chewing gum and pointed at me, and said, “ Do you want?” We then told each other how to say “I am chewing chewing-gum” and the twins laughed for days about it. They taught me the Czech phrase but it took me a few days to learn it.
The next day my host family took me on a hike and they taught me how to say, “I am a new Czech student. I am not American. I don’t understand English. I speak Czech.” It was our clever plot to deceive the students at their school the next day. Obviously it didn’t work, but I still remember how to say what they taught me.
Monday through Wednesday, I taught English to eight different classes of students at the Nalžovské Hory primary school (grades 1-9). During the two to three free class hours I had each day, I would visit other classes in the school. These included my host sisters’ German class, a Math lesson, a 3rd grade level Czech reading class, a music class, and an art session taught in Czech by an American woman.
On my first day, I didn’t know which bathroom to use because I didn’t recognize the words from the restrooms I’d seen in Prague. I’d find out later that it meant “Girls” and not “Women.” I saw some girls from my host sisters’ class pass by and I pointed at myself, and then at the bathroom, gave them my best puzzled-look and said, “Yes?” They nodded and I went in.
After a week in Prague and half a week with my host family in Čejkovy, I had a realization that I could learn Czech – that it was actually possible to make sense of the foreign sounds I was hearing. I wanted to understand the conversations around me, and I wanted to connect and communicate with my new Czech family and friends.
During my week in Prague, I didn’t want to make a mistake when speaking, and so I stuck with the few phrases I already knew. In my Czech home, school and community, I was okay with not being ‘right.’ Czech has seven cases, but my version of Czech only had one or two. With the help of over-exaggerated gestures, I would exhaust my Czech vocabulary to convey the message I was trying to send. For example, while watching a Czech cartoon, I learned “konec,” Czech for “The End.” I used this word in all sorts of ‘wrong’ contexts. On my third day of teaching, I thought school was over so I went to meet my host sisters. They were still in class, so I came back and told the headmaster who only spoke Czech, German and Russian that – “škola, ne konec.” (school, no the end). I was content to look ridiculous when using extensive hand gestures and sound funny when saying words in the wrong context.
After hearing me speak a few Czech words, the other teachers at my school were enthusiastic about helping me learn Czech. During lunch and breaks, they’d help me read and pronounce the Czech equivalent to the English vocabulary words I was teaching my students. During the first week, I tried studying. I wrote down Czech words I heard, looked them up in my dictionary, and asked my host mom Martina to show me what I’d done wrong. I soon gave up on this because I became busy with teaching, school, and being with my host family. Most of what I learned after that came from context and necessity.
It took me a few days to learn what ‘tak’ meant. I heard it all the time and I’d ask my host family and also my English teachers what it meant. They always figured that I wanted to know how to say “talk” in Czech, so they’d give me that word. After a few days, I realized that it was a space filler and that if ‘že’ was added to the end to form ‘takže’, it meant ‘so’ or moved along the sentence more so than just by saying ‘tak.’
I tried doing the Czech language assignment that Prof. Sternfeld gave us. I asked my host mom to look at the pictures of a kitchen and tell me about the objects in the photo. She instead described her own kitchen. After pointing to the sink, oven, and other items in the kitchen, she asked me to repeat the words she had said to make sure I remembered. The word for ‘water sprayer’ is ‘vodovodní kohoutek.’ Moníka joked that if I didn’t wake up when Lucka tried to wake me up in the morning for school, then she’d spray me with the vodovodní kohoutek. Humor is how I remembered a lot of words – whether it was from using a word in the wrong context or the extensive charades used to convey the word’s meaning.
Our first Czech session was a content-based instruction taught through Qi Gong. The instructor would hit us when we didn’t do something right and said špatny. I realized that I knew this word – it meant ‘bad.’
The first week of teaching was the initial honeymoon where I was fascinated by the language. I became a sponge and soaked up everything. Then there came a point where I was simply overwhelmed. Exhausted from all the expectations, I was aware of just how little I knew.
After a week, my English teachers started using more and more Czech with me, and just assumed that I’d understand. I was silently frustrated that they would think I could understand them after only a week of living with a Czech host family. They taught English for a living – shouldn’t they understand that someone cannot learn a language that quickly?
My host mom started speaking more Czech to me and expected me to understand. There was an evolution of phases I went through when she’d do this. At first I tried to understand. Then I got tired, and just pretended I knew what she was saying. After a while, I would just become exhausted and didn’t try to understand anything at all.
After a few days my frustration subsided, and I started paying more attention to the context rather than the words. All I needed to do was try to understand the message being conveyed.
My host family was incredible. I felt very much at home. I’d sit around them, listening to them joke and talk in Czech. At first I tried to understand everything, then I just listened to the sounds, and then I just tried to get a sense of the mood so I’d know whether to smile, laugh, or just sit there. A few times when I thought it was just a joke, I’d realize that someone was actually upset. I was constantly learning. Sometimes I’d only catch a word or two and use that to make sense of the conversation.
We labeled items around the house with English and Czech words. The dictionary became the table centerpiece, always ready in the event of a communication breakdown.
When I found myself in a conversation with someone who spoke little or no English, I’d use all the Czech that I knew, trying to make a connection. This lead to several conversations where I’d ask someone which famous Czech beer he preferred. I knew the words for beer, best, and I like, you like.
Verbs in Czech change according to gender. My host mom Martina explained this to me by saying pointing to herself and saying the feminine form, and then pointing to Líbor and Honza, my host father and brother, and saying the masculine form. Being around female teachers and talking mostly with Martina and her daughters Monika and Lucka, and being a female myself, I used the feminine form. During our Czech language acquisition assessment, I accidentally used the feminine form when interviewing a male Czech speaker, asking him about stuff he liked.
We had three official Czech lessons, each two hours long. The entire lesson was conducted in Czech, even though the teacher spoke fluent English. The first week she taught us the Hansel and Gretel fairytale. She used pictures and over exaggerated gestures to get her ideas across.
My host mom got a Czech-English fairytale book and every night we’d read it. The stories were in simplified language and had labeled some of the pictures with the Czech and English vocabulary. This was how I learned how to pronounce different Czech sounds. Because of our nightly fairy tale reading, I am able to read Czech almost perfectly (though I might not understand every word). The first night we read, my host family kept smiling. When I asked why, they told me that I spoke Czech like a famous French actress who now acts in Czech movies. I suppose I transferred my knowledge of French pronunciation to Czech.
Some of the harsh consonants were difficult for me to pronounce. My host mom also had trouble pronouncing the ‘th’ sound that is found in English but not in Czech. One day my host mom decided it would be a good idea for both of us to fill our mouths with chocolate and then try to say the words. It helped a bit, but more so just made us laugh.
After three weeks of being there, Honza (my host brother who had studied English for six years) and I decided to learn the Hansel and Gretel fairytale. He would learn English and he’d teach me Czech. I would say what I remembered in Czech, and try to write it down. “Is this right?” I’d ask and he’d laugh, lean over and correct my spelling. Then he’d translate what I’d said in Czech to English.
I performed the Czech version several times, for my host family, for my friend’s host family, and for my students. I got better each time, picking up more words and using less hand motions for everything. Then Honza and I performed our Czech and English duo of the fairytale twice in front of the Project “New Eyes” ® participants and their host families and friends.
I think it was because I pretended that I understood a lot of the time that people actually spoke Czech to me. They spoke at a much higher level than I could comprehend and so I was able to pick up different things. Sometimes I only recognized one word, and I used that to decipher what someone was saying.
One day, about a week and a half after living with my Czech host family, the grandmother, who spoke no English, came into my room, babbling in Czech. I understood one word, špinový, and that was the word for ‘dirty.’ I racked my brain for possibilities and figured that she wanted me to put my dirty clothes in the bathroom. I repeated the word “špinový,” tugged my shirt, and she nodded.
I learned the words ‘separace’ and ‘dohromady’ from helping my host mom with laundry. I then used Czech as a way to ask for things I wanted. Whenever I wanted a photo taken of everyone, I’d say, ‘fotka dohromady prosím?’
After a few weeks, I learned that Czech has two words for the verb ‘to know.’ My host sister Moníka looked up a word in my dictionary, I saw that the English word was ‘to know.’ She then looked up another word, and then pointed at it, and said, “Stény?” (the Czech word for the same). I then tested my hypothesis by using each of the different words for ‘to know’ in the two different contexts that exist for the French words ‘connaître’ and ‘savoir.’ I discovered that it was the same way in Czech.
It took me three weeks to figure out how to say, “How do you say…” I kept hearing this slew of sounds, over and over. ‘Jak se řekne?’ One day I got it. I was so excited that I had just figured this out all by myself.
A few days before I left the Czech Republic, I figured out how to say the word for “everything.” I suppose I was taking a little long in the bathroom; I thought we were leaving at 7:00 but I guess we were leaving at 6:45. Martina knocked on the door and said, šeknou dobrý? I understood the word dobrý – it meant ‘good’ and so I said yes. Then when we got in the car, she asked my host brother Honza, maš šeknou? I knew the word maš – it was the 2nd person singular form of ‘to have’ so I figured that she was asking if he had everything.
Part of understanding a foreign language is to stop listening to the words and just listen to understand what’s being said. On the last weekend, we were roasting klobasa, Czech sausages. Martina came up to me and said something in a kind voice in Czech, while pointing out the remaining sausages, the bread, and motioning at me. I nodded and said, ok, děkuji.
Sarah looked at me and said, “Did you actually understand all of that?”
I replied, “No, but basically she was saying that if I wanted any more klobasa, there was plenty left, and that I should eat more and not be hungry.” Part of my understanding came from knowing my host family so well.
Throughout my five weeks in the Czech Republic, I often felt as if I were a five-year-old learning a language. While I could usually grasp the idea of what was being said, I rarely understood everything. It takes being okay with not understanding and realizing that if we just sit back and listen, if we keep our ears and mind open, and stop focusing on the words and just focus on the human connection, we will be able to understand. It takes all of this to learn a language. There is a Czech phrase that says, “You are as many times a human, as the amount of languages you know.”