Monday, 23 October 2017

How I learned to speak Czech (and you can too)

By Emily Prucha | Prague Daily Monitor |
15 September 2017

#what happens when you stay

I don’t have the answers to living a successful life in the Czech Republic. (If anyone does, please email me.) Still, I’d like to share a few insights I’ve learned living here, married to a Czech, raising multilingual children, and trying to make this land (once the stage for a year-long adventure) the backdrop for a life lived well.

For me, being able to speak “pretty-good” Czech was the most important thing that helped me adapt to life in the Czech Republic. For that, I have my husband and children to thank.

In the beginning, as a single TEFL teacher, I was curious about the Czech language. I wanted to be able to greet my English students with “Dobrý den” and say “Na schledanou” as we parted. Knowing how to ask for the bill after a meal, “Zaplatím, prosím Vás,” and to request to pay separately, “zvlášť,” was an accomplishment. And, “Ještě jedno pivo prosím” (One more beer, please) was an essential.

But, did it make sense to take my Czech language skills further? Did I plan to spend the rest of my life in a country of 10.5 million people, where beer was the national drink, and hunting for mushrooms was a sport?

Enter Cupid. Love makes you do crazy things. So does having children. For me, the combination of falling in love with a Czech and birthing Czech children sealed the deal. Even though, Czechs told me that their language was difficult, I had to try.

Location was on my side. So was being a new mother. Although I didn’t have time to attend Czech courses or study the language from a book, I had far more compelling reasons to achieve fluency (or at least basic competency) living in Prague with an infant.

There were doctors’ appointments, play groups, and deciphering baby food labels in the grocery store. In the days before applications like Google Maps or Waze, I needed to ask for directions. Getting my stroller on and off public transportation required asking for help. When we visited my in-laws, I wanted to be able to participate in the conversation and not to have my words translated through my husband.

As the years went by, my Czech language skills gradually improved. Being willing to make a fool of myself for the sake of communication has gone a long way toward making my home here. Having a sense of humor hasn’t hurt either.

For instance, I have learned that going to a party with a batch of chocolate chip cookies or a warm spinach artichoke dip is a great way to start a conversation. Homemade dishes lead to chatting. Even the most reserved Czech will be more inclined to converse if you, as the foreigner, make the first step. (Making the first step is hard. That’s why I bring cookies. If you don’t eat cookies, substitute any favorite dish.)

As a foreigner residing long-term in the Czech Republic, I’m not alone (not by a long shot). As of 2016, the Czech Republic was home to nearly half a million legal foreign residents (per data provided the Czech Statistics Office). Over 50% have “trvalý pobyt” or permanent residency in the country. In other words, there are a lot people here for the long haul, or at least long enough to want to settle in.

In some ways, living and working in the Czech Republic is nothing short of idyllic. The country is noted for its work and life balance as well as job security. Per the 2017 InterNations survey, “Expats Insider,” the Czech Republic was ranked by expats as the number one place to work abroad. As a foreigner, getting a trade (freelance) license is a simple process.

Besides being a great place to work, the Czech Republic also ranked third in “Family Life” (behind Finland and Singapore). Czech state healthcare is high-quality and accessible. Cultural and leisure activities are plentiful and affordable. Even the weather (though greyer at times than I would like), isn’t a major deterrent.

In short, what’s not to like about living in the Czech Republic?

Despite the Czech Republic’s reputation as a great place to live and raise a family, the country bottoms out when it comes to categories like “Finding Friends” (#45), “Settling In” (#52), and “Learning the Language” (#58). According to the InterNations survey, only 1 in 8 expats speaks Czech fluently (as compared to 1 in 4 respondents worldwide). Moreover, 1 in 9 expats thinks it is very hard to live in the country without speaking the language.

I’ve seen firsthand how speaking Czech has improved the quality of my own life (as well as my children’s). Without learning to speak Czech, I could have managed, but I wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun. I might have limited some of my interactions with the country itself as well as the Czechs I’ve encountered in my efforts to speak and to be understood. I would have gotten lost far more. I know that now.

Since duolingo.com just released the Czech/English beta version of their free online language learning program, if you are a foreigner living in the Czech Republic with the desire to improve your Czech, the timing couldn’t be better. Click on duolingo.com and as their website promises, “Learn Czech 5 minutes a day. For Free.”

If you are more inclined to learn Czech socially than online, read on.

My Top 5 Tips for Learning to Speak Czech (without attending a language school)

Chat with a child. If you don’t have any children of your own, find a neighbor/friend/Czech relative who might let you babysit. Years ago, I learned my colors, numbers, and basic Czech phrases from four-year-old twins during our English lessons. Now, I learn a little Czech each day alongside my children as they do their homework and from chatting with their friends.

If you don’t have children (and don’t want to borrow any), get a dog. Czechs are crazy about dogs, and dogs are allowed almost everywhere (even in restaurants). Walking your dog in the park you are bound to be approached by other animal lovers. Practice your Czech. Even when you feel shy, remember that beneath the stone-faced exterior is likely a Czech who will be impressed by your efforts to communicate in his native language.

If you have Czech in-laws, visit them. While it’s tempting to let your Czech half take care of maintaining family relations, your Czech language skills will improve faster if you are forced to practice. Years ago, I made a fool of myself at a barbeque by telling Radek’s grandmother, “Jsem panna,” (I’m a virgin) instead of saying, “Jsem plna,” (I’m full). After that gaffe, everything else I said in Czech was greeted with a smile. Family gatherings, barbeques, and birthday parties are ideal for putting the Czech you’ve learned into use. If you don’t have in-laws, invite your neighbors for coffee. Don’t forget to bake cookies (for conversation and confidence).

Listen to the radio, watch television, go to the cinema, and visit the theater. Although it may be hard to understand the Czech words, interacting with Czech culture is a great way to absorb some of the language. Invite a Czech friend who can help explain what you might have missed. If you have children, take them to a kid-friendly performance in Czech. The Czech Republic is well-known for its puppet and marionette theaters.

Take a yoga class (or any other leisure activity you like) in Czech. One of the best (and most enjoyable) ways for me to improve my Czech (and to get over being shy in general) has been to find a class in an area of personal interest. While you could opt for a straight language school, I’ve found that by using skills that I already have, I am more likely to practice my Czech socially. Opportunities for leisure activities range from organized sports classes to group mushrooming outings.

To make learning Czech fun, make it a necessary part of your life. Accept that learning Czech will be a difficult process, but don’t let that stop you. When you have a bad day (and yes, there will be some), do as a Czech would. Head to the pub nearest your place. It’s quite possible that all the Czech you need you know, you can learn there.

Emily Prucha is a Life Section columnist for the Monitor. She likes writing about bilingual and multicultural families.
You can reach her at emily@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.