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Socializing in Czech

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One recent Saturday night, my Slovak neighbor threw herself a birthday party. Radek stayed in to mind the kids, and I went to represent the Prucha’s at the party. As evening fell, I raced to get ready and leave the house. I was so eager for a night out, that it didn’t hit me until I stood in my neighbor’s kitchen greeting a room-full of already tipsy Czechs (one Slovak and one Brit turned-Czech), that I’d gotten myself in for a long night of socializing in a different language and with different cultural habits.

It suddenly seemed odd to be in this type of social situation without Radek there for moral support (or translation help). Although I socialize with my female Czech neighbors over coffee and play dates during the week, it had been months since I’d been in a party situation with their spouses. The party setting, a large group seated around a kitchen table, didn’t lend itself to the more intimate, one-on-one conversations that suit my Czech language skills best. Before I could dream up an excuse to run away, my hosts had already pulled up a chair for me. After a few minutes of stomach butterflies, I got over my self-consciousness and relaxed. A few sips of red wine helped too.

My sudden nervousness reminded me of my early days living in the Czech Republic when I often faced such situations. Before I met Radek, my social network consisted entirely of fellow English teachers like myself. On the weekends, we frequented the restaurants and bars popular with expats, where we could order in our native language, exchange school talk and share cultural experiences of living abroad. We chose spots where we could easily use English (or bad Czech) to get what we needed. In the beginning, I enjoyed these conversations and often felt comforted knowing that other foreigners were experiencing the same sort of culture shock that I was. However, as time went on I lamented the fact that my lack of Czech language skills kept my social network limited to English speakers.

Even though I actively studied Czech, as did most of the expats I knew, it seemed doubtful that we’d ever make the jump from memorizing vocabulary to actually holding a conversation. Since most English teachers stick around Prague for only 6 months to a year before moving on, learning Czech for them is more of a hobby than a necessity. I knew I wanted to get more from my experience of living in Prague, but it wasn’t until I found myself in a serious relationship with a Czech that I felt as if my language learning really took off.

Still, joining in a lively group discussion wasn’t something that I foresaw in my immediate future. I did hope to communicate with my boyfriend’s family on a basic level, however, and to hold my own when we went out together with his friends. Achieving fluency with Radek’s family turned out to be far easier than learning how to behave on our nights out.

When Radek and I started dating, I found my social network turned upside down. Although he was willing to meet up with my non-Czech teacher-friends, within months this temporary social network dissolved as teachers moved home or found different opportunities, and my nights and weekends were spent socializing with Radek’s Czech friends. Once my initial delight at joining regular Czechs at the bar waned, I felt saddened by my (then seemingly permanent) status as an outsider. However, despite a strong desire to communicate, I still didn’t have the language skills or the courage to initiate a conversation in Czech. Resorting to English seemed strange when everyone else was happily chatting away in Czech.

During these nights, Radek was attentive and kind, even though he didn’t really understand my frustration, probably because his English was far above my Czech. Although he’d spent time socializing with my expat friends, he was never rendered silent by his lack of language skills. On the other hand, I felt that my English-speaking friends were genuinely curious about Radek’s culture and quickly engaged him in conversation. Sometimes I wondered why Radek’s friends, many of whom I knew spoke English and had traveled to English-speaking countries, weren’t equally interested in finding out more about my heritage and background. When I asked Radek to translate bits of conversation for me, it often seemed to create an awkward dynamic. It was easier to keep silent and hope that after another beer my ears would miraculously translate the Czech bar talk and slang into something I could comprehend.

A year later when a few of Radek’s friends flew to America to celebrate our wedding in my hometown, my parents marveled at how well his friends spoke English. Their sudden demonstration of English only made me simmer on the inside as I wondered why they couldn’t have brought forth their excellent linguistic abilities during one of those endless nights of Czech-talk. When I shared this revelation with an Australian friend who’s married to a Czech, she commented that she’s noticed that Czechs are not particularly drawn to small-talk or empty banter and that many of her husband’s friends who’d speak English to her in a one-to-one setting were also more reluctant to do so in a group. She reminded me that Czechs might be self-conscious speaking English in front of their Czech friends, which added a different slant to the situation. I’d just assumed that Radek’s friends expected me to speak Czech since I’d chosen to live in their country.

I know plenty of expats who’ve lived here for years and get by with minimal Czech, usually because their family and work life doesn’t require them to have day-to-day contact with the language. For me, having a Czech husband was enough of a motivator to continue to drill away at my declinations. After having children, I realized that I’d need to speak decent Czech if we wanted to successfully raise them bilingually. I also realized that my own social life would be richer if I’d continue to improve my language skills.

Getting over my awkwardness speaking Czech happened slowly, and I can’t remember when it finally became second-nature to use Czech in my daily business. I do know that it’s still easier to speak Czech in the corner store, at the doctor’s, the preschool and the family centers around Prague than it is to force myself to contribute to conversations in a Czech party-setting, particularly among Radek’s contemporaries. Perhaps it’s my own social inhibitions that often make it easier to say something to a stranger or a random acquaintance than to people that I know I’ll see for years to come.

It’s not easy to arrive at a party when you’re the newcomer and realize that you’re going to have to communicate in a different language if you want to make any friends. On the flip side though, staying silent doesn’t seem to bring any benefits. It helps when I remind myself that Czechs who seem intimidating as a group probably also have their own inhibitions individually too.

In the end, my neighbor’s birthday party turned into a nice evening. At one point in the night someone asked me a question about race relations in the US. When I started to give my opinion, I noticed that everyone at the table stopped talking and listened. Of course, I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear, but I blundered my way through the rest of what I wanted to say. No one interrupted or laughed and even though I know it wasn’t perfect, I was glad I’d had the opportunity to join in. Looking back, I can see that getting over my squeamishness about saying something silly in front of a group of Czech friends has been an important part of turning this place into a home. I still have aspirations to improve, so maybe in due time communicating in Czech will become easier still.

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