Imagine you’ve lived in the Czech Republic longer than you ever thought you would. Everything you know about raising children and family life has come through the filter of living here. While your Czech language skills aren’t as good as you’d like, you’ve discovered that you can do or say everything you need to in Czech. Or at least you can keep trying until the person you’re speaking with takes pity and responds in English. But most of the time you get by with your Czech.
Then one day you’re speaking with your son’s pediatrician. You’ve been through in your head what you want to say. In the middle of saying, “Prosím vás, malý Samuel tady má bolest v hlavě,” you realize that what you’ve said is nonsense by Czech conversational standards. You remember that “V hlavě” is the translation for the movie “Inside Out.” You meant to say that your son has a headache, but you can’t remember how to say it like a Czech would. Both your son and the doctor are looking at you with puzzled expressions. Now your head is starting to ache too.
What do you do next? Do you shrug your shoulders and wait for the doctor to decipher your attempt, hoping that she’ll be kind in her response? Or, do you reach for your cell phone to look up “headache” on www.slovnik.cz?
Before you have time to do one or the other, Samuel’s sister, your talkative child, blurts out in perfect Czech, “Moje maminka chce říct, že boli brachovi hlava.”
When this happens, how do you feel?
By now, I’ve gotten used to listening to corrections of my speech, grammar and intonation from my Czech husband. I do the same for him in English, though by his standards not as often as he’d like.
The other day he called me over to the kitchen sink to ask me to repeat what I’d just told my daughter’s friend who was sleeping over. “Say it again, but shortly,” he instructed, telling me that I was singing the words like a Slovak. I retorted that I might take up Slovak instead of Czech. But after the initial sting of being corrected, I appreciated that he hadn’t brought it up in front of our guests, all of whom were ten or under. Moreover, that he’d still cared enough to notice.
In recent years, I’ve entered a new era, whereby my children at ages 5, 8 and nearly 11, who used to passively listen to my Czech in social situations (I am their mother after all), nowadays pipe up with their own corrections. The recent influx of “helpful improvements” to my Czech language skills is taking my pride a little getting used to. On one hand, I am pleased that my children speak Czech well enough to correct me. On the other hand, who likes to be corrected when you’re trying your best?
Unlike my husband, my children have no mercy when they hear me say something that doesn’t sound right.
When I complained about my troubles, an Australian friend who’s lived here long enough to have excellent Czech language skills recounted a stand-off with her first-grade daughter. They were reading aloud together, and she read her daughter the words, “TO JE SEN, SEN JE.” It is a dream, a dream is. Her daughter heard, “to je ceně” (It’s the cost) and exclaimed, “Muum, it’s not ceně, it’s SEN JE!” Her mother retorted, “Yeah, that’s what I said.”
I understand my friend’s frustration. Czech is hard. Since the “c” sound in Czech makes the sound closest to the letters “ts” in English, and the sound “ě” can have the same sound as “je,” it is easy to get the sounds off, especially if you are learning the language on an as-needed basis (i.e. helping your bilingual kids with their Czech reading homework).
Like my friend, I get in trouble with words like “scéna,” when to pronounce it properly I must say the equivalent of “sts” at the beginning of the word. My head knows what to do, but sometimes the sounds don’t come out the way they should. Nor do my “č” (CH) and ř (rolled R blended with ZH) sounds as in the word “čtří” (four) come out as clean and crisp as they do in my mind.
In general, I accept my language limitations. However, there are occasions, particularly when my children dissolve into laughter when I struggle with a sound that they’ve already mastered when I wish I could do better.
I’ve heard non-Czech parents say one of the reasons they’ve chosen for their children to attend international schools is because they can’t imagine doing the Czech homework with their child. My father said that after the seventh grade he realized that he knew more than both his parents. His mother was a German immigrant and his father was an enlisted soldier in the army with an eighth-grade education. It seemed sad at the time. Now that my daughter is in 5th grade, I’m beginning to see that I’ll soon be in a similar situation, at least as far as Czech language is concerned.
Rather than getting upset that my children find fault with my Czech language skills, I’m trying to give them more space to use their own words. While my daughter’s outburst at the doctor’s was an unexpected surprise, now whenever we visit, I’m conscious to ask my children to try to explain in their own words what’s hurting them. I understand that it’s important for my children to feel that I’m the parent and I have a handle on what’s going on in their lives, but I think it’s equally important for them to see how they can speak up too.
Working through feelings of embarrassment and discomfort is a two-way process. Just as my children are learning life-skills from me, there are important skills I’m learning from them. When non-Czech parents tell me that they don’t know who’ll help with their child’s homework, I find myself telling the parents, it’ll be okay. Their kids will figure it out. There’s a good chance the journey to get there will be unforgettable – on both sides.
At the doctor’s, my kids and I laughed that I’d gotten the words for headache confused. They agreed that I needed some lessons from them before my Czech would be perfect. Luckily, I can still afford their prices.