Learning Czech and the Stockholm Syndrome

Posted by on Dec 15, 2013 | 1 comment

What is the hardest word to pronounce in Czech? If you’re thinking about the infamous “Strč prst skrz krk” then you are certainly right, but how about vzcvrnkls? I remember when I’ve found this in the introductory page of a famous textbook, and also I remember the incredulous-looking remarks in the faces of both students and native speakers, while spending a terrible minute in the effort of pronouncing a word without vowels. Effort that, picture this, was in fact vain, as it soon turned out that native speakers wouldn’t normally use or even know about this word (and who could blame them: what are the odds of saying “did you flick up” in a sentence?).

Now, this is how I started learning Czech.

From my perspective, as a romance-language speaker, learning Czech is a painful process. We are used to deal with languages which are similar enough to each other, to the point of being even mutually intelligible, somehow, with a little effort (and with the due exclusions). When I moved to Brno for the first time, some years ago, my main occupation was to look for anything even vaguely familiar to start with. And, useless to say, it was very hard; however, not impossible. Nowadays, I like to surprise Czech speakers by telling them that some words they normally use are in fact pretty much the same in Italian, such as kravata or pantofle, but I must admit that, when I first learnt that some years ago, it was definitely a big relief.

Another obstacle in the process was that the world around me seemed to be in a big conspiracy against learning Czech. «Why do you want to learn this language? Just 10 million speakers, it’s not even a fifth of your country!» was the most common objection. Other recurring remarks could be summarized in something on the line of: «Czech is full of declensions, aspects, consonants that drive foreigners crazy and Czech kids to logopedists, like ř… why would you want to waste your time on it?».

Thing is, all these arguments were absolutely true and agreeable; on the other side, I realized that was kind of falling in love with this country, so I had to do something to try feel a bit more part of it.

So there I started.

First of all, you must know that people here do really appreciate when somebody tries to speak their language. I believe this happens more or less everywhere, but it looks like Czechs would expect it less than others. It gets satisfying when you hear them saying «Tak, umíš česky dobře!»; then it gets uneasy, when start talking quickly and with words that you have never heard before, and then it gets acceptable again, when you stare at them with a blank expression and they understand that they need to speak pomalu (slowly) a jednoduše (simply).

Another thing that I learned in the process is that I had get to a compromise. Being Czech so different from a romance language, I can’t get to master a proper conversation in no time. On the other side, I was looking forward to being on a fair language level as soon as possible. Let’s say that the point of compromise is along a line, behind which there is your interlocutor staring at you like you’re making no sense at all, and beyond which this same interlocutor just needs to forgive some grammatical mistakes to understand what you’re trying to say. What makes the difference is, obviously, you.

Everybody has a different strategy to get past that line. In my case, I started with learning how to pronounce everything as correctly as possible. Czech is actually pretty close to Italian from this point of view, but the similarities cease to exist when it comes to the palatalized consonants like ď, ť, and of course ř. So it took a while to practice this alone, although I had also chance to take my little revenges when, in return, I taught Czechs how to pronounce aglio (which, by the way, came with the realization that Czechs and I share a dangerous admiration towards garlic).

Next steps are the obvious ones: you need to assess what is easier and not. That really depends on what you already know about languages, and how your teachers adapt to your needs.

However, what is surely a common ground in everyone’s learning strategy is lexicon.

Now, the main problem is that Czechs went under some moments of intense linguistic purism in the past, which has caused some words to barely resemble the ones I was used to. For example, in many European languages the term for computer is more or less similar to either the English form or the French one (ordinateur), but – guess what? – in Czech it’s počítač, which actually makes perfect sense since počítat means to calculate. Another interesting thing happens when Czech language accepts a foreign word, as the spelling would tend to change in a way that it will resemble the pronunciation of a normal Czech word. You can see the outcome in words like byznys or fajn, which actually were looking really funny to me, until I (soon) learned that they are absolutely normal to a Czech speaker.

On the other side, a great thing about Czech words is that many of them derive from common root words, hence once you learn them it gets easier to guess the meaning of many others. A nice example, brought by a brilliant self-learner, consists in taking the root *chod- (which expresses the idea of going), and add prefixes to create derivations. Od- gives the idea of from moving from a starting point, and in fact odchod means “departure”. While v- suggests a movement inward, vy- suggests the opposite, and that’s why vchod is “entrance” and východ is “exit”. Then it gets a bit awkward when you add za- (“off”, “out”) since záchod is actually the toilet! But you got the idea.

As you can imagine, I still have a lot to learn.
So, in conclusion: is it worth it?

The answer is: certainly yes, and for several reasons. One for all is that learning Czech makes my staying here far more enjoyable. I’ve been struggling a lot with the fact that many Czechs don’t speak English, but then I realized that this could turn into a precious opportunity, instead, to force myself into learning something new. Being English such a widespread language, the temptation to laze on blaming who can’t speak it is obviously strong. Truth is that, if you’re planning to spend more than just a few months here, committing to learning Czech will actually give you more chances to get to know wonderful people, and get you closer to be part of such a lovely country.

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