Dos and Don’ts: Learning Czech

What to say in the Czech Republic?
The Best Way to Learn
Yes, it’s glib to say this, but each learner is different and how you learn will depend on your abilities and personal learning style, characteristics you may not be aware of until you start learning. Some of you will learn by throwing yourself in and picking it up, others will find systematic study works best, and some may never learn much.

From my experience, Lída Holá’s Czech Step By Step offers clear explanations and useful exercises for a beginner to intermediate in one book. Olga Parolková’s Czech for Foreigners Advanced Level is quite dry, but useful for those continuing to study. Of course, both books need to be supplemented with listening to the radio, watching TV, reading, and conversations. Older people are particularly ideal for conversing in Czech as their speech tends to be slow, clear, and they have a tendency to repeat themselves.

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Hey You!
Whereas using the wrong ending for a particular case or conjugating a verb incorrectly will only be met with a polite smile at most, using the informal you (ty) or formal (vy) in the wrong context can provoke stronger opprobrium. Overcompensating by always using the polite form doesn’t go down well either. Broadly speaking, Czechs use vy with strangers, acquaintances, superiors at work, and when children address adults. Ty is for close relatives, friends and adults to children. When someone invites you to use the informal form, they will say můžeme si tykat.

The Correct Pronunciation is Not so Correct

Written Czech tends to be regarded as a ‘phonetic’, what you see is how you pronounce it. Spend any time here and you’ll hear this is not the case. In Prague, you will hear most people pronounce ý so it sounds like ‘ay’ rather than ‘ee’, so ‘dobrý kamarád’ sounds like ‘dobray kamarád’. Another common deviation is to say mlíko rather than mléko for milk. Lastly, Czechs sometimes place a ‘v’ before words starting with ‘o’. For example they might say vosm instead of osm. Some people consider this last style of speech an indication of low education.

Outside of Prague there are other variations. The so-called Ostrava dialect is a prominent example. It is said that people of this Moravian city shorten their long vowels. Brno goes one step further and has its own unique dialect called hantec, with a distinct vocabulary. For example, in hantec pivo is bahno, which means mud in Czech. Admittedly, the dialect is more common among older residents.

A Little Something
We’ve mentioned before the use of diminutives for people’s names or when speaking with children. Actually, diminutives are pretty common in everyday speech and frequency can depend on personal taste or to express some affection for the item such as ordering a ‘pivečko’ in the pub. However, it diminutives can also change meaning. For example if you go to buy trousers (kalhoty) and ask for ‘kalhotky’, you would be given knickers.

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Making a Mark
When it comes to writing Czech, one of the immediate differences is remembering to use the diacritic marks – the lines, hooks, and loops above letters to change their sound. However, you’ll notice that if you receive a text message or email or read a comment on Facebook most Czechs opt not to use them, even if modern phones permit them.

Learning at All

If you’re someone who has struggled to learn Czech, you may not be in the worst position: a lot of people here, Czech and expat, claim there is no point, since so many people in Prague (though not necessarily the rest of the Czech Republic) either speak English or want to learn. On the other hand, the language gives you greater access to the culture and society around you, which is important if you’re here for a while.

What are your thoughts and experiences on learning Czech?

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