If “improve my Czech” is tops on your list of New Year’s resolutions, then you probably already know that Czech. is. hard. Then again so is living abroad, learning to ski or sticking to a budget. What is it about the language that keeps some expats, like myself, from reaching fluency (or even conversational competency)?
Miloš Sotona, a Czech teacher for many expats, has noticed a common feature among successful students. “Those who pick it up more quickly usually take Czech first as a set of sounds, not as a grammar system. It is important to do first things first (order a beer, buy a ticket), not to understand Praha, do Prahy, v Praze; those different forms can be a killer.”
Justin Holden, an American in Liberec who learned the Czech language quickly, credits his success to “Investing in a good teacher – not just anyone but someone who has experience teaching foreigners Czech – and just speaking as much as I can.”
He adds that while it is easy to point out the difficulties, “Everyone will say the language is hard, but I have found that to be about perception. If you want to learn it, you will.”
I spoke with some other expats about their Czech skills or lack thereof and discovered some common excuses for our failure to tackle the language:
I don’t have 1,000+ hours
The US Foreign Service Institute estimates in its article on language difficulty that an educated, native English-speaking adult would require roughly 1,100 classroom hours to reach a professional level of reading and speaking Czech. If you took a one-hour lesson every week, this would take 22 years. A more dedicated student could reach this by taking class five hours a week for about four and a half years (with no holidays). By comparison, learning German, Spanish or Dutch require around 600 classroom hours.
My job is in English
When your job is to teach your native tongue, it can take away from crucial exposure to the local language as well as the hours available to practice. Says Josalin Saffer, an American English teacher, “From 8am-7pm I speak English. If I were, say, in the middle of a Czech village with no job, just vacationing, then maybe I would have all day to learn the language and use it.”
TV is no help
Of the many language-learning tips out there, watching TV or listening to radio are considered great ways to pick up more Czech. Canadian Katrina Harrison has found otherwise. “One thing that makes [Czech] harder to learn is television. Foreign shows on Czech television are dubbed instead of having subtitles. I taught in Indonesia and American or British shows were in English with subtitles displayed in Bahasa. This actually helped me to learn a lot of random vocabulary as you could compare what was being said in English with what was written along the bottom of the screen.”
Czech classes are pricey and good teachers scarce
Michelle Kempster, a British expat based in Liberec says, “I personally found it difficult to find a good Czech-as-a-foreign-language teacher. Many have experience and training in teaching English but not Czech. And often these teachers work in private language schools and have similar schedules to you so it’s hard to find an appropriate time for a Czech lesson.” Hiring a good teacher also means parting with your hard-earned crowns, which can be tough to manage when adjusting to living on the local currency.
Bad Czech confuses people
Kempster, who also has a background in linguistics, has noticed that, “Czechs are not used to hearing foreigners speak their language and either find it funny or just can’t understand our attempts at communication, be it the accent or mistakes in grammar or vocabulary. Many Czechs seem unwilling or unable to understand my attempts at Czech, and also they’re not always good at grading their language to speak to a non-native speaker.”
Czechs want to speak English
American Matt Erickson has experienced another problem. “I think most Czechs, often rightfully so, assume that expats can’t speak their language, so they try their own English (or lacking that, German) no matter the level. Sometimes I realize my Czech is significantly better than their English, which of course isn’t saying much, and then I answer all of their questions in Czech, yet they continue to speak only in English, even though it takes them three times longer to express themselves.”
It’s usesless outside of the Czech Republic
Unless you see a permanent future for yourself in your adopted home, those hundreds of hours required for fluency seem far better spent on seeing the world around you than bent over a grammar textbook. “Outside the Czech Republic, Czech is useless!” laughed Kempster. And Harrison notes, “After being back in my home country for two years I basically just use it to swear unnoticed.”
I’m too busy loving Czech culture
For me personally, my language level doesn’t properly reflect my love for the many endearing elements that make up Czech culture. Not learning the language has allowed me to spend those hours (when I could’ve been studying) making friends, visiting more than half of the country’s kraje and counting, discovering my favorite village band, going hiking in the forests, becoming an ice hockey fan, learning local legends and fairy tales, seeing castles and arguing over which is the best brand of beer.
It’s nothing like English
Imagine you’re teaching someone to make a cake. You explain that it’s easy – you simply crack the eggs, add flour and sugar, whisk the batter and bake the mixture in an oven. Now imagine that person staring blankly at you because they don’t understand what “crack”, “whisk” or “bake” mean. The process just got significantly more complicated. English doesn’t have gendered nouns. English doesn’t decline nouns. Formal and informal distinctions are far less important in spoken situations. “Slavic languages are just a whole different breed for us,” says Erickson.
We don’t have to
Even though one study has shown that only about a quarter of Czech speakers can hold a conversation in English that seems to be enough – even outside of Prague. “You can very easily get by in Liberec without knowing even basic Czech,” says Kempster.
“I’m amazed how little I need Czech,” Erickson adds. “That’s why I always love meeting Czechs who can’t speak any English. I’m happy for every opportunity where I’m forced to speak their language.”
If you’re considering a course to learn the Czech Language, you can find a great selection right here.