Is Czech Driving You Mad?

Journalist Erik Best and other non-native Czech speakers share their secrets for fluency

The world’s hardest language! Impossible to master! Foreigners can never learn it!

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Don’t believe any of it. Coming to grips with Czech may just be a matter of finding the right method for you. Says Denisa Šmejkalová, translator and Czech language instructor at Czech Agricultural University Prague, “Successful students always find ways to use Czech. Language courses can provide you with a good base but most of the work has to be done by yourself – write e-mails in Czech to your teacher or to your Czech colleagues, read Metro while travelling to work, watch Czech films, don´t leave your house without a dictionary and ask a lot of questions.

Try these additional tips from those foreigners who can speak Czech like they were born right here in Prague.

Grammar

“In everyday spoken language great use is made of the demonstrative pronouns ten, ta, to, tu, ty, těch, těm, etc. These convey the basic required info regarding subject, object, etc., so then if you forget the precisely correct endings to the adjectives and nouns you can just mutter a final indeterminate syllable and nobody ever complains. Works for me. I have known students whose perfectionism stopped them from just getting stuck in. The main thing is to get stuck in and the endings will take care of themselves eventually in my opinion.Melvyn Clarke (UK), resident translator and editor of the English version of the Czech Literature Portal

“Czech declination tables of nouns are useless to foreigners wanting to learn the language. I started to map Czech’s noun declination through prepositions, e.g. I made a group of all prepositions that take, e.g. the second case – od, do, z, the English equivalent for ‘of’, podle, kolem, okolo, etc., and tried to look for patterns in the endings of nouns.” –Sky Kobylak (US), Czech-English, translator

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“I made large A1 poster charts of all of the grammar and examples and placed them on my wall to be viewed daily.” –Brett Ira (US), Global Key Account Manager

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Vocabulary

“In my experience, one of the best ways to learn Czech (after going through a basic grammar book) is to listen as much as possible to the radio. It helps with pronunciation, intonation, and vocabulary-building.”
Erik Best (US) publisher and journalist

“What helped me learning words that repeatedly slipped my memorization, was trying to find something ‘similarly’ sounding in Norwegian. For example: the closest I got in Norwegian to zoufalý, a word that I just couldn´t get in to my head, was “så farlig” (pronunciation here not as in written) meaning “so dangerous”. That helped me a lot, then I also remembered the sound and the real meaning of that word.”
-Yngve Leonhardsen (NO), journalist

“Remember words by making full use of mental and visual associations. The more personal, the better. Random example: hnůj (dung, manure) reminds me of “annoy” which is what manure can do.”
-Melvyn Clarke

“I carried a piece of paper at all times in my pocket and when I heard words I didn’t know, I would write them down and try to use them multiple times within a day.” -Brett Ira

“I kept lists in notebooks that were roughly thematic, or specific to an area, e.g. one list for the things in the home, another for food and drink, another for professions, another for activities, etc. I think the key to a good vocabulary is really trying to use some of the words in normal situations. If it just sits on your list, it probably won’t ever make its way into your active vocabulary.” -Sky Kobylak

Speaking and Pronunciation

“I used to go around to the shops at Luka and Paprsek (at Stodulky metro), and practice all kinds of different, Czech phrases.  It was a lot of fun, and the Czechs were shocked that I came in and said random things.”-Bill Gregory (US), youth worker

“Yes I did repeat quite a bit at early stage, both to myself and others until they would say it sounded good.  At which point I would happily leave it there and not say the word again to not to have it wrong . The “chosen” words were usually short but difficult, such as čtyři.” -Tom-Henrik Marttinen (FI), lodging operations agent

“I used to have difficulties with the soft sounds that require the flat of the tongue (not the blade) to lie against the roof of the mouth: Ď, Ť, Ň. Then we found a dog and called her Ťapka. Soon sorted me out.”
-Melvyn Clarke

“I talked to myself out loud continuously with what I wanted to say before I said it. How I could repeat words over and over until I sounded Czech. I also repeated the words and phrases as I heard Czechs pronounce them, not what was learned in the classroom.” –Brett Ira

Methods, Courses, Practice, and Motivation

“I’ve never taken a Czech course. I think that a private tutor would perhaps be better. My method was to ask all the questions I could and make opportunities to use the things I had learnt. If you have a good ear and plenty of time then you should be able to pick the language up. I’ve been here 12 years and although I can speak czech in any situation and translate Czech poetry into English I’m still improving all the time and probably will be doing that for the rest of my life.“ –Chris Crawford (UK), Editor BODY

“Practice is key but IMHO it can be overdone. I am convinced you can burn out if you are concentrating every hour of the day. I have known students who did intensive courses and then collapsed in a heap and did nothing at all for days or weeks on end.” –Melvyn Clarke

 “I always (ALWAYS) used the words and phrases I knew when I had the chance.” -Brett Ira

“Meeting the language in reality wasn’t enough for me. I did need the course to actually start to learn.”
Tom-Henrik Marttinen

“Integrate Czech phrases into your daily ‘inner monologue’, when you comment to yourself on things happening around you or imagine conversations you will/could have with people” –Yngve Leonhardsen

“I have also found for myself at least that learning a language, just like other frustrating things like quitting smoking or playing a musical instrument, is not just about being stubborn, but also rewarding yourself.”
Sky Kobylak

If you’re considering a course to learn the Czech Language, you can find a great selection right here.

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What are your best tips for truly learning Czech?


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