Dobrý den! This past week, I started my formal Czech language learning. Lots of people have been asking me if I know how to speak Czech since I will be living there for ten months. The answer is quite simply no— but I am learning! Some countries have a language knowledge requirement in order to apply to be a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ie. most South American countries, Spain, and Germany, to name a few), but the Czech Republic does not require applicants to know Czech. Most ETAs are not fluent in Czech, and because of that, it is generally a good idea to at least educate yourself on the basics to make the whole experience just a little easier.
So I signed up to participate in a 2-week immersive Czech language course offered through Charles University in Prague. In normal years, the course would be in-person with students flying in from all over the world to learn Czech and stay in dormitories. However, with COVID-19 ever present, the course is being offered online through Microsoft Teams.
The Czech Fulbright Commission offered a $500 stipend for any of the ETAs who wanted to take a language course over the summer, and I decided to take them up on the offer.
The course, Czech for Compatriots, is offered Monday through Friday for two weeks. Every day, I sit for three 90-minute blocks of Czech lectures and lessons. There are thirty-five students who are participating in this course, but the very first day, we were split into three classes— Beginner, Medium, and Advanced. Safe to say, I was happily in the Beginner class with my only Czech exposure happening through my 150 day Duolingo streak.
On the first day, the course director, Marika, explained the outline of the course and introduced the three instructors as well. A few students offered up reasons for why they were learning Czech, and I was amazed at their stories. There was a middle-aged architect from Brazil who had started learning Czech to better understand his favorite Czech designer. There was an Eastern European woman in her 30s who had married a Czech man, and wanted to improve her Czech fluency. A neuroscientist from Montevideo, a grandmother from Buenos Aires, the list goes on and on.
In my beginner class, I have met the most incredible people. There are seven of us— three from Argentina, one from Uruguay, one from Burma, one from Serbia, and me, from the States. All of my classmates have relatives, usually grandparents or parents, who are Czech, and it is super enjoyable to have such an international, multicultural class.
Each day, we go a little further in the textbook, Czech Step by Step, learning greetings, numbers, and practicing dialogues and phonetics. Our teacher, Helena, informed us on the first day that Czech is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn, but for us to make a real go at it, her number one rule was to not be shy. It can feel awkward and embarrassing at first to relearn alphabets and force your mouth and tongue to create the necessary pronunciations, but that initial discomfort has to be set aside when learning a foreign language.
It has really been the little things that have made this course so worth it. Technically, sure, I could have bought the textbook on my own, and attempted to learn Czech by myself. However, when it comes to pronunciation, having a teacher has been useful in getting realtime feedback and intensive practice. It had never even crossed my mind that the stress on words would be different in Czech. In English, the stress is often on the first syllable, but can also be quite varied. In Czech, the stress is always on the second syllable, a discovery I likely would not have made without a teacher.
There have also been very fun and silly moments together— to practice our phonetics, we sang verses of a Czech song. People singing at different pitches and speeds plus the added delay of a video call; if you have never sung foreign language songs with others over Zoom, I would recommend it for a good laugh!
I am currently halfway through the course, and I am absolutely positive that I made the right choice in signing up. I have met fantastic and interesting people, learned Czech vocabulary and grammar, and gained a better understanding of Czech culture.
One of the first phrases we learned was “Mluvíte česky?” which means “Do you speak Czech?” Before this week, my answer would have been an unequivocal no, but now, I can say maybe just a little bit, and who knows what my answer will be in ten months!