Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Learning Czech

Did You say : "challenging"

Having spent more than 10 years abroad, I consider myself bilingual - my English isn't perfect, but I can pretty much understand any conversation in any accents (with the exception of Clint Eastwood and Mark Knopfler talking, that requires another 10 years or more) - but now at past forty the challenge for me is to learn Czech.

Czech is a Slavic language, it has nothing to do with French, or English ; the Czech sounds more closer to Russian language than anything, the alphabet though isn't cyrillic (**sigh**) it is roman but with addition of new letters.

To give you a little overview of the difficulty - let's take an example :
"Dobrý den, pane Novák, jak se máte?"
Would roughly translate as "Good day, Mister Novak how are you?"
or in French "Bonjour, Monsieur Novak comment allez vous?"
The Czech and French are making a distinction in the use of a formal and respectful manner or a familiar - something the English ignore
"dobré ráno, pan Novak jak se máš?"
Would roughly translate as "Good morning, Mister Novak how are you?"
or in French "Bonjour, Monsieur Novak comment vas tu?"
Czech grammar is a completely different thing that the French
Czech have 3 tenses - past, present and futur
as for the French we have gone completely crazy in creating 20 or more tenses (passeŽ composeŽ, passeŽ simple, imparfait, imparfait du subjonctif, etc ..).

Survival Czech

The problem when learning a new language in the field, is practice - after the rudimentary new words have been acquired - for public transportation, food and so on ; getting better requires to speak with someone who doesn't get bored to death, because the discussion will be very basic - and that's the point where I am now.
At first, I thought the problem would be to get the grammar correct, but it is not so much a problem - with ingenuity and persistence I could get my point across.
The problem is more a fundamental issue, nobody wants to talk to someone who can barely express himself.

I remember a scene in the 13th warrior with Antonio Banderas, where by only listening for a couple of days, he would have understood the Vikings language.

That is so not possible for me, my brain at first would reject completely the new language - that was phase one.
Whenever I would hear, or tried to learn Czech, my brain was allergic to it. At this phase, even repeating a simple sentence seems impossible, as the sounds are too new, and seems to be impossible to say.
I made a huge leap forward the minute I realized that the Czech words are written as they are spoken - that Czech is a phonetic language. In Czech there is no such thing as 4 different ways to write a sound "O", "eau", "au", "aux" like in French - A Czech would write "Beaujolais" as "Božole" plain and simple.

Declensions madness

But for me, Czech went crazy in declensions - that's my  grammar nightmare, and
this doesn't exist in French or English - (it just remind me a long and short introduction to Latin or German) and to this day I still have no idea what these declensions are supposed to do.

After repetition, and persistence, I got familiar with the sound, and I entered phase two - where I could get the normal "Dobry den", "Dobrou Chut" and "prosim" without hesitation and my accent was more or less okay ; but I had to switch in English, when the Czech would try to start the conversation.

Here in Czech Republic, especially in Prague, most people are able to speak English - and a few are speaking French. English is the language for Business.
As soon as I found out that fact, my progress in Czech took a hit - because really if I was able to speak English, there was no need to progress any further in Czech.

Beyond survival Czech

So basically after a little less than 10 years, that's where I'm stuck now - I don't understand much of a Czech conversation - I would say I can decrypt about 15 to 20% ; and that's enough to get the gist of the topic, and with the help of non verbal communication, the circumstances, I get pretty much the meaning - but when it come to answer, I try in English and if that doesn't work - I answer with a few key words, and use a lot of non verbal ways like gestures and drawings.
Sometime it is even funny.
To learn a new language, the mind has to be very flexible, be disciplined, and to have plenty of time ahead.
Mistakes are the way to learn, if I made the same mistake 20 times, or kept forgetting the same things 20 times, that's usually how I will learn my lesson.

Mistakes are not to be feared, they are the way to learn.

Now some mistakes being made over and over are starting to fossilized and that's another catch.
Another problem : it is humiliating to see myself, speaking like a 2 years old with impatient people rolling their eyes or correcting me for an ending that was incorrect.

Other challenges

I never took the time to learn Czech, even dedicating 2 or 3 hours a week - on Monday for example - retrospectively I think that is the best way to learn.
Now the fun part is I think it is too late ; I always hear about other expats that have been here more than 10 years and are still at the survival Czech level.
For me it is like choosing between a bad or a worse options - the bad is when I am not understood, occasionally and this is just part of my life now.
The worse is to spend a lot of time trying to learn a language, I will never master anyway - and that has not of benefits for me - since my friends speak English - I don't care to watch Czech Television, or listening to the radio either.
The only time it gets tough, is when I have to deal with administrative matters, but even in French - sometime with the extensive use of administrative gibberish - it can get overwhelming, and would requires an advanced level of Czech mastery anyway.


Depending on the time at hand, and the future events - I'll probably will have to get better, but that's where I am now.
It is easier to learn a new programming language (like Python, javascript or Java) than Czech.
Phase 3 - is when I would have acquired enough words and understanding to actually have fun talking, and from that pivotal moment would make the learning process easier and easier, and instead of crashing into an unknown word, during a conversation and lose the big picture, I'd have just one word that would bugger me out of a 20 words conversation.
Phase 4 - is being able to make poetry or building a joke or a pun on words
Phase 5 - is being able to distinguish variations in accents, or use of old dialects
Phase 6 - is putting up with administrative gibberish.

That's the hidden message on this t-shirt because in Czech "obejmout" pronounced "obey moth" means "hug"

No comments: