Transformation of a monolingual American

February 13, 2009
heart with welcome in lots of languages

The trials of speaking Czech

After being exposed to the Czech language for the last seven years, it’s nice to be able to hold my own in a conversation without breaking out in a cold sweat. I can order in Czech in restaurants, conduct transactions at the bank and post office, communicate with Anna’s preschool teacher and even attend exercise classes. Of course, body gestures and sign language are always valuable back-ups.

On a few occasions I’ve even received compliments on my Czech abilities. In most cases, this praise comes unexpectedly, from a total stranger – like the uncommonly friendly check-out clerk in the supermarket or the random Moravian tourist asking for directions in Prague. When this happens, I beam with pleasure for the remainder of the day, or at least, until I retell the story to my husband Radek or another Czech friend.

As I recount my experience in Czech, within seconds, Radek is readily correcting me. Usually its over my pronunciation or my word order, sometime my infliction. It takes me 10 minutes to wade through a story to get to my one originally “perfect” sentence highlight.

The thing is, no matter how long I live in the Czech Republic or how much time I dedicate to studying the nuances of the language, I’ll never be Czech. The reason I am so excited to retell these stories is because they are confirmation of improvement: I can, despite the lack of perfection, communicate.

Radek has a hard time appreciating what a mega-feat this is for me. He had the advantage of having grown up in central Europe surrounded by people of different nationalities all speaking different languages. Whereas the vast majority of Americans are never regularly exposed to a language other than English, except in a school setting. My few years of high school and university French classes don’t measure up to my European husband’s language repertoire. Nor do my mainland American vacation experiences compare to Radek’s adolescent travels to Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain or Poland.

In addition to the nine years of mandatory Russian classes he had as a student, Radek also studied English, as well as Spanish, with private language teachers. And his linguistic experience isn’t unique. Most of the 20-40 year-old Czech students I taught English to were learning English as a 3rd or 4th language. Most also had at least conversational knowledge of other languages by virtue of their travel or work experiences. Even though Radek claims he’d rather forget his forced years of studying Russian, he can still easily translate conversational Russian, Polish or Slovak into English for me.

On a recent trip to ski trip to Austria, Radek and I overhead a few Austrians in the parking lot at the base of the glacier where we’d just bought ski passes. Despite being ¼ German myself, I couldn’t make out a word of their conversation. However, Radek soon turned to me and said, “These guys just said you can’t see anything up there.” Evidently Radek had picked up some German from just traveling and work.

My father grew up in a half-n-half family (German mother/American father), but once his mother immigrated to the American South after WWII, she quickly learned English and assimilated into Southern culture. Although my dad still has an authentic German accent from living in Berlin as a child, living in the US the remainder of his life never gave him much incentive or opportunity to keep his German in practice. His lack of a strong bilingual identity conforms to the norm for potential multi-lingual children raised in America when both parents speak English.

According to a 2005 poll of EU nations, while 50% of Europeans speak at least one language in addition to their native language, only 9% of Americans “speak both their native language and another language fluently.” This sharp discrepancy in the multi-lingual competency between Americans and Europeans has been driven home time and again living in the Czech Republic. Although I am proud of my hard-earned basic competency in Czech, I am also painfully aware that a few years of living here won’t automatically earn me the ease and fluency of a native, or even a non-Czech European. My European friends, perhaps by virtue of their lifelong exposure to a variety of languages, tend to have an easier time getting their mind around the Czech language, particularly the accent, than the majority of my American friends.

Which leads me to a second point: while Americans are accustomed to people of a variety of national and ethnic backgrounds speaking English, Czechs, on the other hand, aren’t that used to non-Czechs speaking their language at all. While Americans may not be able to speak more than one language, I think we are more flexible about the different versions and accents of English that we can understand.

Not only are there a variety of national English accents, British English, Australian English, Canadian English, etc., but the variability of American English alone frustrates Radek to no end. Early on in our relationship, he often chastised me for not correcting him each time he made what he presumed was a grammatical mistake. When I retorted that sometimes there is more than one acceptable way to phrase a sentence in English, he found it hard to believe that I wasn’t just being soft with my criticism.

However, the longer I’ve been exposed to the Czech language, the more able I am to understand the foundation for Radek’s suspicions. Czech is not a particularly flexible language. In part, the rules of the language create the very stumbling blocks that make speaking so difficult. For a non-Czech saying even one perfectly grammatically correct sentence in Czech can be a real feat. Needless to say, I’ve got years of practicing on my hands before I attach the label “bilingual” to my resume.

Despite knowing that I’ll never have a perfect Czech accent and that I’ll invariably confuse the word order, I still find the effort I put in to improve my Czech pays off. And, these days, when I get the odd compliment, I’m more inclined to say “thank you” and smile, knowing that far from saying something perfectly, I’ve more likely run into a Czech who’s open-minded enough to appreciate the linguistic efforts of a formerly monolingual American.

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