So you have that Prague trip booked and now you are feeling adventurous and smart at the same time — you want to learn Czech. Good for you! There are not a lot of casual Czech learners and in general, the language gets an undeserved reputation for being too hard and not too useful. True, it is a weird, almost whimsical language and it can be pretty daunting.
At the same time, having at least a bit of Czech knowledge makes your travels to this beautiful country ten times more exciting. No longer will you be constricted by English and locals will be really impressed, even if you do not speak it fluently.
All in all, if you want to learn Czech, it’s a great way to connect with others during your trip, as well as a cool idea in general since you can use it as a gateway to other Slavic languages like Russian.
First things first: Letting go of prejudices
Learners and natives alike will be quick to warn you how difficult the language is. Your friends might not understand the point in doing it at all. Your job and other duties will keep you occupied and have you wondering, ‘Can I really afford to use so much time?’
Let that go.
First off, even though there are some grammatical quirks and a few sounds you will never seem to get right, Czech is anything but a ninja level hard to learn language. Be realistic about how much time you are willing to spend on it, don’t sweat the tiny details and celebrate even small victories (such as mastering a difficult case).
Negativity kills motivation anyways, so try to ignore unhelpful, semi-compassionate comments from others and yourself alike.
All the words seem Greek to me!
Well, they are not, but I see what you mean. Unlike English, Spanish and even German, the Czech language has very little to no connection to Roman and Germanic languages. As I mentioned earlier, it is Slavic language and as such shares vocabulary with other languages from its’ own branch. It makes it a bit more challenging if you have never had to deal with Russian or Polish, but at the end of the day, it’s just about practice.
But wait, I am not your 9th-grade French teacher. You do not need to write the words X amount of times, or to make vocabulary books. As with any language, Czech words have roots and your best bet is to start learning them in groups as they come. This also has the benefit of helping you figure out the meaning of words you haven’t technically learned. Win-win.
A huge part of the reputation of Czech is due to the consonant clusters. In English, you have more or less the same number of vowels and consonants in a word, and Czech simply does not roll that way.
Strč prst skrz krk is an actual sentence in this lovely tongue. It means ‘Stick your finger through your throat’ and when you try to pronounce it, it kind of sounds as if you are actually doing it.
The trick here is that the r is actually syllabic (this is a common thing in many Slavic languages). This means that although it is a consonant it can form syllables. A helpful tip is to try to pronounce it the way you say the r in work (the American pronunciation). It is long and almost vowel-like, right? Well, that is what you are aiming for.
Of course, the only sure way to get the correct pronunciation is to talk with and listen to natives. At first, this won’t be easy, since I am guessing you are not currently in the Czech Republic and as a beginner, it’s not especially practical to try to watch movies (since you will end up only minding the subtitles). My solution to this would be to start with music.
You might end up finding some cool songs and you will also get used to the way the language sounds, even of you don’t get the lyrics. Make sure that once in Prague you speak only Czech to locals. This is intimidating at first, especially when somebody decides to be nice and switch to English instead but keep at it and you will thank yourself later.
If you want to truly learn Czech, you might have to deal with a bit of embarrassment.
Having the right materials to learn Czech
If you are a bit of type A, you may be tempted to jump straight into grammar or to memorizing the names of foods etc. You really need to go against that instinct, since you are mostly learning it for travel. Start with a good phrasebook (any phrasebook is good really) and take it from there.
The fun thing about phrasebooks is that they are usually designed to be carried around. While I wouldn’t recommend actually going around Prague trying to figure out the language as you go, getting a phrasebook and taking it with you when you commute or expect to be at a long queue is awesome for making sure that you learn Czech on a daily basis.
Other than that, audiobooks (or more like audio lessons) are another way to learn Czech without upsetting your entire schedule What I personall,y do when I am learning any language, is put on audio lessons while I’m cooking. If you are not an awesome driver, you will probably relate. In any case, it’s not a brilliant idea to get distracted while driving, so…
When it comes to online programs…
There is really a mind-blowing variety to choose from when it comes to stuff you can do online to help with learning. Doing it online is good for convenience and also because you are probably not looking to spend a ton to learn Czech. The downside, funnily enough, is the same as the advantage. There is some research, as well as plenty of anecdotal evidence that commitment levels in language learners who use online systems are not exactly sky high.
It might be tempting to simply download Duolingo or any other language learning application and say that’s enough, but unless you are the king/queen of self-discipline, you probably need to take a few more steps than that. The first one is researching how exactly your online tool of choice plans to teach you those though phrases and mind-boggling grammar rules.
Many use spaced repetition, which is an awesome technique on it’s own, others go for flash cards, shoving ready phrases in your head etc. Your best bet would probably be to choose one that combines plenty of techniques since you can’t exactly know what will work for you.
Another one is to choose wisely and once chosen, commit to a program. There will be no magic fixes, so stick to it if you want to see results. By the way, this is also life advice, fellows.
As Sid Efromovich wisely noted in his TED Talk, learning languages is about establishing the right sort of relationship with fellow learners and speakers. In my experience, natives are the single best resource for language learning, not only because they are masters of the vocab, sentence structure, and colloquialisms, but because they have two qualities you want in any teacher.
First, they are strict. They will notice your mistakes immediately and correct them before you even get a chance of realizing what exactly you made a mistake with. At the same time, and this might be a bit of a stereotype, Czech people are generally very open, friendly and super positive with foreigners.
(This applies to the actual expats in the Czech Republic—not the Asian tourists walking around and stabbing people with selfie sticks…)
They take your interest in their language as a compliment, and that is why they will praise you even if you don’t deserve it as much. Trust me on this one, praise is praise and it will motivate you a lot, especially when it comes from an actual native.
Once you are in the Czech Republic it is easy to find people to practice with/on. No need to talk about that. But even before your trip, there are plenty of options for connecting with native speakers. A few useful apps are HelloTalk and Italki, and you can also just join a Facebook group of foreigners in Prague and ask for a language exchange.
You teach them English, you learn Czech. Lastly, you can also hire a tutor, be it through Skype or in real life. This is where it gets a bit pricier, though, so maybe think about finding something with better value.
Czech is more than the language of pretty girls in Prague, it can truly become an opportunity for experiencing this exciting culture in a better, fuller way.
Whether you only learn how to order a beer, or you get to a level where you can appreciate literature and movies, congrats on choosing not to be a mindless tourist, but actually immersing yourself in the culture. Got any Czech learning tips for fellow explorers?
Share them in the comments below!
PS: If you enjoyed this article, but want to master a language that is a bit more “globally used”, consider Rocket Russian. It’ll also make learning Czech a tiny bit easier.