Learning Czech through Brno

Is it necessary to know Czech as an expat in Brno?

Clearly, most expats are able to operate at a high level, hold executive positions, and enjoy Brno culture without complete command of the local language. But, is it disrespectful that many of us are unable to do more than order food and beer? Is it rude to the culture that has taken us in? Are we putting ourselves in danger by, I don’t know, not understanding warnings that the water supply is contaminated? Would we countenance others in our native countries who spoke only their own native language?

These are personal questions and everyone has their own opinion.

In my case, I had a head start because my parents emigrated to the United States, met in Chicago, and raised me in Washington state. They spoke Czech to each other, but my siblings and I never learned it. When I moved here a decade ago, my failures in Czech became evident as soon as I looked for an apartment. I called about nine advertised flats and each time got similar curt responses that the apartments were no longer available. It was suspicious. Finally, the 10th potential landlord blurted out “I will not rent to a Ukrainian” and hung up. Clearly, my Czech was decent enough to communicate some facts, but bad enough to sound Ukrainian.

Fast-forward 10 years to Tuesday, September 13, 2016. My wife went into labor with our second child in the morning. In the afternoon we went to the hospital. She was to stay overnight and I was to go home and return if anything more happened, which would probably not be until the following morning. Two hours later, I got the phone call, jumped in the car, slalomed through post-Kometa-game foot traffic, and got stuck at the front door of the hospital: my wife was, literally, in the final 15 minutes of giving birth, but I was not admitted because the security guard mistook me for a belligerent Bulgarian father-to-be whose wife earlier in the evening had not been admitted because she was not yet anywhere close enough to giving birth.

If I didn’t speak Czech with so many errors, I wouldn’t have been stranded on the sidewalk as swearing Kometa fans walked past. After five agonizing minutes, the attending nurse finally convinced the security guard that my wife really was close to giving birth. The doors opened and I was able to sprint up the stairs and help with the birth of my son Benjamin Alfred Zalubil.

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So, I sound Ukrainian and Bulgarian, and I know Czech swear words. Those are steps in the right direction. But there is clearly a lot of work that needs to be done.

Autumn always seems like a good time to learn. If you, too, are still programmed for autumn as the start of a school year, then perhaps you will want to, like me, double down (again) on learning Czech. Here are some strategies that I employ.

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Brute force

There is a finite number of rules to any language, be it html, sign, English, or Czech. 1,000? 10,000? 100,000? Learn a few a day and you’ll be set. People escape from prison by making a tiny chip every day.

Geographic layout

As a native English-speaker, I am not used to gendered words. One trick uses my personal strength: geography. I keep the nouns straight by imagining their location in Brno: masculine nouns are in the center; feminine nouns are in the south where I live with my wife; and neuter nouns are on Kraví hora where I teach kids. For example, rohlík (roll), chléb (bread), salám (salami), and meloun (melon) are in a Billa supermarket in the center; marmeláda (marmalade), brokolice (broccoli), ryže (rice), and slanina (bacon) are in the Avion Tesco; and pivo (beer), kuře (chicken), maso (meat), and jablka (apples) are in the Brněnka on Kraví hora. Applying the appropriate declension is, theoretically, easier.

Cultural emersion

Listen to local radio. Watch television Czech news. Go to sports events. Socialize in pubs. Visit lectures. Completely inundate yourself in the language. You won’t understand everything, but if you have time and patience, the language will start to sink it. Watch your favorite movie, the one you quote to your friends, in Czech. It shouldn’t be so painful and, as you get better, you can feel superior by questioning the dubbing.

International news

You know the gist of international news stories from your native-language newspaper, so learn sentence structure and new words by reading the Czech version. If you read about a murder in an English article, then it’s not hard to pick out that vražda is the Czech equivalent.

Take notes

Write things down. Some people can learn simply by listening and repeating. Writing is the way that I learn. Moving your hand to write letters and words forces you to think differently, more slowly, visually. It’s two-pronged input into your brain. Make sure to read over the words again later: it is not to study for a test; it is to be prepared for the next time you can use those words or that phrase in a conversation.

Word a day

Pick a word or a phrase each day (for example here) and try to get it into your conversation — or just into your internal dialogue.

These things are not hard to do. They need discipline and time. There are many other strategies and tips, not to mention textbooks and phrase books. I constantly see internet popup advertisements about learning languages so we are not alone.

And what is your strategy for learning Czech? Do you think it is necessary? Please share.

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If you’re looking for a Czech course, try the Correct Language Centre or Mr. Kompliment from the BEC Referral Programme. Foreigners from outside of the EU can also take free Czech courses with the South Moravian Regional Centre for the Integration of Foreigners. 

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1 Comment

  1. Delia Jebeleanu

    Dear Bruno, thanks for the article. I’m in the same situation, but really motivated to learn Czech language. I apply most of your tips, but I add the best one (for me), which is: https://www.duolingo.com/ There isn’t Czech for English speakers, but English for Czech speakers, which is even better, because I have to pay more attention. Good luck to everyone!

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