Through Brno: The cute way to learn Czech

Every summer I have a lot of plans. This year I am going to build a garden path and shed, destroy a rusting garage, fix up my basement, and reconstruct my kitchen. The list is actually two pages long, single spaced.

Of course, a complete separate list includes the old standbys, like running, reading and writing, and, as always, learning Czech. Summer has more lazy afternoons and evenings. Perfect for studying Czech grammar. (Or, maybe not. Perhaps this is why learning Czech is always on my list.) Nevertheless, I, like all expats, know that we could be a lot more comfortable if we knew the local language just a little bit better. That has been true from Day No. 1. Admittedly, it is always more complicated than it seems it should be. To wit:

  • My first day in Líšeň

I had just moved all of my things – four bags – into my new rented apartment in Líšeň. It was a muggy summer afternoon. I needed a beer.

I walked to the nearest bar and found a large dark room with a tattered carpet and many small tables covered with smoky Starobrno-branded tablecloths. There was an old TV playing in the corner. It was showing horse racing, a personal favorite, so decided to stay.

A heavily tattooed tree-stump of a man in a bartender apron approached me and asked if I wanted a “pivíčko”.

What? I wanted a beer – a “pivo”. Perhaps it was the tattoos or the feeling of being a foreigner or my natural defensiveness, but I immediately took his use of the diminutive form of beer – basically, the cute name – as an affront. I don’t want a lady-sized beer. I’m a man, with hair on my chest even! “Velké pivo!” I said, gesturing manfully for the half-litre glass.

He looked at me askance and left to get the beer. I don’t think he had any idea what I was talking about. Who knew that tough-guy bartenders use the baby names for beer? Czech is a tough language in many ways.

  • The mixing of languages

Almost 11 years later, I have two kids. Benjamin is getting close to 1 and making grunting noises, whimpers, and all-out screams to communicate. Zoe, however, is getting close to 3, and she is using a mix of English and Czech words. I speak English to her and my wife speaks Czech, but we often slip up: I’ll use some basic Czech phrases and my wife will use some English sentences.

Zoe repeats everything, remembers it all to a high degree, and mixes everything up, too. When we go outside, she puts on her “boty-shoes”, using the Czech word and the English word as a multilingual, compound noun. Similarly, since she is going through her Terrible 2s, she often says “všechno mine”, using the word in Czech that means “everything” to claim ownership of everything, including language.

Of course, the languages don’t make things easy. For example, “yes” is one of the most common words in English, but it sound an awful lot like “eat” in Czech: “jez”.

The other night, Zoe did not want to finish her tuna pasta.

Me: “Eat your food.” (English)

Zoe: “No.” (English)

Wife: “Jez tu večeři.” (Czech for: “Eat your dinner”)

Zoe: “Ne.” (Czech for: “No”)

Me: “Yes” (English)

Zoe: “No.” (English)

Wife: “Yes” – or was that supposed to be “Jez.”

Zoe: “No-Ne.” (English-Czech)

Zoe seems to have already developed bad habits. At times, I forgot that she was in the backseat during daddy-daughter car trips and I used the vulgar vocabulary of my inner New Yorker to express my displeasure with incompetent drivers. She later reused my emphasis word in some uncomfortable places. (The first time was in public with my unsuspecting wife. Surprise!)

She has been broken of that habit (I hope), although now she uses a similar sounding word that Czechs use to express incredulity.

Me: “Večerníček [a nightly cartoon program] starts in 10 minutes. Finish your tuna pasta or no television.”

Zoe: Fakt?!

  • A new strategy for learning Czech

To be honest, I have stumbled upon a new strategy to learn Czech. If a tattooed bartender can use the baby word for beer, then maybe I can use baby words to learn Czech. My children will be my teachers. It is not easy to learn a word a day or memorize grammar charts, so I’ll try the slow process of learning with my children as they grow up. It might just be slow enough to help me.

My younger brother, who recently visited, hit upon this fact. My immigrant parents emphasized English over Czech when I grew up, which means that I got a little Czech as the oldest, but each sibling was exposed to progressively less. Some words and phrases get stuck in the subconscious, so my brother was able to communicate with Zoe quite well. He knew most of the words in the Czech vocabulary picture books, too. Czech at a two-and-a-half-year-old level? It’s a start.

That is my new plan. Make simple sentences and say them over and over again (which won’t be a problem with trying to control my children). Read Czech vocabulary pictures books with my daughter (in addition to the English ones) and study them after she falls asleep. Watch Večerníček every night. And, hopefully, by the time my kids graduate high school, I will be able to communicate in Czech, too.

If you don’t have kids – or a Czech spouse / partner – you may consider just reading the picture books and watching Večerníček. It may seem a bit overly childish, but it may just work.

At least you’ll know what tattooed bartenders are talking about when they take your drink order.

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