Czech Your Basics
Text by Kingsley U. Photo: KK / Brno Daily.
So, are you visiting Czech Republic or here to study?”
“Oh, I live here”
“Really? How long?”
“Oh…about 6 years.”
“6 years? Wow! How is your Czech?…”
“Your Czech must be very good?”
We’ll get to that. First I have a confession to make. Ready?
I enjoy the Czech language.
Ok, so reading it sometimes feels like I’m trying to crack the enigma code, and yes, sometimes, I do feel like I’m in a badly dubbed movie when i attempt a sentence.
When I first started practising Czech years ago, I had this joke I told myself:
“Czech. A verbal and mental workout that could get you abs in 30 days…metaphorically”
There’s a smile on my face but the pain is real, folks! In spite of all that though, I do enjoy the language.
So what do I enjoy about it? The sound of Czech. Personally, I think it sounds a bit musical. Picture yourself as a maestro and your tongue is the baton conducting a symphony of words to life. Only the music is classical hip-hop and your tongue has a few dance moves to pull off… On that note, Czech Republic, your r’s? Not. A. Fan.
Still, funnily enough, I don’t find it to be a hard language. Complicated? Yes. Downright confusing? Yes. Czech words can sometimes feel like they change into other words after a certain number. The first thing that popped to mind when I heard all the forms of bude? “Czech words are like Pokemon.. They evolve.” But still not hard. Here’s the reason.
Having been born in London and raised in Africa, I was fortunate to be exposed to the joys of language from a very early age. For example, in Nigeria where I grew up, we have over 500 languages spoken throughout the country, although our main language is English. My regional language, igbo (also pronounced ‘Ibo’ to many) has over 25 dialects alone. So naturally, as a child I picked up the language and a couple of dialects along the way and hence pronunciation and intonation of other languages I met later came easily to me.
Whenever I listen to the Czech language or find myself attempting to speak, normally through the help of liquid courage, I am reminded of an old saying I picked up while learning my own native language. To paraphrase:
“What you say is as important as how you say it..”
One to adhere to when picking up a new language. It is a lesson I learned early in my life. However it was a lesson I got to experience first hand living in the Czech Republic.
Back in 2013, my girlfriend and I took a bus trip to visit babicka. It was a week day, so naturally the bus was half full of grannies and grandpas, and quite a few primary school kids and their teachers on an educational trip.
We had gotten into a lovers’ tiff a few minutes prior to boarding, so by the time we were sat on the bus, it had escalated somewhat into a pretty heated exchange of words… well, sort of an exchange. She was angry, and reaching what I dubbed over the years “Sefova level 3”, in which I was caught in a storm of English and Czech vulgarities and logic, also known as “Death by Czanglisky”,all the while trying to get a word in. Then I saw a chance to retort and seized it.
“Yeah but ..”
Too late, she was back with the volley. I did notice one of the older ladies glance at me over the top of her newspaper. I was used to the glances and the looks whenever I spoke English, especially in those beautiful further parts of the Czech Republic, so of course I thought nothing of it.
The verbal sparring continued, with me on the defensive, trying to get my argument in, but managing to get no further than two words at a time:
“Yea but lasko..”
“Yea, yea but..”
“Stop saying that!” she suddenly hissed.
“Saying what babes?” I replied, “I haven’t said anything yet! I’m trying to speak!”
I felt a little shift in the air around me and looked up to disapproving faces from the elderly and teachers covering the ears of the kids with their hands ..
What is going on?!!
The rest of the journey was silent as I tried to wrap my head around the glares around me. Was I being too loud? But all I could do was return to the same answer.. I didn’t say anything!
We got off the bus and started towards granny’s house. Finally, my girlfriend broke the silence.
“Do you understand what you were saying?”
“Of course not!” I replied, “because I didn’t get to say anything!”
“Well, what did you say?” she asked again, a smile twitching the side of her lips.
By now, I was somewhat exasperated so I just blurted it out..
“All I got to say was YEAH, BUT..”
Her smile broadened.
“Jebat.” she said.
Then she explained it to me.
Safe to say, I find it hilarious now.
Which brings me back to the beginning. Whenever I get those questions that rear their head in every new conversation that I have, I’m reminded of my side of the conversation on the bus, with the added bonus of pauses and breaks making me sound like a perverted DJ, and my many encounters with language in general over the years. Some wonderful, some awkward, some serious, some funny. All educational. And isn’t that the beauty of language? Learning about cultures through the power of communication. Engaging and connecting with each other. Building, growing, sharing. Go for a drink with a friend, new or old, and I’m sure you’ll find each of us has a story like this to tell. But the lesson is the same all round. No matter how well we know a language or dialect, it’s easy to miss the basics. Don’t forget the small things. As someone famous once said “check yourself, before you wreck yourself’
As for me, the reply is an easy one..
“…Your Czech must be very good?”
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