Saturday, 25 February 2012

On yer bike!

Once you have a skill, you can't really remember not having that skill. For example, can you remember what it was like to not be able to ride a bike? I'm not talking about learning to ride the bike, but the time before that when you weren't able to do it at all. It's impossible. For me, speaking a foreign language is the same as riding a bike. Once you get on and start pedalling it can take you anywhere you want to go.
At the moment my most hated phrase is Nemluvím česky "I don't speak Czech". Every time I go into a shop and the assistant comes over to me and starts speaking, I have to smile apologetically and say the dreaded Nemluvím česky. This is followed by my second most hated phrase Mluvíte anglicky? "Do you speak English?". I suppose for many people these would be the usual phrases they would use when abroad, but for me, as a linguist, it brings up all sorts of unpleasant feelings and thoughts:

  1. How arrogant to be in a foreign country and expect the inhabitants to speak English! 
  2. How unacceptable not to be able to say anything in their language back to them!
  3. I speak 2 other languages fluently and another one conversationally - I hate not being able to say even basic things in Czech! 
  4. They must think I am so rude and stupid!
  5. I just should be able to speak Czech!

I realise that most of the above thoughts are irrational. I have only been in the Czech Republic for a month and during that time I have had to do a lot of admin (endless hours on the phone to French bankers, removal firms etc) and I couldn't prepare myself and learn any Czech before I moved here, as we only found out last minute that my partner had been offered a job here. I have also found it very difficult to find a teacher for intensive day-time lessons. So, all in all, not being able to speak the language is not my fault.

I also mainly get positive reactions when I use Mluvíte anglicky? and some people seem quite pleased to be able to use their English with me. Those that don't speak English smile politely and leave me alone. I only had one bad experience, when the counter clerk in an office got annoyed that I couldn't speak Czech and started banging the desk saying "Český! Český!" BUT, I still don't feel that it's right to expect other people to speak English to me.

Apparently, this is not the typical expat way of thinking. Last night I was in a pub with a group of people from all over the world. It was great to talk to Germans, Russians, Romanians, Americans - you name it, they were there. I struck up a conversation with a Czech guy. When I told him about my feelings about not being able to speak Czech, he said this was the first time he had heard this in his whole life from an expat (and especially a British one) and was amazed and pleased to hear that I didn't expect everyone to speak to me in English and that I was keen to learn Czech. When I told the German guy that I was planning on learning Czech, he said "But why? You don't need it!" Why do many expats think this? To me, it's like turning up at a house party without a bottle. Sure, you can drink other people's drinks for a while, but soon they will get fed up with you and tell you "On yer bike, mate!". And rightly so.

I am really lucky in that where I am going to work in a month's time, Czech lessons are provided for free. However, I still want to learn as much Czech as I can before April, so I have signed myself up for intensive Czech lessons. Eight hours a week for the next four weeks. I'm really looking forward to it. I hope that pretty soon, Nemluvím česky will become a thing of the past.


  1. Excellent! Who cares if others think speaking Czech is useful or not - you are the one who's doing the speaking, how can they know what it is like to see the world from your skin! Who knows, maybe learning Czech will blow your mind and change your life in ways you never imagined (could happen, right?).

    I hope you will come join with us at Language Challenge 180 ( - there are others who are excited to learn/work on Czech and I'm sure they'd enjoy having your enthusiasm (and bicycle metaphors) along for the journey!

    Happy Czech language travels!
    Corey Heller
    Multilingual Living

  2. Hi Corey! Thank you for your comment. I totally agree, we all experience the world in different ways and I personally think that you can't really enter the psyche of a country and a culture unless you learn the language.

    I just signed up for LC180. Looking forward to it :)

  3. Your experience so far, is very similar to ours. Most educated Czechs will welcome the opportunity to practice their English on a native speaker, rather than listen to you making a 'pigs ear' of their language. You will also experience the Czech sense of low esteem -"Why on earth do you want to learn Czech?"

    I wish you well in your intensive Czech lessons. However, do be aware that there is no such thing as 'basic Czech' or 'baby Czech' such as there is 'baby Spanish'. As I'm sure I've already told you, Czech will be the language of heaven. Why? Because it takes an eternity to learn it. And yes, that little joke was told to me by a native Czech speaker.

  4. All learners start out making a pigs ear of a new language and that is the only way you can learn - trial and error :) I'm never scared to say something wrong and can laugh at myself when I say something funny.

    I have found that many Germans are so amazed that I can speak fluent German that they are happy to talk in German and don't feel the need to take over and use their English on me. It took me 10 years to become fluent in German and French (but this is taking into account the terribly slow UK GCSE syllabus dragged out over 4/5 years - I managed GCSE Spanish in 8 months when I was older), so by the time I'm 40 I think I could be well on my way to mastering Czech! :D For now, I'll be content with getting by when I'm out and about and having small conversations. Start small, but think big :)

  5. This is an interesting and motivating blog post about learning Czech for anyone thinking of joining me on my Czech cycle ride:

  6. Great post! Sometimes living in Oxford but working in restaurants I find myself getting frustrated because I don't remember any French & my Spanish is limited which during the height of tourist season can make my job quite hard work!

    Good on you :~)

    1. Thanks, Charis :) I start my lessons on Tuesday. Looking forward to it!

      Have you thought about finding a student in Oxford who would teach you French/Spanish in exchange for helping them perfect their English? Lots of people meet up in cafes on a regular basis for language exchange.

      Also, if you have lots of tourists coming into your restaurant, maybe the owner would consider getting a teacher in once a week for a group lesson for all staff to learn useful phrases to use with customers in Spanish or French? The possibilities are endless ;)