Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Making sense of Czech

What have comedian Vic Reeves, golfer Nick Faldo and time traveller Dr Who got to do with language learning? Well, if you are me, then they are just some of the funny ways I manage to learn new vocabulary.

My fascination with words, how they sound and the images they conjure up started when I was quite young. I remember certain ordinary sentences could create pictures in my head that had very little to do with the original sentence. Words took me on a journey in my mind. When I was about 7, I decided each letter could only be used once in a sentence and thereby created some bizarre phrases!

Vic and Bob are stored under "mirthfulness".

When I started to learn French and German at the age of 11, these skills came in handy. Much of language learning is about making sense of something that at first makes no sense at all. It's about making links and going beyond everyday comprehension to reach understanding. At school, my classmates would ask if I had swallowed a French dictionary, as I often knew the meaning of words that we had not learnt. However, I don't believe you need to be taught a word to understand it. If you can find some commonality with your own language, then you can work it out.

This can work quite well in some instances, but what if the word is nothing like the English word? What if no matter how long you stare at it, it just doesn't hold any meaning for you? This is where the imagination comes into play.

When I was 17, I decided to learn the whole GCSE Spanish syllabus in one year. No mean feat and it inevitably involved memorising reams of vocabulary. If I can find something amusing about a word, it is far more likely to stick in my head. Some words just sound amusing, others remind you of something funny in your own language and others do not. Take the Spanish word for "skirt" una falda. Not a titter. Yet, imagine Nick Faldo, playing golf, wearing a skirt. Pretty amusing (to my 17 year old brain, anyway). And so, when I want to remember the Spanish word for skirt, this image of the golfer comes into my head and I remember that the word is linked with his surname.

Unfortunately, not wearing a skirt, just ordinary plus fours.

And so, at the age of 31, I am embarking on the task of learning a totally alien language: Czech. I don't know any other slavic languages, so I have nothing else to lean on linguistically. Luckily, I still have my imagination! I'm pleased to say it has not dwindled over the years and I am still fascinated by words and finding some sort of connection to aid understanding, no matter how tenuous.

During the last few Czech lessons, I have been reminded more and more of one of my favourite UK TV shows from when I was 16 (it recently made a brief comeback): Shooting Stars. This zany, frankly ridiculous BBC comedy game show always had me laughing out loud. One of my favourite bits was "Iranu! Uvavu!". To my ear, quite a few Czech words sound like these nonsensical Vic Reeves creations and I always have to stifle a laugh. Last week I was learning directions, which included vlevo and vpravo (left and right). Now, don't they sound a bit like iranu and uvavu?

I was even more amused when I learnt the word for "far": daleko. Ha! Even Dr Who is getting in on the Czech language action now! I can just imagine Daleks cruising around speaking Czech. The rolling "r" would make for perfect Dalek speak, too. To je Doktorrrr! Vy-hla-dit!!!

Lots of words have stayed with me, even though they are not every day words, just because I like the sound of them. Igel (hedgehog), Eichhoernchen (squirrel) and Schwarzwaelderkirschtorte (Black Forest Gateau) are some of my German favourites. I also still remember the Luxemburgish word Gromperen (potatoes) from a shopping trip I did in the little Grand Duchy and Hungarian boldog születésnapot (happy birthday) from a card I wrote to a colleague. All of these words bring a smile to my face and are what keep me engaged with language learning.

Vintage images courtesy of http://graphicsfairy.blogspot.com

Sunday, 18 March 2012

In the Footsteps of Napoleon

Yesterday, we went on a day trip arranged by the Brno Expat Centre to visit Austerlitz (know as Slavkov locally) and other places relating to the great battle of 1805. We set off on a beautiful sunny morning on a minibus from Brno and just half an hour later arrived at our first port of call: The Cairn of Peace Memorial. There is an exhibit there with items from the period and also a multi-media presentation in English to give an idea of what went on leading up to, during and after the battle. Sad to think that so many Austrian, French and Russian soldiers lost their lives here and now lie beneath the fields.

Memorial built 1910

Art Nouveau sculpture representing widows of the dead at the
entrance to the chapel inside the memorial.

Somewhat macabre - remains of soldiers found in the
 surrounding fields are brought to rest here.

We then travelled on to the Stará Pošta (Old Post Office) where Napoleon slept the night before the battle of Austerlitz and thought out his strategy. There is a small museum here and a nice restaurant serving traditional fayre.

Stará Pošta courtyard

Next stop was the Slavkov Chateau. This is a beautiful baroque castle with ornate stucco work and frescoes. The chateau does not open to the public until April, but they opened it especially for our tour. Sadly, no photos are allowed inside and we couldn't access the gardens due to works being carried out, but here are some shots of the exterior:

Main entrance to Slavkov-Austerlitz Chateau.

We then had an hour or so to wander around Slavkov. There isn't much to do there and everything closes on a Saturday after midday, but we had a pivo and sat in the sun before going on to our last stop of the day Žuráň Hill, which Napoleon made his field command post and where he watched the battle unfold.

Battle plan.

It was then time to head back to Brno for a well deserved drink. Ideally, I should have had a Napolean Brandy, but had to make do with a Martell. A nice end to a nice day.