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


  1. I'm sure word association does help with learning vocabulary, especially if it is amusing. But what do you do to help memorise grammar?

    I've just sent a link to this blog post to an American friend here in Prague, who is both a Dr Who fan & learning Czech. I'm sure she will appreciate 'daleko' :-)

    1. Hi, Ricky. Thanks for spreading the word :)

      Your question about grammar is not an easy one to answer. To me, grammar is not something that exists as a stand-alone concept, it is the very essence of the language, woven into the fabric of everything we read, write and say. I think the key is not to think about how you are going to learn "grammar", but how you are going to make sense of the new language and remember how to use it in appropriate situations. Of course, you can sit down with a big table of cases and verb and noun endings and just memorise them, but it is far better to just learn these elements as you go.

      Thinking about all the detail behind something just makes it seem a lot more complicated and scary than it really is. For example: according to the RSPB there are 574 species of birds in the UK. You could dwell on that fact and think "Oh my goodness, there are so many different types of bird, how am I ever going to know a blackbird when I see one?!" But no, you do not do this, instead you look at the bird and recognise it for what it is, as in the past somebody pointed to it and told you what it was and you retained that information. I believe language learning is the same. We shouldn't become overwhelmed by the facts and figures, but instead learn phrases in context, until using a sentence with various cases and genders in it becomes as easy as spotting a blackbird :)

      I am already finding that Czech is more simple in it's construction than German in many ways, which is a relief! It still has it's quirks, though. Maybe I will blog about that next :)

  2. Hi, what a fun article. Actually I had also thought of the Daleks when I learned daleko because they come from far away. I'll take whatever hints I can for learning Czech. It certainly is a challenge. Good Luck.

    1. Hi, Karen! Welcome to my blog. I will post again about learning Czech, so do stop by and feel free to share any comments you have about your experience of learning the language!

  3. Your article about Czech language is really interesting. Thanks for sharing your idea with us. I have intensive knowledge about Czech language , culture and we are making a plan to teach Czech language with the pimsleur Basic Czech Method for our students so that they will have sufficient knowledge about their native language .