When I met my husband, Karol, I never figured I would learn Slovak and Czech. Since we met in the US, it wasn’t necessary to me, nor was it something I saw myself needing. However, when we moved in together, we weren’t alone. We also had a roomate who was Slovak and often times they would speak in their native tongues. This was frustrating, especially when I heard one of them say my name. I didn’t like the idea of them talking about me and not knowing what they were saying! So I decided to learn Slovak.
Now, I already had a background in a Slavic language. My family is Polish and I spent many summers with extended family in Poland. I also attended Polish church and Sunday school while I lived in Winnipeg, Canada. There was no escaping learning Polish. Since I can still speak it to this day, it definitely provided me with the strong foundation that would help me learn Slovak. So, even though I couldn’t understand everything my roomate and Karol were saying, I usually got a good idea from understanding some of the words.
Learning Slovak, I thought it would be as easy as 1,2,3!
Learning another language isn’t easy. Especially one that doesn’t have many good educational resources. Even with a good Slavic foundation to work with, I still had to put in a lot of work. In the beginning, it was very frustrating. I had a book to learn from that was drab and which I felt focused on the wrong elements for beginners. When I felt like reading that book wasn’t helping me learn fast enough, I lost interest and picke it up only from time to time when I was bored.
But, since there aren’t a lot of resources for learning Slovak, I didn’t have much choice in how I learned. When Karol went on business trips (at this time, it was quite often), I would try to write him short letters in Slovak. I also slowly read through the Little Prince in Slovak, constantly googling words I didn’t recognize and then attempted to reuse them in my letters. Then, when the letters were ready, our roomate would help me fix them. And boy, was this frustrating! Every time I was proud of myself and thought I’d done so well, and then he would come in with his red pen and mark it all up. It felt a little disappointing each time he had to correct my mistakes and I worried if I was ever going to understand the language. But one day, I realized that with each letter, I had less and less red marks! This was certainly encouraging to me.
Aside from writing letters, learning Slovak was all about practice. When Karol was around, I wanted him to speak Slovak to me 24/7. This also took patience on his part, because often times I wouldn’t understand everything he said and I’d ask him to repeat himself and explain what he meant. This wasn’t easy for Karol and I give him props for being so patient with me, even when he wasn’t. I don’t know how I would feel in his position. But he’s been a great teacher, dictionary and grammar corrector.
But we’re getting somewhere
And so, slowly but surely, I was learning Slovak. After one year together, I could understand about 75% of what was being said. But I still couldn’t speak it. This was my biggest mistake in this learning process. I should have practiced speaking from the beginning. But I was shy and didn’t want to make mistakes. I hate making mistakes. But, unfortunately, when it comes to learning a new language, making mistakes is important. Otherwise, you won’t learn. Not trying to speak Slovak made life very difficult for me once we moved to Brno, Czech Republic.
Back story time: Czech and Slovak languages are very similar. So similar that people from each country can understand each other (they were once a combined country. See Czechoslovakia). The newer generations are slowly struggling to understand one another due to lack of exposure to the other language, but most people who were alive during the separation of Czechoslovakia don’t have any trouble with comprehending the sister language.
When we moved to Brno, I figured I’d still have lots of time to learn to speak Slovak. I thought that if I went grocery shopping or to the mall, I’d get by with English. To me, it made sense. Brno’s in Central Europe. There’s a lot of international programs at the Universities and Schools in Brno. And Brno is Czech’s IT hub, with thousands of foreigners moving there to work in IT. So why shouldn’t I be able to get by with English?
Well, the only places I found that I could use English were at restaurants, coffee shops, and big brand clothing stores. And even then, that English was often times limited. As soon as I needed to speak English in a small store, chances were I was out of luck. What’s worse is that there’s a 1% chance the clerk at the grocery store will be able to speak English, which is less then ideal because they always ask you questions! If all of that wasn’t hard enough, there are always the government offices. You either need to know Czech or bring a translator when visiting these offices.
One step forward, two steps back
After my first couple of months in Czech, I began to get frustrated. I had felt like having learned Slovak helped me one step forward, but Czech took me two steps back. I had learned to listen to the Slovak language – my ears were trained only to listen for Slovak vocabulary. To me, Czech had sounded foreign to Slovak. I couldn’t fathom how Slovaks could understand Czechs, when it sounded so different to me! But it only sounded so different, because Slovak wasn’t my native language. Slovak was something I had learned and I had taught my ears to constantly be the lookout for words I knew. If words were pronounced a bit differently or slurred, I couldn’t pick them up anymore. Getting over this was a question of practice. Practice I needed to start making.
Frustrated with needing Karol to help me with anything service or government related, and having issues with just going to the grocery store, I began to feel angry and lonely in the Czech Republic. I was slowly feeling like I had made a mistake moving to Brno. Czech sounded so alien to me and I had this feeling that any time I tried to communicate with someone, they were laughing at me (this is just self-consciousness talking, as no one really ever laughed at me).
I’m the only one who can change the situation
After a while of retreating to the apartment, not wanting to do anything without Karol and feeling uber lonely, I had decided to finally do something about my lack of Czech and Slovak knowledge. So I found myself a Czech teacher and started going to 1.5 hr lessons two times a week. As a Pole, I had a better foundation than most beginner students, so we did one on one classes in order to speed up my education without being held back by others in a group class.
My crash course in Czech was fantastic, but also frustrating. It was great because I was learning to pick up on Czech vocabulary, but as soon as I opened my mouth to practice speaking it, I kept mixing it with Slovak. My teacher’s frustration with this was even more evident when I came back from a weekend in Slovakia where I spoke Slovak. And then, on the daily, I had a Slovak living with me at home, which didn’t make things any better. I also opted to watch Slovak TV shows, as they were easier to understand and helped me better my Slovak. So my exposure to Czech was limited to my lessons and interaction with the public.
Improvement comes with time
As the first year in the Czech Republic was coming to a close, I slowly began to realize that I was understanding more and more Czech, and I was speaking more and more Slovak. I could now hold conversations with Karol’s parents, I spoke Slovak with all of Karol’s Slovak friends, and I started speaking Slovak with Czech people. I still was hiccupping here and there on Czech vocabulary that I didn’t understand, but it was no longer to a point where I was discouraged and didn’t want to interact with the people I didn’t know.
Unfortunately, this was also a crossroads for me. My Czech lessons were becoming more difficult for me. I found Slovak an easier language to speak, as it is more sing-songy and fluid compared to Czech. Because of this, I found it frustrating to try and speak Czech. This lead me to only want to speak Slovak and deciding that Czech lessons just weren’t for me anymore. Obviously, had this been a question of learning German while speaking Slovak, I would have kept going. But since Czech and Slovak were so similar, I found it counterproductive at a certain point.
With practice, you will see results
But just because I stopped taking lessons doesn’t mean I stopped learning. I began to watch more and more Czech TV. We would go to the theater and social events where Czech was spoken. I began to interact with the Czech language as much as possible to pick up the vocabulary. If I ever needed help with something, I’d ask Karol to explain what was meant, or I’d look it up myself.
In the past year, I’ve hit certain milestones that made me do a double take. I attended a Slovak comedy night and understood 90% of the jokes. I’ve gone to the government offices to do paperwork without any help. I’ve called up my ISP and complained about service outages. I’ve called animal control to come and get rid of bats in our building.
These can seem like trivial things. But to someone who couldn’t interact with Czechs because I couldn’t understand the language and was too shy to speak Slovak, these are huge milestones for me. I finally feel like an inhabitant in Brno, and not a visitor.
Some tips to improving a foreign language
Since quitting my lessons, I’ve found several important things that help me keep improving my knowledge of both Czech and Slovak. These are some tips I want to share with you, in case you are learning a new language and are feeling like you’re not progressing fast enough:
- Reading is key: I buy magazines in Czech and books in Slovak. For leisurely reading, I grab Slovak because, as I’ve said before, it’s smoother and more pleasurable for me (At the moment, I’ve started reading the Harry Potter books in Slovak, and I’m quite liking them!). I will buy magazines in Czech because there are smaller articles that I’m interested in, but don’t have to hurt my brain too much to read them. It’s also important for me to read news articles on the internet in Czech. Any local or state news articles that come out, I read in the native language. It’s tempting to hit that translate button in your browser, but it’s important to push yourself to read and understand the news and more formal forms of writing in a foreign language.
- Speaking: You need to speak the language to improve on it. No amount of reading or memorizing will help if you don’t practice using it every day. Speaking is the key to picking things up and catching what you are doing wrong and learning where you need to improve. You might realize that you find yourself at a loss for words in stressful situations and need to practice responses to times when you feel you are on the spot (or when someone is yelling at you). Either way, practice, practice, practice.
- Have a good and patient teacher: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked Karol to explain a word or the context it was used in. If it’s a word I haven’t heard before, I try to remember it in the way it was used. I’ve asked Karol 5 times to explain a word to me, or I’ve asked him what certain phrases are supposed to imply. Sometimes, there are translations that don’t make sense, and you need someone who can explain how you are supposed to interpret them. You also need a teacher who is willing to stop and correct you. Sometimes, if I make silly blunders, Karol laughs at me and tells me I’m cute. This is usually when I’m frustrated about something. This helps lighten the mood. But in general, it’s important to me that Karol corrects me when I’ve conjugated something incorrectly, or if I’ve place a pronoun in the wrong part of my sentence. These may seem like little things, but the sooner you get them right, the sooner you will sound fluent.
All in all, I can’t say it was easy, but I can’t say it was as difficult for me to learn as people who come from other language backgrounds. There’s one youtuber who I’ve stumbled upon who’s very sweet and gives you a perspective into Slovak life from her view point (as an English woman). Her learning process was probably different from mine, as are her views on certain cultural differences. Each individual’s experience will be different. The only thing to remember is to put in the time and effort. Sometimes the process might feel slow and you’re not going anywhere, but your brain is! And remember, sometimes, it’s good to take a break. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and annoyed with learning a language, take a breather, relax and try to remember the reasons why you were learning it in the first place. If, after reevaluating your situation, you’ve decided it’s not something you need, then don’t push it. Maybe you’ll find that in a year or so you’ll come back to it. Who knows.
Do you have experience learning a new language that you’re proud of? Let me know in the comments below!