Types of Czechs
By the time this actually gets put online, I’ll have been here for over a month. I’ve done so much, been so many places, and met so many people that it’s hard for even me to imagine. What I’ve written about here has really been just a smattering of my experiences, but mostly the best ones. I’ve noticed, over the past month, that there are a variety of types of Czechs when it comes to languages.
The easiest to describe are those like Anna’s mom, who speak no English. With them, either you try some Czech, or you stay mute. By the way, the Czech name for Germany and the Germans, Němestko, comes directly from the word němí, meaning mute; the Germans, back in the day, were unable to communicate verbally with the Slavs, so they had to use their hands. Anyway… my interactions with these people have come in two varieties: those instances in which muteness is an option, and those in which it is not. Muteness is almost always an option, though it is often preceded by that favorite phrase: I don’t understand Czech. I am then free to wander, or browse, or sit and read as I please. Sometimes, in stores, a different person then comes up and speaks English, in which case the conversation happens in English. But there are some situations when muteness in not an option. For example, when you go by yourself to the post office. Way back in orientation, we were told to be careful – that you should probably take a Czech buddy with you to the post office, because the postal workers very rarely speak English. I found this to be true (the English part, not the needing a buddy part.) Here’s a story:
Since the second or third week I was here, stopping by the post office has been on my list of things to do. I have postcards, ready to be written, and they are merely waiting for stamps. But we’d gotten this warning, and I wasn’t sure I could actually accomplish what I needed to do. So I put it off, and put it off, and put it off, until I actually NEEDED to send something. So I left early for school, and stopped by the post office on my way. I walked in, pocket dictionary in hand, and used the Czech that I know. I asked (admittedly, I had rehearsed it before I walked in) “Mužu tady koupet …” which means “Can I buy here…” and promptly forgot how to say stamps. I had looked it up literally a second before I walked in, but I froze. And the man stood there, patiently waiting, as I looked it up, and completed my question. (Stamp, by the way, is znamka, and stamps is znamky.) He pulled out his map, and showed me where I had to go to buy stamps. So I walked the few blocks to another post office, and had post office attempt take #2. I had my question memorized by this point, and was relieved to see the woman behind the window pull out a big binder of stamps. But then she asked me a question. Which, of course, I didn’t understand. But I didn’t freeze, though I may have given her a deer in the headlights look. I asked her to repeat it, and she did. I completed our entire conversation in Czech (did I have a choice?), effectively expressing my need for stamps to the US, as well as to Germany, Japan, and Chile (these are, in fact actually in two categories: Europe and Foreign). I told her how many of each I needed, paid and didn’t panic.
For the majority of my month here, I have elected to stay mute in many situations, primarily because I know my Czech is not good enough to communicate everything I want to say. But now, I’ve realized that I’m capable of conversing, especially with my trusty dictionary at hand. Yes, my conversations are slow, and often I don’t understand exactly what people are saying to me. But it is possible, and I have set for myself a small goal: to have at least one complete conversation, such as my post office trip, entirely in Czech each week. I need to start somewhere, and where better to start than by forcing myself into sink or swim situations? I know enough Czech to be able to get my points across, though I’m certain I don’t have perfect grammar. The people in the post office didn’t seem to mind though; they patiently waited for me as I searched my brain or my dictionary for the right words. One even smiled at me as I left, as if both appreciative of my effort to learn Czech and sympathetic regarding the difficulties.
But, the reality is that not all Czechs are this way. Most people living in Prague speak at least a bit of English, and typically their English skills exceed my Czech ones. The bilingual Czechs themselves seem to fall into two categories: those who appreciate my efforts to learn Czech and those who are frustrated by my slowness. I understand both points of view, and I’m sure that it can’t be easy to constantly have to use your second language for someone else’s benefit. It is hard to stay mad at the people who are clearly annoyed that they are speaking English, but it is nonetheless easy to get annoyed with them too. Interactions with them are typically frustrating. They often assume I know less Czech than I do, or speak to me in English even when I respond in Czech. They usually have sour-puss faces and look like they hate tourists. Not that I blame them for any of that. I would probably be the same way. But, as a student trying to learn and use the language, getting constant negative feedback when you do so is frustrating, so say the least.
But then, there is the other type of English-speaking Czech, who appreciates my efforts to learn and use the language, however minimal my abilities may be. In reality, this is the Czech I interact with most often, because this includes the entirety of the CIEE staff, professors, and buddies, as well as my host family. To their credit, I have never gotten any negative feedback when asking for help with translations, pronunciations, or anything. They are always happy to help, to repeat words until I can say them correctly, to help me practice my words and phrases.
I have come to expect that the CIEE interactions will be this way and that all interactions outside of CIEE will be our sour-puss Czech frenemies, so when I have an experience with a stranger that is positive, it is reassuring. I think that these experiences are becoming more common as my Czech improves. Or maybe I’m using my Czech more, as I gain confidence, so the opportunities for them are increasing. Or maybe I’m just looking for the positive experiences in my trip and learning to ignore the sour-pusses.
Regardless, I had two happy shopkeeper experiences today. One happened when Alyssa and I searched out Robertson’s, a British food store here in Prague. We were both looking for brown sugar, which cannot be found (as of yet) in the normal Czech grocery stores. When we found Robertson’s (and the sugar!), we also found an incredibly nice shopkeeper. She lived in the States for over 7 years, so her English was almost impeccable, and certainly better than our Czech. Nonetheless, she answered my questions with a smile, told us how to say brown sugar in Czech (though I think asking for this would still not get us American-style brown sugar), and helped us practice our numbers when we were paying. She clearly appreciated our efforts to learn Czech, and wasn’t afraid to tell us that we should be proud of our accomplishments in the language so far. I really liked her, and her store, and hope to be able to go back by the end of the year and have a conversation all in Czech.
A similar thing happened maybe a half hour later, as I was buying cheese and meat at a booth at a farmer’s market for lunch. The women before us were either ex-pats with no Czech skills or tourists – it was confusing because their bags and attire made them look Czech, but they had British accents and didn’t even say goodbye in Czech. Regardless, the man spoke in English with them, which made that booth a safe bet for getting what I actually wanted. (That’s another reason I have trouble using only Czech – how do I know that what I’m getting is what I actually need/want?) But after asking some questions in English and making my decision, I decided to ask for what I wanted in Czech: 100 grams of this cheese, 100 grams of that meat. As I started to ask, he corrected me almost right away. (gramu, not gramy) It wasn’t in a mean way; rather it was clear that he wanted to help me with the language, and I honestly appreciate it.
I think that the best part of these interactions is that you know they won’t judge you f you make a mistake. When I’m in a situation like this, I’m relaxed, and therefore more confident. When the person I’m conversing with is clearly irritated by my Czech abilities (or lack thereof), I tend to get nervous and forget what I know. Which obviously does not help with the conversation abilities. But when I know that the person I’m speaking to will help me when I need it, or will kindly correct my grammar, I am more confident using the words I think I know, or practicing a new grammatical phrase.