Hello from Prague! (not the photo, that’s me being a typical tourist in Vienna) I’ve been here for just 4 days so far (working full time from home since I arrived) and have yet to actually study, but I am still making the baby-steps needed in starting on my mission to speak fluent Czech! Here’s how…
When will I be ready to speak the language?
This is an important question that a lot of people ask themselves. Surely if you don’t have enough basic vocabulary, intermediate or even basic grammar and some general understanding when others speak, then you are simply not ready to speak the language? Maybe, but when you have all these, then there are still finer grammatical points and turns of phrase to learn, as well as accent variations and slang. Maybe you should wait until you learn them before you can properly start actually speaking a language? But after that there is formal writing and perfecting your pronunciation, etc. etc. etc. The list goes on, and do you know what kind of list it is? A list of excuses!
You are always ready to speak a language, no matter what level you are at. Even if you know just one word in a language, you can communicate (albeit limited). When I started learning my first foreign language (Spanish), it took me a very long time before I was comfortable speaking to others. The reason was that I very simply never felt “ready” and always needed to study more. Well, I’ve only had a quick flick through a grammar book and a couple of hours studying a phrasebook in Czech (no study since because of work) and I’m already saying a lot more in Czech than I was after my first several months of Spanish study. How am I doing it?
Spanglish, Franglais and other intermediate languages
Ever hear of these words? They are just from merging two language titles together. You can do this for any combination with enough imagination; español and português? Portuñol. Deutch (German) and English? Denglisch, etc. While this might be an amusing new word, the concept behind it is one of the most important ways I try to speak a language. By gradually changing your English into the other language rather than starting off in the deep end. I suppose the word for what I’m trying to do with Czech is Englisky, or maybe Czechish?
The point is that I will start with this “Czechish”, which is currently 99.99% English and 0.01% Czech and gradually tip that balance in the opposite direction. I will likely never speak perfectly (i.e. 100% Czech; that’s not fluency, it’s bilingual and does in fact take years and not 3 months!!), but maybe I can turn my “Czechish” into 90-95% Czech or more?
So, right now my Czech is still abismal. I only learned off a few pages of phrases since I was tired when travelling, and I still have next to zero grammar or vocabulary. And yet… I have been mostly speaking in Czech since I got here! I have no intention of waiting until “I’m ready”. I’ll never be ready and I’ll always be ready depending on how you look at it, but by putting off actually speaking I’ll greatly slow down my learning process. I prefer to go for the optimistic upbeat version! I’m here to speak Czech so I started as soon as I got off the plane!
Talking the local language with your English-speaking friends
How can you speak the language when you barely have a few words in it? I use the hell out of the small amount that I know, and I cheat! I love short-cuts and I will share a couple with you over the next few months! One way to cheat (when you are starting off), is to do very typical Spanglish/Franglais/Czechish thing and use both languages in one sentence. You should really only use this when you know that other person speaks some English. You’ll be ready soon for the almost-no-English speakers anyway! If you learn a basic phrase like “Where is…?” (“Kde je” in Czech), then you can look up the word to put in after that most of the time. But if your dictionary isn’t handy? What the hell, just cheat! “Kde je… the library?” I would never use something like this with a stranger on the street, but with friends who speak both languages, why should I be stuck in English? For couples and friends that travel together and want to learn a language, it can really help if they try to get used to saying basic things like this to one another, even if the rest of the conversation is in English. Throwing in some of the local language’s “please”, “thank you” and “How are you?” even with your English speaking friends is a big step. A mistake a lot of expats make is sticking with English the entire time they don’t have to speak the local language. If you start out small, as time goes on you can say more and more and bring your Spanglish/Franglais/Czechish etc. further and further away from English
How about speaking with no English when you have just started?
Even with very little of the language, you can still get by with absolutely no use of English (and you should always try this when not with your friends, and when with them if you can convince them to help you learn). So here’s how I’m doing it… Since I’ve been working a lot I haven’t had time to socialize etc. in the few days I’ve been here (that starts this weekend!). I’ve mostly gone out just to eat, due to time pressures. Since my flat is central, all of the restaurants nearby have English menus and waiters who can definitely get by (most of them very well!) in English. But I don’t want to be a typical tourist, do I? It’s bad enough that I am intentionally going to more expensive restaurants in the centre rather than something more typical, but here’s what I do…
Example: eating out in a restaurant
I go in, say “Dobrý den” (Hello/Good day) for lunch or “Dobrý večer” (Good evening) for dinner. I don’t know how to say table for one etc. yet, without just looking up each word individually in a dictionary, so I just put up my index finger to indicate 1 and say nothing more than the word for lunch/dinner/food or something similar (followed by “prosím” (please) or some formality in order to try to be polite) . Hand gestures may seem like a cop-out, but it’s crucial not to fall back on English. Hand signals and gestures are better than nothing because you don’t lose the flow of maintaining the correct language of communication and a lot of these signals are international, especially in Europe and the Americas. When I sit down, before they go off to get a menu I do something most people wouldn’t do… I ask for BOTH an English and a Czech menu!
“Máte jídelní lístek v angličtině, a ještě jeden v češtině?” (Do you have a menu in English AND another one in Czech [believe it or not that's actually a lot easier to pronounce than it looks]). I made this sentence up myself, so I imagine there are probably plenty of mistakes in it (feel free to correct me in the comments ([and you did!])!), but it has definitely gotten my point across and, despite raising their eyebrows at that very strange request, they get them for me! I wouldn’t try this in restaurants outside the centre since it’s arrogant to presume that they all translate their menus to English. I will eat elsewhere very soon, but for now I need to make sure I get what I want without using a dictionary to look up every single word (and I’m a vegetarian, so I can’t just take anything. I can eat in any restaurant that doesn’t have vegetarian food when I speak enough of the language to explain to them to alter one of their dishes slightly). I admit that for my first week or two I am almost as bad as any of those tourists with Bermuda shirts and ridiculous SLR cameras around their necks, since I’m only eating in these kinds of restaurants, but I am still starting off on the right foot in terms of speaking the language!
So I read the English menu, choose what I want and see where it is on the Czech menu; the layouts are always the same so you can find it easily enough, and basic word similarities (such as “brokolice”) confirm this. Now when ordering it and reading unfamiliar words, I am at a slight advantage over other English speakers starting to learn Czech. I can speak Esperanto, which is an interesting language that I’ll talk about another time. There may be a couple of words that might help out, but in general Esperanto’s vocabulary is absolutely nothing like Czech’s… however, it turns out that its phonetics system is almost exactly the same! So pronouncing a Czech’s “c” like “ts” and č (ĉ in Esperanto) like “ch” and lots of others (š = ŝ (sh) and nearly all vowels and consonants are the same) comes naturally to me, and my r is much less pronounced (a very typical letter that English speakers have problems with) thanks to other languages I’ve learned. So I can just read the words directly and they’ll understand me, since my accent isn’t that strong. But if you are not confident with pronunciation you should still try, even if you do it badly, and they will likely still understand you.
Most language phonetics are actually very easy to understand anyway (especially compared with English, as I’ve mentioned before), and you should try to learn these as soon as possible to associate the word with the correct pronunciation. But even if you aren’t confident with how you are saying the word, you can point to it on the menu and try your best and the waiter will get the picture. After eating, I make the internationally recognised “bill please!” scribble on invisible paper in the air, pay them what I remember the price as from the menu (no matter what they might say about number amounts that I don’t understand yet), say a hearty “lahodný!” (delicious!) and “děkuji vám” (thank you) and simply wave goodbye since I don’t know how to say “Have a pleasant evening” yet (Also… if they played along with my attempts to try speaking in Czech and were patient, then they get a good tip of course!)
Never say “Do you speak English?”
I must know only a couple of dozen words in Czech and yet you can see how you can stretch this out. But of course, this can only get you so far. One thing I absolutely had to do in English so far was buying a SIM card, and I’m sure I will need to use English a lot at first in other situations, but I will always say “Dobrý den! Mluvíte anglicky?” (Hello, do you speak English?) before using any English. I hate it when people actually say “Do you speak English?” Even if you are in a country just for a day, you should learn a couple of phrases and this is one of them. I would say this EVEN if there was a huge British flag on the counter with “I speak English” on it for that person. I feel a lot more embarrased about having to speak English than I do speaking my horrible Czech or any other language; if English isn’t the language of the country you should not make any presumptions about people’s level and force it on them. On top of this, once they see you are really trying and can say even basic things in their language, people will almost always show you more respect since you have shown it to them.
Now my opportunies to speak Czech will greatly improve! It’s the weekend, so it’s time to go out and MINGLE. More on that later In the mean time, any thoughts on starting to confidently speak a language? Something you disagree with in this post? Any tips for me or others in starting to learn a new language? Share them in the comments
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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