What I’ve discovered from learning Czech to a pretty good level
So, my summer has come to an end! My experiment was an interesting one and I’m happy with the results and have learned a lot from the conclusions that I’ve drawn! I’ll be trying a similar experiment soon (although my very next one will be completely different; to be revealed next week!)
This post discusses particular hacks for Czech, but you can see many more of my suggestions that would work for this and other languages, in the Language Hacking Guide!
I chose Czech randomly, and was able to reach a pretty good level after just two months of a casual part-time commitment (with no commitment at all in the entire last month because of my increased workload to pay off a debt; hence 2 months instead of 3). Rather than reaching a “pretty good” level because of some hidden language-gene that I definitely don’t have, it was because of the techniques that I’ve openly discussed on this blog (which I’ll summarise in the next post), and the general positive attitude I’ve had from the very start. This attitude was deeply routed in the refusal to believe that Czech was a hard language.
Rather than having this philosophy simply from repeating a mantra like “it isn’t hard” over and over again, I was constantly finding evidence to support this theory as I learned more about Czech. Today I’d like to share these discoveries and the tools that I used with those of you interested in trying this experiment for yourself, or for anyone in the basic stages of learning the language.
My study tool recommendations
I got asked in comments a lot what tools I used to study. A great book that helped a lot was Czech, an essential grammar, which you can get directly from the Amazon UK or Amazon US site. It was highly recommended to me and now I highly recommend it to you!! It goes into great detail about word formations (that I summarise below) and very clearly explains Czech grammar in a straightforward and no-BS way. It doesn’t waste time with childish pictures or irrelevant examples, but goes right into explaining the meat of the language, with full translations of all examples used and with lots of important vocabulary in each chapter. I just wanted the facts, explained clearly and in detail, so this book was the best for me, but if you need a more lesson oriented approach this won’t be for you.
As I mentioned before, I always have a phrasebook in my pocket. Anytime I am waiting anywhere I take it out and learn some words from the dictionary at the back, which is small enough to get through a whole letter of the alphabet in a 10 minute wait for the tram, while still being big enough to cover most of the essential words. Then of course you can also learn the huge amount of phrases from a wide range of categories squeezed into this tiny book. The Lonely Planet phrasebook series has served me well in several languages and it did a great job in Czech too. There are lots of other phrasebooks, but I like the wide range of topics covered by the phrases by LP, as well as its price. You can get this on the Amazon UK or Amazon US site, but if you are passing through Dublin’s or London’s airports you will see it on sale there too.
If you’re near a computer when studying, there are plenty of websites that can help too! There is a very detailed dictionary at Slovnik.cz but sometimes it gives way too many translations for simple words with no context explanation, so I personally prefered good old Wordreference’s Czech dictionary for looking up simple words. I also found some great blogs including the Czechmatediary, which is written entirely in both Czech and English, by a Czech native living in the states. If you know of other great websites that help with learning Czech, please do share them in the comments.
Ignore the scare tactics!
If you’ve decided to learn Czech, the first thing that other learners or (especially) natives may do is tell you how hard it is. It’s got 7 cases, unpronounceable consonant clusters, irregular plurals, unrecognisable vocabulary, the hard-to-pronounce letter ř, lions and tigers and bears, oh my!!! As a generally optimistic person, I tend to ignore unhelpful comments like these whenever possible. None of these news-flashes were going to help or encourage me to make progress in the language, so I found another way of looking at them.
Even after studying it for just a few hours, I had already found several reasons to claim that it was easy, such as discovering that it was a phonetic language (unlike say, French and definitely not like English. I challenge you to say though, through, plough, dough, cough very quickly on the first attempt) and that its conjugation can be similar to Latin languages. Since then I’ve found other ways of looking at the issue that you may find interesting. I’m not trying to say that Czech is “easy”, just that constantly focussing on it being hard is not helpful! Looking at it the following way may motivate you and help you reach a good level much better than trying to scare or “impress” you with its difficulties ever would.
When you learn French, Spanish etc. there is a host of words the same or similar in English that really ease the blow (I’ll talk about these another time). Since Czech is in the Slavic language branch, most words you encounter are nothing like their English counterparts, so it can be quite discouraging when you have hundreds of thousands of words to describe all the basic things in life, to learn off. Even the best memory techniques may not help when you are up against such a vast amount.
Lucky for us, Czech isn’t actually made up of hundreds of thousands of different of individual words, but actually, a much smaller subset of word roots, prefixes and suffixes, most of which are linked together in logical or easy to remember ways. Czech does this way more than the western European languages I’m familiar with (which already do it to a certain extent). Let me show you what I mean:
Let’s take 4 prefixes; v, vy, od and za, (all but vy are also prepositions) and add them to a word root chod related to the verb chodit, to go (habitual). v by itself and in many verbs means in so when you have something for “going in” you have a…? An entrance! vchod! vý/vy doesn’t exist by itself in this context, but it means the opposite and you have an exit: východ. od by itself means simply from, so what do you think a “from-go” thing would be? A departure = odchod!
You’ll actually find that a huge amount of words in Czech are formed by a small number of prefixes added to roots and a lot of them have extremely logical meanings like this. Compare this to the French for exit, sortie, which is impossible to understand unless you have seen specifically that word or its verb sortir before. I find Czech’s word formation to be much more logical and it is definitely easier to remember. So learning a new word sometimes doesn’t actually involve learning any new words at all!
However, some examples take a bit of imagination, but are still not that illogical if your imagination is good enough. Taking my last prefix za with chod; za can mean behind/off, i.e. going offstage or out of view. Well, if you are excusing yourself to go from out of the current “scene” or location, you may be going to… the toilet! Czech signs say toaleta, but using the word in conversation would be weird because záchod is what most people say for toilet! Yes, I know I’m pushing it a bit! But you have to admit, it’s not that much of a stretch of the imagination! This technique, combined with the very very many straightforward logical combinations gave me thousands of Czech words for very little work.
In fact, prefix + root combinations multiply. So if you understand the vague sense associated with the main prefixes do, na, nad(e), ne, o(b), od(e), pa, po, popo, pod, pro, pře, před, při, roz, s(e), spolu, u, v(e), vy, vz, z, za and combine less than half of them with say 10 roots that they may work with, then for the price of learning 20 word-meanings, you actually get 10×10=100 words thanks to all the possible combinations!!
When you add suffixes to the mix it helps so much for understanding a huge amount of words without getting a headache trying to memorise each word individually. For example, the suffix “ař”, which means people associated with the root word, and the word for a medicine lék, will give you a lékař… a medicine-person? A doctor!! Film is the same as in English, but filmař is film maker, ryba is fish, but rybář is fisherman etc. So many words can be broken up like this, so studying the prefixes and suffixes gives you an exponential amount of possibilities to understand the language.
When I was told that there were 7 cases for each word with a different option for singular and plural, I was worried that I would have to learn 14 “words” for each individual word. This is not the case. Sorry Czech, but your cases don’t scare me in the least. All we need to do is change the end of the word (most of the time, simply changing one vowel to another, but practically all other changes follow consistent rules like h->z). It does take a bit of getting used to that you have to remember if you are changing that last o to an a and which case to use etc. but if you do enough exercises or (in my case) actually talk with Czechs and just throw in any old ending, they will correct you and it will sink in quickly enough. This is something that you can get used to!
In fact, it soon becomes quite natural! It may seen annoying when starting off, since we don’t have this in English, but you must look at it from within the language itself, instead of from English. I got so used to the use of Czech cases that I actually find it annoying now when people use the Czech word “Praha” in English instead of Prague without declining it! You can’t say in Praha or to Praha; it would obviously be in Praze and to Prahy, duh!!
You may be sceptical to think that this is easy, but let’s compare it to other languages: Czech failed to impress me in difficulty in so many counts and noun declensions was one of them. In Irish we also have the genitive and vocative sense for example, but because of initial mutations on words, when we alter a word, the ending and the beginning is changed. A word starting with a B changes to a V sound for example. In Czech all they do is change the ending, and the rules are very consistent (explained in the book I mentioned).
In French you can almost never just say a singular word in a sentence without adding an (in)definite article, which requires you to know its gender. Czech doesn’t even have indefinite/definite articles. It’s true that they use demonstrative (this/that) more, but translating a sentence as “I saw car” (with no the/a, which complicates the sentence somewhat in other languages) is completely correct.
However, when you do learn genders of nouns they are easy to remember. Almost all the time a noun ending in a consonant in masculine, ending in ‘a’ is feminine and ending in ‘o’ is neuter. There are exceptions, but they follow predictable guidelines. There may be 3 genders, but it’s very easy to remember which gender a noun is, especially compared to a language like French and to what I remembered from German, which has more complex ending-gender association rules and can seem much more random.
The right attitude when learning is the key
There is no challenge in the Czech language that you cannot overcome. The consonant clusters are tricky, but in Czech, some consonants tend to act like vowels, so krk (neck) actually sounds a bit like Kirk (although note that the r is rolled, and this was one advantage I did have when starting because I’ve already learned this sound from Spanish), just with the vowel sound reduced. When you are focussed and devoted enough to the language these “noises” do turn into words very quickly. Children learn this language all the time, so a smart adult like you has no excuses!
It’s possible to retort this post with a list of reasons why Czech is hard, but why bother? How can that help language learners? Czech has great literature and can be a very expressive and difficult language to master. But if your goal is to just speak it, then there is NOTHING holding you back from this. I challenge you to find even more reasons why it’s easy rather than tell me how wrong I am about it not being hard. Give this language a try and let me know what I missed in my quest to prove that it can indeed be spoken quite well, quite quickly.
Apart from these tips specifically for Czech, it’s very important to have an efficient study and learning method. In the next post I’ll summarise the entire summer experiment for reaching the level I did, relevant to any language. After that I will officially start my next 3-month mission.
Děkuju you Czech, it’s been a pleasure!
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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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