Dos and Don'ts: Learning Czech

Dos and Don'ts: Learning Czech

What to say in the Czech Republic?

Dos and Don'ts: Learning Czech

Dos and Don'ts: Learning Czech

What to say in the Czech Republic?

Published 19.09.2011
Last updated 19.09.2011

The Best Way to Learn
Yes, it's glib to say this, but each learner is different and how you learn will depend on your abilities and personal learning style, characteristics you may not be aware of until you start learning. Some of you will learn by throwing yourself in and picking it up, others will find systematic study works best, and some may never learn much.

From my experience, Lída Holá's Czech Step By Step offers clear explanations and useful exercises for a beginner to intermediate in one book. Olga Parolková's Czech for Foreigners Advanced Level is quite dry, but useful for those continuing to study. Of course, both books need to be supplemented with listening to the radio, watching TV, reading, and conversations. Older people are particularly ideal for conversing in Czech as their speech tends to be slow, clear, and they have a tendency to repeat themselves.

Hey You!
Whereas using the wrong ending for a particular case or conjugating a verb incorrectly will only be met with a polite smile at most, using the informal you (ty) or formal (vy) in the wrong context can provoke stronger opprobrium. Overcompensating by always using the polite form doesn't go down well either. Broadly speaking, Czechs use vy with strangers, acquaintances, superiors at work, and when children address adults. Ty is for close relatives, friends and adults to children. When someone invites you to use the informal form, they will say můžeme si tykat.

The Correct Pronunciation is Not so Correct

Written Czech tends to be regarded as a ‘phonetic’, what you see is how you pronounce it. Spend any time here and you’ll hear this is not the case. In Prague, you will hear most people pronounce ý so it sounds like ‘ay’ rather than ‘ee’, so 'dobrý kamarád' sounds like 'dobray kamarád'. Another common deviation is to say mlíko rather than mléko for milk. Lastly, Czechs sometimes place a ‘v’ before words starting with ‘o’. For example they might say vosm instead of osm. Some people consider this last style of speech an indication of low education.

Outside of Prague there are other variations. The so-called Ostrava dialect is a prominent example. It is said that people of this Moravian city shorten their long vowels. Brno goes one step further and has its own unique dialect called hantec, with a distinct vocabulary. For example, in hantec pivo is bahno, which means mud in Czech. Admittedly, the dialect is more common among older residents.

A Little Something
We've mentioned before the use of diminutives for people's names or when speaking with children. Actually, diminutives are pretty common in everyday speech and frequency can depend on personal taste or to express some affection for the item such as ordering a 'pivečko' in the pub. However, it diminutives can also change meaning. For example if you go to buy trousers (kalhoty) and ask for 'kalhotky', you would be given knickers.

Making a Mark
When it comes to writing Czech, one of the immediate differences is remembering to use the diacritic marks – the lines, hooks, and loops above letters to change their sound. However, you’ll notice that if you receive a text message or email or read a comment on Facebook most Czechs opt not to use them, even if modern phones permit them.

Learning at All

If you're someone who has struggled to learn Czech, you may not be in the worst position: a lot of people here, Czech and expat, claim there is no point, since so many people in Prague (though not necessarily the rest of the Czech Republic) either speak English or want to learn. On the other hand, the language gives you greater access to the culture and society around you, which is important if you're here for a while.

What are your thoughts and experiences on learning Czech?

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Akvar(Guest) Published: 10:26:09 21.11.2011
Re the use of "v" before words beginning with "o": No, rogerschapel, you are not correct here. It has nothing to do with "the impact of Russian & Belarusian or Ukrainian language"!!! The letter "v" is NOT used before words in "correct" Czech language. It is only used in slang, and only in particular slang, in Prague and/or middle Bohemian one. Thus you will never hear a typical Moravian for example saying "von" "vona" "vono" (he, she, and it) or "vosum" (eight), while those are very common Prague words. Same applies to the use of ending "ej" as in "hezkej" (handsome) instead of "hezky" or "novej" (new) instead of "novy". You will also never hear/see those words in formal language (or you should not as that would be considered rude). The way those words are said/pronounced is NOT a sign of low/high education in the Czech Republic, however, unlike the UK for instance where it is very easy to establish social status/education instantly from a glimpse of a particular accent. In the Czech rep this is not the case, because the great majority of people would chose to speak in an informal way (formal way is reserved for writing and here it would, indeed, be considered rude/undereducated, because proper usage of the language is required in a written form! Formal way of speech would be unique to people exposed to public speaking, i.e. politicians, TV presenters, actors, occasionally doctors and especially teachers who are required to use "correct" (formal) language in order to teach children to speak correctly (needless to say this effort has been and always will be blissfully ignored as this way of speaking especially among the youth would be considered ridiculous). So if you are among family/friends/equals, feel free to say "vona", "mliko", "hezkej" if you are in middle Bohemia (incl Prague), but never, ever write it or say it in a public speech if you are addressing the masses, particularly from a higher position. (Although they will not mind anyway. They will know that you are not Czech, so your sins against the local etiquette will be waved off) :-D
Comment from: brianwilliams82 Published: 08:06:03 22.10.2011
Yeah, I've found the diminutives much more commonplace than I expected. The books don't prepare you for 'Honzíčko' and 'Pejsek'. After 15 months, my comprehension is quite ok but speaking is still just so, so hard. But here's something for us all to ponder - Czech is not going to go away. The Austro-Hungarians couldn't get rid of it, so a bunch of foreigners who either find it too hard or are too lazy to learn it aren't going to change things. I always ask myself, how far would a Czech get in Ireland without speaking English? Not far at all. So how far can I expect to get in their country I don't keep persevering with their language? :-)
Comment from: Published: 11:39:03 05.10.2011
Since I'm from Serbia, and these two languages are both of Slavic origin, it's is sometimes not so hard to understand something. Of course if the person that is talking to you, speaks slowly and using the proper, learned in school Czech. Also the signs and other inscribing are also easily understood, since both languages use diacritics. One thing I made, before I arrived here is to buy me Czech in the pocket booklet with most common phrases used in life. (not very useful if you intend to speak more than 3-4 sentences, more for explaining to a hair dresser what hair cut do you want... :) But the spoken language is still a mystery to me, and I am planing to attend a quick crash course.
Comment from: CPM Published: 10:40:51 05.10.2011
You hear the intrusive "v" all the time. The most common is "von" and "vona" for he and she.
Comment from: ludmila Published: 12:39:46 26.09.2011
It takes long, several stages. That includes a good amount of enthusiasm, optimism, courage and real motivation to stay with the Czech learning spirit! If ones likes language learning it will be easier. I think learning buddies is very important too.
Comment from: Published: 10:01:53 20.09.2011
i learnt czech for beginners i found most of it hard but was suprised when i took the test at the end of the course how well i did as i did not think i would do well at all .
Comment from: anglicanka Published: 04:37:05 20.09.2011
I'm a bit schizophrenic when it comes to the great 'should we learn Czech or not?' debate - I do persevere but I'd be lying if I said the response was always positive. Even trying to buy some bread rolls can turn into a traumatic event - especially if you happen to want four of them: I think it's been invaluable though for interacting with my partner's family who don't speak much English. Whatever it takes to get my feet under the table ;)
Comment from: daniegge Published: 11:35:28 20.09.2011
You are right, Dillon, from my experience, czechs appreciate when you try to speak correctly. The younger ones especially. For learning czech, I had a great experience with Hana Diringerova, she is certified, her lessons are affordable and her english is perfect (problems i had with other courses). However I will take a break from learning czech because I'm angry my visa is still not here.
Jizek(Guest) Published: 11:03:36 20.09.2011
are you sure about adding the V to ´osm´ ? if you add a v it simply means ´at 8´ for example when talikng about what time you´re gonna meet- ´at osm´ v osm.
Comment from: Dillon Published: 05:44:34 19.09.2011
Really liked this article. Any effort made in learning Czech is very much appreciated by local Czech people and even the basics go a long way with them. I would encourage anybody to have a go, and keep chipping away at it, you will find all kinds of new things to discover both in the language and on a cultural level. This article really got under the skin of the language a bit more and having lived here for 5 years actively speaking Czech, I still got some fresh insight from this article!
Comment from: Published: 03:51:10 19.09.2011
As far as adding the 'v' sound before words beginning with an 'o', if you haven't studied it, 'восемь' is 'eight' in Russian & Belarusian, and there is also a 'v' at the beginning in Ukranian. The impact of the people of these lands/countries (particularly as the Soviet Union), on Czech & Slovak history is well known. A lot could depend on where these specific people using the 'v' sound come from, as per a specific dialect.