The two week, intensive Czech language course I have to take for my study abroad program started this week. Before coming here, I always joked about having to take this class because I had no idea what I would do with my knowledge of Czech, but now that I’m learning it, I’ve fallen in love with the language. Part of it, I think, has to do with the way I misinterpreted Czech culture. I imagined them as brash people, but in reality, they’re quiet and private but, generally, quite nice. And they truly appreciate people putting in the time to learn their language, which really helps to encourage you through the struggle.
Unlike my time learning Spanish, I’m actually getting to be immersed in the language by being in a country surrounded by the people who speak it, and in this context, I’ve realized that learning a language is a lot like learning to act.
New words in a language are like looking at a script for the first time. You have to fully understand what it is you’re trying to say, and you have to become confident in your ability to remember those words and express them the way they need to be expressed. For example, we were sent out yesterday by our wonderful Czech teacher, Luděk, to ask for directions to certain streets. We were supposed to pick up on directional words, such as “rovně” (straight) or “doprava” (right), and then respond by saying, “Aha, takže…” and then repeat what they had told us.
I was so unsure of myself going in that I just walked past tons of Czech people without asking them for directions. Every time I considered approaching someone, I would suddenly forget the words, “Promiňte prosím vás” (Excuse me, please) or “Kde je…?” (where is insert street name here?). When you think of speaking in Czech to real Czech people, you become self conscious in the same way you might having to try and express certain emotions or give specific intonations to lines from a script.
It takes a lot of time to really become comfortable with the phrases you’re using in new languages and being confident that you’re pronouncing them correctly or using them in the right contexts, but as it is with acting (and really everything in life), practice makes pretty darn close to perfect.
My roommate and I went back to Kozlovna today for lunch where we made a weak (though it was a lot of effort on our part) attempt to order and communicate with the waiters and waitress in Czech. They were extremely kind about it. They smiled, fixed our pronunciation, and told us the Czech terms for words we only knew in English. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had so far in my stay here.
Here’s my advice from my experience so far: For any one who is trying to learn a new language, I would highly suggest finding an environment in which you can comfortably practice speaking that language with someone who knows it well and will, gently, correct you when you make mistakes. You’ll always be uncomfortable for the first bit of learning something new, but unless you struggle through the awkwardness and the fear, you’ll never get better at it.
What’s also great is giving yourself the opportunity to see that language used in a practical sense. I always hated learning languages in grade school, but I think that had a lot to do with the fact that I never saw how they could be useful to me. Being in a situation in which you need to use a language you’re learning can help you fall in love with it–or at least appreciate it a little bit more.
Find more pictures of my travels in Prague here. (I’ll be updating the album until I leave the country.)