Friday, April 28, 2006

Linguistic Variability

After spending the last two days completing a paper that was only due a year ago (the one Incomplete of my academic life), I am not sure I speak Czech anymore. After all, the paper involved no reading whatsoever in any language other than English, so the only Czech I used at all was to order small amounts of food. Well, and to call a family friend regarding my upcoming visit. My command of Czech evaporates when I am confronted with the telephone even under the best circumstances, so in this instance it was particularly bad. Fortunately she has been working on her English, although I tried not to lapse into a mere English conversation.
It feels strange enough when I spend a few days speaking and hearing mostly English (although that happens all too often)—on the one hand, the conversations feel quite natural since they are with friends, and on the other hand it makes my brain feel slightly turned around and wrong. To spend two days doing nothing but reading and writing English felt completely wrong now that I am accustomed to looking at large amounts of Czech almost every day. It gave me the dreadful feeling that I could become one of those people who live here without ever using more than a few words of Czech.
We would like to think, of course, that I am gradually become fluent, and not merely developing a strong reading knowledge of the language. As a rule I don’t feel as though this is happening with suitable speed.
Some people—many people, in fact, and both Czechs and others—like to claim that Czech is too difficult to learn properly. Personally, I think this is ridiculous. Every human language is quite learnable. Some languages are easier for native speakers of certain languages than for native speakers of other languages, and the US government has actually come up with guidelines for telling how difficult a language will be for a native English speaker who doesn’t know a closely related language. Some of the things that factor into this are grammatical complexity, cultural similarity, and use of the Roman alphabet. I’ve forgotten what all the criteria are, but it is considered pretty easy to get started in Spanish and (I think) Tagalog, and somewhat harder to start Russian since it’s written in Cyrillic and uses grammatical structures that English lacks. Considering how many Americans learn Russian, which is closely related to Czech and uses a different alphabet, I see no reason that Czech should be any harder. The main difficulty is that there has not been much attention paid to how best to teach Czech, and that there aren’t many opportunities to practice speaking it in most of North America. The only way most of us get past a certain point with any new language is if we have to use it, which is where most of us are lazy or timid. I am often one or the other, but at least I’m not both all of the time, so as a result I can grasp certain kinds of information quickly (others not at all) and engage in some kinds of conversation quite animatedly (others extremely haltingly).
Oh well. There are always days when one feels particularly skillful and other days when one feels generally mute.

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Blogger Jim said...

Interesting blog. Are you a native Czech? I assume you are as you write about having to be in English the whole day. Your last name is German so maybe "Sie sind Deutsch"..Anyway I do attempt to study the Czech language and live in Germany...Am American..a singer and will be in a Philip Glass opera at the end of May in Prague at the Archa Theater. My blog is

May 02, 2006 1:02 AM  
Blogger Karla said...

Actually I was born in the Midwest and have no known Czech ancestors. It is the attempt to become fluent in Czech that makes all-English days problematic.

Exciting about the Glass opera! I'll try to get to the performance, as I like his work.

May 02, 2006 10:12 AM  
Blogger Julia said...

I of course agree with you that all languages (even Czech!) are learnable. And I definitely also agree that it is all about how the language is taught. Prague bookstores offer a great example of the disparity between the many multiple ways of learning English (shelves of books) and the very few options we have of text books, readers, etc. for learning Czech (maybe 5?). I am occasionally inspired by the idea of putting together my own first chapter of a text book (one that would not feature koberec in the list of the first 20 vocabulary words to learn here ;-). Then reason kicks in. Still, wouldn't it be fun?

May 02, 2006 1:40 PM  
Blogger Karla said...

Nechtěla bys mluvit o koberce?! Well, I can't say I talk about carpets much either. I did finally break down and get the new edition of the Lida Hola book for review. I really don't know what is best for those of us who already know a lot of Czech but keep forgetting basic vocabulary and grammar. This is where people who study more commonly taught languages in school get the benefit of two or more years of daily linguistic workout with combined conversation, drill, reading, and written work. It's no good doing only one of these.

May 02, 2006 9:55 PM  

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