04 June 2015

Speaking Czech with Czechs

I was on the bus a few months ago with Smalls. We were sitting next to each other, with a pair of middle age Czech women directly across from us. One of the women had been eyeing me up at the bus stop when Smalls and I were chatting. She turned to her friend and said (in Czech):

'It's terrible, all these foreigners here. It's even worse when they try to speak Czech. I heard this American woman trying to order some soup. It was so horrible.'

(Still staring right at me, and apparently attempting an American accent)

'"Chtěla bych polévku." It was awful.'

I understood most of their conversation and was sorely tempted to make some cutting remark. But then realised I would be speaking Czech with this horrible foreigner accent.

Also, I couldn't think of something suitably withering.

Fortunately, this was on the far end of my experiences so far as a foreigner muddling my way through this rather challenging language.

On the other end of the spectrum, I had to take Smalls to a dermatologist a few weeks ago. I apologised immediately that I didn't speak much Czech.

'Nevadí!' [No worries!] she cheerily replied.

I walked out of the appointment convinced I'd made huge progress because I understood nearly everything for the whole 15 minutes. I would like to claim this is completely down to me, but in reality, she was a master of Speaking Czech to Foreigners. She used simple words. She mimed occasionally. She spoke slowly and with very precise pronunciation.

Gods, she was lovely. A gem among dermatologists.

It seems to me that it must be quite hard for many Czechs to speak to foreigners, primarily because - unlike most English speakers - many haven't had much experience.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who suspects this. The government-affiliated Centrum pro integraci cizinců (Centre for the Integration of Foreigners) released a few brilliant video shorts in April aimed at helping Czechs better understand some of the difficulties of foreigners trying to speak with Czech native speakers.

The first one is self-explanatory, I think.

This second one has an American speaking Czech with the shocking American accent.

And the final one delves into the difficulties of the dreaded formal and informal variations of Czech - the people coming into the shop are speaking informal Czech, but when the man goes to a government office, he accidentally causes offense by not using 'proper' Czech.
This final video is especially interesting because it touches on some of the racial aspects of Czech-foreigner interactions. But that is a whole other blog post, I suspect.

To end on a slightly mysterious note, a few days ago, I came home from work to find this video cassette of Pinocchio resting on our front fence.

In case you can't tell from the photo, it seems to be French. Also, I feel I should mention again that it is a video cassette.

The best explanation I can think of is that one of our neighbours was cleaning out their attic and thought, 'Ah, this is perfect for our local Foreigners!'

Am I flattered that they believe I can speak French? Or offended that they think I am so backwards that I have a VCR? The jury is still out.

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