Učím se česky: getting started with Czech

Czech flag

Učím se česky: I am learning Czech.  Or rather, as the phrase would read when literally translated: I am teaching myself Czech.  Which is also true.  It turns out that there is no way to differentiate these two ideas in Czech; so whether you’re learning with someone else’s help or entirely on your own, the learning is the point. In a way, this makes sense: a teacher can push, prod, and suggest — but just like horse led to water, only the learner can do the drinking.  (Or should that be “thinking”?)

Even though I’m learning Czech, I have a native speaker on hand to proof-read these posts — so I promise they won’t include any blatantly misleading information!

So where does one start with a new language?  Pronunciation, basic vocabulary, common expressions, grammar?  They’re all important, of course. Not to mention that they all build on each other…

My introduction to Czech was very drawn-out, as I had to learn German first.  So I picked up a few words here and there and paid careful attention to the pronunciation, which didn’t interfere with my German studies.  Which means that, for quite some time, Czech sounded a lot like this:

Shhhptoschh TAK shshdilssstssh chtshdshchid TAK, TAK dshchidshhhptoschh TAK.

Tak is the Czech word for so, and they use it very frequently.  It’s pronounced roughly like the English word talk.* Come to think of it, it’s possible that English speakers also say so a lot; I’ve never noticed.

So in addition to tak, the above nonsensical excerpt demonstrates something else important about the Czech language: it has many so-called “soft” sounds, like ch and sh.  (Be careful, though: that ch sound is spelled č, and that sh sound is spelled šCh and sh themselves actually represent entirely different sounds in Czech.) There’s also a “soft” version of z (ž, pronounced like the j in the French phrase je ne sais quois and a soft r ), which doesn’t exist in any form in English.  Czech has furthermore a strong preference for the letters s and c, the latter of which is pronounced like ts in English. This all results in a language that sounds, to the untrained English-accustomed ear, like a confusing muddle of hushing noises which somehow roll pleasantly off the speaker’s tongue. It’s a language full of contrasts: hard and soft, staccato and legato in equal measures.

Czech, like many other Slavic languages, is what’s called a “highly inflected language.”  That means the nouns and adjectives can take different forms, depending on how they’re used in a sentence. English still has remnants of a similar system in our pronouns: for example in I vs. me and we vs. us.  The difference is that Czech has seven cases for each noun, each with its own concrete meaning or application.

*My native Czech speaker would like to point out that the Czech word tak is only very roughly pronounced like the English word talk.  Czech vowel sounds are much more precisely defined than English vowel sounds, so I’m sure he’s right.  Personally, I can hear the difference between the two words, but they both sound like variants of the same vowel sound to me.

2 thoughts on “Učím se česky: getting started with Czech”

  1. Howdy,

    I found you via http://czechmatediary.com/2012/04/29/how-does-czech-sound-to-your-ears/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Czechmatediarycom+%28czechmatediary.com%29&utm_content=Yahoo!+Mail

    Just a little comment about your “Czech flag”. Poznamka o Vasi tzv. ceske vlajce, ale bez diakritickych znamenek. The bottom red stripe ends where the blue wedge hits the bottom of the flag. It’s not wider than the blue wedge side. Kapish? I’m sure you do.

    Cheers and Ahoj (ahojky! since we like these endearing diminutives everywhere)!

    (Vaaaasha, Vashaaanek, Venoushek, Vasheeeeeeeeeechek, a TAK daaaaaaaaaaaale)

    1. Thanks for the note! The image was automatically cropped incorrectly when I uploaded, and unfortunately I haven’t had time to fix it. Although now that I know that *gasp* real people might stumble into my blog, I’ll be sure to get it fixed quickly!

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