One Student Shares How Learning Czech Opens a Cultural Door

By Luke Hudelson, Fall 2013

As soon as I got off the plane in Prague, Czech Republic I could tell I was in a totally new environment. Everything about the language was completely different. There were characters I had never seen – I had no idea how to even pronounce a Czech sign in a way that a Czech person would be able to understand what I was talking about. I was amazed when Jessica, an American UPCES program leader, greeted me at the exit by saying “Dobrý den” and continued to speak flawless Czech to the taxi driver. Would I be able to do that in a few months?

I obviously cannot say anything besides the most basic of conversations in Czech, but what I have learned has made my experience living in Prague so much more meaningful. Before taking the introductory week of Czech language, I did not know how to say anything besides “hello” and “thank you.” I often felt judged as an American tourist who was too good to waste time learning the true culture and ways of life in the Czech Republic. I really enjoyed learning the basic language skills because it helped me integrate into the culture. If I buy something at the market in my building and the lady working at the store says something to me, I know whether she is telling me the price, asking if I want a bag, or even commenting on the weather.I use Czech as much as possible: at restaurants, when I ask someone for directions (even if I can barely understand their response), and in stores. What has been most helpful is being able to order in Czech. I feel much more accepted as part of the culture when I am trying to speak Czech. Even when people answer my Czech with English, I feel that they are accepting my attempt and thanking it with an English response to make it easier for me to understand. I love understanding the use of the accusative and transitive and knowing when to change the sounds of words to make it seem like I know the language. The most satisfying feeling is when I speak to a Czech person at a restaurant or a market and they respond, thinking I am either a Czech person or just fluent (it is soon pretty obvious that I am not!).

I have found that in many places my company has been received much less politely and excitedly when I speak English – when I do not even try to speak Czech, many people have taken it as a sign of rudeness. Even when my attempt of Czech is poor at best, I have generally been well received for trying. I have learned that I get a much better picture into what kind of person someone is when I try to speak in Czech to see how they speak and interact with people in Czech. So many people in my experiences just write off Americans as being all the same, so it is hard to tell if a person is genuinely rude or just does not want to interact in English with an American who is assumed to just be here for tourism.

Overall, my experience in Prague has been incredible and I could have never imagined being so immersed in the culture so quickly. I have only been here three months and it feels like my home away from home. I love learning new things in Czech class and trying them out on the streets or in shops, even if I fail miserably. This experience has been the most interesting and exciting one of my life and I would not change any part of it. Having the opportunity to learn the basics of the Czech language has made my experience that much more exciting and has given me a feeling that I am part of this culture – and the people around me understand that I am as well.


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