Friday, May 7, 2010

A note for the non-Slavs in the room...

…a note on CZ/SK. Czech and Slovak are two separate languages spoken by two separate ethnic groups formerly within the same country, Czechoslovakia, and now in neighboring countries, Czech Republic and Slovakia.

They each have their own separate but similar rules on spelling, pronunciation and grammar. This makes them more different than British and American English (a popular comparison) as English is generally written the same no matter how you pronounce it, with a few exceptions. The comparison is useful, though, in the sense that British and American people can have a conversation without taking a language class or breaking out the dictionary,* yet it takes an effort to actually SPEAK like the other person. And often sounds pretty funny.

Similarly, Czechs and Slovaks understand each other pretty effortlessly and just have to ask occasionally about a word or phrase they haven’t heard. Young people who have grown up since the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, when the two languages were spoken within the same country, are a little less familiar with the other language, but still don’t have much trouble.

Thus when a Czech and a Slovak meet, they just talk each in their own language and it doesn’t strike anyone as strange. Plenty of mixed marriages work this way as well, though the longer you’re in the other country the more of their words and grammar you use, until you pretty much speak the other language instead of your own.**

When the Slovak and I talk, we either both speak English or else he speaks Slovak and I speak Czech, the same as any other Czech would do with him. As a Czech-speaker married to a Slovak and a Slovak living long-term among Czechs, we both have a certain amount of influence from the other language. He will use a Czech word with Slovak endings, a Slovak word with Czech endings, or accidentally insert a ř where it doesn’t belong*** (HA ha), all without particularly noticing it. I occasionally use words I’ve learned from him and find that nope, actually, that word isn’t Czech, it’s Slovak. Like the time he convinced me my new boots were called čižmy when in fact, according to my co-workers, they are kozačky. Oops.

Currently, Baby K understands Slovak quite well, though not as well as English, and she is starting to produce more and more words in Slovak. She has no exposure to Czech (before this week) other than overhearing my comments to her father, since although in the short term it would be helpful for me to speak Czech to her, I think in the long term Czech will prevail (as the language of school and friends) and it is best for me to stay as the English parent overall. I am very interested, and slightly nervous, to see how she copes with the move to a Czech environment and, especially, pre-school, since she will sort of understand but not quite. I think I’ll try to ease her in with some playground and playgroup time before throwing her in the deep end of regular pre-school.

With all that in mind, I tend to refer to what we speak as CZ/SK (Czech/Slovak), or else just call it all Slovak or all Czech or whatever. It makes for a tricky question as far as how many languages we speak at home, though. Czech and Slovak are separate languages and our family will grow up speaking and hearing all three, so we are trilingual. Or, Czech and Slovak are so similar that realistically speaking, our kids will grow up speaking Czech instead of Slovak, so we are bilingual.

Our strong preference would be for our children to be able to speak Czech AND Slovak well, but I have never met a Czech/Slovak family where they did. On the other hand, I’ve never met a Czech/Slovak family that put nearly as much value in both languages as we do. It may be inevitable, like bringing up a British child in America who has very little chance of retaining a purely British accent over the years. So we’ll see. It would actually be easier in some ways to maintain the father-language if we lived in Germany or Japan or something. Or, for that matter, Slovakia. Or how much simpler would my life be if my husband and in-laws were Czech? But I would never exchange my Košičan for a Pražák, so there you go.

* Except for when you have to look up (or ask about) some crazy idiom you’ve never heard before, of course.

** Actually, this starts to happen just over the course of a long weekend with the in-laws in some cases.

*** A fun (to me) point about ř: Slovak doesn’t have this sound, so Slovaks (and everyone else in the world) tend to have trouble producing it. I can actually say it pretty well, thanks to extensive practice while roaming the streets of Prague my first year there. Along with pronunciation in general (ooh, and spelling) it is probably the only thing in Czech that I can do better than my husband. So, naturally, I take every opportunity to bring it up with him! He has a major advantage otherwise, as far as how do you say this and what does that mean.

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