Summer Czech language courses in Dobruška

For many Czechs, the eastern Bohemian town of Dobruška evokes the Czech National Revival, a time when the Czech language was on the verge of extinction. A local merchant, immortalized in the novel F.L.Vek by the Czech writer Alois Jirásek, worked tirelessly in and around Dobruška to promote the Czech language and literature. Today, a different kind of Czech revival is taking place in the town. For the last 20 years, Prague’s Charles University has been organizing summer language courses for expats at this particular venue.

Photo: Milena ŠtráfeldováPhoto: Milena Štráfeldová In a classroom of the Charles University teaching centre in Dobruška, some 15 young people from all around the world are struggling with the declinations of Czech words. They are part of a group of more than 60 students from 36 countries who came to the Czech Republic for the month-long course. Iva Čtvrtečková is one of the organizers.
“Most of our students have relatives with roots in the Czech Republic, usually parents or grandparents. For example, there is a Czech community in Croatia, close to Daruvar, they have Czech schools and they are very good at Czech. There are also students who work at embassies and their connection to the Czech Republic is through diplomacy. But most of them usually have relatives who come from the Czech Republic.”

After Tuesday’s class, I sat down with some of the students to talk about what brought them here. One of them was 28-year-old Aysnley Moorhouse from Toronto.

“My mom is from the Czech Republic, so I want to get to know her roots. I also have a great interest in Czech theatre during the Soviet occupation, and I am researching that. But in order to do so, I need to speak the language.”

Another student in the beginners’ class was Jeremy Steiner. He lives in Paris but has Czech roots – like most of his classmates in Dobruška.

Photo: Milena ŠtráfeldováPhoto: Milena Štráfeldová “I’m the only one in my family who does not speak Czech. My father, my mother, my sister and my brother all speak Czech, so I feel like I have to learn Czech. Plus I’m Czech, I have a Czech passport.”

What do you think of the language courses? Are they good? Do you learn a lot?

“I learn a lot; it’s very practical. There are many games and songs so it’s easy to memorize. For now we are just learning the basics because none of us can speak much Czech. But it is very well taught.”

But not all students at Dobruška this summer have a Czech background. Giorgy Javakhishvili came from Georgia; his grandfather once spent ten years studying in then Czechoslovakia, and Giorgy might want to do the same in the future.

“I’m in my last year at university in Georgia, and I want to see what life is like in the Czech Republic. And maybe I will go on to do my master’s degree here if I have the opportunity.”

How you like the classes? They look very friendly and playful – do you like that?

“Yes, I do. Our teacher is very friendly, she does everything to help us to learn better Czech. It’s very good.”

Do you also have a Czech background?

Dobruška, photo: Milena ŠtráfeldováDobruška, photo: Milena Štráfeldová “No. But my grandfather studied here for ten years. He was a doctor, and he was known in Georgia for promoting Czech-Georgian relations.”

Students at Dobruška are on all kinds of levels in Czech proficiency; the centre also offers classes on art, theatre and music. But most of them are of course interested in improving their Czech. Charles University’s Iva Čtvrtečková again.

“We have here total beginners who don’ t know a word in Czech, maybe ‘pivo’ is the usual word they know, and we have students who speak fluently and sometimes you can’t really tell they are foreigners. But they do improve their Czech significantly here; it depends on how hard they try but usually they are happy.”

Klára Bartošová came to Dobruška from Australia. Her Czech father never taught her his native tongue, so she has some catching up to do.

“My father’s Czech but he did not teach me Czech unfortunately, so I really wanted to get back to my roots, and I feel like it’s really important to communicate with him and my grandfather. So that’s why I’m doing the course.”

What’s your schedule like? You have classes in the morning – what do you do then?

“In the morning we have about three hours of lessons, and after than we would sometimes go on excursions – we went to a castle a few days ago, which was beautiful. We went to the Babička Valley – where the book Babička is set – that was beautiful as well. We went to a water mill… so we just do field trips and excursions, which is really important, so it’s a good balance. Every day is really well organized so it’s good.”

Iva Čtvrtečková showed me the full schedule of the course, with all the trips and other activities. Monday afternoon was devoted to something called the Night of Nations, so I asked Iva what kind of event was that.

“The students present their nations, their countries and what’ interesting about them. They also talk about the Czech communities there.”

I see you also show Czech movies. I suppose that must be really popular… “Yes, but what’s interesting is that whenever we show a comedy, the students laugh at different moments than Czechs usually laugh. The perception of the movie is totally different.

“We show films with subtitles – English or Czech, from the classics like the TV series about F. L. Věk, to contemporary films like Holiday Makers.”

So you make your students sit some five or six hours through the whole series of F. L. Věk?

“No, no. We only show parts of it, and we show them on two nights. So it’s not like sitting in front of the TV for hours at a time.”

What’s the most popular trip that no one wants to miss?

“Usually it’s the trip to Náchod, to the Primátor Brewery. They give us a tour of the brewery and also beer tasting of some 12 types of beer. All of the people here like Czech beer, so that’s the most interesting trip.

“Also, they like going to the castles around here, to Litomyšl for instance, because some of the students are really interested in Czech music. They know Bedřich Smetana, so Litomyšl is really interesting for them.”

The town of Dobruška lies close to the border of Poland, some 130 km east of Prague. Students at the summer course seem to appreciate all the sights they get to see – as well as the laid back atmosphere of the town. Jeremy Steiner again.

DobruškaDobruška “Coming from Paris, I live in a city that’s very noisy with a lot of pollution. Here it’s very nice and very quiet and peaceful, with a lot of fresh air. The town square, náměstí, is very nice… Yesterday we went up the clock tower, we had a great view of the whole town, so that was nice. I like the fact that it’s small and in the middle of the countryside.”

The courses in Dobruška are funded by the Czech government which each year provides 60 fellowships to expats from around the world. If you’d like to come next year, you can find more information at the Czech foreign ministry website, www.mzv.cz.