A New Yorker’s experience with the Czech language

It’s officially been one month since I landed in Prague and began my study abroad program. Whenever someone from home asks me about the most surprising things about Prague, after mentioning the well-behaved dogs that are too independent for leashes, I usually say the Czech language and that there’s a large Asian population living here. I find it funny that these are the two things giving me, a native hailing from New York City, the most culture shock.

Photo: Vendula KosíkováPhoto: Vendula Kosíková I’m not a stranger to hearing different languages spoken by various people, but when I first heard Asians, usually from a Vietnamese background, speaking Czech, I was in shock. I didn’t know the Czech Republic had such a large, Asian minority until I came here. I had a firsthand encounter with a young woman in my program, minutes after stepping off the plane in Prague. After she introduced herself to me in English, she answered her cellphone and began speaking rapidly in a language I didn’t understand or recognize. I suddenly realized she was must have been speaking Czech and my mouth dropped because I was in awe. Great first impression, right? Luckily, she didn’t realize my expression, but I knew this would be something I had to adjust to and learn more about in order to tame my curiosity and stop having my mouth drop open in shock.

When I’m in New York, if someone begins to speak Spanish to me, without skipping a breath, I have no problem responding with “no habla espanol’’— one of the most useful Spanish phrases I know, it means I don’t speak Spanish. In Prague, I get shy because the phrases I’ve learned in Czech don’t roll off of my tongue as they would back home. I can barely say “dekuji” in a voice louder than a whisper because I’m not sure if my accent sounds right or if I’m pronouncing every single letter, like you’re supposed to, when speaking Czech.

It’s slightly terrifying when I’m lost because I know can confidently ask for directions, but when the person responds to me in rapid Czech, instead of saying “Jeste jednou pomalu prosim”, I will say “dekuji” and find someone else who will speak to me slower. The worst is when I bump into someone on the tram. I end up feeling awful because I stay silent, not because I’m rude, but because I’m too scared to say “prominte” even though I’ve been taking Czech language for a month and I know it’s the correct phrase to use.

By choosing to study abroad, I chose to immerse myself in a culture. This means that I have to learn new things and attempt to speak a new language. If I do both of these things correctly, the people of Prague will not only respect me a little bit more, but they will also think of the American culture in a positive light. So, next time I bump into someone on the tram, no matter how terrifying it may be, I’ll say “prominte” because that’s what you’re supposed to say when you’re in the Czech Republic and if I’m lucky, in response they’ll say “to nic” and I’ll be able to smile at the fact that I was finally able to successfully speak Czech outside of the classroom.