Anglicization and its discontents

07-08-2004

"Nemluvim Cesky." I don't speak Czech. It's by far my least favorite phrase in the Czech language and one that unfortunately I've had to say quite often. On Monday's edition of this program, Dominik Jun took a look at the growing trend of Anglicization in Prague's tourist districts. I enjoyed the segment but must admit that it made me feel a bit uncomfortable when it occurred to me that I am one of this trend's perpetrators.

I'm currently finishing up my summer internship here in Prague. I've immensely enjoyed my time here but I'm still ashamed to admit that my Czech still doesn't go much beyond "Nemluvim Cesky" and "Mluvite Anglicky?" Do you speak English?

This also occurred to me when I was on the phone with my dad, complaining about how touristy Prague could be sometimes and the question occurred to me: Aren't I a tourist?

Granted I'm working here and it's probably safe to say that through my internship I've learned more about Czech culture and politics than 95% of Americans but then, 80% of Americans don't own passports so that's not really saying much.

Still, the fact that I've talked to a couple of government ministers, or that I've read some Czech novels, doesn't do me a whole lot of good when I walk into a restaurant, sit down and sheepishly ask for an English menu. In these situations I'm no more at home here than any backpacker or even a member of one of the ubiquitous British stag parties that flood this city on weekends.

Maybe I'm more like one of those sensitive, liberal American tourists. The ones who within 5 minutes of meeting a local person are sure to let them know that of course they didn't vote for Bush and how they really prefer the European mindset (whatever that is) and how they really feel bad about that whole imperialist, American, cultural hegemony thing.

They may scoff at the McDonalds on Wenceslas Square but the fact is, if it wasn't for the globalization that they love to deride, they would find themselves flipping desperately through a phrase book to order the goulash at that "authentic little Czech pub" they found.

It's only because of the fact that so many Czechs speak English that I've gotten to meet as many Czechs as I have. Otherwise, I would probably have been confined to complaining about George Bush with my fellow sensitive, liberal, Americans. Enjoyable perhaps, but something I could have done without leaving Brooklyn.

English has allowed me to do my job, feed myself and interact socially. Perhaps it's not politically correct, but time and again, I've been profoundly grateful that people here know my language, though I'm embarrassed that I barely know theirs. I've also acquired a new respect for the thousands of immigrants and tourists who travel to my hometown of New York every year without knowing English.

And so I prepare to mumble my final "Na shledanou" to Prague. A city I've grown to love, but still feel slightly cut off from. I hope I will be returning soon and also that some day I'll be able to say "Ja mluvim Cesky" like I really mean it.

07-08-2004