Every summer for the past 39 years, students from around the globe have gathered at Brno's Masaryk University to work on their Czech at the annual Czech Language summer school, or letni skola. Throughout the month of August they've been drilled in grammar, they've memorized new vocabulary words, and they've practiced conversation.
This year's class is the biggest ever - 180 students from 33 countries, from South Korea to Turkey, with of course generous helpings of Germans and Poles.
Dr. Eva Rusinova has directed Letni Skola for the past 11 years. She says the school purposely puts students from different countries in the same class.
"Mixed groups, from different countries, from different language groups, have the advantage that students can learn from each other's mistakes. That means the American who says 'ow' nd doesn't understand people laugh, has the chance in our course to practice the Czech 'ou' with a nice little kiss at the end. A Japanese person who mixes up r and l, might make the American laugh. Those are things which each student hears, notices, and learns from - including, eventually, one's own mistakes."
This year there are 13 classes of about 10 - 16 students each. In the morning, there's language instruction in small groups. In the afternoon, there are seminars in pronunciation, interpretation, and orthography.
Wrestling the Czech language into submission isn't easy, even for experienced hands. At Letni Skola it's a 30-day, all-day, six days a week job. But Dr. Rusinova is convinced that she can teach Czech to anyone who wants to learn. And, she says, some of the rumors you might hear about the language just aren't true.
"Students sometimes say Czech follows its own rules 5% of the time, and makes exceptions the other 95%. I beg to differ. When I ask a student why something is the way it is and I hear, "that's an exception to the rule", I say, it's no exception. Try following the rules yourself and see what you find. And I must say I love it in my more advanced course when I student does this, and suddenly they get it and they say, oh that's why! It makes me very, very happy."
This year, I'm one of 11 Americans in Letni Skola. I placed into stredne pokrocili, or the intermediate-advanced group. If I were studying a less difficult language, that might mean that I'd be spending my nights in pubs having stimulating discussions about politics and philosophy with the locals. In fact, all I feel fit to do is buy tickets at the bus station. When I recently got back a composition from our teacher, every single sentence had some kind of correction to it.
We do try to remember our carkas and keep our enklitika in the proper order. Felicity Long from Lancashire, England, has enough Czech now that she's preparing to tackle literature. On day two of Letni Skola, I met her at a book sale.
"I've got a book by Hrabal, that most absurd of modern Czech authors, cause I've already read some stuff in English before and it's called Dance Lessons for Old People and Advanced People. -Why Czech, why in the world? That's a good question. It's something pretty exotic and cause I did just normal French, German Latin at school and I wanted to do something a bit different. I really like Czech culture, love the people Czech people so I was like yeah, why not do Czech?"
Most students at Letni Skola are like Felicity. They're their early or mid 20s and are working on a degree. But there are others. The youngest person is still in high school - she was born in 1990, after the fall of communism. And the oldest is 70. There's a woman from Iraq and an interpreter from the European Commission in Brussels, currently tackling his fifth language. Many here, like me, have a Czech parent, others have a Czech partner.
25-year old Kohei Tsukamoto was sent by the foreign ministry of Japan.
"The reason I'm learning Czech language is that two years later I will start to work at Embassy of Japan in Czech Republic. And the reason I decided to be a diplomat working in this country is that first of all, like most Japanese people have, I had a good impression and curiosity toward Czech Republic. And a few years ago I had opportunity to travel to this country I started to have much interest to this country. Especially I like Czech movies like Jizda (The Ride), Nuda v Brne (Boredom in Brno), Horem Padem (Up and Down)."
Fortunately for Kohei, Masaryk University's letni skola includes showings of classic and contemporary Czech films every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. The cultural program this year also includes excursions to the Prague, the Beskydy mountains and to the castles at Lednice and Valtice in South Moravia.
There's no escaping Moravian folk songs, even if you'd kind of like to like to. Last in class week we learned 'Vinecko Bile', or little white wine. Coincidentally, my classmate Jana Berthold from Germany recently discovered a place to buy local wine just a few minute's walk from the dormitory where we live.
"It was a sklep...the producer who has shop there and you say I want a litre or two and a half and he just packages it for you in whatever bottle you bring along. I think it's closer to the people and closer to the people and closer to the product because it's not just a thing you buy from the supermarket. - How was the wine? -The wine was good, it worked. "
For the director of the program, though, there's no time to get pleasantly buzzed. Dr. Rusinova says she sleeps at most an hour and a half every night for the duration of the program. Sounds like a grind to me, but she relishes the task of managing 180 students, 21 teachers, and three courses of her own.
"Letni Skola for me is 'Bolero'. It's something with great emotion, great strength...the first day begins quietly and gets stronger and stronger, like in Ravel's 'Bolero', until suddenly - silence! That's what Letni Skola means to me."
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