Expat Life,  Language Learning

Adjusting, pt. II

Last Monday afternoon, I walked out of my building, onto the street, and along one of the main streets of the center of town where pedestrians and commuters of all sorts are walking to or from their various activities — lunch, school, work, and I heard Czech language all around me (wot’s this?). After almost seven years in this country, that caught me off guard.

I know, kinda stupid. But I had just spent the weekend in my home, watching films (#octobermovieseries), spending time with English-speaking friends, reading American newspapers. I was tucked in my warm and cozy oasis of English and culture and loving every second.

However, as the week drew on and I was out and about various places, I quickly fell back in a comfortable “ah yes, I do live in the Czech Republic” feeling. This time, it didn’t take much adjusting.

Although I didn’t understand every word, I know the general topics of what we’re speaking about in choir (our Christmas concerts, what location, who will attend?) and don’t miss a beat when it comes to understanding instruction for any given song. Turns out, choir is the same in every language. I sit and smile when I’m out for a beer* with the others, some of who speak no English at all. I don’t want to bother them with having to turn the whole conversation to English (why?), but I’m still getting up the confidence to be not as quiet.

When colleagues speak Czech in the break room at my school, I can follow what’s being said. Perhaps not every single word, but I’ve realized it doesn’t take knowing every word to get the gist. It no longer weirds me out.

When my student calls another classmate a nerd or throws around a naughty word, I know what’s going on.

I do things like have appointments completely in German language because it is our closest shared language we both can fluently communicate in.

When the seller at the market asks me an unexpected question, I can answer and usually still pass.


That unsettling foreign feeling is less and less these days as for the first time, I feel a block somewhere in my brain has been lifted. Progress traditionally has happened in fits and starts. There are the kinda bad days, there are the pretty good moments…. and then the good moments are strung closer and closer together with less of the bad stuff. This era was long and sometimes hard, and then now. After seven years.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

Nelson Mandela

Learning Czech has definitely been the final barrier to unlocking the true Czech cultural experience here. I’ve long ago felt like I know the traditions, the songs, the general way of being…. and now, finally making inroads in the language. I’ve read many a quote and have had many people tell me that learning the language is the most important step of integrating… which perhaps makes the Czech Republic a difficult country for foreigners, in general, who usually give up eventually and leave. This annual Internations expat life satisfaction survey actually says “although unfriendly locals and the tough language remain a problem…”

I’ve been told it is something like the 9th hardest language to learn in the world, and I would say about 90% of foreigners I’ve met here do not speak Czech past “restaurant/bar Czech”. Czech people are, of course, extremely empathetic and understanding of this. One person I know has told me just to forget about it; that it won’t be useful to me outside of the country, anyway.

I take slight issue with this — although learning Czech is nowhere as fun and “easy-breezy” as learning German has been for me, I am thrilled to have some solid knowledge of a Slavic language — belonging to the same family as Polish, Slovak, Slovenian, Croatian, Russian, and more. If you know one, you can figure the pronunciation of any of them, and maybe even understand the general idea when you hear one being spoken. (Man, were we stoked to realize we could understand a little bit of the Russian that Alexei spoke on Stranger Things 3!)
Not to mention, taking a language class with your partner is a lot of fun! And both of you now have a “secret language” to communicate with…. when we’re not here. Not shabby.

It’s easy to get the feeling that you know the language just because when you order a beer they don’t bring you oysters. 

Paul Child, husband of my favorite expat of all time, Julia Child

I used to think people who spoke a second language were basically super-human. (Will never forget when my college roommate answered the phone in Polish and it was like, “whaaaaaaaat?!”) Maybe it’s because I’m from a generally monolingual country, especially my neck of the woods (in the Northwest). Taking a foreign language actually wasn’t even required at all at Alex’s high school in Michigan! But it’s fascinated me since I was in single digits and checking out German books on tape at the public library.

The “otherness”. The knowing all about some obscure place across the world. Preferably one where I had some sort of ancestry connections. To this day, few things are more thrilling than getting off a plane or train in a major European city in which I do not live and know exactly which metro stop I need to get off at without needing to look at a map, which corner store sells the cheapest drinks, where the best Christmas market in the city is, and how to order a mulled wine in that language. (If I could actually be a citizen of the world, I would be!)

But I’ve got on a tangent again. I feel it is my duty to unlock this culture the best I can. I mean, this is the reason why I live here. That’s why I want to live my daily life here. To learn, to have every day be new and interesting, to soak up as much as I can in the time I have left, however long that may be. I mean, I’m lucky enough to be here, doing this by choice, as much as it seems to perplex the locals.

So, we’re getting there! After nearly seven years, this is what adjusting looks like. This post is dedicated to everyone who, no matter what anyone tells you, feel like you aren’t as good as you actually are or adjusting as well as you could be. I know how it is. I don’t believe it myself. But there are signs that keep coming up and people who keep trying to tell me otherwise. Well done, us.

ps, you can read the post Adjusting, pt. I (written five years ago) here.

*In this country, I can’t imagine what activities wouldn’t be followed by a beer. Even yoga classes.