Czech Republic,  Language Learning,  Life Abroad

To Pass or Not to Pass: An Evergreen Language-Learning Struggle

It is getting more and more embarrassing to tell people that we have been living in the Czech Republic for a whole decade… generally, because of the state of our Czech language ability. That is not to say that it is absolutely poor exactly… it’s just not… “living there ten years” quality. The other week our baby’s cardiologist said, when I reminded him that we usually speak English together, replied with a benign but just as soul-piercing, “oh sorry, I forgot that you don’t speak any Czech”. Ouch! I got through sixteen days in Czech hospital and can’t bother to try during one doctor appointment?

Now, I am a language person. I had been able to speak Spanish at a very competent level (in college) and recently having achieved B2 (upper-intermediate) level in German, I can say that I truly do enjoy learning languages as a hobby. But then, Slavic languages entered the chat. Ooof. I do not know why it is so hard for my brain to wrap itself around all of those unfamiliar and unintuitive consonants… and remembering seven different case endings… it’s a monumental challenge.

However, as we are approximately at an A2 level (upper-elementary) level in the language by now, I am now able to say most things in a simple way. So, this generally begs the question: to pass or not to pass? What I mean by this is, every day I make the choice either to try hard and pass (for a Czech speaker) or to give it up and to speak English with someone instead (to choose not to pass). I had been on a real Czech language streak before the pandemic, after which point the reduced social opportunities and sort of made me retreat back into an English language hidey-hole which I am still very happy to reside in most times.

Adding a child into the mix though now that we have a baby, it adds (and will continue to add) a new layer of awkwardness. I speak only English with Mouse, but there are more and more times in which I talk or need to talk to him in public in front of someone I had just been interacting with in Czech language. Do I speak English to him as I would normally? It would seem silly to switch to Czech words that he doesn’t understand, but then the jig is up and I’m no longer “passing” for a Czech speaker.

In case you’re wondering why the heck I’m so concerned with passing, I suppose it is mainly this: many Czechs, when they realize that you are either not Czech or not a competent speaker of a Slavic language tend to freeze. They don’t know how to act with you any more, oddly. They pretty much just write you off. This is quite common with the elderly. As soon as they know, they either clam up, start speaking German to you (which confuses my brain and is not helpful), start making stupid hand motions (also not helpful), whereas the helpful thing would be to continue speaking as they were before, perhaps just slower. I would like to continue an authentic social interaction, so in cases like these, trying to pass is often the best way to go.

Last fall, I simply decided that not passing would be better than trying to pass in most other situations. I tended to completely clam up when trying to pass, terrified to make some kind of language misstep and give myself away. This results in a better situation socially with all those around who do happen to speak English but it definitely isolates you from those who don’t, and truth be told, it makes me feel a little lazy.

The new thing I’ve decided to do now and compromise I’ve made with myself (for at least this year) is this: neither try to pass nor not pass. To just be my imperfect foreigner (who happens to speak some amount of Czech) self. Although tough, I’m going to try my best Czech, to the best of my ability that day, no matter if I use an unfamiliar or incorrect collocation translated from English or what have you – the most important thing to me going forward is to try my best. I can’t learn and improve if I clam up, and an attempt to speak with the confidence of myself speaking a language I am more comfortable with, knowing that confidence is largely the issue, I am going to try anyway.

Here’s to maybe fluency… in probably ten to fifteen more years.