Thursday, November 8, 2012

Look Ma: I can read!!

Box for returning library books in central Ostrava.

Yesterday, I learnt a sentence in Czech language class that I really should have learnt during my first week here: “Prominte, nerozumím. Nemluvím moc česky”, i.e. “Sorry. I don’t understand. I don’t speak much Czech”.
Until now, I’ve just been telling people in English that I don’t speak Czech, which is of course kind of rude, but I simply didn’t know how to say it in Czech. I did learn the expression "nerozumím" earlier, but whenever I was in the actual situation where I would’ve needed it, my mind just went blank and I couldn’t remember how to say it. Now – after just over 7 months of living in this country – I’m finally able to say…..well, that I don’t understand...
This could be depressing, but Czech is not really an easy language, so I haven’t set any mental deadlines for myself for when I’m supposed to be able to speak it. Here one can get “permanent resident” status only after 5 years of living in this country, so I figure that if I speak Czech in five years, I’ll be pretty happy.

When I came to this country, I did not just immigrate: I also started a new job, which has been pretty challenging. I’ve had tons of new things to learn at work, so I haven’t had much energy left over for actually studying Czech. So what I learnt during the first 6 months or so I just kind of picked up by osmosis – so I’ve been learning in the same way a child learns his or her mother tongue. I just keep hearing a word and I start to wonder what it means and then I ask or look it up. This is how I learnt the word “prominte” – sorry. I kept hearing it and it started to bother me that I didn’t know what it meant.
I always say that I study languages simply because I am really curious and it annoys me if I don’t understand what people are saying! I started studying Greek only because of one word: "paragalo" (παρακαλώ)*. I was on vacation in Greece and I kept hearing that word and did not know what it meant - and it simply drove me I started to study Greek. Strange logic, I know.  
Now that I’m officially studying Czech, it’s amazing how I am able to understand more every day. For example I have many times passed a big sign on a garage door that says “neparkovat”. Well, I guessed earlier that it probably meant something along the lines of “parking in front of the door not allowed”. However, only today did I look at it and suddenly realize that I know that verb: parkovat (infinitive) and I know how to conjugate it (parkuju, parkuješ, parkuje, parkujeme, parkujete, parkujou). I also know that all loan words that are verbs (loan verbs?) are formed in this same way, e.g. chatovat (to chat) or skypovat (to Skype). So studying Czech grammar is really starting to pay off. Our teacher is very big on grammar and in some ways I understand her because Czech grammar is pretty much a nightmare. But more on the gory details in some later post.
Not understanding a language reminds me of not being able to read as a child: you look at text and it means nothing to you; it’s just bla-bla-bla. I’ll give one example: I drink a lot of Coke Zero and on the Czech Coke Zero bottle, there’s the text: “PRAVA CHUŤ NULA CUKRU”. I had seen that text every single day for 3 months and it said nothing to me. Then one day I was looking at it and suddenly - in a flash - I understood! This was my logic: “prava” sounds similar to the Russian word “pravda” (truth, the name of a Russian newspaper). By then I had also leant the expression for “bon appetit”: dobrou chuť. So I suddenly realized that “prava chut” means “genuine taste”, or something along those lines. And then I also immediately figured out that “nula cukru” must mean “zero sugar” ("nula" as in null, "cukru" as in sucrose). Suddenly figuring this out after having been in the country for 3 months was an amazing feeling – I guess similar to how happy a child is when he or she learns something new. Oh, the simple pleasures of life abroad….  

*Paragalo, in fact, has an identical meaning to the Finnish expression "ole hyvä", i.e. it means both "you're welcome" and "here you are" (when giving somebody something).



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