Czechs Speak Czech

I live in the Czech Republic.  They speak Czech here.  I hope these two things are obvious for you to understand, but let me elaborate:  the shop attendants speak Czech, the cashiers speak Czech, the bus drivers speak Czech, the people on the bus and trams speak Czech, the waitresses speak Czech, the doctors speak Czech, the dentists speak Czech, the opticians speak Czech, the police speak Czech, the foreign police speak Czech, my neighbors speak Czech, my colleagues speak Czech, my students speak Czech, my friends speak Czech, my roommate speaks Czech, my contract is in Czech, groceries are labeled in Czech, instructions are in Czech, even the dogs respond to Czech commands.  Yes, I teach at an international school, but that does not change the fact that I live in the Czech Republic, where people speak Czech.

My response to this varies on the given day.  Though Czechs speak Czech, many of them also have some grasp of English.  When I first arrived August 2011, I would urge those around me not to feel obligated to speak English.  "I don't have to understand everything."  While I still hold to this, there are times when understanding is more palatable.  Over time, the amount of Czech spoken in my midst has increased.  Some days, I met this with ambivalence.  Some days I let the words wash over me without considering their meaning.  Some days, I took the bull by the horns and wrestled and responded.  Some days, I dug in my heals and neither understood nor was willing to understand (I think the latter led to the former).

Then there are days like yesterday--which was a full wash of confusion and indecision.  Some Czech friends had graciously invited me over for an evening over a card game (with Czech instructions, Czech prompts, and Czech commands).  The instructions were extensive, but my gracious friends patiently and painstakingly went over the various role cards, action cards, their use, and functions, and they did this in English.  We entered the game, and English had the upper hand.  Even small phrases, which are fully comprehendible in either language (ie "I'm done." "Your turn."  "I will shoot you.") were spoken in English.  At some point, someone asked Lenka whether she understood.  This was a key moment, and I didn't completely understand, because it happened in Czech; I know that she said she said something about her weakness in the English language, but I don't know if she said that she can't speak it, doesn't understand it, or both.  Whatever the case, there was instantly a strong shift and Czech became the default language.

This is the point where I begin to become confused--not because of the game or because of the language, but because of my emotions.  I feel bad that we've been speaking in English when Lenka doesn't understand, but then I begin to feel as if I'm selfish for wishing that English was being spoken.  After all, I am the one native English speaker of six.  Yesterday was election day, after all, and majority rules--but, minority rights.  At some point, I began to miss a few jokes and also miss some dialogue as the people around me tried to identify the secret roles of the other players.  Then I was struck from the game (it was my first time playing, mind you), and I sat back and watched while friends played an unfamiliar game while dialoging in a less unfamiliar language.  All I could do was beat myself up for being a lazy Czech student and for selfishly wanting to speak and listen to English.

Yet, I was among friends.  I was happy for their company and the atmosphere was lovely.  When I wanted to interject into the conversation, I chose whichever language I wanted.  Sometimes I would break into the Czech dialogue with a response in English, and sometimes I would begin a Czech sentence and finish in English.  Every once in a while some Spanish/Italian words snuck in as well (it was a Spaghetti Western kind of card game).

Because, you see, this situation wasn't unfamiliar.  And, to a certain extent, I've learned to cope in these  situations.  I have to be self-advocating, because no one around me knows how much Czech I understand.  Moreover, I don't know how much I do or will understand.  Familiar vocabulary could be used in grammatical forms I don't yet undersand.  Simple grammatical structures mixed with (seemingly) technical vocabulary could be as clear as day to me.  Some topics I have a strange prowess in (I'm particularly good at health-food and spices).  Various slang has been taught to me by friends, and untranslatable words have been picked up by me through context, surprising Czechs around me.  So, ultimately, the burden of understanding falls to me, and if I want it shared, I must be proactive.  There were points that I asked for translation of some story, and at other points, people solicited to find out whether I understood some joke and translated.  At other points, translation was voluntarily given (ironically, this was usually at a point where I did understand).

All in all, the Czech card game evening with Czech friends in a Czech flat where Czech was spoken was a welcome way to spend a Friday night.  And now, I must gird myself for a Czech hike in some Czech mountains with some Czech friends, who will likely condescend to speak English.


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