A Conference in Czech and a Film in French

Language, language, language.  Such an invisible and ineffable thing, a yet such a miracle in our midst.

"Hi Charity, I am trying to find someone who would like to come with me a to a conference for Christian teachers," began a message I received a couple weeks ago.  Unhesitatingly, I was ready to agree.  When I received an email with more information, it began, "I'm sending you the information . . . but it's all in Czech I guess . . . " Nonetheless, I figured that if even a token of encouragement or inspiration was gained, it would be worth it.  The following Saturday, we sat in a large room at long rectangular tables, angling ourselves towards the man beginning the conference with an invocation of sorts from the Old Testament.  After he finished (in Czech, of course), a man stepped to the stage and seemed to start speaking Czech with a lisp.  Wait, that's not Czech, that's Polish!  Soon a man joined him on stage to translate (to Czech).

[Czech and Polish do have many linguistic similarities, but they also have many false cognates.  Nevertheless, I can understand Polish a fair bit.]

The translation was very helpful, and it would have been even more helpful if the excited Polish speaker hadn't been so excited.  Often he jumped into the translation.  The fact that the translator hadn't finished seemed obvious to all but the speaker.  And at the peak of his speech, he grew so eager, so animated, so emotive, that he didn't pause long enough for any translation.

When they finished, another woman stepped up.  She greeted us, with a slight swing in her language.  No translator joined her on stage.  Rather, she presented alone...in Slovak.

[This was progress. Czech and Slovak are much more similar, and the Czech and Slovak Republics have only existed separately for about 20 years, so these sibling nations are used to understanding each other.  Slovak is much easier for me to understand than Polish.]

After lunch, there were the break-out seminars.  Hanka and I first joined one in Czech, then another in Czech, then lucky number 3 was the Slovak woman.  She'd really impressed me with her morning lecture, which was on classroom management.  When we walked into her room, I was surprised that only she and one guest were present.  It didn't deter her, she intended it to be quite interactive.  It's one thing to passively decode a foreign language, another to have to quickly respond because the speaker is just a metre from you.  It forces my brain to do something like the following:

Incoming: Slovak
Compare Slovak and Czech.
Understand something.
Process a bit in English.
Reprocess into Czech.
Speak in Czech.

Luckily, Hanka and I both saw that the topic of the seminar was actually a bit inapplicable.  So we went back to the main hall for a seminar on creative teaching, presented by an American (in Czech).  I typically find that other Americans have similar accents to mine while speaking Czech, and they often fall into the same mistakes (ie forming sentence structure from an English perspective); thus it's often quite easy to understand Americans speaking Czech.

You may think it a wonder that I took anything from these lectures, yet my brain is getting more and more used to code-switching between languages.  My students sometimes speak German to me after their German language lessons.  When I great my South American colleague in Spanish, I then try to eek out a few Spanish phrases (before Czech words or grammar invariably slips in).  When I sit in my office, English, Czech, and Hebrew are tossed about the room, and every once in a while some Greek is thrown in (we only have one Greek speaker).  Depending on my mood, I respond to English in Czech or to Czech in English.  Occasionally, this gets surprised look from a student.


Tonight, I had a different linguistic experience.  I got an email a couple weeks ago (I don't recall whether it was in English or in Czech--probably Czech) from a colleague, inviting some of the girls to see the French film Yves Saint Laurent, which would be played in a local cinema (Minikino) in French with subtitles--Czech subtitles, of course.  Not wanting to be unsocial, I figured, why not?

To prepare, I spent the day correcting art projects and English essays. I then wrote a handful of letters (in English) before posting them (in Czech) and then going to the cafe attached to the theatre, where I read (in English) and ordered cappuccino (an Italian word, but I ordered in Czech).  I soon got a phone call, which I answered (in Czech) only to hear (in English) that my friends/colleagues had arrived and were buying their tickets (in Czech).  They joined me in the cafe and we discussed Czech and English names (in a mixture of Czech and English).  They're all bilingual (or more), so they equally (moreso, because their English is well beyond my Czech) flitted between the two languages.

We then entered the theatre, and my brain got another language to play with: French.  There are more words from French in English than from *Czech.  At first, I struggled to read the Czech subtitles fast enough to understand or fast enough to pair them with the speakers, but soon I adapted.  Occasionally a Czech word I didn't know was intelligible in the French, due to a cognate that matched English or Spanish, and I'd catch the meaning that way.  Every once in a while, English was spoken or sung.

At one point, my brain stopped and said, "Charity, do you realize that you're understanding right now, and with not much difficulty?"

(Of course, that's a dangerous thing to think.  But I had a similar thought while I sat in church without translation last week.)


There's no doubt that linguistic diversity exists in the USA.  (After all, the USA doesn't even have an official language.  Before you argue, look it up.  English is the national language by default.)  And though I encountered a bit of Spanish, Hmong, and other languages in my life in Minneapolis-St. Paul, I typically didn't engage on multiple linguistic levels.  Though the languages were all around, it was thousands of miles to Mexico and hundreds of miles to French-speaking Canada.

Here, Slovakia, Poland, and Austria are within a few hours' drive, and the reality and utility of speaking a foreign language is omnipresent.  It's freeing to stumble through a foreign sentence and know that someone understood you on the other side.  Perhaps particularly these blunders of language learning are beautiful to me.  When a student says "Can I go on the toilet?" I know that in Czech, the phrase must use the Czech preposition na, which the student is translating to "on."  Sometimes I lose a word in English and can only draw out the Czech, or I want to write or say Czech phrases to non-Czech speakers, because they fit the situation better.  Occasionally I want to directly translate form Czech to English and say things like "I look forward to you" rather than "I look forward to seeing you."  Today I started humming a Czech song in the lift, mumbled to myself in Czech as I took of my shoes, began singing an English song while I cooked, only to switch back to another Czech song.  Sunday, while singing in Czech in church, I recognized the melody but wasn't sure where from. Then I noticed the annotation: taken from a French melody.  Suddenly the French words sprung to me from middle school chorus.

And we're back to French.

Ultimately, this experience of linguistic diversity is one of the most beautiful and frustrating parts of my life here, and it's an experience I would wish on all people.  So, whichever side of whichever ocean you're on, take a risk.  Jump in.  The water's fine.

*Note: Czechs will proudly tell you of their contribution of the word robot to English and other languages.


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