Think before you speak (Czech).

I think I can credit my progress in Czech to three things: immersion/use in regular social situations, regular lesson attendance, and the speak-Czech-first rule.  It's the last of these that seems to cause me problems.

My first year in the Czech Republic, I invited some colleagues to an English Advent Concert at my church.  Afterwards we followed the stream of people to the church's "coffeeshop" and joined the cue for cakes and coffee.  While waiting, I told my colleagues it was on me.  We approached the bar and the boy selling refreshments was a former English student of my colleague's, yet I spoke to him in Czech.  In turn, when he asked me if we were paying together or separate, he asked in Czech.  I didn't know which word meant what, and instead of switching to English to avoid any confusion, I chose a word, handed over enough money for everything, received the change and led the way to a free table.  It was only later when I realized that given how much change I'd received back I hadn't paid for my guests--even after going through the hoops of insisting again and again until they accepted.

The whole embarrassment could have been spared if I'd A) switched to English, B) asked for clarification, or C) done both A and B.  It is this habit of using Czech first that has allowed me to both make regular progress and to embarrass myself regularly.  Czechs have often chided me after reporting uncomfortable and embarrassing situations that I should use English to spare myself.

For example, one evening at 7:55 PM, as Kaja scraped old paint from our bedroom, I heard an aggressive pounding at the door.  I opened it to see a wiry man pacing in front of our door and sucking on a cigarette.  He launched into a tirade about how noisy we were and how we were keeping his children (not babes, but adolescents) from sleeping.  He also added some not-so-pleasant-comments better not recorded for posterity.  Someone with better self-preservation instincts might have looked at him apologetically and apologized in English while giving him big eyes.  Instead, I tried to be gracious with my Czech.  He must have noticed my accent, but made no indication; perhaps it justified his view that we were some kind of sub-par humans for working on our flat at 7:55 PM.

Maybe the situation would have been made easier by speaking English, maybe not.  Yet to play the fool and speak English seems like such a cop-out to me.  Recently, however, there have been situations where it may have been appropriate to request English, no matter my level of Czech.  Namely, birth and preceding check -ups.  My final pregnancy check-ups I had with a Slovak doctor.  She never offered English, though she was certain immediately that I was foreign.  Instead, we communicated in Slovak-Czech.  As a patient, I shouldn't leave check-ups in partial confusion.  Moreover, the doctors have to have a certain proficiency of English in order to practice, and she was young enough that her education would have been post-Communism (ie post Russian instruction).

Today I went to the clinic for part of the series of checks on Ella's hips (standard procedure here). Before I left home, Kaja had prodded me to speak English to the doctor.  After weaving through hallways and climbing stairs, I pushed open the wooden door to see prams parked everywhere and hear the cries of multiple babies.  My instinct was to about face and come back next week (especially since I'd broken a cardinal rule and left home without a book).  Instead, I wove around the rocking mothers and presented my slip of paper and Ella's insurance card.  When it was finally my turn, I went in. While I waited for the doctor to finish with the previous baby, I spoke to Ella in English. I think I managed a "hello" to the doctor in English.   He looked at her and spoke Czech to me.  He also asked, "Američanka?" to which I replied in the affirmative.  The whole exam was quite fast, and consisted in his asking her age and remarking on how massive she was.  He finished and told me to come back in a month.

While I was waiting for the doctor, one woman looked at Ella, pet her hair and exclaimed (in Czech), "so much hair!  Is it even possible?"  I then cooed to Ella, "you've got so much hair, don't you!" in Czech before saying it again in English.  Sometimes I talk to Ella in Czech for the benefit of other Czechs around me, like strangers, shop attendants, or my mother-in-law.  I think,  however, for the sake of Ella's English development, I should be more strict about speaking English to her.  It might even spare me from some awkward should-have-spoken-English moments.


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