Chcete Mluvit Česky? Do You Want To Speak Czech? Or Another Language?

If you assume that learning to speak Czech is difficult- you would be right. I have been working at it for two years now and am finally getting the hang of it. In the introduction to one of my Czech textbooks, the author marvels at how the Czech people have managed to keep their language alive and well during so many occupations of their homeland. He comes to the conclusion that it is due to their “Secret National Defense System,”

….. their language! 

“I imagine that Czech was so difficult for the foreign invaders that they were unable to interact in a meaningful way with the Czechs”… and so they… “eventually tired of not being able to communicate much of anything, to anyone, they left, leaving the culture unaffected.”  (401 Czech Verbs  by Bruce Davies and Jana Hejduková)

The most difficult part of the language is its system of 7 different Cases in which nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and most numerals change their endings according to the Case used. The Cases define the relationship between words in a sentence, ie. who or what is the subject, direct object, or indirect object, etc. (Word order is not necessarily important in Czech but is crucial in English) For instance, here are some spelling changes for the word: doma which means home: “at home” is doma, “go home” jdi domů, “leave home” opustit domov, and “in the home” v domě.

On the flip side, Czech is a phonetic language, which makes it easy to pronounce and spell- unlike English with all its silent letters like: “k” in knee, “b” in climb, “h” in hour, “w” in answer, and “gh” in thought. But more about the history and structure of English in another Post…


Did You Know That Queen Elizabeth I Spoke 9 Languages Fluently?

“She possessed nine languages so thoroughly that each appeared to be her native tongue; five of these were the languages of peoples governed by her, English, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, for that part of her possessions where they are still savage, and Irish. All of them are so different, that it is impossible for those who speak the one to understand any of the others. Besides this, she spoke perfectly Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian extremely well.”

Giovanni Carlo Scaramelli, Venetian Ambassador 1603


People often speculate as to which language is the most difficult to learn, usually assuming it’s the one that they speak. But difficulty is all relative. Relative to how similar the language is to your own (grammatically and phonetically), how well you learn in general, and of course, how motivated you are to learn it, among other things. 

That being said, I checked out the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) ranking of world languages based upon their level of difficulty for native English speakers. The FSI provides training for U.S. foreign diplomats, so I figured they would know. They have divided languages into 4 categories with Cat 1 being easiest and Cat 4 labelled as “exceptionally” difficult. No surprise that Spanish and French fall into Cat 1 and that Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are Cat 4. The bulk of the languages fall under Cat 3, which is where you will find Czech. (I won’t argue)

Of course, I am highly motivated to learn Czech as I plan to live and work in the country. But why should you learn to speak another language if you don’t plan to leave the U.S? Why should you be a polyglot (like Queen Elizabeth) and not a monoglot? Based upon my own experience, and with the help of Dr. Neel Burton, author of “ Beyond Words: The Benefits of Being Bilingual” (article appears in “Psychology Today” online July 2018), I would sum it up this way….

  1. It enriches your life. As Dr. Burton points out, multilingualism is closely linked to multiculturalism. As we investigate and learn another language we naturally come to know and appreciate that culture. Your understanding, empathy, and compassion will expand.
  2. It connects you to the world which is increasingly interconnected through the Internet and other technologies. Now more than ever before we travel, trade, and work with people and businesses around the world.
  3. It’s good for your brain health. Learning a foreign language is a great brain exercise that increases gray matter. It works the part of your brain that handles executive functions like analysis, problem solving, working memory, multi-tasking and attention control.

But, I suppose, there is a fourth, and very simple reason to learn a foreign language- it’s fun! How cool is it to be able to talk with another person in a second language? In my next post I will talk about tips for language study that have helped me.


Dear Readers, do you speak a foreign language? What has been your experience with learning another language? I’d love to hear about your language journey.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

“Due to recent Government cutbacks, The Light At The End Of The Tunnel has been turned off.”

I laughed out loud the first time I read this clever quip painted on a small plaque in a Hallmark store. But in today’s Pandemic environment, these words have the sting of truth about them and they’re not so funny. When every daily event, and all future plans must be filtered through the reality of the Coronavirus, with no end in sight, it feels like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. 

As most of you know, for the last two years I have been working to bring a dream to fruition— to move to Prague and teach English. What you don’t know is how close I came to realizing my dream before the Pandemic struck. Last November I went to Prague for two weeks, had two job interviews, and got two job offers. My plan was to move there in June of 2020. Now I’m in indefinite limbo with no idea as to when the light will reappear at the end of that tunnel.

There are only two real responses to finding yourself in a darkened tunnel. You can scream and curse the darkness, ( all the while eating too much and “doom scrolling” online until you create for yourself an inert depression.) Or, you can stumble your way forward into the darkness with no assurances about what lies ahead.

Literally speaking, the human eye requires very little light to see in the darkness, even the dimmest of starlight will do. When confronted with darkness, our eyes automatically adjust. The pupils expand to let in more light and a transition occurs in our light sensing cells from the use of cones, which see color and detail, to rods that give us our night vision. The whole process only takes about 20 minutes to be at full capacity.

Now, if only the darkness of mind and spirit adapted as quickly or as easily! If you are like me, you may find yourself alternating between determination and despair. Most days I’m hopeful and productive, but some days I am too despondent to even try to accomplish anything. While contemplating my (our) current dilemma, I remembered this poem by Emily Dickinson that perfectly articulates our struggle to adapt to this new reality that we find ourselves in.

We grow accustomed to the dark—
When Light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye—

A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—

And so of larger—Darknesses—
The Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—

The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—

Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.

I try not to be too hard on myself during these uncertain times, and I suggest you do the same. Eventually, either the darkness will alter or our sight will adjust itself. Of course, things won’t be the same post Pandemic, but we will all find our equilibrium again, and Life will step “almost straight.”

Dear Readers, have you found yourself in a darkened tunnel of late wondering when the light will be turned on again? If so, I’d love to hear how you’ve been coping.

You Are Worth More Than Your Wage

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The writer has made an attempt to draw the hammer and sickle, the symbol of solidarity between the peasant farmers and the industrial working-class- first adopted during the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Every day as I tromp up the stairs of the parking garage returning to my car after teaching, my foot falls on this message written on one of the step landings. I often wonder about the stranger who wrote it and why? Was he or she in need of an encouraging word at the end of every day in order to come back to work the next? A reminder that their paycheck wasn’t the whole story?

After recently receiving my first pay check from my new teaching job, this message has been on my mind a lot. As most of you know, I am in the midst of pursuing a new career in teaching ESL.  In case any of my readers are considering the same, I should make it abundantly clear that ESL is not a lucrative career. It is difficult to find anything more than part-time work here in the U.S. I teach a four hour class five days a week. I spend long hours of preparation for which I am not compensated. Class attendance is sporadic and within the same class I must adjust to students who are at multi-levels of English ability.

But still, the work is rewarding! Most of my students are appreciative and motivated, thanking me at the end of every class. Watching them with heads bent tackling a worksheet, I feel so proud of the effort they are making. It is the combination of our efforts that creates the payoff. The school doesn’t half compensate me for what I’m worth, so I have to seek the intangible wage. And I’m grateful to the mysterious encourager who scribbled these words on the step knowing that someone else needed a reminder of their true value at the end of every day as well. 

 

A ZigZag Line

“The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks”
                                                                        Ralph Waldo Emerson

kristel-hayes--BcnpZHZJx4-unsplashUnlike a motor boat, a sailboat cannot proceed directly into the wind. If that is its desired course, a sailing vessel must use the wind, allowing it to blow the ship from side to side, a maneuver called tacking. Thus progress forward is achieved by patiently and intentionally navigating a zigzag line.

Our life’s journey is so often portrayed as a ship’s voyage. I don’t know about you, but mine has, more often than not, resembled a sailboat heading into the wind. Not long ago I wrote about how I have learned to reconcile and embrace the meandering route of my career path. I concluded that in hindsight, it was actually perfect for my new career of teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). bobby-burch-7ghPaPLdmTY-unsplash

As many of you know, my goal is to teach ESL in Prague, Czech Republic. My journey toward that end began by volunteer teaching and getting my TEFL certification last year. Now I’m tacking. I was offered a job teaching ESL at the Community College, and I started three weeks ago. I’ve signed a contract through December and fully expect to renew it in January for the spring term.

What may seem like a detour or delay is in reality an intentional tactical maneuver that I believe will propel me forward toward my intended destination. The experience and knowledge I’m gaining in my new teaching position will open doors to better job opportunities when I do make it to Prague. As much as I want to charge ahead, I know I will arrive at just the right time if I stay this course of the zigzag line.

Dear Readers: what has your life’s voyage been like? A motorboat, or a sailboat heading into the wind? Do tell.

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When Time Stands Still

photo-1501139083538-0139583c060fWhere did the time go? Everyone asks this question as we contemplate the expiring year and the emerging new one. Especially as we get older, we shake our heads in disbelief that another year has passed. But today I want to talk about the opposite feeling- the feeling that time is standing still. That feeling when the hours, days and weeks seem to drag by. Have you ever had periods in your life when you felt just like that?

A week or two before Christmas I found myself standing in a long line at the post office in order to mail a package. When I took my place at the back of the line I was just barely inside the door. Ahead of me stood the many disgruntled postal patrons whose body language telegraphed their irritation and frustration about the interminably long wait. But were they correct in their assumptions?63573912516014049828182771_long

I too used to enter the post office, see the long line, and feel my mood sink in a kind of despair over the anticipated wait. In that moment I would experience a sudden suspension of time. But one day I decided to “test” that reality and time my actual wait. This I did on numerous occasions, and always I was surprised by how short the wait was. I found that there was a big gap between my perceived wait time and my actual wait time. I had to confess that my perception was actually based not in reality but in a preconceived idea about postal lines. In spite of all the people in line with all their packages and envelopes, the line moved surprisingly quickly.

photo-1518729371765-043e54eb5674This little anecdote has a parallel to another perceived passage of time that I’m experiencing right now. As I prepare and plan to make my move to teach overseas, the waiting seems interminably slow. Will it ever happen I wonder? Time seems to be standing still or at best inching forward toward a day of departure that can be marked on a calendar. Again and again a sense of anxious impatience rises within me that needs a reality check.

Although I can’t calculate my wait time in minutes as at the post office, I need to put this waiting period in proper perspective so as to minimize my discouragement. The best way to do that I’ve found is two-fold. First of all I look back at all that I’ve accomplished since making the determination to move. By volunteer teaching I have gained 11 months of classroom teaching experience and have created numerous lesson plans that I can use in a future classroom. I also completed my TEFL certification and created a new targeted resume. I started studying Czech with materials sent to me by my cousin in Prague and she and I Skype every two weeks. photo-1518975775530-f4dcbbee9672

The second thing I do is look ahead and make a list of all the things that will have to be put in place in order to go. It is a very long list: research potential employers, make preliminary contact with those employers, sell my house, put furniture in storage, buy a new laptop, arrange for banking, phone service etc. etc. etc. Contemplating this list is sobering and makes the waiting time seem very short indeed. 

Please don’t imagine that I’ve only had to process through this cycle only once. I do it on a regular basis and each time that I regain clarity on my perspective I realize that things will unfold as they are meant to unfold. I cannot speed up or slow down time. I can only put one foot in front of the other, tackle the task at hand and believe that eventually I’ll be at the front of the line.photo-1528387810833-7b46bb8e8778

Dear Readers: Are you in a place of impatience for something to begin (or end) in your life? Was there a period of time in your life when waiting made the time stand still? How did you get through it? Please share in the comments.

A Renaissance Woman

“You know if you are born a Renaissance Woman, or have met a Renaissance Woman, because: You/She can mix the knowledge of what is considered disparate spheres into a new whole…”    _____ Urban Dictionary

UnknownHave you ever asked yourself the question, “What’s wrong with me?” I have. Usually I ask it while reflecting on something really dumb or unkind that I’ve thought, done or said. But there are also times when I ponder this question when comparing myself to other people. In particular, their career path compared to mine. How my jobs seem to have randomly wandered from field to field while other peoples’ seem to have been targeted toward a known end and stayed the course. 

This self-doubt resurfaced recently while preparing my resume for potential English teaching jobs. For those of you who have been following me, you know that I am hoping to teach in the Czech Republic sometime next year, now that I have my TEFL certification. Until that day comes, I hope to land a job teaching online starting the first of the year, this, in addition to my volunteer teaching at the Literacy Council. 

GW145H209Just as in the past, when I got my resume all organized and looked it over, I saw this meandering, very nonlinear work history that made me pause and say “What’s wrong with me?”  How I envy those people who I imagine to have always known what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go, and so, have very linear, logically progressing work histories! “Why can’t I be like everyone else,” I wonder?

In a world that tends to reward and more readily validate those who have climbed a logically progressing career ladder with aplomb, its easy to feel like you’ve missed the boat or failed somehow if your career path looks more like mine- a sailboat tacking across a tempestuous sea. After-all I have been a travel agent, environmental educator, musician/song-writer, legal assistant, and hospital chaplain, just to name a few.

imagesBut I’ve learned, (and truthfully, I’m still learning,) to embrace this uniqueness about myself. To see it as an asset and not a liability. To not ask, “what’s wrong with me?” but instead, “what’s right?” I have always been driven to explore, inquire, and learn in many fields, which has led me to multiple proficiencies. This is who I am, a Renaissance Woman. 

The better question to ask now is, “how can I use this to my advantage?” Quite honestly, I can hardly imagine a better field than teaching to bring a broad base of knowledge to bear. Maybe not having a specific trajectory has allowed me to arrive at this moment in time. Maybe now I’ll have the opportunity to coalesce my “disparate spheres” into a greater whole to the benefit of my current students and to my potential future ones. I’m hoping that employers will feel the same way as I move forward with my dream.

Dear Readers: Are you a Renaissance man or woman? Have you ever struggled with a similar view of your life’s path and wondered what it all meant? How have you, or haven’t you reconciled yourself to it? Please feel free to share.

Leaving Home

Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on UnsplashThe essence of leaving home is change. Change brings the excitement of new adventure as well as fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar. As children going away to camp, or as young adults going off to college, many of us have felt the temporary, but very real pangs of homesickness. Those times when loss of the familiar feels like a trap door has opened beneath our feet. But eventually we embrace leaving as a part of natural growth.

Photo by Nils Nedel on UnsplashAnd then something happens over time. We work hard to create a comfortable world around us that is to our liking; our home, friends, activities, the work we do- they all become part of a rhythm of days that flows like a well-worn river bed. Life becomes more complicated too, and entangled with responsibilities. No longer can we simply “pack up and go.” Sometimes there is so much effort involved in getting away that we simply don’t. Pretty soon complacency begets inertia. And once again, we find that leaving home is not so easy to do for a whole new set of reasons.Photo by Erik Odiin on Unsplash

As I contemplate moving to Prague, I wonder if I will be able to leave home when the time comes. The immensity of leaving all that is comfortable and familiar to me; my great little house, my routine, my senior pets, for a place that is entirely foreign sometimes overwhelms me. How will it all get sorted out? Physical aging too has shown me just how easy it is to succumb to inertia. It brings new meaning to the law of physics that states “a body at rest, tends to stay at rest.”

I assure you that my decision to go has not been taken lightly. I believe that acknowledging doubts and fears is not a defeatist attitude, it’s just being honest. Even with all the uncertainty and complications known, and yet to be discovered, I’m still going to continue to work toward my goal in the coming year- because, of one thing I am certain. Just like exercising your body to keep it able to exercise, change is a muscle that must be flexed in order to keep it loose and limber. Remaining flexible and open to change are what keep us young as we age. Leaving home and moving overseas to an unfamiliar place is a big and scary thing, but oh, the possibilities!Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

Dear Readers: Have you experienced the inertia of complaceny? Resistance to change? Maybe it was a time when you too were leaving the familiarity of home. How did you, or are you dealing with your fear? Please share.

 

 

 

 

Sometimes a Door Opens…..

Sometimes a door opens in front of you that you did not anticipate, but seems so right to walk through. That is exactly what happened to me in January. I went to an informational workshop at The Literacy Council to learn about volunteer opportunities. While there, I was invited to take part in their one week English as a Second Language (ESL) program that was starting the next day. I took the training and by February I was teaching the advanced class two mornings a week.BEST

I knew immediately that the job was a perfect fit. My students are a joy, and I love helping them to progress and be successful. My own success as their teacher led me to complete a certification course this past summer that will allow me to teach English overseas. 

What began as a desire to volunteer, opened a door onto a new path that has the potential to lead me into a whole new world of experience. But isn’t that the way it is most of the time when we volunteer? We come willing to give and to help others, and yet we seem to be the ones who benefit the most. We walk away with a full heart, amazed at all we’ve been given.

Dear Readers, Has this ever happened to you? Please share about a volunteer experience in which you gained as much as you gave.

New Beginnings- Taking Chances

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“For our country- we endure to the end”

OCTOBER 18, 1918- OCTOBER 28, 2018

Today marks the 100th birthday of Czechoslovakia. On October 28, 1918, after centuries of oppression under Austro-Hungarian rule, the Czech people realized their dream of freedom and self-governance.  Although other dictatorial rulers tried to squash their independence, (Nazis from 1939-1945 and the Soviets from 1945-1992), the Czech people and their spirit have risen above every obstacle. Centennial celebrations have been occurring throughout the year, culminating in this weekend’s events which include parades, fireworks, and an open air concert by the Czech Philharmonic. IMG_0091

This seems an appropriate moment to share with you, faithful readers, that I too am embarking on a new beginning. The Bohemian Freethinker is making preparations with the hope of moving to Prague, where I will teach English for a year. My anticipated departure is in the summer of 2019, to begin their school term in September.IMG_0089

It is not too common for someone 59 years old to uproot and move to a foreign country, and it will certainly not be a “walk in the park” to do so. But I am going to give it my best shot and I will be journaling my experiences along the route over the next year. My hope is that if there is anyone out there reading this who thinks it is too late to try to make a dream a reality- please, think again. It is never too late to become the person you were meant to be. 

p.s. Dear Readers, what new beginnings have you embarked upon lately? Please share in the comments!

 

Expectations

There is a familiar and unhappy gap between our expectations and reality, and that gap is called disappointment. Sometimes disappointment is created by circumstances beyond our control, but more often than is comfortable to admit, it is of our own making. 

Here is a case in point.

x5dufb40Q0O%uCgBp4D5YAAbout a month ago I was in Chicago with a close friend to celebrate my birthday. My mother, daughter of Czech immigrants, was born and raised in the city and, if possible, I wanted to find some connection to, or some “taste” of Czech ethnicity that might still linger there. Our first night we discovered Bohemian House, at 11 West Illinois Street, a restaurant that features authentic Czech cuisine and beer in an Old World atmosphere. All was excellent and did not disappoint.

Buoyed by our success at the restaurant, the next day we set out to find Vesecky’s, a IMG_1185traditional Czech bakery in Berwyn, the once ethnically Czech neighborhood where my grandparents had lived. The recent reviews on Yelp were promising; “one of the best bakeries in Chicago,” said one writer. “great old school bakery,” “my Grandma loved it,” wrote another. Riding the “L” and then taking a bus for the hour long trek to Vesecky’s, my mouth began to water with anticipation of the goodies we would find within.

By the time we arrived I could already taste the apricot kolache and hoska bread I remembered eating as a kid. Predetermined to love it, I noticed, but failed to consider certain clues that cautioned a different reality. Anxiously I bought a box of treats and dived into them right then and there. With one bite, that reality became apparent, the only thing Czech about Vesecky’s was its name.

OIwIUf9jT0uPnTdbsaPDpgAs I stood there sorely disappointed I attempted to reconcile fact with fantasy. Upon entering the bakery, there was no delicious aroma permeating the air characteristic of  baking bread. On the contrary, there was a cold and sterile feel about the place. At first glance of the cookies and pastry behind the glass, my eye sent to my brain an image that did not match what I knew to be authentic, artisanal bakery. I realized that in my rush to conform reality to match my preconceived expectations I had set myself up to be disappointed.

Okay, so no real harm was done me. I wasted a mere $13.00 and I’ve enjoyed a laugh at my own expense in hindsight. What brings this story to mind is twofold. I cannot imagine a better time of year than the Christmas Season to talk about unrealistic expectations and their inevitable consequences. The happiness hype, the love and good cheer can ring hollow about now. And of course, some disappointments are much more devastating than eating bad pastry. I have lived that reality too.

But disappointment can also be our teacher and guide if we let it. So, by way of redemption and a happy ending, over the Holidays I taught myself how to make Vánočka, Czech Christmas Bread. (It is named after Vánoce which means Christmas in Czech.)  I kept my expectations within reason for a first effort and I’m pleased to report that it turned out great and was enjoyed by many.  I’m sure I could give Vesecky’s a run for their money!eJE4a9h3RUmNDgLDClp68w

Dear Readers, you can find the recipe I followed for Vánočka, and more great Czech recipes at www.czechcookbook.com