Do Not Try to Sound Smarter Than You Are

Why Not to Practice your Czech Language Skills Pre-fluency

I have learned a new phrase, all by myself! I was taught the word for “English” in Czech class, and the fact that the word “knihy” is on every bookshop I pass has finally tipped me off as to its meaning.

As a reading fiend, I have already begun to worry about the stock of books I brought along with me. Thus I am immensely proud that I have learned to ask bookstore clerks for “Anglizky knihy.”

I walk into a used bookstore, an “Antikknihy,” and use my new phrase.

What follows in an utterly incomprehensible string of Czech, along with a vague gesture in the direction of all the books.

Sometimes, I admit, I have a certain amount of difficulty learning from experience. Thus, it takes two or three more attempts to use my new phrase before I realize that no one is going to speak to me in English if I speak to them in Czech, whether I’ve asked for English books or not.

This same principle I have found, through painful trial and error, applies to requests for directions, for change, for the location of food in a grocery, and even when I need to be buzzed in to a building.

These utterly humiliating experiences have, however, led me to an interesting revealation about perception.

I walk into a store with olive skin and brown hair, and if I speak Czech I am assumed to be Czech. I have to make clear by my confusion that the clerk’s perception of me is wrong. If I walk into a store and speak English, I am caught in the permanent perception of being an American tourist.

I’m lucky in that I get to choose which of these perceptions I want for myself, in full knowledge of the attendant consequences.

Secondly, I have discovered a flaw in my own perceptions of myself and the world around me. It’s all well and good to learn a language before going to a country, to study the culture and society, but in the real world there are no points for effort.

There is no one to impress with my burgeoning Czech language skills except myself. Most people do not care if I am learning Czech, and do not care how much Czech I have proudly learned. They care about whether I understand what they are trying to tell me. And if I have a first grader’s vocabulary and cannot understand a word they say, they are not going to like me any more than if I had opened the conversation in English.

Thus, I have concluded that there is only one, all-important phrase to learn before departure to any destination: “I Don’t Understand            ? English?”

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2 thoughts on “Do Not Try to Sound Smarter Than You Are

  1. Have you tried Shakespeare & Sons in Mala Strana? its just by the bridge if you make a right and wander towards the kafka museum. all books written in english, and you can trade in old books for new ones

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