‘Czeching’ out the local language — a little goes a long way

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In the cinderblock lobby of Prague’s Diplomat Hotel (Evropská 15; www. diplomatpraha.cz), my husband, Joe, was exchanging introductions with our guide, Petr, while I waited for my first foray into the Czech language to begin. I was mentally rehearsing my opening line, a difficult one to pronounce, when Joe gave me my cue: “This is my wife, Mary Anne.”

Smiling and extending my hand, I said, “Teší me.

Petr’s eyebrows shot up. “So soon?” he replied.

“What did I say?”

“Will you sleep with me?”

“I thought ‘teší me’ meant ‘nice to meet you’.”

Joe said, “I told you you’d make a fool of yourself trying to speak Czech.”

Vindication

We sat down to breakfast together. As I ordered ztracená vejce (poached eggs), topinka (toast) and pomerancový džus (orange juice), the waitress giggled into her white apron.

“She’s laughing at you,” my husband said.

“No, no,” Petr countered. “She is laughing because she is so happy. We are a small country. No one cares to learn our language.”

Even though I felt somewhat vindicated, I let Petr order a “typical Czech breakfast” for Joe. When his plate of pork goulash and dumplings in a Pepto-Bismol-colored sauce arrived, I felt like chuckling.

After breakfast Petr drove us south. Traversing almost the entire length of the Czech Republic in less than three hours, we traveled from Prague to Ceský Krumlov, a gemlike medieval town encircled by the Vltava River. There my husband fished in an international fly-fishing tournament, and for 10 days I toured with the Australian, Canadian, French, Spanish and Welsh spouses of competing fishermen.

I endeared myself to my two new guides, Ivana and Karel, not by accidentally propositioning them but simply by speaking a few phrases of their language.

“You must have a Czech grandmother,” Ivana kept saying. I surmised that because I’d learned the language by ear from a CD, my pronunciation was correct.

Crisis avoided

One day we visited a ceramics factory in Bechyne, where I purchased 20 tiny spice jars artfully decorated with a blue onion pattern for about 50¢ apiece. When the proprietor began handing them to me with what looked like a sheet of toilet paper wrapped around each, I was baffled as to how I’d transport them. In small Czech towns, b.y.o.b. — bring your own bag — is the rule. Ivana and Karel came to my rescue. They carried my jars safely to the bus in their raincoats.

I endeared myself further to my English-speaking guides because I spoke French. Although a translator had been provided for the 15 Spaniards, the sole French woman on our bus, Laurance, had been neglected.

During a typical luncheon of Wiener schnitzel in a wood-paneled restaurant off the town square of Ceské Budejovice, Laurance, who detested smoking, asked me to ask the Spanish travelers in our group to stop smoking. I did and they complied.

After lunch, I was on my way back from the toilets across the square when I heard Ivana calling, “Marianna, Marianna, come quickly. I need you. The French and the Spanish are warring.”

Nothing new there, I thought, following Ivana as she hobbled across the cobblestones in heels. Inside the restaurant, Laurance and the Spaniards were fuming.

“Please, Marianna, ask the French woman if they can smoke now,” Ivana said.

I did. Laurance said, “Oui,” and the Spanish lit up — a minuscule international incident resolved with linguistics.

On this trip I tried to alter the prevalent misconception that Americans speak only English. Changing the way the world views us as Americans is an immeasurable benefit of learning just a few phrases in any foreign language.

Learning the language

You don’t need to be fluent in a foreign language to get more out of your travels abroad. Learning even 25 phrases will make your trip more fun and rewarding. And learning ordinary expressions is much easier than you might think.

Because English is the most eclectic language on Earth, you already know many foreign terms. Some examples are hookah (Arabic), pagoda (Chinese), robot (Czech), cliché (French), kindergarten (German), kudos (Greek), samurai (Japanese), junk (Portuguese), tundra (Russian) and yogurt (Turkish). You can increase the list ad infinitum.

Unless you have the gift of speaking in tongues, you’ll need to learn a foreign language. I’d recommend learning it by ear, the way children acquire their native tongue. A purely auditory approach will give you the best pronunciation and intonation.

A number of companies, including Barron’s, Berlitz, Living Language, McGraw-Hill, Oxford University Press and Pimsleur, market both comprehensive and introductory audio instructional programs. These range from elaborate lessons in grammar, verb conjugations and vocabulary to simple phrases and expressions.

If you have oodles of time and interest, by all means study the language thoroughly. If you just want to acquire enough phrases for basic communication, choose an audio program that makes no attempt to convey grammar. In rapid language acquisition, grammar is useless (unless you’re like Sir Richard Burton, who picked up languages the way the rest of us catch colds).

Quick study

One of the simplest programs is the “In Flight” series (Living Language), with CDs in Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Thai and Turkish. Each 60-minute CD covers common greetings, polite expressions, asking directions, getting around, checking into a hotel, going to a restaurant, meeting people and spending a night on the town. Whereas this program focuses on 400 words and phrases, a similar program by Berlitz includes 1,200.

Get a portable player and listen to the language of your choice while walking, bike riding, cooking, driving. . . . It’s easy; just listen and repeat. Repetition is the key that unlocks any language. You’ll soon find that you’ve memorized phrases without much effort.

Even if you only skim the surface, you’ll gain insight into the psychology of native speakers. For instance, in Setswana, the language of Botswana, “pula” means rain and good luck (pula pula) and is also the national currency — a clear indication that water is precious.

Although faux pas are inevitable when you first begin speaking any foreign tongue, the benefits far outweigh them. By learning even a few simple phrases, you will significantly enhance the quality of your travels abroad.

Audio instructional programs

At www.barronseduc.com, the “Now You’re Talking” series from Barron’s can be purchased online.

Berlitz (www.berlitz.com) offers a number of study options.

At www.livinglanguage.com, you can practice French, German, Italian or Spanish in a free, interactive audiovisual format (click “Learn Now!”). The website also provides information on purchasing the “In Flight” series.

At http://books.mcgraw-hill.com, the “Teach Yourself” series can be purchased online. Select “Languages and Reference” and search “Teach Yourself.”

For Oxford’s “Take Off in” series, go to www.oup-usa.org. Under the “Search” option, type “Take off in.” This series can be purchased online.

Pimsleur audio programs are available for purchase online at www.pimsleur.com.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

In the cinderblock lobby of Prague’s Diplomat Hotel (Evropská 15; www. diplomatpraha.cz), my husband, Joe, was exchanging introductions with our guide, Petr, while I waited for my first foray into the Czech language to begin. I was mentally rehearsing my opening line, a difficult one to pronounce, when Joe gave me my cue: “This is my wife, Mary Anne.”

Smiling and extending my hand, I said, “Teší me.

Petr’s eyebrows shot up. “So soon?” he replied.

“What did I say?”

“Will you sleep with me?”

“I thought ‘teší me’ meant ‘nice to meet you’.”

Joe said, “I told you you’d make a fool of yourself trying to speak Czech.”

Vindication

We sat down to breakfast together. As I ordered ztracená vejce (poached eggs), topinka (toast) and pomerancový džus (orange juice), the waitress giggled into her white apron.

“She’s laughing at you,” my husband said.

“No, no,” Petr countered. “She is laughing because she is so happy. We are a small country. No one cares to learn our language.”

Even though I felt somewhat vindicated, I let Petr order a “typical Czech breakfast” for Joe. When his plate of pork goulash and dumplings in a Pepto-Bismol-colored sauce arrived, I felt like chuckling.

After breakfast Petr drove us south. Traversing almost the entire length of the Czech Republic in less than three hours, we traveled from Prague to Ceský Krumlov, a gemlike medieval town encircled by the Vltava River. There my husband fished in an international fly-fishing tournament, and for 10 days I toured with the Australian, Canadian, French, Spanish and Welsh spouses of competing fishermen.

I endeared myself to my two new guides, Ivana and Karel, not by accidentally propositioning them but simply by speaking a few phrases of their language.

“You must have a Czech grandmother,” Ivana kept saying. I surmised that because I’d learned the language by ear from a CD, my pronunciation was correct.

Crisis avoided

One day we visited a ceramics factory in Bechyne, where I purchased 20 tiny spice jars artfully decorated with a blue onion pattern for about 50¢ apiece. When the proprietor began handing them to me with what looked like a sheet of toilet paper wrapped around each, I was baffled as to how I’d transport them. In small Czech towns, b.y.o.b. — bring your own bag — is the rule. Ivana and Karel came to my rescue. They carried my jars safely to the bus in their raincoats.

I endeared myself further to my English-speaking guides because I spoke French. Although a translator had been provided for the 15 Spaniards, the sole French woman on our bus, Laurance, had been neglected.

During a typical luncheon of Wiener schnitzel in a wood-paneled restaurant off the town square of Ceské Budejovice, Laurance, who detested smoking, asked me to ask the Spanish travelers in our group to stop smoking. I did and they complied.

After lunch, I was on my way back from the toilets across the square when I heard Ivana calling, “Marianna, Marianna, come quickly. I need you. The French and the Spanish are warring.”

Nothing new there, I thought, following Ivana as she hobbled across the cobblestones in heels. Inside the restaurant, Laurance and the Spaniards were fuming.

“Please, Marianna, ask the French woman if they can smoke now,” Ivana said.

I did. Laurance said, “Oui,” and the Spanish lit up — a minuscule international incident resolved with linguistics.

On this trip I tried to alter the prevalent misconception that Americans speak only English. Changing the way the world views us as Americans is an immeasurable benefit of learning just a few phrases in any foreign language.

Learning the language

You don’t need to be fluent in a foreign language to get more out of your travels abroad. Learning even 25 phrases will make your trip more fun and rewarding. And learning ordinary expressions is much easier than you might think.

Because English is the most eclectic language on Earth, you already know many foreign terms. Some examples are hookah (Arabic), pagoda (Chinese), robot (Czech), cliché (French), kindergarten (German), kudos (Greek), samurai (Japanese), junk (Portuguese), tundra (Russian) and yogurt (Turkish). You can increase the list ad infinitum.

Unless you have the gift of speaking in tongues, you’ll need to learn a foreign language. I’d recommend learning it by ear, the way children acquire their native tongue. A purely auditory approach will give you the best pronunciation and intonation.

A number of companies, including Barron’s, Berlitz, Living Language, McGraw-Hill, Oxford University Press and Pimsleur, market both comprehensive and introductory audio instructional programs. These range from elaborate lessons in grammar, verb conjugations and vocabulary to simple phrases and expressions.

If you have oodles of time and interest, by all means study the language thoroughly. If you just want to acquire enough phrases for basic communication, choose an audio program that makes no attempt to convey grammar. In rapid language acquisition, grammar is useless (unless you’re like Sir Richard Burton, who picked up languages the way the rest of us catch colds).

Quick study

One of the simplest programs is the “In Flight” series (Living Language), with CDs in Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Thai and Turkish. Each 60-minute CD covers common greetings, polite expressions, asking directions, getting around, checking into a hotel, going to a restaurant, meeting people and spending a night on the town. Whereas this program focuses on 400 words and phrases, a similar program by Berlitz includes 1,200.

Get a portable player and listen to the language of your choice while walking, bike riding, cooking, driving. . . . It’s easy; just listen and repeat. Repetition is the key that unlocks any language. You’ll soon find that you’ve memorized phrases without much effort.

Even if you only skim the surface, you’ll gain insight into the psychology of native speakers. For instance, in Setswana, the language of Botswana, “pula” means rain and good luck (pula pula) and is also the national currency — a clear indication that water is precious.

Although faux pas are inevitable when you first begin speaking any foreign tongue, the benefits far outweigh them. By learning even a few simple phrases, you will significantly enhance the quality of your travels abroad.

Audio instructional programs

At www.barronseduc.com, the “Now You’re Talking” series from Barron’s can be purchased online.

Berlitz (www.berlitz.com) offers a number of study options.

At www.livinglanguage.com, you can practice French, German, Italian or Spanish in a free, interactive audiovisual format (click “Learn Now!”). The website also provides information on purchasing the “In Flight” series.

At http://books.mcgraw-hill.com, the “Teach Yourself” series can be purchased online. Select “Languages and Reference” and search “Teach Yourself.”

For Oxford’s “Take Off in” series, go to www.oup-usa.org. Under the “Search” option, type “Take off in.” This series can be purchased online.

Pimsleur audio programs are available for purchase online at www.pimsleur.com.