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Nemluvím česky
February 12, 2014 12:49 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to make language learning a daily habit on my bus commute, and looking for tips on making it work.

I want to learn my partner's language, Czech. So far for about six months I've spent a few days a week on my hour long bus trip to work doing some of the following -
- Practicing vocab learning on my Memrise app;
- Listening to a Czech learning podcast;
- Listening to simple dialogues from the CDs of Teach Yourself Czech and the Foreign Service Institute FAST course;
- Occasionally reading the dialogues and vocab from PDFs of the above books on my iPhone.
Reading is more difficult on the bus and iPhone.

I'd like advice on a few things:
1. How to keep interested and not bored? I get very motivated coming up to a trip to the country but that's only once or twice a year.
2. The grammar is very difficult for me. I guess there's no hope that I can simply pick this up by listening to a lot of dialogue? There are a million cases. Books aren't the easiest on the bus - do I need a grammar book and actually study?
3. Any new Czech specific learning resources that are bus friendly would be great.
4. Finally, words and stories of motivation from people who have learned a difficult new language by themselves would be lovely.
posted by hannahlambda to Education (12 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The most motivating reason to learn a language is so that you can use it to communicate.

It helps tremendously to have an idea, however simple, that you want to communicate immediately to another person who is right in front of you, and who is saying in Czech, "I don't speak English. Tell me in Czech, please." (They can be pretending not to speak English if you're willing to pretend to believe them during language practice time).

Start with your partner. Do you live together? Are they excited about your learning Czech? Learn to say "what's that?" and "please" and "thank you." Then learn the names of household things (use post-its to help you remember) and have simple, concrete conversations. "What's that?" "A spoon." "Spoon, please." (Partner hands it to you when you say it right.) "Thank you."

Get into a habit of never saying in English to your partner "hi, how are you?" but always greet them in Czech, even if the conversation switches to English right after. Then start saying "good night" always and only in Czech. Use your language learning materials to keep gradually adding phrases to your repertoire.

Skip the dialogs about "I am an American student. I am studying Czech," and study how to say things you might want to actually say to your partner. Maybe there is a poem in Czech you can memorize?
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 4:11 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]

I taught myself Swedish, but while living in Sweden, so my situation was a little different (and the language certainly easier than Czech!).

I love Memrise and always recommend it, but you have to get to kind of a critical mass of vocabulary before it feels like you're doing more than just learning things at random. Keep at it! Do as many new words a week as you can. You won't get all of them immediately into a "usable" space, but you get a feel for how the language works and sounds, and Memrise is set up such that they'll come back around sometime when you need them.

For grammar, you could try learning things in little phrases rather than as individual words or abstract patterns. If you want to learn the declensions of a noun, write a few short sentences: "The dog chased the cat." "The cat chased the mouse." Alternatively, the Wikipedia article on Czech says that kids learn the names of the Czech declensions in school by what question they're the answer to, so you could also make up little question an answer pairs to help you practice them. Then you can practice those pairs in Memrise just as you would with vocabulary.

As far as learning resources, I find "learning materials" like the ones you've described deadly boring. They can be ok for an introduction to something, but I wouldn't spend much time listening to them over and over. Try to find a real podcast about something you're interested in and listen to that instead. I listened to a lot of talk radio segments when I was learning. Even if you only get a few words, it's really motivating because you're hearing the real language and getting something out of it. Practice dialogues are spoken slowly and clearly and have almost no relation to real-life language use. (On preview: Bentobox's suggestion of poetry is great too!)

Finally, if you want to speak, you have to dare to speak. You can't learn to speak a language "in theory". You will make mistakes, you will get stuck, you will sound like a 2-year-old: all of this is ok and part of the process. If you're ok with muttering to yourself on the bus, then practice saying words/phrases at a whisper, just to get the feel for them in your mouth. During the day, if you think of something you're going to say in English, try to figure out in your head how you would say it in Czech. Get your partner to speak Czech to you and pretend like they don't speak English (maybe not all of the time, but set aside some time every day that's Czech-only - the more time it is, the faster you'll learn). I'll also offer the somewhat controversial suggestion of getting your partner to speak Czech even if you have to respond in English - at least then you're still getting the exposure. I honestly think about 80% of language learning is just conscious exposure - any situation in which you're needing to make sense of something in the language.

Honestly, motivation waxes and wanes, and I think accepting that is part of the process. If I'm having a really unmotivated day, I get myself to do a little practice on Memrise and let it go at that. If I'm feeling very motivated, I'll take advantage of that to read a novel or try to find something on tv (great listening comprehension practice because it's people conversing normally-ish but you don't have to respond). I also have a few friends who have been really consistent about speaking Swedish with me so even if I don't feel motivated that day I still have to come up with something to say back to them!

I've been in Sweden a little over a year, and my work every day is in English (academia), but have nonetheless become very proficient - about a B2 on the CEFR levels. This is despite regularly having days where I just cannot be bothered to work on Swedish because my brain is in meltdown. You can totally do this!
posted by SymphonyNumberNine at 4:29 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]

I should add: the corollary to the exposure thing is that language learning is like exercise - the best thing to do is the thing that you will do. There could be other things that are "more efficient" but if you hate them, they're not.
posted by SymphonyNumberNine at 4:39 AM on February 12

Does one of the online apps (that have phrases and sentences instead of just vocab) have Czech? I find that an app is the easiest way for me to study if I'm on the go because I don't have to mess with extra stuff and it's a little more like a game so it takes less concentration (which I personally find hard to gather a ton of on a bus or commute.)

It looks like the only one I know of that offers Czech is Mango. It's not free, but my library had a subscription. Livemocha says Czech is "coming soon." Unfortunately my two favorite, Duolingo and Busuu don't have Czech.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:19 AM on February 12

I learned French very quickly. As in, after a year of studying I was conversant and 6-8 months later I tested at the university level. Now I'm in Canada so you could say it's a cultural thing, but I was far from Quebec and never attended French immersion and there wasn't a French community where I lived back then.

This is what I did
- I really really wanted to learn the language. To this day I have no idea why, I was just deeply moved to learn it. I never tire of it. I guess that's passion.
- I read children's books (2nd grad / 3rd grade level) of easy, interesting stories that slowly built up verb & noun vocabulary. And pictures :)
- I watched TV in French - specifically, watch the news, as newscasters speak very clearly and there's lots of pictures and action to illustrate what they're saying.

But the biggest one
- I thought in French. Each thought I had, I tried to think it in French. I spoke to my pets in French. I challenged myself to say what I wanted to say, just ordinary stuff, in French. This cements a comfort level in the language, so even if you're not fluent, you don't immediately check out and switch back to English.

As for motivation, I don't know what to tell you. French, Spanish & English are spoken in many many countries, whereas Czech is like Italian: useful in one place only. Can you focus on love of the culture? Can you be fascinated by how a language represents the culture? I found learning Japanese interesting this way, since the grammar is so entirely different from English that it shows what a culture emphasizes and what its values are. You really get to see the subtle differences in how they view the world. My French friends are absolutely convinced that items just are subtly masculine and feminine, for example.

You can also think of a role model. In Canada, French Immersion is very popular and speaking both languages is seen by many families as a sign of a good education. I know bilingual people, and I have truly 100% bilingual people in my family (not French though). Do you know anyone who is completely bilingual? Wouldn't it feel good to have a second language that you can whip out confidently? To exercise your mind?

Also it's fun to see, especially when you get really fluent, how the personality can shift between languages. So it is fun to 'try on' different aspects of your own person, and let them come out more (or less) depending on the language (and culture).

I have personally found grammar books very helpful BUT you have to pick the right book. A badly presented grammar book will bury your soul. You need it laid out in an organized and thoughtful way. Don't use "travel" language CDs, use real language CDs (I like "Living Language: Spoken World" series). You will need to memorize some patterns to feel confident. Whenever I approach a new language like for travel, I memorize a few key items:

- pronouns: I / you / him,her ; You plural / us / them
- possessive: my / your / his,her; your pl / our/ their
- basic verbs: to be, to have, to do; to want/need, to eat, to drink, to buy
- definite articles: the/a/an; this/that/these; those
- prepositions: before, after, behind, beside, at, in, with, on, under, above...
- numbers 1-10
- telling time, days of week
- left & right

The above assumes a Romantic-ish language; Japanese just blew me out of the water since its grammar is so different.

If Czech has declensions then heaven help you, but just build it one at a time, AFTER you've mastered that list above.

Then memorize present-tense verb conjugation patterns.

Then move on to past and future verb conjugation (I did, I will do).

Then move on to conditional stuff (I would have done, I might do).

Finally as a last hope, if you are right handed, try writing out grammar with your left. (or vice versa.) I've found this helpful in memorization. (In case you haven't figured it out by now, I'm a total language nerd.)

(Grammar nerds - I'm sure I've got some of these terms wrong but you get my drift.)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:06 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]

One final thing - a brief google tells me that Czech indeed has declensions.


To motivate you, consider what my Polish co-worker said, "English is such an imprecise language, so vague. Polish is accurate. In one sentence you know exactly who is doing the action, their gender, to what object, in what way."

(Polish also has declensions.)

Pat and Leslie took her red shirt and bucket to the water.

In a language with declensions you would know
- who's shirt was red? Pat or Leslie?
- are Pat & Leslie two women or a man and a women?
- was the bucket and the shirt red? or just the shirt?
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:18 AM on February 12

Ok another final thing :)

Pronunciation. To get excited about pronunciation, watch some videos on youtube about linguistics. Languages are made by where we place or lips, tongue and throat (vocal cords). Vowels totally depend on tongue placement! Like, try to say "t" or "d" without touching your tongue to your teeth. Try to say "ah" with your tongue held high at the back. Weird, right?

Gwyneth Paltrow is excellent at accents because she's been trained in these sorts of tongue placements (heh). So if you learn another language you'll have a wider range of vocal sounds you can make and accents you can fake. (I learned how to rrrrrrr my r's at the back of my throat like a purring cat after years of French.) And it will improve your pronunciation in other languages too!

So find a youtube video on how these placements affect pronunciation.

Are you learning written word too? If Czech is like Polish it is written very phonetically (one symbol, one sound, no exceptions) and therefore 'easier' to read once you memorize the symbols. (You won't get confusing knife knight not / through cough fluff spellings.)

I was finding written Polish impossible until I was able to 1) relate the symbol to the pure phonetic sound 2) see patterns in the symbols & categorize 3) memorize them (which needed #1&2 first). Without knowing Czech I can't help you put them into sound categories but my ability to read Polish pole-vault high-jumped after making that connection.

/ end passionate language spiel
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:40 AM on February 12

Nemluvim cesky taky! It sounds like you're doing well - my Czech has really improved through doing '5 minutes a day of Czech' (it's really more than that, but so much easier to motivate myself if it's 'only 5 minutes').

I also have a Czech partner and I also know the sporadic enthusiasm during and immediately after visits. Honestly, the only thing that has made a big difference has been that we finally moved to Prague and now I have constant inspiration. Also, having a kid has helped immensely since now I hear Czech at home (although it's mostly baby-Czech....)

I've found that with Czech, it's easier to learn phrases and then grammar after - so for instance, 'Das si caj?' 'Ano, s mlekem a bez cukru,' is how I remember the 's' declination (although this doesn't cover all of the cases, of course. Isn't Czech fun!)

LiveMocha used to have a Czech section that was ok and gave good practice on speaking and being critiqued by native speakers. Anki ( also has a few flashcard sets in Czech.

My experience with speaking Czech has been that since Czechs aren't so used to hearing non-native speakers trying to speak Czech, it's very important to get pronunciation close in order to be understood. Try reading things aloud to your partner, such as sections from your book.

I like listening to Czech music to get used to the rhythm of speech. Jaromir Nohavica is good for that as well as Karel Plihal, and Illustratosphere.

I watch Little Red Tractor with Czech dubbing with my son and it's quite good for decent dialogue that is easy to follow.

Good luck and if you're in Prague and want to chat about Czech, let me know.
posted by brambory at 9:05 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]

Czech is tough. I spent a year in Prague learning it with a DoD-funded fellowship and the problem, for me, was them sticking us in a dorm full of English speakers who only wanted to speak English. I really think asking your partner to actively speak Czech to you as much as possible will be the best tactic for now, combined with self-study of vocabulary so you can start adding to your conversations.
posted by at 9:16 AM on February 12

I've never learned Czech, but I learned Latin and Greek, which have cases, which a bunch of rhymes/songs to keep the rules straight. Maybe ask your partner if he knows if such a thing exists? Or Google it?
posted by chaiminda at 12:50 PM on February 12

Like brambory said, listening to Czech music may be a fun way to keep the language in your mind without feeling bad about not concentrating too hard...

Už Jsme Doma
The Plastic People of the Universe
Květy - here is the video for Pasáček ovcí
Zuby Nehty - an all-female rock group. One of the members was my professor when I studied abroad in Prague

Happy listening! I hope some of the words catch your ear, or inspire you to look up & translate the lyrics
posted by stompadour at 2:08 PM on February 12

In my experience, the Pimsleur method is the best for learning to converse in a foreign language, and they do have Czech.

A caveat: the vocabulary covered by the Pimsleur lessons is deliberately very limited (so as to focus on teaching you how to instinctively construct sentences instead of overwhelming you with a lot of words) so you'll need to plan on using other study tools to expand your vocabulary after you've worked through the Pimsleur. Rosetta Stone is usually quite good for vocabulary but unfortunately they don't seem to offer Czech.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:44 PM on February 12

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