Learn Czech with Grandma: five conversation starters to use U Babičky

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Being a native speaker of English has its advantages. First, wherever you find yourself in the world, the vast majority of the time you’ll find someone who speaks your language.  Secondly, should you find yourself with itchy feet once you become a college graduate or empty nester, you can earn a crust (but not much more) by teaching your mother tongue to the locals.

However, there is a time when being English is a real disadvantage and that’s when it comes to making any serious attempt to learn to communicate in a language other than your own.  Why?  Because everywhere you go, everyone seems desperately keen to show off their knowledge of the international language of communciation: English. 

Fear not though, fellow learners of Czech!  There is a place where you will be able to show off your mastery of the locative plural without having the rug pulled out from your feet.  Adopt a Grandma and try out your burgeoning language skills on her.  Let’s face it, if she has mastered a foreign language, it’s much more likely to have been Russian than English.  And you’ll probably get tea and cake too.

Here are some conversation starters to kick things off:

1.  Dobrý den!  Jak se máte? (Good morning/afternoon!  How are you?)

“A very unimaginative start Ms Girl!” I hear you cry in unison.  “Of course we know how to Dobry Den! ”  Perhaps, but you must take care to use the polite “vy” form with Grandmas: they need to be treated with respect.  Czechman’s own mother still doesn’t use the more familiar “ty” with her own mother-in-law despite having being married to her son for well over thirty years.  As for saying hello with a seemingly innocuous  “Ahoj”, this is a real faux pas: in fact, this is the equivalent of greeting Babi with a high five.  One of Czechman’s grandma’s is still recovering from the time when I tried to interject into a conversation with a “Hele!” rather than “Vite že…”

2. Jak snášejí slepice? (How are the hens laying?)

Only try this one out if the Grandma in question keeps chickens of course, otherwise she’ll think you’re nuts as well as foreign.

3. Co jste měla dneska k obědu? (What did you have for lunch today?)

In my experience, most Grandmas love discussing food.  Be warned though, Babička might think that you must be hungry and try to ply you with her copious stocks of knedliky (dumplings), palačinky (pancakes) or huge bars of chocolate.

4. Byla jste dneska na procházce?/Kam chodíte na procházku? (Have you been for a walk today?/Where do you [normally] go for a walk?)

Czechman’s grandmas are fortunately still sprighty enough to take a daily constitutional although recently they’ve been having to steer cleer of falling snow and killer icicles.

5. Jak se mají sousedi? (How are your neighbours?)

Most Grandmas like to have a good gossip about the goings-on of those living immediately adjacent to them; one of Czechman’s Grandma’s spend practially all day by the window observing any comings and goings.  You’ll know your Czech has really made progress when you begin to understand the answers to this one which tend to be more complicated than an episode of “Desperate Housewives”.

So fellow students of Czech, as my fellow blogger Benny also advises, do not be deterred by the scare stories of how difficult this Slavonic tongue is to master!  Go forth and communicate!

P.S  Czech readers of this blog: please do let me know if I’ve made any mistakes/typos in this post.  I’m sure you would though anyway…


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27 Responses to Learn Czech with Grandma: five conversation starters to use U Babičky

  1. Gormie

    Nice post! Very useful phrases! You made me laugh again. 🙂

    The number 2 actually means “How are the hens getting along”. 😀 You have to drop the “se”.

  2. davidpodhola

    Nice post, thanks! Only the last one should be “Jak se mají sousedI?” (with “I” instead of “Y”) or even the most correct “Jak se mají sousedÉ?” I think…

  3. Well, I cannot ignore the request, so: Almost all the czech sentences have mistakes in them 🙂 Here is how it should be:

    Dobrý den! Jak se máte?
    Jak vám snáší slepice? (How are your hens laying?)
    Co jste měla dnes k obědu?
    Jak se mají sousedi?

    Other than that, nice post!

  4. girlinczechland

    Thanks for the corrections guys but it’s a little bit heartbreaking too… I tried to keep the post positive and upbeat but sometimes it seems I’ll never speak Czech properly (sigh) 🙁


  5. Sarka

    It’s okay GC. You are really doing well. Czech is simply a very difficult language… Your effort is admirable 🙂

    PS: Grannies would understand you and that’s most important 🙂

  6. Gormie

    A very difficult language indeed. Jujst keep trying. But those are just minor mistakes and everyone would understand you anyway.

  7. Great post as always. Don’t get too down about learning the language. Suddenly it just clicks – so i’m told!

  8. Tereza

    Sorry GIC,

    but also, Byla jste dneska na prochazce (local)?
    Keep fighting, your Czech is very impressive indeed.


    • girlinczechland

      Hi Tereza,

      Alas my Czech is as yet nowhere near as impressive as your English. I feel like I haven’t made all that much progress in the past year but I will persist! I don’t want to be that stereotypical expat who can only say ‘pivo’ (or in my teetotal case, Birrell…)

      Hope you and Aidan are well,

      • Tereza

        Come on! Don’t lower yourself. You are amazing. Most other Brits would give up and walk around with their “pivo prosim” (btw, my colleague pronounces ‘pivo’ in a way that in sounds like “bebo” :)). Your post made Aidan at least look where the textbooks can be found … so keep posting, maybe he will get to a point where he takes them off the shelf again 

        And one more small remark, I learn/am exposed to English for centuries, you do Czech for a very tiny fragment of that time.

        Hope you are well, I am glad you are having good time in Prague. How I would love to go for a coffee there now!

        Take care and hi to Czechman!

  9. Bnobby

    Very cool post. I’ve always wanted to move to Prague but for one reason or another haven’t – although I usually come to Prague at least once a year. Just wanted to say I think your post are creative, insightful and I learn something from them – Since I visit often enough, my friends there try and teach me but I think they’ve even given up on my ability to learn Czech 🙂 Thanks for sharing your adventure with the rest of us.

  10. girlinczechland

    Hi Bnobby,

    Thanks for the encouraging words but I would say don’t give up on the Czech learning! Just think how often you get to use even the most basic phrases into action – they’re always dobry-denning each other! It’s tough but I dream of the day when I can have a proper conversation and will be showered with compliments…


  11. Mr.Glock

    Why are you actually so desperate to learn czech? I guess you can live here without knowing czech very well. I think a little czech and english as mother tongue will do…

    By the way we almost never use “jak se máte/máš”. We only use that in case we really are interested how the person is doing. It is absolutely not the same as the english “how are you?” or “how are you doing?” because you dont expect the person to tell you how their life is really going. You simply say “Im fine” or “im fine how are you?” unless there is something really bad going on in your life. When we use “Jak se máš” it is usually the situation where we havent seen the person for a long time and expect to tell us a little about whats new in their life. We simply say “Ahoj/dobrý den”. Thats it. Saying “jak se máš” whenever meeting someone sounds nice however not very natural to us :-).. it is actually the same as czech answering the question “how are you” trying to say that today hasnt been particularly a great day lol..

    Anyway your effort to learn czech is remarkable!!

  12. Hi GIC – Good to see you posting once again. I was beginning to think you were no longer Girl in Czechland but Girl back in the UK.

    As a native English-speaker, I concur entirely with your observation of everyone wanting to try their English out on you rather than being patient as you try to use your limited Czech. And likewise, the best way to improve your Czech is to speak with someone who has no English themselves. But you do need to have made reasonable progress with the language yourself before trying to do that.

    It was inevitable that, despite your great efforts with your written Czech, that various native Czech speakers would point out your little errors. I know you asked them to but you also realised that they would anyway, without being asked!

    Therefore, can some native Czechs please explain if they are so particular about their own language, why are so many Czechs totally cavalier with English? Two recent examples at the Christmas markets here in Prague – ‘Mulled Vine’ & ‘Rousted Conkers’. And one from a restaurant window a few months back – ‘Goulash in a hallowed loaf of bread’.

  13. girlinczechland

    Hello Chaplain,

    Many thanks for your supportive comments. As someone who earns their daily bread by teaching English I’m built up a pretty high tolerance to the misuse and abuse of my mother tongue but your examples did make me chuckle 🙂

    I *will* continue with Mission Speak Czech! 2010 will be the year I can finally have a decent conversation involving all seven cases!


  14. ahoj GIC,
    as usual, your post is simply smart and funny.
    I admire your ability and knowledge in the czech, after 5 years I’m still at the “pivo prosim” step (almost the same for my english no improvement).
    I realized that there are people whom learn and speak new languages easly and other not.

  15. Pavel

    Hello GIC,

    Chaplain is right on the spot again. As a native Czech, I found it embarrassing that we Czechs sometimes discourage people who try to learn our language by pointing out various errors immediately, when what e.g. you wrote can be perfectly understood (with a little empathy). Yes, I think it is some lack of empathy what is missing here as bit. There is no bad intention here in my opinion.

    I personally think the reason for Czechs being so particular about Czech language is that as the Czech population is rather homogenous ethnically and locally, we are not used to all the levels and varieties of mastering our language comparing to e.g. Britons in London. People who do not speak Czech well are either kids, or ill, or seen mentally or socially, ehm, challenged. So I think that most Czechs simply do not know what to do when they encounter a rather intelligent lady – who speaks imperfectly?!

    I really admire your courage, GIC, and you write Czech very well indeed. The last steps to the perfection are always the most complex and demanding.

  16. Hi again GIC,

    I’m glad my examples of ‘Czenglish’ made you chuckle. In fact the last one was actually ‘Potato Soup in a hallowed loaf of bread’ rather than ‘Goulash’ – my poor recollection. There is photographic evidence of all three examples on my blog.

    • klaarka

      I think I’ve seen something even better: in one restaurant, the soup of the day was “soup with hepatic meatballs”. Bon appetit indeed…

  17. Aussiegirl

    GIC, I love your blog. I was in Prague just before Christmas (first time) with my own Czechman, and his family did indeed practice their English with me. They were pretty amused by my attemps at Czech, but I laughed at the comment about how the Czechs quickly correct English-speakers’ mistakes but ignore their faux pas in our language! For the best examples, pick up one of the booklets that advertise guided tours in Prague. My Czechman and I were in stitches, although the mistakes were completely charming! We decided he could probably support himself in style in Prague simply by translating the translations!!

    Keep up the great writing – there are lots of us out here who read regularly!

  18. Jana

    There are no mistakes!

    • girlinczechland

      There are no mistakes now because I went back and corrected them – my eager Czech readers were only too keen to point them out! Ach yo… 🙂


  19. Googling during some family tree research led me to your blog.

    Love. this. post.

    Think it is time expand my Czech beyond foodstuffs names. Although, that is perhaps the most important knowledge of all.



    • girlinczechland

      Hello there John,

      The grandmas are a never ending source of entertainment, good cakes and Czech conversation practice. Good luck with your family tree!


  20. John in TX

    Great blog! Really enjoyed hearing about your experiences in Czachland. Spent a few years living in the UK and The Netherlands so I had the chance to travel to Prague a couple of times. Would have loved to been able to live there also. Maybe after we retire.

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