Could learning Czech save your life?

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The answer, surprisingly, is yes. 

Or at least if you happened to have been English and living in Prague back in May 1945, then it would have been.  In fact, a simple phrase that you might encounter in chapter one of your textbook could have stopped you being torn apart by the mob.

In her recent book, Czechoslovakia, the State that Failed, Mary Heimann recounts how Englishwoman Rosemary Kavan only just managed to escape being set upon by enraged Czechs because her husband had taught her to say, ”nejsem Němka, jsem Angličanka’ (I’m not German, I’m English). 

It’s unlikely that I’ll find myself in such a life or death situation here today.  The closest I’ve come to being attacked in public is a few heated exchanges with supermarket cashiers over failing to provide the exact money or putting my basket back on the wrong pile. 

Learning Czech might stop me getting an ulcer though.

With this thought in mind, I’ve brushed the thick dust off my Czech textbooks which means that Czechman and I have been indulging in some roleplay of an evening. This was much less exciting than it might sound, until I hit upon the idea of rehearsing for a situation which has occured many times: what to do in Czechland when you attempt to interact in the native lingo and promptly have the phone slammed down on you.

Obviously back home in England I would immediately call back and give the person on the other end of the phone an earful.  However, sadly the unit on telephoning in Lida Hola’s otherwise excellent Czech Step By Step didn’t arm me with the necessary vocabulary. 

Worry not, friends!  Thanks to Czechman (‘Díky Czechmanovi’ – see, I can decline the third case) I now have a script prepared to use in this situation which will help me fight back and which I’d like to share with other Czech learners.  It goes something like this:

‘Dobrý den. Volala jsem před chvilkou ale vypadl mi signal. Chtěla bych se zeptat proč?  Měla jsem dojem že to byl protože jsem cizinka. Myslela jsem že Ceši jsou ždovrilý ale to byla moje chyba.’

‘Hello,  I called a minute ago but you put the phone down on me. I’d like to ask why? I had the impression that it was because I’m a foreigner.  I thought that Czechs were polite but that was my mistake.’

Of course no doubt in the heat of the moment I won’t remember a word of this no doubt but just working out how I might say it made me feel better. And in an emergency I could always scream out a colloquial phrase I picked up from Czechman: clue, the first word sounds like bread before you bake it’, the second one sounds like a fruit…

15 Comments

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15 Responses to Could learning Czech save your life?

  1. pf

    Say “mysela” and they will hang up on you again 🙂

    (Love your blog, by the way)

    • girlinczechland

      Dammit! I *knew* they’d be a typo but I thought I’d be missing a hacek! Curses!

      (glad you like the blog btw – it’s nice to be back…)

      GIC

  2. I wish I had used this phrase on my blog!

    “Email Knedlikova with your declarations of love, menacing threats or general queries here.”

  3. honza

    Hello GIC,
    I enjoy reading your blog very much.
    You do good job in learning czech , if you can get together this phrase. It has only few minor mistakes, but is perfectly understandable.
    Little suggestion of tweaking this phrase.
    “Vypadl mi signál” mean in english “The call dropped accidentally” (due network problem).
    “Vy jste mi praštil/a s telefonem” (You slammed phone down on me) will be better.

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Honza,
      Thanks for helping me in my mission to defend myself here in the Czechland: I want to sound polite but fierce which I’m sure your correction will help me to do!

      GIC

  4. “peaches”… hilarious!!!

  5. Nice to hear from you again in this blog, GIC!

    “Dobrý den. Volala jsem před chvilkou ale vypadl mi signal. Chtěla bych se zeptat proč? Měla jsem dojem že to byl protože jsem cizinka. Myslela jsem že Ceši jsou ždovrilý ale to byla moje chyba.”

    a bit rephrased – but your version is very clear as well, indeed

    “Dobrý den. Volala jsem před chvilkou ale hovor by přerušen. Chtěla bych se zeptat proč? Mám dojem že to bylo proto že jsem cizinka… myslela jsem že Češi jsou zdvořilí, ale asi se mýlím.”

    • girlinczechland

      Thanks a lot for your help with this Jezovec. Can I put a couple of other questions to you (and to whoever else wants to help out)?

      1. I was in the queue at Tesco the other day when a very rude lady pushed right in front of me. I said, ‘Prosim vas, ale ja jsem dalši’ – not that it made any difference, as the woman just blurted something at me in what I think was Russian. Anyway, what would be the appropriate phrase in this situation?

      2. Today I was just having a browse at some horribly overpriced magazines in English when the shop assistant asked if I wanted any help. I said, ‘Ne, jsem v pořadku’ (translating from English). Czechman tells me this doesn’t really sound very natural but is unable to suggest an alterative. Any ideas?

      Ta very much in advance,

      The Student of Czech Known as GIC

      • Sarka

        I think I could help you with the second situation:
        I use it very often when a shop assistant approach to me and ask if she or he could help me. I just always say: “Děkuji.” (and I smile to show that I appreciate that he or she wants to help me) “Jen se dívám.” (and in the case of browsing magazines: “Děkuji. Zatím vybírám.”)

        translation:
        “Thank you.” “I’m just looking.” (“Thank you. I haven’t choosen any yet.”)

        They don’t tend to look offended. So it’s useful.

        In the case of the first situation you mentioned, I think that you reacted appropriately. That was simply some rude woman and even if you were Czech and say something in Czech without accent she would refuse to go at the end of the queue.
        Next time maybe you could respond: “Běžte, prosím, na konec fronty. Čekám tady déle než vy.” (“Go to the end of the queue, please. I’m waiting here longer than you.”) but according to your description I think such woman wouldn’t go away.

        Good luck with your Czech-learning effort, it’s admirable. 🙂

      • girlinczechland

        Great stuff Sarka – this is really useful and will definitely help me in my mission to assert myself here in Czechland 🙂

        And your English seems pretty good to me BTW…

        GIC

      • You are welcome! On top of being amused by your witty posts and observations I also learn English from your blog, so paying a bit back in this form is the slightest I can do 🙂

        1. Using “Promiňte” (excuse me) is better in situations like this then “Prosím Vás”… which actually can sound a bit rude for a native Czech speaker. My feeling is that “promiňte” keeps open the posibility that the other person made a honest mistake, while “prosím Vás” indicates that the other person breaks the rule knowingly or by total indifference to good maners. I think that a native speaker would say “Promiňte, ale tady (už) stojím já” (Excuse me, but this is (already) my place [in the order of the queue]) or “Promiňte, ale teď jsem na řadě já” (if you are the one to be served now).

        2. “Děkuji, jen se rozhlížím.” (Thanks, I just look around) might be the universal phrase in the described situation. And if you add “Kdyžtak se zeptám.” (I’ll ask [myself] if I need) then you will be indistinguishable from the natives 🙂 !

      • You made me really think, GIC, regarding the proper Czech prases! I was not satisfied with my previous answer, I felt there is a better phrase, and I actully found a better one for the 1. scenario!

        “Promiňte, ale já jsem tu byla dřív.” – “Excuse me, but I’ve been here before you”

        or

        “Promiňte, ale já jsem tu byla první.” – “Excuse me, but I’ve been first here”.

  6. Sarka

    mistake:
    a shop assistant approach me (without “to”)
    🙂
    I’m learning English 🙂

  7. Marek

    Hi GIC,
    Glad you are still surviving in Czechland, haven’t checked here for a while. I admire your progress in mastering the language. I realize how much more difficult it is for you foreigners there, as opposed to us Czechs abroad. Not only Czech is incomparably more difficult than English, but people apparently still are quite a bit more arrogant there at times like those you describe. I can’t think of many situations abroad where I would need to reach for such forceful defense against people’s lack of common courtesy or blunt animosity in such commonplace situations like phone conversations or waiting in a line … (perhaps except when I tried to get a veggieburger at my first visit to McDonalds way back when). Well, keep up the good spirit, I hope you encounter greater number of pleasant situations overall. During my last stay in Prague, I was impressed by the professionalism and courtesy of all the hotel staff in contrast to what I remember from the past. So, don’t loose you optimism and take it as a perk to learning the various aspects of another culture…perhaps some things never change! My best to you. Marek

    P.S. Love your dough/peaches phonetic impression, still laughing about that one.

  8. Vero

    Great blog! Have been reading a long time. On my recent trip to Prague last month I also did not encounter too many rude people. Things have definitely changed since I visited last almost 14 years ago. People were very friendly and helpful 99% of the time.

    By the way….I don´t get the dough/peaches thing…!!

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