I decline to decline: why trying to speak Czech can sometimes feel like a waste of time

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I think I’m going to call the incident ‘Houskygate’.

All I wanted was five bread rolls. That’s not strictly true. What I actually wanted was four bread rolls, but that would have involved saying the word ‘čtyři’ which all foreigners struggle to pronounce. So I went into the the bakery (not a butchers or a hairdressers or even a bloody sex shop) and asked for ‘pět housky’.

The woman behind the counter looks at me like I’m a Martian or to be more exact, a Martian shaped piece of excrement she would dearly love to scrape off her shoe.

She doesn’t ask me to repeat what I’ve said. Instead she turns to her colleague and says, ‘Rozumite jí?’ (Do you understand her?)

Blood boiling by now, I repeat – no, yell – exactly the same thing across the counter. My pronunciation can’t be that bad as I get my five rolls. Perhaps its the volume I need to work on.

It isn’t over: I still need to pay.  My five rolls come to fourteen crowns and I only have a 100kc note.  This is, of course, crime of the century and earns me a ‘to je jenom čtrnáct koruny, sakra!’ (It’s only fourteen crowns for God’s sake!) as though it were terribly impertinent of me to expect change to be provided in a shop where I should happen to be purchasing goods.

Why oh why, people, do I bother trying to learn Czech (and I have tried quite hard - I can decline a noun in the singular form in every single case and unlike many of my ex-pat brethen I actually know what a case is) when my reward is rudeness and public humiliation?

Phew.  That’s better.  You’re right, Ms Knedlikova, it was cathartic.

For the sake of balance, let me share a funny Czech speaking anecdote with you.  Last summer, I wanted to get the train to Brno to visit a friend.  I went to the ticket booth and asked for ‘jeden listek do Brna’.   The lady tried to charge me 1000kc, which did seem rather steep.  It transpired that this was because the woman had misunderstood and thought I wanted to go to Berlin.  We both had a bit of a chuckle about this and once again, I asked for my ticket, ‘do Brna.’  It came to a much more reasonable 300kc.  I paid and began to head off towards the plaform.

However, this time, the kind lady had sold me a ticket not to Berlin or to Brno, where I actually wanted to go, but to the town of Prna.  I promptly went back and explained that there had been a ‘chyba’ (mistake).

‘Chci jet do Brna,’ I say for the umpteenth time.  ‘Do Brna.’  In the interests of communication, I finally decline to decline. ’Brno.’

‘Tak umíte cesky!’ the woman replies. ‘So you do speak Czech!’  I finally get my one-way ticket to Brno and manage not to miss my train.

Why didn’t she understand me?  Probably because I bothered to decline the case (i.e I changed Brno to Brna because I was going there and therefore had to use the genitive) and she just assumed no foreigner would be capable of that.  Like when I tell receptionists that I have a meeting  ’s Michalem‘  and they reply blankly ‘Michal?’ as though I’m mentally defective.

Perhaps I just need to grow a thicker skin. 

I’m going to eat my bread rolls.

100 Comments

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100 Responses to I decline to decline: why trying to speak Czech can sometimes feel like a waste of time

  1. Ondřej

    Hi,
    čtyřicet” is actually 40, while “čtrnáct” is 14.

    Even though I’m Czech, I’m still a little worried every time I have to pay for something this cheap and have only banknotes on me. Those shop assistant’s evil eyes etc. always make me want to steal those bloody bread rolls.

    We are criminals, paying for stuff with banknotes, aren’t we?

    • girlinczechland

      Hey Ondrej,
      Thanks for the correction – and I claim I can speak Czech! It seems that anyone who tries to pay for anything and doesn’t have the exact money for it is a criminal, not just those who hope to use a banknote…
      GIC

    • Luke

      It’s even worse when you are trying to pay for something that costs like around 50-100 kc with a credit card…

      • Lucie

        I internalized the habit of having the exact amount of money so much that I apologize for not having it even when I am abroad… and people do look at me strangely.

  2. LOL I do sympathize….

    Writing notes or having Czech friends do so can be hazardous – especially if you have a tendency to mix them up.

    Hence my recent embarrassment at VZP office when instead of handing over pre-written note saying “I need a replacement card”, I presented previous doctor’s note saying “I have chronic pins-and-needles in my left arm”.

    Got a funny look THEN I can tell you… ;-) )

  3. As a newbie to the Czech Republic (and already a speaker of two foreign languages, neither of them Czech), I wonder what your take is on how worthwhile it is for a new expat here to throw themselves into learning the language? I am not terribly bothered about learning Czech, aside from the fact that I do LIVE HERE now, and I don’t want to be one of “those” expats either, who just can’t be bothered even learning a few easy words to get by. Thoughts?

    PS – Thanks for your writings. They are a true help to this Czech neophyte!

  4. Soon after starting to learn Czech, I learned that “Dobry den. Chtel bych….” is a very polite way to ask for something in a shop – something like “Good morning, I’d like ……”. It’s true, it IS a very polite way to ask for something, but the trouble is that no one ever says it (apart from foreigners trying to learn Czech).

    When I tried it at my local bread shop, I got the same sort of look as GIC received, followed by a brusque “Co?” (What?). I repeated it, but before I got to the end, there was another “Co?”, and she then started serving another customer. Maybe raising the volume is the answer!!

    And “čtyři” ….. when I first came here, I used to avoid petrol pump number 4 like the plague – for the same reason. It’s almost impossible to pronounce :-) , but now I can handle numbers like “tři sta třicet tři” (333) quite well, but get terribly confused with numbers 19 “devatenáct” and 90 “devadesát”.

    Ach jo …. another 8 years and it’ll improve!

    R+?

    • Ondřej

      “Dobrý den, chtěl bych…” is a completely fine introduction, I use it on a daily basis. I even use more polite versions of this with no problems. Maybe you’re right, maybe your polite behavior confused her, strange.

      As for 19 vs. 90. Numbers from 11-19 end with -náct (like -teen, except in Czech it even includes 11 and 12), so e.g. people aged 11 through 19 are called “náctiletí” — basically the same as “teenagers”. Strangely enough, you can hear the word “teenager” more often than “náctiletý”. Just a quick note.

    • Jenny

      I don’t find the phrase “Chtěl bych…” overly polite at all. I even use “Dobrý den, já bych prosila…..”, which is even “worse”, and never noticed anyone acting funny about it. What kind of dodgy shops do you go to:-))

      • Linda

        When you say “Dobrý den, já bych prosila…..”, everybody knows you are a foreigner, because we usually omit subject. This sounds unnatural. So much better is “Dobrý den, prosila bych…..” :o )

      • You’re right – it was a dodgy shop! The sort that you don’t go in to, but queue at a little window outside.
        R+?

      • Kuba

        I think this sort of depends on the part of the country you’re in. In my city and surroudings (Liberec), it’s absolutely normal to say “Dobrý den, já bych chtěl/já bych prosil” even with the subject and it’s not considered overly polite. It’s just a normal beginning of a sentence when you don’t want to sound rude.

      • Linda

        Kuba: I am directly from Liberec. :-) And I say it’s not usual to say “JÁ bych prosila”. Generally in Czech language we omit subject.

  5. Sarka

    Dobrou chuť (-to k těm rohlíkům).

    Je zvláštní, že já obvykle tuhle zkušenost s prodavačkami/prodavači nemám. Možná to má co dělat se seběvědomím, s jakým člověk přistupuje k setkání s prodavači nebo že si dovolí být nevrlí spíše na cizince než na Čechy.

    Nedávno jsem platila tisícovkou v autobuse za jízdenku, která stála 18,-. A nebyl to žádný problém. Ale předem jsem se omluvila.

    • girlinczechland

      Dobrý věcer Sarko,
      dějuku moc za poznámka. Je to pravda že čast problemu muze být otázka duvěry. Bojím se pořad že lidi nebudou mi rozumět a tak dělam víc chyby… To je hrozny. Ale myslim že hodně Ceši nejsou spokojené s obsluhou v obchodech nebo v restauraci tady v Cechach.

      Blogočtenáři, co si o tom myslite?
      GIC

      • Zuzana

        You’re right. As a Czech, I’m very unhappy about the rudeness of people in the shops and restaurants. And about the permanent angriness of many strangers one meets in the street, on the tram, etc. If you happen to delay them by ten seconds, they will bark at you like crazy. But I also think they might be even worse towards you as a foreigner. I don’t know, probably it’s some hidden xenophobia, as well as lack of understanding: they have probably never tried to learn any foreign language and they have never even thought of living abroad, so they are disturbed by your presence, because it doesn’t fit in with their way of life and thinking. – But that’s just a guess.
        But don’t get discouraged, there are many nice people, too. Good luck!

      • Ondřej

        You always complain about not improving in Czech, but this is great! Keep up the good work.

      • Sarka

        Pěkná reakce :) Myslím, že je skvělé, že se snažíte naučit česky :)

        Spousta lidí je prostě zvyklá na to, jak se obsluha chová. Bereme to jako normu. Teprve poté, co poznáme zahraničí, nám to začne připadat příliš nepříjemné.

        Ale zase, třeba v suermarketech, je to upřímné-ne jako ty neustálé americké úsměvy. A taky se to už lepší-v kavárnách, restauracích…

      • george raisler

        Cesi nikdy nebyly dobry na obsluhu, a jejich customer service je hrozny.

      • Markéta

        Ahoj Girlinczechland :)
        Tvůj blog mě moc zaujal, nikdy by mě nenapadlo, že my Češi jsme k cizincům mluvícím česky tak protivní- a když se nad tím zamyslím, je to bohužel tak! Až na mě bude nějaký cizinec zase mluvit česky, polepším se! :) A stejnou nervozitu z mluvení cizím jazykem jsem měla taky když jsem byla za příbuznýma v Austrálii a pořád jsem tolik myslela na to jestli mluvím gramaticky správně, až jsem nakonec radši neříkala nic. Pak mi nalili pár skleniček vína a od té doby už se nebojím, mluvím a pouze si užívám radost z komunikace :)
        Hodně štěstí i dál ;)

      • Corrie

        Češi jsou protivní i sami na sebe! Jsme národ morousů :D

  6. It reminds me of a famous anecdote from the Russian language, where someone needs to buy five pokers. He goes into the shop and tries to make the genitive plural (which follows five and higher in Russian) from “kocherga” – he says “5 kochereg”, then catches himself – it doesn’t sound right. “5 kocheryog” – nope that doesn’t sound right either (in fact, dictionaries do give that as the right one)… “5 kochergov?” Nope.

    So in the end he says “4 kochergi, and then another one!”

    In this anecdote, even the native speakers have difficulty with the declension. According to Karen von Kunes’ book “Beyond the Imaginable – 240 ways of looking at Czech” – a very good lavatory book which I am seriously thinking of ripping off for Polish – the authoress mentions that Czech people have a lot of difficulties with the locative case for masculine inanimate nouns in their own language. That at least is some comfort.

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Viktor,
      Yes, it is some comfort to hear that the Czechs also struggle: it does make me feel a little better when I hear Czechman mumbling ‘Koho, cěho, komu, cěmu..’ under his breath while composing an email and trying to decide which case to use. I’ll be in trouble for making that public no doubt ;)
      I’ve heard of the book you mention but don’t own a copy: might just have to purchase one for my own little girl’s room…
      GIC

  7. #13

    Perhaps “pět housek” would have done a better job? ;) (Just teasing you for your claim about your declining skills. :) )

    The woman’s behavior was very stupid and rude.

    • girlinczechland

      Hello there Pan 13,
      Damn, you’re right! ‘Housky’ is of course the genitive singular whereas ‘housek’ is the genitive plural! Thanks for pointing that out – really! When I said I knew all the cases, I should have added ‘only in the singular’ – you don’t tackle the plural forms until the Intermediate textbook which I’m about to start. Until then, you just have to ask for one roll at a time :)
      I have to say also that I’m glad you think she was rude and that I’m not just being oversensitive :)
      GIC

  8. Stefan

    I feel for you. I have seen an expat at bakery at Dejvica metro station ask for 4 housky or something similar with a broken Czech but reasonably good and the guy was very polite. the shop assistent started yelling at him for pretending to be a f*ing foreigner and not speaking Czech when he knows how to speak or whatever. it didn’t make sense besides she was very uncomfortable if you don’t use perfect Czech.

    my advice is to not take it personally, it is just another crap flying around but there is a lot of it even between Czechs so you get maybe 10% extra
    :-)

    regarding ctyri – maybe you noticed some Czechs pronounce it as c’tyri (with normal R) – maybe Moravian? but easier to pronounce and widely understood.

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Stefan,
      God, sounds like I got off pretty lightly! No-one has ever actually started screaming at me – yet… And thanks for the pronunciation tip, I’ll give that a try. :)
      GIC

      • Ada

        “Čtyry” or “štyry”, and it’s not just a moravian thing, you can hear it everywhere. It’s a lazy way to say “čtyři”. Many hard to pronounce words get a similar treatment, and the resulting product is what we call common Czech (as opposed to the standard, 100% correct Czech).
        Regarding accents, in Plzeň, you can try “štyrííí”, and in Praha “štere”, but never, ever use Praha accent anywhere else, especially in Moravia, because you would be instantly hated for being a spoilt, self-important Pražačka!

      • girlinczechland

        Hello Ada,
        I personally positively pray for the day when I’ll be mistaken for a Prazacka!!! Thanks for your words of advice anyway!
        GIC

    • Lenka

      I think I know the bakery you are referring to. Rest assured that the shop assistants there are dreadfull and rude to everyone foreigner or not. I understand that selling buns probably is not a dream job but who cares ? Nobody hold a gun up to her head, she can go and do something else. Can´t because this is all she can manage ? In that case she should have studied harder.

    • Corrie

      For God sake no! Čtyry is Bohemian lazy way to say čtyři! You can often hear Moravians speak more Czech than Bohemians ;)

  9. i can’t help, it’ll probably make me feel coy at my following travels abroad.

  10. kebule

    auctually it’s čtrnáct korun – as from five above you use the genitive plural: 2-4 things: nominative plural (čtyři koruny) – 5 and more: pět korun :-)

  11. Kristýna

    I am Czech and I am polite to shop assistants, so it´s not just foreginers who are trying. Though I have to admit, shop assistants rarely reciprocate and the same happens with waiters etc. It´s improving, but not quickly enough.

  12. Jan

    Hi GIC,

    I’ve seen many Czechs being treated just like you, including myself, and even more foreigners. As a matter of fact, a majority of these foreigners tried really hard to speak Czech and expected at least some credit to be given for such a bold shot. In vain, of course, because an awful lot of Czech shopkeepers and assistants are bored and unsatisfied doing their job and they tend to use their customers as an easy prey for grounding their frustration. There are basically two ways of dealing with such a situation… being the better person and swallow your disappointment, or giving them a finger and choosing some other shop.

    I wish you better luck next time!

    Jan

    • girlinczechland

      Hi everyone!
      I’m a bit overwhelmed by all the reactions that ‘Houskygate’ (or should that be ‘Housekgate’) has provoked! Thanks for all your comments though: I’ve read them all with interest and many of them made my Czechman and I laugh out loud…
      @Jan I went for the ‘being a better person’ option on this occasion although I was tempted to just walk out – I must have really wanted those rolls…
      @Liliana You’ve reminded me that shamefully I’ve never read any Terry Prachett! I’m putting it on my to-do list immediately – no doubt his novels will cheer me up on days when stupid things like this happen
      @Lana Hmm, there’s an idea: my next post might just be ‘Houskygate: Part II – the naming and shaming of the evil bakery…’
      @Drexxy Thanks a lot for these useful phrases – why is there never anything this useful in so-called ‘Communicative Czech’ or ‘Chcete mluvit cesky’???
      @Steve Your comment scores ten points for comedy. Czechman almost wet his proverbial pants when I read it out to him this morning and he is not exactly a man of mirth. He particularly liked the bit about only frequenting Vietnamese shops in future – they may have a lesser class of housky but a better class of service
      @Kuba ‘Pay up and get out, we need the table’ – ARE YOU BEING SERIOUS??
      @Zuzana I’ll try not to get discouraged but believe me, it’s tough :(
      @Alenka Sorry to hear that the Spaniards also don’t have much patience with foreigners trying to speak their language. Is it my imagination or are the English really better at talking to foreigners because we have more practice and are more used to them living in the UK?
      Mej se everyone!
      GIC

      • Kuba Uchytil

        Yes, I’m serious – it happened only once, but what an unforgettable experience. Especially since it was soon after I spent year in the States and gotten somewhat used to their standard of service (waitress sometimes annoyingly standing by your table just in case you need anything, restaurant personnel waiting until 3am when the last couple of guests finish their chat and drinks and go home, so that they can finally lock up).

        I think at that time we were so shocked that we basically did what we were asked for, without a word – which also says a lot about the Czech “just walk over me, I don’t care” nature.

  13. Liliana

    and the funny thing is, how many people increase their voice and try to speak more clearly, repeating the same phrase again and again, louder and clearer, even though they must see you really really do not understand Czech (or Slovak :)
    i first read about it in a terry pratchett book and thought it was just a funny joke, but then i observed it so many times in a real life, it’s quite hillarious

  14. Lana

    I second Jenny – what kind of shops do you go to? :)
    But here’s an idea – this shop assistant’s behavior deserves punishment. Publish the shop’s location and the description of the woman. In the next few days we – your faithful readers – will go there one by one, and ask for “pet housky” in different foreign accents, paying with 500Kc bills. How many expats does it take to bring her to a nervous breakdown? ;)

  15. Drexxy

    Don”t worry about bad behavior, when you meet someone you should just try to make a first polite impression and when they are rude at you, you have to be more rude :-D . Czech shop assistant behaviour is very, umm, uncomfortable and usually worse job, even more worse behaviour. I”l give you some phrases you could use just fine without any trouble with grammar…
    Dejte mi jednu tamtu (and show) =give me one piece of this
    Dejte mi dvě tamty= give me 2 pcs of these, use with 2-4 pieces
    Dejte mi deset tamtěch = give me ten pcs of these -use with 5 or more pcs
    Dvacet(deset, třicet..) deka tohodle = 20 decagrams ( weird unit, but used, it means 20 x 10g ).
    And when someone shows his evil eyes when you pay with bank note and ask for smaller coins (when you need to pay 14 and have 200, they usually want 214 for easier counting-i know, it”s dumb since modern cashiers show amount to give back) you just have to say: Nemám (i don”t have).
    Enjoy your stay in CZ :-D

  16. Ada Petrova

    Good evening, GIC,

    It seems to me that you are very fond of Czech language after all. I am particularly curious whether speaking Czech (or any other language you might have been studying) makes you as happy as me when I speak English:)

    And do not worry about the shop assistants.. They are really rude to everybody.

    PS. I remember feeling awkward when I was in London (a long time ago, though). It took me a while to get used to the local accent and it felt like everybody was looking at me like I was some sort of a weirdo..

  17. steve

    What you have to remember is that actually some of these shop assistants are rude, mean and looking to pick faults with EVERYONE not just foreigners attempting to speak Czech. I have lived here for 13 years and my advice on using Czech in a public place is FORGET IT! It will only dampen your confidence. Even although my Czech is not proficient by any means I still have trouble sometimes – my best one recently was asking for a ‘potvrzený’ in the post office for the longest time I was pronouncing it as if it started with ‘pod’ and got totally hacked off when no one understood me. Let’s not forget (and I say this as a Scot) that actually native speakers the world over misunderstand each other when we pronounce the exact same word slightly differently. Imagine a Scot with asking for 4 rolls in English to a shopkeeper in New York! So don’t be too hard on yourself and avoid grumpy shopkeepers or stick with the Viatnamese ones! ;-)

  18. Kuba Uchytil

    I understand that it is a popular Chinese pastime to pretend they don’t understand you when you try to speak Chinese (or even English), even if they in fact do – and then thoroughly enjoy the resulting embarassment. Perhaps it is being adopted by local salespeople, too? Any new way to torture customers is welcome.

    The guilt when paying with large(ish) banknotes is a very Czech thing, as you have noticed. I always try to look very much ashamed, and use the phrase “Můžu na Vás s tísícovkou?” (loosely “Can I hit you with a thousand?”)… This saves faces both ways – I pretend that it’s not her problem to have the needed change, and she pretends that she’s actually doing me a favour. Oh yes, we are soo much the servants of the services people here…

    Once some big retail chain (on top of IKEA) figures out how to hire pleasant and smiling employees, and then how to keep them being that way, it will make loads of money here. Until then it’s sometimes so good to hit that unpleasant cashier with a 5000… Even just as a figure of speech :-)

    And by the way, just wait till you get told in some random pub to “Pay up and get out, we need your table.” No kidding.

  19. Alenka

    This is so funny… but it is not really.

    My now husband lived in Prague and because I wasn’t there most of the time, he really made effort to speak Czech. I remember him being shocked, when paying at the checkout and not having enough. The shop assistent didn’t allow him to choose what he wants to keep, but smacked his hand, when he tried to save the urgently needed shavers. Apparently the lady was shouting something, but what, nobody knows.

    Being Czech and living abroad, I dread going to shops and restaurants here. To be fair, younger people are usually more friendly to everybody and it seems they have more common sense. It may be that their job is only temporary.

    I know how difficult it is to live abroad and learning our language is incredibly hard, so please allow me to praise you all who are trying. You doing great and the great number of stupid people in the service industry should be more than ashamed for “not understanding”… they are just so square they don’t want to to understand!

    Now we live in Spain and the same is happening to us, raising volume to shouting usually does the job and seems to cause a lot of embarrasment to the person behind the counter. It takes a bit of practice, but works well. Maybe if you really shout, they will have to pay attention to you just to stop to cause a stir up.

    Good luck to you all and well done for trying and doing GREAT JOB out of it!!!

  20. Linda

    Don’t be so sad about this, every foreigner in every country meets this. I studied in Mongolia and had these problems too, shop assistants were pretending not to understand. Funny is, that I was awarded as one of the best students at Mongolian State University in Ulaanbaatar. :o ) But in shops I thought I’m completely incapable. Than I was in an apothecary, again that lady told me she doesn’t understand, even though I repeated few times what I needed, but Mongolian guy next to me understood and was also pretty confused about her. So I found it’s really not my fault. :o )
    (Excuse my english please, still it’s not perfect.)

    • girlinczechland

      Hi Linda,
      I can understand that *maybe* Mongolians might not be used to hearing foreigners speak their language and therefore use that as an excuse to claim they don’t understand. But Czechs? Come on, it’s been 20 years since the Revolution so we can’t be that much of a novelty anymore. Anyway, my linguistic battles will continue…
      GIC

      • Linda

        Mongolia was not so secluded as you think. They were subjugated by Chinese in 17. century and almost whole 20. century they were occupied by Russians. They are used to hearing their language from foreigners. :-)
        Good luck in your battle.

      • girlinczechland

        Hello Linda,
        Yes, I should have remembered that – and I’ve even read Petra Hulova’s excellent ‘All This Belongs to Me’ (the title’s completely different in English – the literal translation of the Czech would be something like ‘Memories of My Grandmother’).
        Thanks for the encouragement: I’ve found a new Czech teacher so we may actually see some concrete progress soon…
        GIC

      • Linda

        Hello,
        concerning Petra Hulova’s book – it’s considered as very good book, actually I don’t like it, because it’s written in colloquial language. :-) Still Petra is a good writer, that’s for sure. But please know, that Mongolian people DO NOT think in such a way, it’s Czech people’s thinking placed in Mongolia. So don’t consider it as book about real live in Mongolia. Petra Hulova had big problems with Mongolian people living here because of this book and our professor too. PhD. Alena Oberfalzerova was attacked, how is possible that her student could write something like that. And I’ve heard that Petra doesn’t dare to go to Mongolia again, someone threatened her with killing.

  21. Kateřina

    Hi,
    I understand your problems as I tried to live in Spain and also tried to speak Spanish which is far easier then the Czech language. Firstly I felt insulted when always after my (in my opinion well pronounced sentence) I heard :Que? (What?) but then I got used to it. It’s really pitty that after speaking 3 languages and graduating from law school I still sometimes feel like an idiot who is not able to order a beer but I try not to take it personally and the same I recommend to you with czech shop assistants or ticket sellers:)
    Good luck with czech, I really admire that you try to were able to learn it.

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Katerina,
      Yes, I really should learn not to take it so personally or I’ll never survive here! I’m almost embarrased that this has become my most popular blog post of all time (2500 hits yesterday – I still can’t believe it) as I fear I may have made a housky-shaped mountain out of a molehill (although even the normally skeptical Czechman agrees that the woman’s behaviour was out of order).
      Anyway, hope my (mis)adventures continue to entertain you all…
      GIC

  22. This post is hilarious. I love it and it reminds me of even my own brief encounters with the Czech language.

  23. Tina

    Hi GIC,

    alas many czech people are not very polite and they loose control easily. It will take us a while to get rid of this old regime heritage. And don’t worry about your Czech – we are experiencing similar with english: for czech people the pronunciation of some english words is not easy, for example a beginner has problems typically with 13 vs. 30, dog vs. duck (those were my favorite misunderstandings), world vs. word… it all sounds the same to us and I got my share of shame for those in the US too – as we say in czech: Nejhorší je srážka s blbcem, and this can happen to you anywhere in the word. I mean world. ;) My american husband once asked for vinný střik (wine with mineral water) instead of výpis z trestního rejstříku (crime register extract) but luckily the clerk was well tempered that day ;)
    Držím palce a ať se ti tu líbí
    T.

    • Tomáš

      One note. It’s not old regime heritage if you think so called communism (althoug there was no such thing in here). It’s just nature of Czech nation for hundreds of years. It’s over 20 years since Velvet “Revolution”. Enough time for change. No excuse.

      • Jiha

        Well, if there should be the need for some excuse, I think the communist era heritage still counts. The majority of population was brought up in those conditions and with their upbringing they will bring up other children in their image. It is a long way to go for the people who cannot change themselves on their own. As for me, I pretty much don’t know about overall rudeness of people in services and anywhere. There is a very small number of shops which I know as being populated by unpleasant personnel but that’s all. Maybe I just don’t pay attention to other people’s behaviour that much and I think that’s for the best.

      • girlinczechland

        Hi Jiha,
        It’s something of a cliche to complain about the grumpiness of Czech service personnel – but then again, how does a cliche become a cliche? Because unfortunately there is more than a degree of truth to this claim. And I’m really a bit tired of hearing ‘It’s just the legacy of Communism’ being wheeled out as an excuse. The Velvet Revolution was twenty years ago. Some of these less-than-polite employees have practically no direct experience of that time. There just *must* be more to it than that. What are your thoughts, readers? Any other theories?
        GIC

  24. Ltk

    Hi, I am czech myself and I have too such a funny stories. One of my favourites is when i go to a Tabák store to get my box of cigarettes. I usualy buy Golden American, but pronouce it 100% czech. Yet very often the answer is a stupid look an “Kohooo?”
    (Whoom?). Like she was selling somebody.. I do not want “koho” i want “něco”. So then i just point the location on the shelve and get what i wanted.

    Also another story i got from a friend of mine when he was in france trying to order wine, and the waitres stubornny pretended not to understand, and then she was like ” oh vin”. Sorry but theres is no way she cant understand wine and vin (if you know french you know that is not that big diference)

    so its not a local thing only i guess..

    • girlinczechland

      Hehehe: I enjoyed these tales. The French are not desperately patient with foreigners’ attempts to speak their language but in my experience they are usually worse at English than you natives of Czechland so keep that in mind and feel smug :) I worked at a small language school in a big French town for a while and I could have counted the number of upper intermediate students we had on one hand…
      GIC

  25. Marek Blahuš

    Hello, I am Czech, presently doing a work placement in France, and beleive me, I live through a similar situation here: All the French suppose me to be speaking their language, but if I indeed try a bit, they kind of play on me and do not strive very much to understand me. Still, at least, they do motivate me to use their language – simply because they do not speak any others. Which is not that much the case in the Czech Republic anymore, I think, and which was absolutely not the case in Belgium/Flanders, where I was staying two years ago and where everybody would reply you in English even if they saw you were trying to put through with your already quite good knowledge of Dutch. Be strong and keep improving and practicing your Czech, I support you.

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Marek,
      Thanks for your words of encouragement. I too spent some time in France, so I know just how, ahem, ‘challenging’ their attitude to foreigners attempting to speak their language can be. So long as no-one’s called you a ‘vache espagnole’ yet then you must be doing ok :)
      GIC

  26. Just a note to the ticket buying, GIC: people here usually do NOT decline names of the destination when buying tickets. If I go to Plzeň, then I always ask for “Dobrý den, – jednou – Plzeň – zákaznická – zpáteční -, prosím.”, where the “-” stays for a short silent moment, not “Chtěl bych prosím do Plzně a zpět, se zákaznickou slevou”.

    The reason behind it might be to avoid misunderstanding in the noisy railway station environment….

    So in your case, GIC, the proper request would rather sound like “Jednou – Brno -, prosím” with strong accent to the Brno word.

    I know declining is quite exciting, but do not overuse it ;-)

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Jezovec,
      Thanks so much for this comment! Czechman confirms that it is not necessary to decline the names of towns and cities when purchasing a ticket: very useful information indeed, in fact, just the sort of thing I wish they would include in Czech language learning textbooks.
      When I eventually have a little free time, I’m hoping to include an extra page on the blog which would collect together all the useful expressions Czech readers have been providing in the comments to posts so that we learners of Czech can access all this very helpful info in one place. Watch this space!
      GIC

  27. Marek

    Funny post, I feel for you. Had similar discouraging experiences during my first years abroad, especially with African Americans in fastfoods, who tend to be less prone to trying to figure out your accent, or when looking for a plunger in a store by asking for a “sucker” (which was in my Peprnik’s Czech-English dictionary).

    Sorry to hear about the ubiquitous Czech store rudeness once again. Next time, perhaps pronouncing 4 as “shtyri” will get you “only” a look as you are a villager from Moravia (that what I get when in Prague) but will get the job done. Or send me the extra fifth role here over the Atlantic, I would die to have some here!

    • girlinczechland

      Hi again Marek,
      Thanks for the positive feedback and pronunciation tips – I need all the help I can get! And I may well pop that fifth roll in the post to you: how is the bread situation in the US vs here in Czechland? Czechman swears the bread here is better quality than back in the UK…
      GIC

      • Kuba Uchytil

        Having spent quite a bit of time “over the pond” maybe I can answer that…

        The U.S. bread situation sucks! It is very hard to impossible to find “our” bread there, not to mention rolls. All the Americans get are different kinds of “toast” bread, which in turn are to a different extent inedible. I was dying for some “normal” bread (and rolls!!) after a while…

        By the way when I say rolls, I don’t mean the supermarket for 0.9 CZK kind of “rolls”, but a properly baked tasty ones… That you can only find outside Prague nowadays…

  28. Ada

    And US bread is sweet. They put sugar in everything.
    Luckily you can bake a passable imitation of rolls with the all-purpose flour. You can even make Czech bread, if you manage to make the bread leaven.

  29. Marek

    Kuba and Ada are absolutely correct about the bread sold in general supermarkets in the US (calling it bread is actually somewhat misleading). If lucky, you will find local bakeries, ofter of Russian, Hungarian or German derivation. I hate to admit but yes, we have shopped at Russians-run international stores both in Cleveland and now in Boston, as much as we used to ridicule them in the “old time” Czechoslovakia, here they have a lot of European produce, so one can even brush up on the extensive Russian teaching we got at school (since their shop assistants often share some rudeness with Mrs. Grumpyova from your story, it comes really handy when they think that you don’t understand their comments). We are lucky that Maine where we live now has lot of Scandinavian and German ancestry, so couple of the local breads here actually taste just like at home. Rolls, of course, are non-existent here, just like in the UK. We tried to make them at home with mixed results, largely due to the absence of fresh yeast on the market here (they only sell powdered yeast where we are). Their “all purpose flour” is also quite a hyperbole but we buy Czech flour from an on-line Slovak/Czech store from New York City, which has been really a great source of many things for us. So yes, ship the extra rolls anytime!

  30. Pingback: A Tale of Two Canteens « GIRL IN CZECHLAND

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  32. Jana

    Hehe, I have the same problem as you with number “čtyři”, but in English with number “three” or “thirty-three” – I think I will never be able to pronounce those correctly. Oddly enough, while I was living in the UK, my address was 33 Sheldon Road, so I kind of could not avoid it that often:-)

  33. I LOVE this post!!

    I have a family of four, but for our first eleven months here, I ordered five of everything. “Pět klobása, prosim.” Which is wrong, of course. ‘Klobása’ is singular, no declension, yada yada, but I always got my food.

    Now? Well now I can say ‘čtyři’!! I may never be a Czech grammar goddess, which is pretty important to a people who will proofread signs on doors with markers, but my pronunciation actually makes my Czech teacher smile. (Not the mocking smirk expats get on public transport. The real kind.)

    Thanks for a lovely post…come visit my blog when you have some time.

  34. Dear Girl in Czechland,
    I am English and have lived in Liberec for 6 years, married to a Czech lady, with our bilingual kids.
    Czechs have no reserve, which means you get the raw person. This is good cos you know what you are dealing with, unlike the often-fake English.
    Simply put, there are 2 basic types of Czech, the positive ones and the negative ones, nothing in the middle. The positive ones are deeply warm and kind, and genuine, and you can experience a depth of friendship not often found in the UK.
    The negative ones are like that horrible lady you dealt with in the bakery. Usually middle-aged or older, rude, intolerant and easily pissed off, and not at all service-minded. They give you a raw look of you being a piece of shit and have a constant robotic poker face, even if you smile at them. So when you meet a czech, judge what they are, + or -, then behave accordingly. With the negatives, put up your mental “firewall” and deal with them like they are robots, and only interact normally with the positive kind. The negatives are not worth bothering with as there is no hope. So to be happy in Czechia, ignore the negative ones, and embrace the many positive ones, who are the highest potential of the Czechs, and all people.

    • girlinczechland

      Hi Mike,
      What you say makes a good deal of sense. I’ll try to bear it in mind the next time I have *issues* with Czech service ;)
      GIC

  35. I have just started Czech. I have spent 4 years on Russian, on my own, around an hour or so a day. The Russian really helps the Czech, although the vocabulary is surprisingly different.

    I don’t sweat the cases, I know I will eventually get better. I find that I could not just try to “ace” them. I just kind of let them develop gradually and hope to get gradually more accurate. I try to notice them when I read and listen.

    And I am 65 years old.

  36. Andrew

    How do you get upset because of something like that? It feels, like you really got some stress out of it, if you’re complaining here. Just take it easy and people will come to you :) And I myself would never buy 5 rolls only because of not being able to pronounce ‘four’ properly. Showing her 4 fingers should do the trick :)

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Andrew,

      I know it might seem ridiculous that I’d be so annoyed by such a seeming non-event, but when you’re really making an effort to learn and speak Czech, you don’t want to be constantly treated like you’re mentally deficient or to have to resort to sign language.

      What I really find ironic is that this is one of the most popular posts I’ve written so I think that shows many other foreigners struggle with the negative response they receive when attempting to communicate in the local lingo *and* that many Czechs can empathise with being on the receiving end of poor service, because it happens to them too on a daily basis. The answer? Grit your teeth and walk away muttering swear words under your breath and then vent your anger in a blog post. Works for me ;)

      GIC

      • Andrew

        Hello GIC,
        Yes, I think that Czechs and people from the former Soviet countries(just like me) are (unfortunately) much more used to that kind of treatment and do have have a thicker skin, but still I think it’s best to resolve a problem the very moment it arises and not be carrying any anger inside you. Writing about it in a blog can obviously help to relieve emotions, but if I could, I’d advise you to maybe change your approach a little bit – for instance, you could write down the things you want to buy on a piece of paper and then smile to a clerk at the shop while showing it to her. I think it’s pretty likely you’d be leaving that shop in a good mood :)

      • girlinczechland

        Hi Andrew,

        Thanks for your suggestion but I’m proud to report that I successfully asked for ctryri housky at the weekend so hopefully pieces of paper will no longer be necessary. Hurrah!

        GIC

  37. I am enjoying learning Czech on my own in Vancouver. I expect I will have no trouble using it in Czecholand. Last time I was there the lady in the information booth at the central train station could only speak Czech and got quite angry with me for asking her for information about how to find taxis in English.

    • girlinczechland

      Hi Steve,

      Hats off to you for getting your head down and learning Czech on your own. The Czech people who are pleased to hear foreigners learn their language will lavish you with praise for being able to string together a couple of sentences. They will shower you with compliments if you can remember to use the appropriate cases when ordering a coffee. Unfortunately, this kind of response isn’t universal. Don’t give up though – I’m not going to!

      GIC

      • We learn languages for ourselves, in my view. Right now I am reading about the history of Czech lands “Dejiny zemi koruny ceske”, pardon my lack of accents. I also am doing articles from Radio Prague, and articles that I find on the Internet about Czech history. These latter resources I import into LingQ.com where I can easily look up words, save them review them etc. In two and a half months my word count is over 10,000 words (admittedly each form of a word is counted separately).

        I plan to visit Czech in the winter, spend some time in Brno, Olomouc and Prague and do some cross country skiing somewhere. Any advice on where to go for cross-country skiing and a pleasant atmosphere.

      • girlinczechland

        Hey Steve,

        Good luck with your winter travel plans: they sound fun. I went cross country skiing for the first time last year and much to my own surprise, completely loved it!

        GIC

  38. Mike

    In my experience Czechs fall into 2 equal-sized camps, very warm and very rude.
    You were unlucky to encounter the rude type this time, which can be most unpleasant. Rise above these idiots who cannot handle foreigners. If they were put abroad they couldn’t handle it as well as you do Girl-in-Czechland :-)

    • girlinczechland

      *breaths deeply*

      Rise above it. Stiff upper lip. Keep calm and carry on. I’ll get in touch with my inner Britishness and do as you suggest. :)

      GIC

      • Hi GIC.

        Some encouragement instead of some blaming…

        You are not the problem. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect to be treated with respect all day, every day. If you treat people well, they should treat you well in return. It’s very simple and you are right. The quiet hostility here can really hurt and it is undeserved. You are doing an excellent job of learning the language and can be very proud of that. You are actively looking for ways to be a good guest in this country. Good job finding an outlet for your frustration here on your blog. Brava.

        Something I try to do is find shops run by friendly Czechs or foreigners. Happy Bo Bo Li on Rumunska is a haven of friendliness and good produce. I like Chez Amis on Spalena, just across from the spot where your previous header photo was taken. I like the dry cleaner on Celnici, close to the Hilton. There’s a friendly cashier at the potraviny on Jecna at Stepanska. The papirnictvi on Jecna just before Sokolska is fantastic. But be careful…go to the one with the pink storefront, not the drab one. In the drab one, they won’t even make eye contact if they find out you speak English.

        My point? You can try to create your own world of kind people who will speak either English or Czech with you. I have reached a point now where I have the confidence to turn and calmly walk out of a shop in the middle of a transaction when someone is rude to me. It still hurts, but I don’t feel so helpless.

        Maybe if we all do it, we will make some change.

        Staci

  39. Haha, I can totally relate. :)
    In my case, I went to the shop – the same shop I’d been to for about 4 years – to get a Magnum ice cream.
    She ran it through the cash register and then noticed I’d left my wallet at home. I apologised, gave a ‘I’m sorry’ look, and then put it back in the freezer.
    The woman’s glare was if I’d just murdered her brother or something. As I left the shop (let’s not forget I’d been going there for YEARS), I heard her mutter something under her breath.
    I realised later I’d done it all wrong – in this country you don’t act like the polite person you are back home. If you challenge them and have this ‘Prague tough’ attitude, they suddenly back down and THEY then apologise.
    So if you point out when they’re being rude, sadly this will be the better way to avoid their glares and snippy behaviour.
    And no, I haven’t been back to the shop since.

    • girlinczechland

      Hi David,

      I’ve long given up having any specific strategy but I agree that I’m not sure my default self-efffacement does me any favours in this land. I think what I need to do is channel a bit more of Tony Soprano – without the violence or the obscenities you understand!

      GIC

  40. Anna

    Hey there GIC,
    so much praise for you for learning Czech from me! I wouldn’t try to worry too much about the quality of services in Czechland, unfortunately it is sometimes no suprise even for Czechs themselves, and also Czech is such a hard language to learn! Don’t worry many Czech people have themselves troubles! :-) As for the attitude in the matter of the Velvet revolution… because many people whose not under 30 or so, can clearly remember these times…my parents have lived through this for they whole life expect for last twenty years…maybe it can sound as an excuse but it doesn’t change the fact that they’ve been raised in that era and that their lives has been shaped throughout it. Still I’m not defending any kind of this “grumpy” behavior it is highly inappropriate for me! Actually you can find many old people whom is very much “grumpy”. The Velvet revolution came in 1989 I personally think that it is not enough time for to country change too much most of people whom were born after that era are actually still studying and most of politicians are from that era. That’s enough with that “stuff” :-) . I admire and praise you with your effort with Czech language! Czechland has a rich history :-) . Don’t let the “grumpy ones” to scare you! Alrighty? :-) Show them “I’m a better person thing ;-) ” Have a nice day!

    Anna

    • girlinczechland

      Hi Anna,

      Don’t worry: I’m working on growing a thicker skin so I won’t let the grumpy folk scare me off. We had the Village People (aka Czechman’s parents) to stay at the weekend and I realised how important it is for our relationship to be able to understand a fair bit of what they say and to say some things back! I always find this kind of experience really motivating :)

      Diky za povzbuzeni!

      GIC

  41. Filipp Kirillovich

    Interesting posts! As a student of Slavic languages and linguistics, I have a couple of comments:

    (1) The phoneme /ř/ is the rarest phoneme (“sound,” more or less) in the world. It occurs in Czech, and in only one other language; it is the last sound that Czech children learn as they are learning the language themselves. So, yes, it is a difficult and unusual sound! The word that always gave me the most trouble was “uprostřed”–that consonant cluster is a toungue-twister!
    (2) Speaking of tongue-twisters, there is a good vowelless one in Czech: “Strch prst skrz krk”–”to stick a finger through the throat,” literally. Say that three times fast!
    (3) Regarding the funny looks you get from pronouncing “čtyři”: Because this word is pronounced in Russian / četyre/, the funny looks might be from “grumpy” people remembering the time of the Soviet occupation and the way Russians “mispronouned” their Czech language. Just a theory. . . .
    (4) Regarding the use of the genitive singular after numerals 2, 3, and 4 vs. genitive plural with numerals 5 and greater: this is a historical throw-back to the time of “staroslavjansky” or “cerkovnoslavjansky” languages. These languages had a “dual” number, in addition to a singular and plural; this was a different declension of nouns, adjectives, and pronouns, and a different verb conjugation, for things that occurred in pairs or twos, such as eyes, legs, arms, twins, or even just two people. The dual declension was similar in certain cases to the modern genitive singular. Without getting more technical, that’s a pretty good explanation.
    (5) Regarding “grumpiness” of waiters and service personnel in Czechy: I first visited Praha in 1990, with a Brit friend of mine, and we were both absolutely floored by the lack of service in restaurants. I remember one time we were sitting in a restaurant in central Prague around dinner time, with only one other table present, and we sat there for at least 20 minutes before I went up to the waiters lounging around in the back and asked them to come over and serve us! Even after this, the service was appalling. It’s interesting to hear that this is a common complaint–enough to get a blog post about it! Well, it’s been going on for a long, long time!

    In closing, I want to just say what our Czech teacher, the fabulous Ms. Hana Demcova, taught us on the first day of Czech 1, which endeared me for ever after to the Czech language and people : “Kde se pivo pije, tam se dobře žije!”

  42. Pingback: Jak mluvit česky s cizinci or How to speak Czech with foreigners | GIRL IN CZECHLAND

  43. Petra

    Hi GIC,
    do not be mistaken, you’re the only Martian in Earth – 20 years ago, I experienced very similar situation in London! I needed to buy a ticket to Perth and pronounced it as best as I could with the pit of my tongue between the teeth. So I could not understand, why did the lady sent me to INTERNATIONAL desk?!? As I was pretty sure Scotland is a part of the British Commonwealth, I repeated it couple of times – with the same result… I had to run here and there between international and domestic lanes at the bus station before I managed to explain I do not want to travel to France (Paris), but to Scotland… :-)

  44. Corrie

    Want to know why Czech people are so grumpy and mean? They don’t believe strangers. They are very xenofobic. Most of us are like this. So don’t be ofended, it is never against YOU :)

  45. Hi :)
    That´s a pity you´ve got these bad experiences with your Czech practising. Really silly prodavačka :) And I´m still praying so hard for having a conversation with somebody from abroad… especially with someone learning my mother tongue.
    Wish you all the best in learning and the personal life as well – according to one of your answers here… si troufám říct, že česky umíš velmi dobře :)

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