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Czech 101: 5 essential phrases the textbooks won’t teach you

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Can it be true? Girl in Czechland is in fact Catwoman?

I used to have a dream.

In that dream I’m wearing a leather catsuit and have a small pearl handed pistol stuffed in my bra.  I’m a top class operative working for Her Majesty’s Secret Service – a sort of Girl Super Bond –  and as well as having numerous secret weapons, spy gadgets and super powers, I have the ability to switch effortlessly between at least six different Slavic languages without making a single linguistic slip.

Back here on Planet Earth, there are several reasons why this is not the case. I will never be employed as an intelligence operative. I find it difficult to remember my PIN number which would suggest memorising lengthy secret codes might be something of an issue.  I’d be unlikely to squeeze into a leather catsuit. And finally, I’d currently describe my level of linguistic competence in Czech as “rubbish”.

Let me correct myself.  To say that I suck at speaking Czech would be silly underbragging.

In truth, my Czech is quite good (which means I’m a wobbly intermediate or B1 level) but I wish it was much better. In other words, I wish I was kick-ass (almost as much as I wish I could pull off a leather catsuit) but that goal still seems far away. Sigh.

Still, for those of you who’ve valiantly decided to continue your own struggle with those four genders and seven cases, I’ve put together a little list of words and phrases I wish I’d known before I’d arrived here in Czechland but never came across in a textbook.  I’d genuinely like to hear any additional suggestions others out there may have for life-saving bits of Czech they wish they’d been taught before they got off the bus/boat/plane to make a new life here. And as always, I’d be grateful if my Czech readers could point out any glaring errors.

One of those very, very long escalators somewhere beneath the streets of Prague

1.  S dovolením – Excuse me/Mind your backs

Ever get grumpy because some people insist on standing on the wrong side of the escalator making it impossible for you to pass? You could try saying pardon  or promiňte but you’re much more likely to get folk to shift out of the way if you utter this phrase, which translates roughly as “Excuse me” or “Mind your backs please!”  Unless of course the offenders in question are foreign tourists…

2. Jen se dívam – I’m just looking

We all like to do aimless browsing around the shops. When a sales assistant approaches you and offers to be of assistance, use this phrase to let her know that all you want to do is have a quiet nosy around the shelves.

3. Zatím ne/nicNot for now/Nothing for now

You’re in a cafe having your spoilt and western tea/coffee/cake – or even all three! The waitress has done you the honour of letting you practice your Czech.  She comes and asks if you want anything else.  You don’t but you’d like to say ‘not for the moment’ in a polite fashion. This is the phrase I use.

4. Dohromady nebo zvlášt?Together or separately?

As I may have already mentioned, I did take a few Czech classes before I moved to Prague. I remember practising little dialogues where we ordered food in a restaurant but oddly I don’t remember learning this super important phrase.  As the chances are in a Czech cafe or restaurant, you’ll pay the waiter or waitress directly rather than leaving the money on the table, understanding these three words is essential.

5. Ano means yes – but so does no (or ‘naw naw naw’)

Why couldn’t one of the many Czech learning textbooks I collected over the years have mentioned the fact that ano is not the only way of saying yes? In fact, ano is a rather formal yes, while the much more common word expressing agreement, is rather confusingly no. It’s pronounced ‘nawww’ and usually repeated several times in short succession: ‘naw naw naw’ is a common refrain in Czech conversations I’ve noticed.

Saying no when you mean yes – or ano – has been one of the toughest Czech speaking challenges I’ve encountered. It feels weird – the linguistic equivalent of trying to pat your head and rub your belly in a circle at the same time.

Right, that’s enough for today. So, it’s na shledanou from me  – or should that be a more informal pa pa?

I’m going to bang out a catsuit on my new sewing machine from a couple of bashed up leather jackets.

Wish me luck.

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