From 18 to 80: summer school in Poděbrady draws people with Czech heritage of all ages
For three decades, the Czech Summer Course for Expatriates has been bringing people with Czech ancestry from all over the world to their ancestral home to get in touch with their roots and brush up on their language skills. Now in its 30th year, the course has brought a diverse range of students of all ages and many different nationalities to Czechia once again. While they were on a tour of the Czech Radio building, we managed to catch up with a few of them to hear about their motivations, struggles and successes.
The Summer Czech Course for Expatriates, as it is officially known, is held annually in the spa town of Poděbrady and is intended primarily for people from Czech heritage communities living abroad. It attracts people from all over the world, including North and South America, Oceania, and even Africa and Asia, as well as Europe.
This year, one of them is Barbora, a mild-mannered grandmother from Wisconsin in the USA. Her father came from Plzeň and moved to the US in 1906. Barbora says they never spoke Czech at home because her mother was American, so she only came to learning Czech later in life.
“When I started doing genealogy 20-something years ago and finding relatives in the Czech Republic, I thought ‘I would like to learn that language.’ It took me a while to find somebody to teach me, but I started three years ago.”
Unlike Barbora, some of the other course participants did grow up speaking Czech at home, like Gianne-Mia Lee from Georgia, USA.
“My mom and my mom’s side come from Česká Lípá and so at home we speak Czech a lot. But my dad doesn’t know Czech so it’s really hard for her to teach me formal Czech and I never learned grammar or anything. So I’m here to learn to speak correctly, I guess. I can speak casually, I think my Czech’s pretty good in that case, and right now I’m in the higher class that we have in the school. When we have different questions I know the correct answer because I know it sounds right but I don’t know why.”
Of course, having such a wide array of people from different backgrounds and with different experiences of learning and being exposed to Czech naturally results in vastly varying levels of language ability, which can be challenging for teachers, as teacher Kateřina Vodičková explains:
“I am teaching a class that should be Level A2+ so we communicate almost exclusively in Czech, but it’s very challenging for me and for the students. They are not all A2+, some are a little bit below and some are a little bit higher. That’s the problem when you don’t start from the beginning with your class and you get a mixture.”
The group is diverse not only in terms of nationality, background and linguistic experience with Czech, but also in terms of age. Gianne-Mia Lee is only 19 – just one year older than the minimum age required to participate in the summer school. But I speak to another American, Margaret, who is at the opposite end of the scale.
“I think I was 61 or 62 when I started learning Czech. I’m 83 now so do the math!”
Margaret is also unusual on this course because she doesn’t have Czech heritage herself, but found the summer school via a different family connection.
“My husband was a very proud Czech, and because he was a musician, he wanted to learn some Czech and learn about Czech music, especially how to sing it, because he was primarily a singer. So we got the stipend in 2001 and we came. And my fantastic Czech husband, who had a beautiful accent, had a horrible time with the grammar and practically gave up. But I decided that I was going to speak Czech if it killed me, so I stuck with it. I had always wanted to speak a second language, and so Czech is now my second language!”
Margaret has been returning to Czechia to do the course every year since then with pretty remarkable dedication – with the exception of the pandemic years, when the course either couldn’t go ahead in person or was cancelled altogether.
“I did one class online. The year of the pandemic this course wasn’t offered. The next year, 2021, they offered it online and I did that. And then I came again last year and this year.”
While Margaret and one or two other students return every year, the vast majority are first-timers. This is partly because most of the students receive government funding to attend the course, which covers the cost of tuition fees, accommodation and meals for the entire four weeks. But students can only receive the funding once, which means that if they want to come back, they have to pay for it themselves.
The funding is given in the form of a scholarship for the Support of Czech Cultural Heritage from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports. This is reflected in the fact that the course is not just a typical language course, but also focuses heavily on the cultural side of things, as Kateřina explains.
“This course is intensive as far as language goes but also intensive in terms of Czech culture and customs, traditions, history, politics and everything. It’s to promote Czech culture and to help people with Czech roots to keep the language, to keep the culture, and to promote Czech culture abroad.”
For 19-year-old Gianne-Mia, the cultural aspect was a big draw.
“I love the culture and at home we practice a bunch of Czech culture – it’s a very Czech-American house. We do classic Czech Easter, Czech Christmas, Mikuláš, Witches’ Day. Also just movies and radio and music in the household.”
The course brings together people with Czech heritage whose ancestors or immediate relatives emigrated at different times and for different reasons. Some, like Gianne-Mia, are the children of fairly recent, post-Velvet Revolution emigrants; some are the children or grandchildren of Czechs who fled Communism, especially in the 1948 and 1968 exoduses from the country; while others still are from far more well-established Czech communities, like Barbora.
“We settled in a Czech neighbourhood in Chicago. I remember hearing my dad talk to the neighbours.”
These groups, such as the Volhynian Czechs in Ukraine, the Banat Czechs in Romania, or the Chicago Czechs in the US, moved abroad en masse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries while Czechs were still under Austro-Hungarian rule, and formed communities that still identify as Czech and in many cases speak Czech and keep up Czech traditions. For those who still live in these Czech communities, the course is more just a chance to brush up on their skills and connect with other people, whereas for people who no longer live in such communities or never did, the course is a much-needed lifeline, like it is for Barbora, who no longer lives in Chicago.
“It’s really hard – at least I found it was hard – because there is nobody in my surrounding area to practice with. I have nobody to talk to, to really use it, so I kind of forgot stuff.”
Because of the varying backgrounds and language abilities of the students, they are divided into Czech, English and Spanish-speaking groups in lessons and on tours, with the more advanced students communicating fully in Czech and the lower-level students being taught partly in either English or Spanish (due to the sizeable Latin American contingent on the course). Gianne-Mia says she has really enjoyed the experience.
“It’s been so fun, I love it. Because the classes also are fully in Czech so that’s really nice. I was calling my friend and I had a notebook full of notes in Czech and I was like, ‘This is so cool!’”
But for her, one of the most rewarding aspects has been the new friends she has made.
“It’s crazy because it’s only been a week and a day or something, but I feel like I know these people so well. I’ve hung out with a lot of them one or one, or we go out to a party or to dinner and lunch every day, so it’s really nice.”
And as a graduate of the Summer Czech Course for Expatriates myself, I can confirm that the friends you make there are often friends for life. I got the scholarship and took the month-long course in the summer of 2013, back when the course was still held in the east Bohemian town of Dobruška (it moved to Poděbrady in 2019). I was just a few years older than Gianne-Mia at the time. Five years later I visited two friends from the US that I met on the course. And just last year, almost 10 years later, I attended the wedding of one of the friends I made there.
So if you are somebody with Czech heritage who has been thinking of brushing up on their language skills, I and the other former and current students of the Czech summer school can only recommend it. And before I go, here is some advice for you about learning Czech from Barbora and Margaret.
“Just don’t give up! And try to find someone to have a conversation with, somebody to practice with.”
“Pořád, každý rok, říkám novém studentům, ‘jestli já můžu to dělat, ty musíš taky.’ If I can do this, you can do this!”