Being an expat mum in the Czech Republic can be a struggle
There are around half a million foreigners living in the Czech Republic today, and although raw statistics about how many of them speak Czech are hard to find, it is a commonly-held truth among Czechs and expats alike that most foreigners, particularly those who have a non-Slavic mother tongue and especially those who live in the capital, do not make much headway with the Czech language, if they even try at all. Many live for years or even decades without being able to do much more than order in a restaurant. This has all kinds of consequences for the integration (or lack thereof) of foreigners into Czech life and society, but perhaps nowhere is this felt more keenly than with expat women who have children in the Czech Republic.
The problems start early. “The hardest part was dealing with everything in the hospital, because we had no idea how the system works,” says Marijke, a Dutch mother of a ten-month-old. “You don’t know the language and most hospitals don’t provide information in English, so you’re just googling and using google translate on the go. It was hard and I was very anxious about having the baby here because you don’t know if the nurses or the doctors are going to speak English. You don’t know if you’ll have a private room or if you have to share it, and if you have to share it, whether the other mums will speak English or not.”
Since 2009 the Czech government has mandated that foreigners have to prove their knowledge of the Czech language in order to get permanent residence. However, this rule does not apply to EU citizens. Furthermore, the level of Czech that foreigners are required to prove corresponds only to level A1 in the Common European Framework of Reference, which is enough to order in restaurants and give some basic information about yourself, but certainly not enough to participate in your child’s education and healthcare.
Some mothers who have taken the time and trouble to learn Czech realize that their efforts are woefully inadequate when it comes time to send their children to school. Suzy, from the UK, has a seven-year-old who she is raising in the Czech Republic with a Czech partner, and after many years of not speaking any Czech at all, took a year-long intensive course and learnt Czech to B1 level – the level required by the Czech government not only for permanent residence, but for citizenship. She was keen to send her child to a Czech school but found that even her level of Czech was not sufficient to be able to get involved with her son’s education.
“All the information from the school comes through a web app, it’s all in Czech and it’s hard to translate it, so I have to rely on my husband to get information. All communication with the school goes through my husband. It’s hard not being in control. Sometimes I write to the teacher in English because I know she can speak English, but she doesn’t like to, so she’ll reply in Czech to my husband. I can’t go to Parents’ Evening because it’s all in Czech. There’s no allowance for me that she’ll speak to us in English. Homework is really hard because it all comes in Czech. It was even more difficult during the pandemic because then it was all home-schooling.”
The problems aren’t only limited to communicating with the school and helping with homework, Suzy says. “I also find it really hard integrating with the other parents - they’re not particularly keen. It’s really hard for me not being able to build relationships because I’m a social person. If I was at home I’d know all the parents. I’d be involved more, I’d know more. I often find that everyone knows things that I don’t, which is not who I am, but this situation has made that happen for me.”
However, there are some success stories out there of mothers who learnt Czech to a high level, even when their native language wasn’t Slavic. Tonya Graves, a multi-genre singer from the US and a mother of two boys who has lived in the Czech Republic since 1995, speaks Czech to an impressive level, and even does stand-up comedy in Czech. “I have to stay here, I have two Czech kids!” Graves says in an illuminating and hilarious interview with Czech talk show host Honza Dědek.
Anna Fodor is a British writer with Czech and Slovak roots, who found her way to Prague at the age of 22. She is a graduate of English Language and Literature from the University of Leeds and has an MA in Linguistics from University College London. She likes to write about Czech life and society from the perspective of somebody on the periphery.