Confronting the challenging contortions of Czech

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After a weekend in Hungary, it was with some relief when my train rolled into the Czech Republic, and I heard my first "Dobry den" from the ticket inspector. Of course, going from Magyar to Czech was not a huge leg up for me personally. I've only been taking Czech lessons for about two months and I admit that the language still confounds me.

Before I came to Prague, I rented the five-CD set of Pimsleur Czech lessons, which I listened to dutifully while cleaning my apartment back in Chicago. I learned the greatest hits—the essential "Dobry den," "Prosim," and "Dekuju," as well as the ever-useful "Mluvite anglicky?" or "Do you speak English?" But also some phrases like "Kde je Vodickova ulice?" or "Where is Vodickova street?" which I was not clear how I was supposed to use as I am unable to understand a reply like, "Walk past the horse statue, go three blocks south and hang a left."

There are particular pronunciations in Czech that trip up the tongue of an American-born English speaker, most famously the special Czech "r" with a hacek--or a kind of upside-down hat--dangling over it. In my class textbook titled "Czech for Everyone" on the list of pronunciations for the letters of the Czech alphabet, the column with the English sound equivalent is left ominously blank next to the "r" with the hacek. For example, next to the Czech "c" with a hacek, you can see that it is pronounced like the English "ch," as in the word cheese. Next to the "r" with the hacek? Nothing!

I read this as: Beware, ye Anglophones, you are now entering uncharted, dangerous waters.

When I first came to Czech Republic, I thought this must be a country full of geniuses to have mastered this elusive language. Then my colleague at Radio Prague told me that Vaclav Havel has never mastered the "r"-hacek, which was some consolation. If an internationally loved and respected playwright and politician like Havel can't quite say it, there's a possibility I'm not a totally hopeless human being.

My fellow language wranglers at the SF Servis School are an eclectic mix of people, most of whom, unlike me, are learning Czech in their second or third language. I have colleagues from Japan, China, Spain, Germany, Norway and Bosnia, all learning Czech in English. Some are working and some are studying in Prague, a testament to the myriad educational and economic opportunities here.

Outside of class, I try to use my little cache of knowledge in stores and on the metro. Sometimes I practice my pronunciation under my breath while walking home from work or from the train, muttering like one a bit touched. But I'm determined to be able to do that dastardly "r" on command by the time I leave.

So it seems the proper way to end this meditation on the challenges of Czech is by demonstrating my mastery of the letter. But if you've been listening to Radio Prague recently, you've heard my fumblings in weeks past. Too many stars have to align for it to actually come out of my mouth in the studio. So you'll just have to imagine me walking down Vinohradska Street late at night, forming the letter precisely--making one, perfect word--without a single person in earshot.