Czech and Czech Studies at Glasgow University's School of Slavonic Studies

University of Glasgow

A few miles away from the centre of Glasgow, in the west of the city, is where you will find Glasgow University, a huge campus with around 20,000 students. Our destination today is the Slavonic Studies department at its School of Modern Languages and Cultures. It runs courses Czech studies and the Czech language, and has been doing so for over 50 years. Here's lecturer Jan Culik on the man who set the ball rolling:

"Lumir Soukup - fresh Czech émigré, former secretary of Jan Masaryk, the Czech foreign minister who probably was killed or committed suicide early in 1948 - ended up in Scotland. He offered his services to Glasgow University so that he could do Czech studies.

"Quite amazingly, I think for the first two or three years, they kept him on a full salary just in case somebody expressed an interest in doing Czech studies. It was something so absolutely unreal."

Several years later the department came under pressure at a time of cutbacks in the education sector in the 1980s, but nevertheless managed to expand.

"Two posts for Czech studies were established: One in the teaching of the language, and one in teaching of literature, history and everything else.

"The language post was held by Dr. Josef Fronek, who's now retired, but you may know his name as the author of the dictionaries. The other literary and cultural post was held by Dr. Igor Hajek, who was a very close collaborator of writer Josef Skvorecky. He was from the generation of Literarni noviny from the 1960s. So he did the literary and cultural stuff. He died suddenly in 1995, and I was kind of asked to take over.

"The two posts still continue. One is a language post. My colleague Ilona Klemm runs it very, very efficiently. I was supposed to be doing what is primary literature, also history, but it's now sort of branched out. We do Czech film and of course Czech media in the context of overall Central and East European studies."

Down the corridor from Jan Culik's office is where I met his colleague Ilona Klemm.

"I have been working in the Slavonic studies department for the last seven years teaching mostly the Czech language but also Czech literature, and doing other things for the department of Central and East European Studies, which is our sister department."

Ilona Klemm says far more students choose Czech studies than the more difficult Czech language.

"When it comes to Czech language, students sitting in Czech language are in a minority because Czech is still considered to be a rather exotic language. We get around 10 to 12, sometimes 14 students every year in level one."

What are the particular difficulties that British people have learning Czech?

"Well, where do I begin? Of course it helps if a British student has studied a language before, because Czech is in general regarded as a very difficult language to learn. I suppose problems with pronunciation can be overcome fairly easily, although the notorious 'r-zuh' is a problem and always continues to be a problem for the first couple of years of study.

"I think the biggest problem that our students have is that grammar is not really taught in the British secondary school system. Our students come to us as clean slates, so to speak. We have to start from the very beginning and introduce them to the system of the language."

The University College London School of Slavonic Studies is possibly better known than yours. Are you rivals or do you cooperate?

"We tend to cooperate. We are also rivals, I suppose - it's the same even in this field, even in the academic field.

"But Czech in Glasgow has a long tradition as well. It has been taught at this university since 1949 together with Polish. It was made possible by a very generous grant, or rather a sum of money, given by then Czechoslovak president Edward Benes.

"Throughout the years we also have received more funding from the University of Lancaster, where Czech used to be taught. Then some of the funds came over here as well.

"We are, as you may know, the only university in Scotland where Czech is taught right up to honours level. You could say that from the Scottish perspective, we are rivals to London."

One of Ilona Klemm's students is Max Park. She's originally from South Korea but has spent much of her life in the Netherlands. When I met her in a lively student café, she told me what had drawn her to the study of Czech.

"It was an accident. I started Slavonic studies, and then I read some Czech authors like Milan Kundera, Skvorecky. I wanted to read their books in Czech, you know, because I don't like translations."

How long ago was that, and can you now read in the original?

"With much difficulty, yes. But you know, I still have to use dictionary. I can read some simple stuff, but I think the Czech language is very difficult to learn."

How long would you say it takes to learn Czech well?

"It depends, because if you live in the Czech Republic that would be much easier because you could practice the language. Here, you only go to classes and you can only watch television at the university and read some books. You can't really practice your Czech, apart from with your teachers."

And I guess they speak more formal Czech, or do they also teach you informal?

"No, not informal. When I went to the Czech Republic on an exchange program, I had a lot of problems because they spoke, of course, colloquial Czech. Of course when I was there I picked up those things. I came back here and I spoke colloquial Czech and they were surprised because they didn't teach us those things."

What for you is the hardest thing about learning Czech?

"First, I thought it was the pronunciation, because there are a lot of consonants together. Then it was the grammar, the cases. It still confuses me sometimes.

"I think it's the expressions they use because it's quite different from English, or German, those languages I know. Those expressions, Czech expressions - I think they're quite difficult."

So almost everything about learning Czech is difficult, in the view of student Max Park. But as well as the language, the Glasgow department also teaches Czech studies. As we've heard, far more students sign up for the latter. Jan Culik again.

"We actually do the teaching in two different ways. You could accuse us of dumbing down...British universities have been under pressure, because the Brits and the Americans - you know it - don't really want to learn any languages. So actually language teaching normally had been going down, and of course Czech is extremely difficult. Usually you have fairly low student numbers, in single figures.

"So we started, about five years ago, also a program about Central and Eastern Europe which is taught in English, although there is an option of doing the languages: Czech, Polish or Russian.

"This has been very, very useful. It's been a very, very good idea. We are capable actually to address literally hundreds of students who will not necessarily end up as East European specialists - but who will be lawyers, musicians, technicians and who for a part of their university career will have done some stuff about Czech. Last year we had a law student who wrote absolutely marvellous essays on Czech film.

"Britain does not necessarily need hundreds of specialists in Czech studies, but it will need - and so few people realize this here, how important this is - lawyers and politicians who will be sitting in the European Parliament and they will be voting and they will suddenly, somehow at the back of their mind realize that there is such a thing as the Czech Republic. There is Czech film, and there were comedians or something like that. So that's what you do."

Jan Culik also spends a month every year teaching at various universities in the Czech Republic. Before we say goodbye to Glasgow University's School of Modern Languages and Cultures, I have to ask: how do students from both countries compare?

"In the first place, Glasgow University is much more international than any Czech University. In fact, it is true that Masaryk University in Brno actually does attract quite a lot of foreign students. But unfortunately they keep them in a kind of ghetto, so that the foreign students are absolutely isolated from the local ones, which is a pity.

"This doesn't happen in Glasgow. Like any other British university, there are students from a hundred countries of the world.

"One of our best students of Czech language is a girl from Thailand. Another person who does Czech is a Finn. So there are people from various countries. And there are, of course, Scots and English people.

"Compared to Czech students, maybe British students have less general knowledge. But when presented with facts, they are taught - the best of them are taught - how to deal with these facts, how to analyse them independently and primarily. The best students know how to write.

"Czech students are expected to learn facts, and quite a lot of them in a king of encyclopaedic manner. What I have found is that they do have problems. They can't write.

"British university system is based on essay culture. Good elementary and secondary schools will demand - expect - their pupils from an early age of about nine or ten to write short essays and longer essays or whatever so they know how to do it. Czech students can't. They can't express themselves terribly well.

"But my final point is that the best Czech students are better than the international students."