Czech expats seek to strengthen language links

Photo: Miloš Turek

Czech expats from around the world gathered in Prague last week for a conference on maintaining their native language skills abroad. Czechoslovak exiles who fled the country after the war or after the Soviet-led invasion of 1968, descendants of the old Czech settlers, as well as members of the younger community of Czechs who went abroad to study or work met for a two-day event held in the National Museum building in the centre of Prague to discuss their cultural and linguistic heritage.

Miroslav Krupička,  photo: Miloš Turek
The conference was co-organized by expats’ associations and the Czech Foreign Ministry along with the Czech Radio. I talked to Radio Prague’s editor in chief Miroslav Krupička about the importance of holding such events:

“I think it is quite important. First there is the tradition. These assemblies of Czechs abroad have taken place every two years since 1998. So we try to keep this tradition alive, which is nice. Secondly, we try to create a platform on which Czechs abroad can meet and exchange opinions on various topics. And one of the burning issues of today is how to maintain the Czech language abroad. And thirdly it’s a platform for Czechs to meet in general because some small communities live relatively isolated from the Czech Republic and sometimes even from the rest of the country where they live, which is the case of Czechs in Romania and Serbia, for instance.”

One of the people who attended the conference was Milena Grenfell-Baines, who left Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 at the age of nine as one of the Jewish children saved by Nicholas Winton. Although she spent most of her life in England, her Czech has no hint of a foreign accent. I asked her how difficult it was to maintain her mother tongue being surrounded by English-speakers from a very early age:

“Luckily it was possible because my father was already in England and although he was ill and couldn’t really look after us we would see him from time to time. At the age of nine and a half I sort of kept up the language but my little sister within twelve months more or less forgot it. In 1942 a Czech school opened in England, the Czechoslovak State School or Československá škola, and my father sent me there. It was financed by the Czech ministry in exile. Our teachers were mostly seconded from the Czech army, and I spent three years from 1942 to 1945 at the Czech school. The education was entirely in Czech, although there were some Slovak teachers there.

Milena Grenfell-Baines,  photo: Miloš Turek
“What was interesting was that some of the children who by 1942 had forgotten Czech actually evolved their own language. If we couldn’t think of the Czech word we would use the English word and we sort of Czechisized the English or Anglicised the Czech.”

After the school closed down in 1945, her parents decided to stay in England. Milena Grenfell-Baines trained as a nurse and eventually married a British architect. She brushed up her Czech language skills again in the 1960s, when she started working as an interpreter, helping to organize exhibitions in Czechoslovakia. Although the job came to an end with the 1968 invasion, by then she was determined to maintain her knowledge of the language. She admits, however, that she wasn’t as consistent with her own children:

“I did have children and I admit that I didn’t speak Czech to them. It was in a way quite difficult. I was totally surrounded by English people. There were no other Czechs living in my town at that time. Possibly I was lazy because it needs a lot of determination to teach your children Czech. Of course now they are all cross with me that I did not do this.”

Milena Grenfell-Baines has been promoting Czech culture in England for years, organizing student exchanges and various cultural events. One of the things that also helped her maintain her native language skills was the “discovery” of Nicholas Winton in 1985, which put the whole community of Czechs back together. She also maintains that younger generations of Czech expats lack the sense of community that she experienced. Radio Prague’s Miroslav Krupička agrees with that view and offers his explanation:

“Czechs or Czechoslovaks, exiles, who fled and settled in Britain or the US, they kept together and created communities, they had a very deep sense of patriotism and a love of their homeland. They were homesick, basically. Today, when the world is open, people can go somewhere, study there for a few years, move on to another place, work there for a few years, and then maybe come back or not. Very often, not always, these people lack this sense of patriotism, of maintaining the language and speaking about their homeland. This is globalisation, and of course it is different from the time of communism when people would stick together.”

Photo: Miloš Turek
Although they may lack the sense of patriotism, the majority of younger Czech expats still insist on keeping their language skills and passing them on to their children. Veronika Marešová, who married an Englishman and lives in London, wanted her daughter to speak Czech but found it too challenging to teach her on her own, so she decided to establish a school of her own.

“We began in February 2012. We were three mothers who decided that we needed a Czech school in the south of London. We wanted to make sure that our children speak Czech. We started with seven children, most of them our own. In September 2014, we already had seventy children. I think that one of the most important factors in bringing up a bilingual child is for the children to meet other children, who are in the same situation and for their parents to keep in touch with the community.”

Czech language is currently being taught at a network of schools Czech Schools without Borders. The first one was established in 2003 in Paris and there are currently around fifty of them across the globe with roughly 1800 students and 300 teachers. Their founder, Lucie Slavíková Boucher, was led by the same motive, to help her children learn their mother tongue.

“The idea came from my own children because bilingual education is an extremely difficult process. And I experienced it myself. I was hoping for something to help me out because I was alone in Paris. In 2003 there was almost no internet; phone-calls were extremely expensive, so the connection with the language was just through me. That’s why I dreamt about a school and because nobody else set it up, I did.”

Lucie Slavíková Boucher,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
Czech Schools without Borders are mainly based on parents’ own initiative. There is a non-profit organization based in Prague which provides them with the necessary know-how and helps them with the management. At the end of their studies, pupils in Czech Schools without Borders receive a certificate that is valid and recognized in the Czech Republic. Lucie Slavíková-Boucher believes that having a bilingual education gives their students a great advantage over their peers.

“I think that people in general nowadays want their children to speak and really know the language because the world is open and it is easy to just come back. Sometimes a perfect knowledge of the language with the knowledge of historical and geographical facts really puts these children in a situation where they can chose what university they want to study at and I think it is an incredible capacity. If you live in France and you can attend a university in France or the United States or the Czech Republic as a Czech citizen and you have everything to succeed, that is just great.”