Do you speak Slovak?


The only foreign language which Czech television does not dub is Slovak. Most Czechs don't mind. For 73 years of the 20th century Slovakia was part of their home country - Czechoslovakia - and Slovak was their second language. TV and radio programs would flow naturally from one language to the other without any need for translation. However things are gradually changing.

In 1993 the Czechs and the Slovaks broke up, established independent institutions and went their separate ways. Although the two states continue to enjoy a special relationship born of long co-habitation, the language and cultural ties are fraying. A survey among Czech youngsters shows that 30 percent of them have trouble comprehending a fast paced Slovak dialogue and the vast majority have trouble with individual expressions. Although some linguists believe that the day may come when Czechs will barely comprehend their Slavic neighbors, Tatana Holasova, is not ready to give up so easily. A language expert at Prague's Research Institute of Education, she is now involved in a project aimed at bringing Slovak back to Czech schools.

"We learnt Slovak at school as children. Not on a par with Czech of course, but some lessons were devoted to it and Slovak texts appeared in our textbooks. We also had lots of Slovak classmates and we heard Slovak on radio and TV daily. So it was a second language to us - but today my own children have big problems understanding Slovak - for them it is a foreign language."

Although Czech and Slovak are the closest of the Western Slavic languages about 15 percent of their vocabularies and about half their noun endings differ. The Czech word for tomato - "rajce" is very different to "paradajka" and you would have trouble figuring out that a "gombik" in Slovak is a "knoflik" or "button" in Czech. Tatana Holasova and her team have now sent all Czech primary schools a voluntary Slovak language and general knowledge course that can be incorporated into any lesson and should be fun rather than hard work.

"This project aims to break through the language barrier in an amusing, entertaining and easy way. We have no ambition to teach kids Slovak but to help them gain a better passive knowledge of the language, to show them in what way the two languages are similar and how they differ - and teach them some of the basic expressions that could puzzle them in everyday life."

The Slovak community - the country's biggest minority - has welcomed the project, but Slovaks know well that the days when they could speak their native language in Prague are long gone. Most of them switched to Czech a few years after the divorce, tired of hearing people say "excuse me?"