Dr Mila Saskova-Pierce - a Czech academic in Nebraska

Dr Mila Saskova-Pierce

My guest today is Dr Mila Saskova-Pierce, who works at the University of Nebraska's Department of Modern Languages. Dr Saskova-Pierce was born in Prague, but like many of her generation, left after the Soviet invasion of 1968. She has been living in Nebraska for the last 16 years, and is an active member of the state's Czech community. When she visited us here at Radio Prague, I asked Mila Saskova-Pierce: why Nebraska?

Dr Mila Saskova-Pierce
"I came to Nebraska for two reasons. One is I got married in America and I have two children, who speak Czech - I taught them Czech and my husband too. Anyway I got married there and we have grandparents in Kansas, and it was really important for us to have grandparents for our children.

"And also in Nebraska there is a big Czech community; in fact we counted, we have kind of informal statistical surveys, and we found out that anything between ten to 20 of people have at least one grandparent of Czech origin."

It's a bit of a cliché that Czechs, when they go abroad, tend to integrate and not stick together as much as perhaps Polish people might. Is that true - is that really the case?

"It is the case, and I think it's partly because of the view of Czechs from the Czech heartland. Polish culture is an inclusive culture. For the Czechs, Czech culture is an exclusive concept.

"Anything that is not Prague, or Brno, is already somewhat suspicious, and especially if people go abroad...they don't say Czech-Americans, they will say American Czechs - people abroad."

Given that they don't stick together as closely as some communities, what kind of a community is it? What kind of activities go on?

"Nebraska is a little bit exceptional, in the sense that Nebraska was settled during the settlement laws that were adopted in the 1860s and '70s. And Czechs formed settlement clubs, in New York, in Chicago, maybe in Detroit, in Kansas City.

"They sent a few males, a few men, to the places where land was available. They would stake the chunks of land to have a Czech village, or a Czech town. So it was really to make the Czech land abroad.

"They went there but they were not really farmers. Often they had to learn how to farm in conditions of dry farming. And so they would also, very quickly, found journals, in which they would exchange their experiences - what wheat to put into the ground, what trees to put into the ground, because they had to be watered; it's semi desert.

"Also, they would immediately build Sokol halls, fraternity halls, theatre halls. And they would write poetry - we have Czech-American literature in Czech, Czech-American poetry. Of course everyone knows Czech music because it doesn't need translation, but there is this literature - those people wanted to live a full-fledged culture."

Tell me more about your academic work, what you focus on, and also on the work of your department.

"Actually, I am a linguist. I study linguistics from the psychology of language angle. I also study history of culture, and also what's called language death. That is people who are born and learn one language which actually fashions, in a certain way, thinking. And then they shift to another language - usually when they go to school - and that second language takes over.

"And I teach also. Like any American professor I have to teach and I have to do research. My teaching is, once again, methodology of learning of foreign languages, which is closely tied to my research.

"I also teach the Czech language, but I do it on the side. This is not my work for which the university pays me."

How often do you come home to Prague, or to the Czech Republic?

"I was lucky, I was lucky, because...I was able to come. Because I left in '68 I couldn't come until 1990 - it was the first time I brought my children and my husband to my country. But I am now lucky because I'm coming practically every second year. And I do see the evolution of the Czech lands."

That's what I wanted to ask you about - do you see, coming back every couple of years, many changes occurring in Czech culture, and the Czech language?

"Yes to both. Very much. I think it's a tendency for all the developed countries now...to fall under the term perhaps 'globalisation'. And it's good, it's good, because I think that provincial limitations and barriers shouldn't be erected. I think the Czech culture suffered greatly under communism because of this provincialisation.

"Also what I see is the huge and vast evolution of the Czech language. My husband is a translator - he learned Czech and he translates from Czech to English; and we also take part in the teaching of Czech over the internet. He translates news for advanced students of Czech from Czech into English - they can listen to it in Czech and then if they get lost they can go to the English translation.

"Every week we see world news in Czech. Every week we find, let's say, five words which are nowhere to be found in any dictionary, and that is the latest dictionaries on the internet. So we are pushed to make ourselves a new dictionary for our own use.

"That shows also how quickly Czech culture is adapting to the world cultures, because it reacts immediately, in the language, and it accepts those concepts and finds a Czech word.

"And I think that this is the only way for the Czech language to remain the fine-tuned instrument that it is for thinking in Czech. Without that the Czech language will stop being a language in which one can study successfully at the university, and think on the highest level."