English or "Czenglish"?

Milos Zeman, photo CTK

The Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman had to face a barrage of criticism for remarks about the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat he made in interviews for an Israeli newspaper and television earlier this week. Although Mr Zeman claims he had been misquoted - possibly due to an ill-chosen phrase in English - his words caused a diplomatic scandal. By Pavla Horakova.

 Milos Zeman, photo CTK
Don Sparling from the Department of English and American Studies at Masaryk University in Brno is an expert on the type of mistakes Czech usually make in English. We asked him whether the interpretation of Mr Zeman's apparently controversial statements could be blamed on poor English.

"In his case bad English cannot be blamed. He makes some small mistakes in English, but he speaks very fluently and his meaning is very clear. There's no problem. At least in what I heard - which was an interview, a television interview - there was no doubt whatsoever that he was comparing Hitler's Third Reich to Arafat's Palestinian authority, and so on. No doubt at all."

So on this occasion Mr Zeman may well be regretting his perfect English. Czechs are much more proficient in English now than they were 10 years ago, but in many cases their English can be jokingly referred to as "Czenglish", that is a combination of the two languages. So what kind of mistakes do Czechs make in English? Don Sparling again.

"I can give you some examples, if you'd like. If we're talking about interference, there are a lot of problems with prepositions, Czechs speaking English with prepositions. They'll say 'Welcome IN the Czech Republic' instead of 'Welcome TO the Czech Republic'. They'll say 'The book is FROM Dick Francis' instead of 'The book is BY Dick Francis'. My answer in this case is always 'Oh, did Dick Francis send it to you, if it's from him?' Czech talk about people having 'a sense FOR humor' or 'a sense FOR honour' instead of 'a sense OF humour', 'sense OF honour' and so on."

Don Sparling says that another classic mistake is that Czechs let themselves be deceived by words that they think mean something else - known by language teachers as "false friends".

"That's words which have the same origin in the languages but the meaning has diverged. So right now, for instance, a Czech might say 'The Benes decrees are very ACTUAL these days', whereas in English, we can't use this 'aktualni', we can't translate it as 'actual', we have to say 'The Benes decrees are currently a real problem' or something like that. I think this is getting better, the problems with interference are better than ten, fifteen years ago, simply because Czechs are much more exposed to English than they were then. But there are some mistakes due to interference which seem almost ineradicable. They are still here, you'll still hear them. Like people will ask me: 'HOW is this thing called in English?' Not 'WHAT is it called but HOW is it called'."

That was Don Sparling from Masaryk University in Brno talking to Radio Prague about the distinctive characteristics of English as spoken by Czechs.