Learners of Czech meet in Brno for 50th time

Photo: official Facebook page of Summer School of Slavonic Studies

The city of Brno is one of a number of venues where summer schools of Czech take place every year and bring together students from across the world. Now in its fiftieth year, the Masaryk University Summer School of Slavonic Studies offers its students much more than just language lessons.

Sam Dyson,  Andrej Abramušić,  Hanna Dubinchak and Ludmila Eliaş,  photo: Pavla Horáková
As every weekday, lectures are underway at the Masaryk University Faculty of Arts in Brno. While regular students are away, enjoying their summer break, they have been replaced for four weeks by learners of Czech from around the world. Every summer they converge on the Moravian capital to study the language and culture and to take in as much as they can while in the country.

Sam Dyson comes from the United Kingdom.

“I study Czech because I studied languages at university already. I went to Bristol and studied French and Russian and in the second year I had the opportunity to study Czech as an open unit. As I prefer the language part of my degree, I decided to pursue this language and I ended up having an opportunity to come to the Czech Republic for a summer school on a scholarship. I ended up doing that twice and loved it, I loved Brno, I had a great time and really improved my level by a lot in those two months I was here.”

Do you have any Czech connection?

“No, none whatsoever. I just studied Russian and I guess that was my initial connection thanks to it being a Slavic language. I understood a lot of the grammar already and a lot of the words were similar, so I thought it would be good to try and move into another Slavic language and see how it goes.”

For someone whose mother tongue is English, how difficult is it to learn a Slavic language?

“It’s very difficult because you don’t really have much to go on, you don’t really have much similar vocabulary, apart from the Latin words that exist in a lot of European languages. A lot of the grammar is almost impossible to grasp and you just really have to change your whole mindset and kind of work out the code of Slavic languages to really make any progress. And just work very hard, I suppose, and try and speak as much with people who speak well. I’ve got a few Czech friends in Brno and I met someone when I was actually studying in Bristol who are from Brno, so I’ve kept contact with them. Of course, I try to mix in as much as possible, to mingle.”

Apart from the linguistic lessons, what are the other activities here at the summer school?

“We have optional lectures that you can go to in the afternoon which deal with many different subjects, literature, history and even old Czech. Apart from that we have a film club that is on quite a few times a week, we have dance classes and we have singing classes and we have quite a lot of parties organised in the evenings we can all get to know each other and we also go on weekly trips to different towns in Moravia. We even went to Prague this weekend, we are going to Telč next weekend and to other places, natural sights around.”

What are your plans for the future with Czech?

Photo: official Facebook page of Summer School of Slavonic Studies
“I am actually going to start a Master’s in September in interpreting. I’ll be studying that in Manchester and that will be from Russian and French into English but my plan is to then, after completing the Master’s, to improve and perfect my Czech so I can also use that professionally, essentially.”

Dr. Eva Rusínová is the head of the Department of Czech for Foreigners at the Masaryk University Faculty of Arts in Brno. She is also in charge of the month-long summer course.

“The Summer School of Slavonic (Bohemistic) Studies which has taken place every year since 1967 at the Masaryk University Faculty of Arts is part of the work of the faculty’s Department of Czech for Foreigners and its flagship endeavour. This year we are marking its 50th anniversary. It was founded in 1967 because of Czechoslovakia’s need to show the world that ‘Czech’ stood not only for culture but also for language. At that time translators and interpreters emerged who wanted to study Czech not only at universities in their home countries but also wanted to polish it up in this country. The first summer school of Czech was launched in Prague, the second one in Brno. At present they take place also in other locations around the Czech Republic.”

The 135 participants from 39 countries come from all walks of life. Some have come on scholarships granted by the Czech Education Ministry and also by the Brno Department of Czech for Foreigners after being recommended by their respective universities. The paying participants are mostly professionals who need Czech for their work, such as lawyers and businessmen but also priests. The youngest student this year is fourteen and the oldest is 67 years old. Divided into ten levels based on their Czech skills, they all share classrooms and live together for the four weeks. I spoke to some of the most advanced among them.

“Hello, my name is Hanna Dubinchak. I come from Ukraine, from a region that used to be part of former Czechoslovakia, namely from Carpathian Ruthenia, from the capital Uzhhorod. My paternal grandfather came from South Bohemia and after WWII he moved to Ukraine where he married my grandmother. These are my Czech roots. My grandfather didn’t speak Czech with Granny and didn’t teach my father or his siblings Czech, so the language got lost which is a great pity. There are quite a few phenomena I find challenging in Czech. The Ukraininian language interferes a lot and there are many false friends between the two languages so when I use one, it is immediately obvious that I’m not Czech and I don’t come from here.”

Photo: official Facebook page of Summer School of Slavonic Studies
Hanna specialises in Czech history and needed Czech for her doctoral studies. She has already spent a year in Brno and plans to continue in her studies there.

Ludmila Eliaş comes from the Romanian region of Banat, inhabited by a Czech community.

“My ancestors arrived from Bohemia. My parents also speak Czech and we speak Czech at home. The first Czechs arrived in Banat in 1824. I wanted to improve my Czech and most of all I didn’t want to lose it. I realised that if I went on living in a Romanian city, I would end up speaking it less and less, so I decided to do something about it and therefore I came to Brno. I have spent the two past semesters here studying Czech and I would like to continue for some time and maintain contact with the language, pursue translating or something like that.”

Translating is also what Andrej Abramušić from Bosnia has in mind. He studies English and Czech in Zagreb, Croatia.

“I decided to study Czech just out of curiosity, basically. I always wanted to study languages, English in particular, but Czech is a Slavic language and I wanted Russian or something like that and Czech was the one I was able to get in, to enrol. I worked as an English teacher for three years and that’s when I decided to go to the Czech Republic to learn some more Czech, to get better at it because I plan to work as a translator perhaps. I also think that knowing Croatian, Czech and English would be useful perhaps, in the European Union.”

Considering your mother tongue, how difficult or easy is Czech for you?

“Well, I guess it’s much easier for me than for Sam but still the Czech language is a difficult language, I think, so it took quite a bit of time, quite a while to learn all the rules and to pronounce well. My main problem was that in Croatia I wasn’t really able to speak that much Czech. I only spoke in classes. And that changed when I came here. I also took a semester on Erasmus, I was an exchange student here for one semester which really helped me much, just mingling with the locals and speaking as much as possible.”

Photo: official Facebook page of Summer School of Slavonic Studies
The Summer School of Slavonic Studies is by no means all work and no play. There is enough time for relaxation and socialising. As Dr. Rusínová told me, the evening dancing classes are traditionally one of the most popular activities with the students.

“We dance. We have a course titled ‘May I have this dance?’ where we teach not only dancing but also the basics of etiquette. The students like it a lot because our tradition of ballroom dancing lessons no longer exists outside this country. Those who stay here really want to go to the Czech “Taneční” or ballroom dancing lessons after they got a first taste at the summer school. We dance the polka, mazurka, waltz and I love teaching those classes because it’s just lovely to watch their enthusiasm. On the final evening everybody dances what they learned and they are duly proud because then they go home and show off their skills. I once had a student who was a member of the Czech community in the United States. One year he took the dancing classes with me, came back the next and asked me to stay for another ten or fifteen minutes longer after the class ended to help him perfect his polka because it was to be the first dance at his wedding back in the US. He told me they would play ‘Roll out the Barells’ and his wife and him would dance the polka.”

You can find out more about the Masaryk University Summer School of Slavonic Studies at www.phil.muni.cz

This year’s Summer School of Slavonic Studies at the Masaryk University Faculty of Arts in Brno has one more week to go, packed with learning, sightseeing and sampling Czech and Moravian cuisine. As its director, Dr. Eva Rusínová told me, for anyone interested in taking part next year from 21st July to 18th August 2018, now is the time to start inquiring.