Learning Czech at UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley, photo: archive of the university

The University of California, Berkeley is one of 11 American universities where students can study Czech language, literature and culture. Small but dedicated groups of students grapple with the challenges of Czech grammar and pronunciation in up to three classes per week. Despite budget cuts throughout all departments of public universities in California, Czech, a niche central European language, still has its place at the Department of Slavic Languages and maintains enthusiasm amongst those eager to learn it.

UC Berkeley,  photo: archive of the university
UC Berkeley has been offering Czech studies for over eighty years. Immediately after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 Czech classes reached their peak with nearly 25 students. Today the courses have become significantly smaller, but the dedication remains. Family heritage, a Czech spouse or simply a personal interest in anything Czech are oft-quoted reasons for taking the class. One of the students, William Jenkins from Vermont explains why he chose to study the Czech language.

"Jmenuji se Vilém Jenkins, jsem student na Berkeley, jsem postraguální student na historické fakultě a studuju české dějiny. I have been studying here about six months, and the hardest part is the cases, I think. And actually being able to follow the grammar and use it with some sort of functional utility. I started learning it because I was interested in Czech literature, originally, and Czech film. I love Jiří Menzel and Jaromil Jireš. And originally, I just wanted to read novels in Czech and that's why I wanted to learn it. But as an undergraduate, I majored in cultural history of the Slavic world essentially, and focused mostly on Czech history. And so now I am in a PhD program here learning about Czech history and I would like to be able to actually interview people who were around in the fifties and sixties so speaking Czech is going to be a necessity."

William Jenkins
William takes an advanced class of independent study in Czech reading as well as conversational Czech. In his own words, after 6 months of studying Czech he is now able to read a story with the help of a dictionary. I spoke with lecturer Ellen Langer, a core faculty member who has been teaching the Czech language at Berkeley for over 20 years. Ellen, whose native language is English, learned Czech at UC Berkeley herself as well as in Prague and Olomouc in the Czech Republic. Ellen talks about the methods of teaching Czech in her introductory and advanced courses.

"I use a lot of Czech novels, Czech histories, I direct people toward the Czech Wikipedia sometimes. And I use a fair number of elementary school textbooks when I teach. I have a number of the Vlastivěda and some little science book, Prvouka type of things. I do a lot with either recipes or articles about food online. Sometimes I just send my students and say: find a department store and look at all the furniture. Find an office supply store and look at all the office supplies and bring me a list of what you would buy. "

Are there any particular websites that you use?

UC Berkeley,  photo: archive of the university
"Obviously we use Radio Praha and we use Lidové noviny."

Aside from the regular class schedule the students meet at the so-called Czech club approximately once a month. Professor Langer screens Czech films, hosts native speakers and prepares events that will help broaden students' understanding of Czech life and culture. She aims to provide a global education about the Czech Republic and to offer her students more than just a language skill.

"Following the Czech press is also very useful that way because it says OK, for one thing what do we look like to other people. But also what pieces of our culture get imported, and is that actually what we wanted? And what effect does it have on people, you know. When you go now to a book website, you find so many things in translation and much relatively less of a Czech material. There are many aspects to culture and what's nice is that language covers them all, because they all are talked about with language, so it's easy to bring them in."

Whether as an academic subject, or for personal use, the two year program at UC Berkeley gives the students a good working knowledge of Czech language and culture. Despite decreasing funds at the university the Berkeley students aren't discouraged to continue in their Czech related activities. As William Jenkins says, it is not only the student's motivation, but also the teacher's devotion which plays a significant role in keeping the Czech language alive on the campus.

UC Berkeley library,  photo: archive of the university
"All of the instructors that I've had here, Ellen and two teaching assistants, have gone out of their way to give extra instruction to anybody who approaches them. Ellen is always willing just to set aside her office hours to just teach you something new or if you have a problem even a teaching assistants who are all graduate students working on their own work addition to teaching classes, will go out of their way to explain something. If you are having a problem, they will go out of their way to give you extra materials. There is a very small number of people, but they are very dedicated to what they do, which I think is fantastic. And I am not sure that you would find that everywhere in the United States at every university."