Letter from Prague

There's a Czech saying that goes "Kolik jayzku znas tolikrat jsi clovekem" ie. "The more languages you speak, the more lives you lead". Despite this gem of folk wisdom which has been handed down from generation to generation, Czechs are not what you'd call polyglots. Having said that it wasn't always entirely their own fault. History always seemed to get in the way - as it tends to do on the Old Continent.

At the beginning of the 20th century Czechs were living in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and most of them spoke excellent German, as well as a smattering of the other languages that were part of Franz Josef's realm. Then came the national revival, which culminated in the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918. The common state was to last for over 72 years and Slovak was to become as familiar to Czech ears as their own mother tongue. After the first world war, Franco-Czech relations flourished. French was compulsory at schools and even in the military. The nobility spoke French fluently. It was a time when Czechs enjoyed learning a foreign language and being free to travel they could put it to good use. The next half a century was to change that. In 1939 the country was invaded by Nazi Germany - and French was replaced by German in all schools. I don't need to tell you what the nation's attitude was to all things German.

Nevertheless, the five years of German occupation did leave its linguistic mark on the population. Even to this day the older generation has retained some knowledge of that language - but aversion to it has been so strong that few of them ever want to use it. The end of the war brought liberation from Germany and the division of Europe which catapulted Czechs into the Soviet sphere of influence. Compulsory German was scrapped and replaced by compulsory Russian. Another language to hate. Czechs were fed Russian at school but nobody in their right mind would actually use it. Not until the Russian led invasion in 1968 when suddenly many Czechs found an excellent use for it - they could tell Russian soldiers exactly what they thought of them. Either to their face or by scrawling a message on building facades. "Ivan go home. Masha's waiting" said the kinder messages. The majority though were expressions that nobody could have learnt at school. After that came 20 more years of compulsory Russian - more hateful and hated than ever.

The 1989 revolution and the return of democracy caught Czechs linguistically unprepared. However the will to learn was immense, among the young in particular, and schools promptly scrapped Russian and introduced a variety of foreign languages, the chief of which was English, at primary and secondary schools. Language courses of all kinds soon flooded the country. English, German, French and Italian - in three weeks, three months or a year, most recently even "in your sleep". Young people are studying abroad or working as au pairs to become fluent.

While the hostility against German is a thing of the past Russian is having a hard time making a come-back. Well that's not perfectly true. A report appeared in a newspaper recently claiming that Czech bank-robbers are using the smattering of Russian they learnt at school when holding up banks - a perfect way to confuse policemen investigating the crime afterwards. Maybe we are budding linguists after all.