Linguist Danny Bate: Best motivation for learning Czech? A mother-in-law

Danny Bate

British linguist Danny Bate divides his time between Prague and Edinburgh, where he is completing a PhD. Given his academic background, the 26-year-old has many fascinating things to say on the Czech language, which he himself is studying. But I also asked Bate – who, incidentally, helps shape Czechia’s “maturita” school-leaving exam – about his experience of living in the country to date.

You speak Czech, you have a Czech fiancée. Which came first, your partner or your interest in the language?

Slavic languages | Photo: Free Domain

“The partner. Like so many people, it was love that brought me here. It’s often such a common story, I think it’s not very interesting for other people [laughs].

“But yes, my partner and I met in England, many, many years ago now. Essentially we both finished our degrees in the UK, and having run out of things to do, I came over to be with her in the Czech Republic.”

Did you have any Slavic languages when you met?

“No, this is my first Slavic language, and what an uphill climb it’s been [laughs].”

Typically what language do you speak together?

Illustrative photo: BiljaST,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“English, actually. It’s been primarily English, but increasingly, more and more, Czech.

“For example, we speak to our cat in Czech. I don’t know why. It just fits as a language. It feels much nicer to say, Nazdar, rather than the English equivalents [laughs].

“But her family mostly speak Czech with me and that’s the best possible motivation. I don’t know about yourself, but I really believe that a partner who speaks a language is the second best motivation for learning it. But a mother-in-law – that’s number one. That’s a fantastic motivation for learning Czech [laughs].”

In my case when I meet first meet people they say I speak Czech well. But then when they ask how long I’ve been here and I say 30 years they say, Oh well, in that case you’re not so great. Typically, what’s the response when you speak Czech with people?

“Positive. Very positive. I’m sure that you’re perhaps being a bit self-effacing. I think Czechs in general are delighted – it tends to be a positive reaction.

“I find, for example, that I get nice comments about my pronunciation. People do say that I sound…not native, but getting there.

“But then the negative reactions come in when I don’t know a particular piece of vocabulary. I struggle in general with just memorizing vocabulary. I have my reasons for that, and I’m really trying to work on it, but you can tell that when I forget the word for ‘put’ or ‘give’ they’re going, What’s wrong with this guy [laughs]?”

Verbs are the thing that stump me. I don’t know why that is. Is there a reason why verbs might be harder?

Tenses on the board | Photo: Radio Prague International

“There are many distinct features of Czech verbs where either we don’t have them in English or we don’t think about having them in English.

“A really big hurdle that you have to conquer with any Slavic language is the idea of aspect. With verbs not only do you have time, the time when the action is happening, but also the duration: Is it ongoing? Is it a simple act?

“This is something that English has. It’s the difference, for example, between ‘I went’ and ‘I was going’.

“But in Czech I find aspect is just so crucial to getting the verb right, in any way, shape or form. Especially the differences between the way you form the aspect.

“If you say something like ‘viděl jsem’ versus ‘uviděl jsem’ – ‘I was seeing’ versus ‘I saw’ – you might as a learner take that and think, OK, you have to add something to the beginning of the verb: ‘u’.

“But then you get ‘četl jsem’, ‘načetl jsem’… OK, well that’s something a bit different.

“Then you’re in the region of ‘dal jsem’ and ‘dával jsem’, where the root of the word is changing. That’s hard.

“All Slavic languages have this, I believe, so it is something that once you’ve got it in your skillset it’s very useful to have. But wow.

“Personally in Czech aspect is the number one difficulty and I don’t feel I will ever get it right.”

“Personally in Czech it’s the number one difficulty and I don’t feel I will ever get it right. I think it largely comes down to the individual… vibes of the different things that you’re doing, the little prefixes that you add to the verb. It’s tough.”

For many of us, Czech is nothing but hard work. It’s something that we grapple with every day and it’s basically kind of a problem that we have to get through. But as a linguist, how do you find the language?

“I’m not going to deny, it is difficult. It is difficult, especially because of where I’m coming from, being a native English speaker.

“But I will say that linguistics has been invaluable, truly invaluable. I would recommend to anybody… not to take degrees in linguistics – you haven’t got enough time for that [laugh] – but believe that the answers for the problems are out there.

Twisted tongue | Photo: alehidalgo,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“All these complications, irregularities – there’s a reason for them. And linguistics is the field that’s providing the explanations for those reasons.

“A very nice example would be phonetics, which is to do with sounds and how we humans produce sounds. Phonetics as a field of study has been around for a couple of centuries now, and we have these extremely detailed descriptions of sounds and how we humans physically produce them.

“When I am learning Czech I use my knowledge of phonetics to think, Hang on, what’s actually going on in the mouth?”

“That’s not just theoretical and abstract. It has enormous practical application. So when I am learning Czech I use my knowledge of phonetics to think, Hang on, what’s actually going on in the mouth? What am I actually trying to do?

“Phonetics can tell you in very, very precise detail what you are doing, or what you are not doing – what you’re getting wrong.

“So, for example, your palatal sounds, like ď and ť, as in děda and tati, or of course the infamous ř sound – if you just have some detailed descriptions, what is going on with this ř, you don’t have to suffer.”

What about annoying things about Czech? A number of times on Twitter you’ve highlighted the fact that Czechs can use very different place names. For example, Benátky for Venice, or Kodaň for Copenhagen. Why does that annoy you so much?

“When I say annoy, that’s coming from one side of me. That’s coming from Danny the learner of Czech, who has to grapple with this language and perhaps just doesn’t want any bumps in the road.

“As a linguist, I think this is awesome. I think this is absolutely fascinating, with my scientific hat on. This says wonders about Czechs’ drive to have native terms for things.

“I think within these very different names for places – we call them exonyms, they’re not native names for these places – there’s a lot of history you can discern.

“Often Czech has very distinct names for places that it’s had long-term contacts with.”

“Often Czech has very distinct names for places that it’s had long-term contacts with. To wind back to the medieval period, which is my favourite period of history, the Czech Republic, or what became the Czech Republic, had lots to do with the German city of Regensburg.

“Regensburg is where you had the archbishop and he had control, which he then lost, etcetera, etcetera. Well, with that long-term contact it makes sense that Czechs don’t say Regensburg: it’s Řezno.


“Or for example Cyril and Methodius, those great saints, they came from Thessaloniki. Again that’s an ancient connection back to that faraway city. It makes sense that it’s Soluň – again, very different.

“So as a linguist I’m delighted. But I suppose it is kind of frustrating, because sometimes there’s just no predicting it. These are not terms that I can think about in terms of sound changes, historical development. They’re just completely different and it’s all to do with the history.

“You know, in English we have the name of the country, Austria. That’s the big one when it comes to Czech place names. We get Austria partly from French, partly from German – it’s the eastern part of the empire. And also many, many languages get their word from German.

“In Czech… Czechs have had so much to do with what is now Austria that yes, I get it, it makes sense that it is Rakousko. But as a learner of Czech that just continues to blow my mind. And it delights and frustrates me in equal measure to this day [laughs].”

One thing you put on Twitter that blew my mind was when you said that there was a connection between Prosek, the Prague district, and Prosecco, the wine.

“I did. I love that fact. It’s true. That’s a long story, but essentially Prosecco needs to come from the Trieste region of Italy, in the far northeast of Italy. And what you get in that part of Italy and that part of Austria is lots of place names that actually come from Slavic.

“Prosek would be a good example of that. Czech is a Slavic language, we have a Slavic place name, and what’s happened is we have a Slovenian, or pre-Slovenian, place name that has been ‘Italianified’ and hence the name of – I think it’s just a small village – Prosecco. The wine either has to come from the village or it has to come from that area.

“There are lots of places like that. For example, Graz in Austria is Gradec, or Hradec in Czech, with that Czech sound change. But it’s Slavic. There are all sorts of place names where there’s a very helpful connection.

Prosecco | Illustrative photo: kkoertshuis,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“And it makes me very happy that there is a restaurant in Prosek, which is very close to where I live in Prague, called Prosecco. It’s very fitting, but perhaps I’m the only person who thinks so [laughs].”

Getting back to you, how much time to you spend in the UK? How much time in Prague? And what do you do here?

“My living situation is actually a little bit odd at the moment, because my university is actually the University of Edinburgh. So I’ve hit upon this arrangement where I’m sort of 50 percent in one, 50 percent in the other. Really because I want to get stuck in with Edinburgh, but I have my life here in Prague.

“I have my fiancée. I have my aforementioned cat. But also I do have my little role, my little contribution to the Czech Republic, which is working with the ‘maturita’ exam, which I love.

“I’m enormously proud of this small part that I play in the Czech Republic. So if you or someone you know has recently taken the English exam, that’s my voice.

Maturita – school-leaving exam | Photo: Miloslav Hamřík,  Czech Radio

“I also proofread the exam as their sort of native expert. They get me in and inevitably I have nothing to correct – it’s always very, very good.

“But I can say I’m quite young, and the first time I turned up at Cermat, where they do the exam, I think they were quite surprised by my youth. But I’m a native speaker and I know linguistics, so I’m some use to them. And I love it. That’s me [in the exam], which is quite some responsibility.

“I do feel that I have to lower my voice around young people these days – I don’t want to trigger any bad memories [laughs].”

We came here as foreigners for different reasons, but generations apart. I have such strong memories of the ‘90s and the great experiences I had then. But, as somebody who has come here relatively recently, how have you found the experience of living here?

“Overwhelmingly positive. It’s been a very Czech experience – very intense – thanks to Karolína’s family, who live in Eastern Bohemia.

“I’ve done things that I never would have done in the UK that are quite normal for the Czechs.”

“It’s been a real education, I will say that: I’ve done things that I never would have done in the UK [laughs] that are quite normal for the Czechs.”

Like what?

“I’ve cut down a tree! I’d never cut down a tree before but it was like, Yeah, you can help us with that. Contributing to the work in the garden and that sort of thing, which is just perhaps a little bit more extreme than it is in the UK.

“So it’s been overwhelmingly positive. But thanks to all that time with the good Czech people themselves, I don’t think I’m unaware of the problems that this country has; Czechs are in general quite politically pessimistic, so [laughs] they’re quite forthcoming with their opinions. I’m aware of that.

“I only say that while, yes, like every country, there are problems, there’s a lot to love about this one. I think there are many things, like public transport, like the availability of sport, physical activity, which I think in the UK can be a little bit more exclusive.

Hiking trail marks | Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International

“In the Czech Republic if you have no plans for your free Saturday, just put your shoes on, get your řízek s chlebem and then follow the green route, follow the yellow route – off you go and you’ll see something.

“That’s enormously accessible and inclusive, and it’s just one of the things where the Czechs should be proud. I think it’s just great.”

Also I see from Twitter – which is how we first met, online – that you enjoy going from brewery to brewery.

“Yes, that’s very true. I love beer, so I’ve definitely landed in the right country here. I’m still in my heart very loyal to your traditional British and Irish beers, your Guinness for example, but I have been converted to the Czech way of doing things – it’s very drinkable.

“Again I just think that’s great. Breweries seem to be thriving at the moment. The Czechs definitely seem to be slightly moving away from the dominance of your huge breweries, your Plzeň [Pilsner Urquell], your Gambrinus, your Starobrno, if you’re in the east.

“I walk from brewery to brewery sometimes. Especially south of Prague you have these amazing, traditional-style breweries.”

“I think that’s great. I’m seeing a lot more variety. And just what a grand day out. I really do walk from brewery to brewery sometimes. Especially south of Prague, in south central Bohemia, you have these amazing, traditional-style breweries.

“That’s a grand day out. Obviously you have to be careful – you want to make it to the next one. But I definitely recommend that as a pretty affordable and pretty enjoyable day out. Yes, just brewery to brewery.”

What does the future hold for you? Can you see yourself settling here in Czechia?

“Short answer: yes. Absolutely. I just have to get this PhD done. I’m in no hurry to do that, but I’m very much looking forward to the next challenge.

“I would love to settle down here. I think my fiancée would like that too.

“And ideally something in this country to do with academia, linguistics, language – that would suit me down to the ground.

“I’ve got an open mind. I’m well aware that every country has its different traditions of academic but linguistics is pretty strong in the Czech Republic, I think especially at Masarykova [univerzita, Masaryk University] in Brno. That would be ideal as well.

“But really, anything to do with linguistics, language and just taking this amazing field and just getting it to as many people as possible – that’s my vocation, at the end of the day. So a Czech future would just be great.”

Danny Bate | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International