North Carolina language school becomes meeting point for Czech and Slovak expats

Photo: archive of Czech and Slovak School of North Carolina

How to teach your children the Czech language and maintain it in an environment where everyone speaks English? That is a big question for the Czech expatriate community living in the United States. Marta McCabe, a Czech teacher who moved to North Carolina, decided to deal with the issue by establishing a Czech and Slovak School in the town of Durham – the first organisation of its kind in that state. I met Marta McCabe on her recent visit to Prague to talk about the Czech community in North Carolina and about the school she founded. But I first asked her how she herself ended up living in the United States:

Marta McCabe,  photo: archive of Czech and Slovak School of North Carolina
“I have moved to North Carolina about ten years ago and the reason was that when I visited the US in 2002 as a student, I found my future husband, who happened to live there. So after returning to Prague and finishing my studies, we decided to get married an I moved to North Carolina later on and that's where we have lived ever since.”

Can you tell me more about the Czech community in North Carolina?

“North Carolina is definitely not the place where Czech immigrants had been arriving 100 years ago, but it has lots to offer to today's migrants, people who are young and educated. Many people move to North Carolina today for jobs or to do research at universities.

“So it is usually young professionals who move to a specific job in North Carolina and then perhaps stay and start a family and stay around. So we probably have around 800 to a thousand people, but statistics are not really that clear.”

Are there actually any Czech expatriate organisations functioning in North Carolina, of course apart of the Czech and Slovak school?

“In North Carolina there is no other organisation, there has never really been any Czech or Slovak organisation before, not even a Sokol, so we really are the first organisation for the Czech and Slovak community. It is a new place for new people.”

So is that one of the reasons why you established the school, to function as a sort of centre for the community?

“One of the purposes of the school is to create a space in which families could come together and speak Czech and make it appear as a community.”

“Very much so. O have spent many years looking for such an organisation and I couldn't figure out what to do and where to start. And then it just dawned on me that we have to start a new organisation, as simple as that.

“I have also noticed a lot of interest from the parents. It is really there main goal to make sure that their children will speak Czech. That's why we have started a Czech school rather than a Sokol organisation or something like that.”

You yourself have three children who are growing up in a bilingual environment. So what would you say is the most difficult thing about maintaining the Czech language?

“Since the children are born in the United States,the most difficult part is that everything else besides me is happening in English. They go to school, which is in English, children at the playground speak English, their grandparents and relatives of my husband, who live in North Carolina, speak English.”

“So in the end it is really just the mother who is trying to increase their exposure to Czech in some kind of way. So it really is the amount of time that they are exposed to the Czech language and which is not a lot compared to English. And they come to prefer speaking English and it is difficult to make them switch to Czech.”

Photo: archive of Czech and Slovak School of North Carolina
So the school where they actually meet children from the same environment might be a great advantage.

“Exactly as you said. One of the purposes of the school is to create a space in which these families could come together and speak Czech and make it appear as a community. Because we don't all live in the same neighbourhood, we don't have a Czech store or a Czech restaurant where we would meet.”

“So the Czech school is a space where at least the Czech parents can speak Czech and the children can listen to them speaking Czech. Another question is whether the children will actually speak Czech to each other. We are working on that but it is not that easy to convince them to do so.”

In your university studies, you focused on the education of language and ethnic minorities in the US, and you are currently also researching ways of maintaining the language in Czech and Slovak children. So what approach have you adopted in your school?

“Our school takes place on Saturday morning and the children are tired of being at school the entire week. So we try to make the instruction interesting for them, make it fun in some ways. So we do teach them how to read and write but we also incorporate lots of games and puzzles and activities in which they move around and play.”

“The Czech school is a space where at least the Czech parents can speak Czech and the children can listen to them speaking Czech.”

Is the school intended for children only or do you also offer courses for adults?

“The school was established with the purpose to serve mostly children, to teach Czech and Slovak to children, but this semester, we started offering courses for adults as well. So we have had Czech and Slovak courses for adults as well and we will continue to serve both children and adults.”

And these adults, are they mostly second or third generation Czechs and Slovaks who were already born in the US who have either never learned the language or started to forget?

“These adults are either second or even third generation Czechs and Slovaks who grew up in a household where their mother or father or both spoke Czech, or sometimes it was only their grandmother who taught them a few words. So some of them know the language to a certain degree and some don't know almost anything.

“The second type of our adult students are spouses of the current immigrants, so these would be people who usually don't know much at all, they usually know a few words and want to understand the rest of the family.”

Would you say that in general Czech immigrants find it important to maintain the language and traditions and a certain link to their native country?

Photo: archive of Czech and Slovak School of North Carolina
“I would say that when lots of these new immigrants came to the US they came to experience American life and get new skills at a job and Czech culture has not been their main interest.

“It only has become important as they started to have families and children and now they realize that they want them to know the Czech language and they want them to know about the Czech Easter tradition so I think many of these young people are coming back to valuing their Czech heritage now that they have children.”