Small is beautiful – why British students are choosing to study Czech

The British are not generally known for their impressive language skills, usually ranking at the bottom of tables comparing countries by foreign language knowledge – and if they know any at all, it is likely to be one of the major European languages such as French, Spanish, or German. However, the University of Sheffield in northern England has a surprising feather in its cap – it has the most students learning Czech out of any UK university.

Illustrative photo: Kat,  Flickr,  CC BY-SA 2.0

According to Eurostat figures from 2016 (coincidentally also the year that the Brexit referendum won by a slight majority), the UK ranked at the bottom of the list in Europe for percentage of the population saying they knew at least one foreign language, at just 34.6% – meaning 65.4%, about two thirds of the population, don’t speak any foreign languages at all. This provides a stark comparison with countries such as Sweden, Latvia, Denmark, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Finland, Malta and Estonia, which all had over 90 % of respondents claiming to speak at least one foreign language.

The situation in Czechia, at 79% according to the Eurostat data, is much better than in the UK, but there are far fewer people who can combine native-level English with fluent Czech. The University of Sheffield, with nearly 50 years of teaching Czech as a modern language under its belt and as the biggest provider of Czech language degrees in the UK, hopes to train graduates who can fill that niche.

The University of Sheffield - administrative centre | Photo: Peter Barr,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 2.0

There are only four universities to teach Czech in the UK and only around a dozen students graduate from Czech language degrees in the country each year – but most of them study at Sheffield. Aaron Bohlman, a Sheffield modern languages graduate, says he knew very little about Czech before he started studying it.

“It was quite a random decision – I started off doing French and Spanish but I’d always wanted to do three languages. The obvious choice was another Romance language like Portuguese or Italian, but I had a few friends that were doing Russian in the Slavonic Studies department, and they put me in touch with one of the Czech teachers. She invited me into the office and gave me some Becherovka and said ‘Why don’t you do Czech?’ And I said ‘OK, yeah sure, I’ll give it a go’ – I didn’t really think too much about it.”

However, Aaron says that from these unlikely beginnings, his study of Czech quickly became a passion, even an obsession.

“Once I started with Czech I got really, really into it. I guess I was intrigued by how difficult it was and how different it was to doing French and Spanish, and it quickly took over my life really.”

Photo: René Volfík,

Although many people, even those who move to the Czech Republic, quickly become discouraged by the complex grammar of Czech and find learning it a chore, Aaron found it to be quite the opposite.

“I think you can go two ways with a language like Czech – you either lose interest because it’s difficult or you maybe don’t see the point of learning a language that’s not spoken by so many people, or you go the other way. And myself and a couple of other people that I studied with went down that route of just getting really almost obsessed with it – just falling in love with the language really and the challenge of learning something difficult, and also enjoying the fact that you’re learning something that not many other people are learning, particularly in the UK or as a native English speaker.”

Professor Neil Bermel, director of Czech Studies at the University of Sheffield, says that Aaron’s story is surprisingly common among students that decide to study Czech.

“A lot of the time it’s a personal connection – it’ll be a trip that they took to Prague when they were 15 or 16, or a neighbour that they knew. We get a fair number of Czech boyfriend/girlfriend scenarios as well. But the motivations are varied and sometimes they’re very tenuous – they may just see it and think ‘ooh that’s weird, I’ll try that’, and then our job is to convert that into an actual interest.”

General Consul Ivo Losman,  Neil Bermel and Luďek Knittl in front of the University of Sheffield | Photo: Martin Plocek,  Ministry of Foreign Affairs

How they do that is multivariate. Luděk Knittl, a Czech teacher at Sheffield, says the size and atmosphere of the classes has a big part to play.

“In contrast with the so-called ‘big’ languages, our classes tend to be smaller and more welcoming and therefore students tend to stick with it. They see the option and they think ‘oh yeah, this is a strange thing, I could try that while I’m at university’ – there are a number of students who have told us themselves that they had never heard of the country before, but after a few weeks they just fell in love with the language and then decided to continue.”

Another important tactic that the teaching staff use is bringing the language alive and showing the students, some of whom may never even have heard of Czech before, that it is a real, living, breathing language, as Luděk elucidates.

“Especially post-2004, we had quite a large Czech and Slovak community in Sheffield, so we showed Czech films to bring people together from the community and try to get the students to see that it is actually a real language and people do actually speak it. Because sometimes it just feels very strange for them, sitting in a classroom and learning a language like Czech which is so different from English or other languages that they have learnt – and it gets them excited, it just happens.”

Students of the University of Sheffield | Photo: Martin Plocek,  Ministry of Foreign Affairs

In addition, once the students have developed some level of proficiency in the language, they are given the opportunity to work on interesting, real-life projects that put their new-found language skills to use – examples from over the years include helping Czech castles to translate their tours, brochures, and websites into English; creating an app for a zoo in Brno to help English-speaking children learn more about the animals; and translating the diary of a WWII Czech legionnaire for his English-speaking daughter, which helped her learn for the first time about her father’s military service during WWII in countries all around the world. In addition, students have translated subtitles for two documentaries by Věra Chytilová, a pioneer of Czech cinema, enabling them to be screened at the British Film Institute and at a festival in Munich; and have translated two Czech plays so they could be performed in the UK. Professor Bermel explains how these projects took off:

“These projects arise because I have a short attention span and I get easily bored – I don’t like teaching the same materials to the final-year students year after year, trotting out the same old translations for them to do. It evolved more or less organically, because there’s a demand for good English-language translations of Czech stuff, and there’s very few people who have native English who can translate from Czech. So it started with us putting on student productions of Czech plays and finding out that there weren’t adequate translations of them for the subtitling, so we did those ourselves.”

Photo: Masaryk University Brno

The projects often arise by chance – translating the WWII Czech legionnaire’s diary for his daughter came about because she contacted the department out of the blue asking for help as she had received the handwritten diary after her father had passed away but couldn’t read it, and the Brno zoo project similarly landed on their plates after Brno’s Masaryk University contacted them to ask if they could provide English translations for a children’s app they were making. However, the castles project came about through a personal connection, says Luděk.

“I worked at Karlštějn castle for a few years before I came to the UK and had lots of friends from other heritage sites in the Czech Republic. I have a very close friend who was the manager of Hrubý Rohozec castle, and he asked us whether we could do something for them because they were starting to get a lot more English-speaking tourists but had virtually no good information in English.”

The students worked throughout the year translating the materials for the castle’s guided tours, and the manager even came to visit the students at Sheffield and tell them about the castle. Towards the end of the year, the students were able to go and spend a week at Hrubý Rohozec and see the real-life results of their work. Luděk says that the prospect of doing something tangible with Czech that has real-life results is incredibly motivating for the students.

Hrubý Rohozec | Photo: Šárka Škapiková,  Czech Radio

“It was absolutely brilliant because they could actually see the work they had done and they could check it against the reality of the place, which is something that a normal translator doesn’t usually get a chance to do.”

However, getting them to the point where their Czech is good enough to be able to participate in the first place, by dangling the promise of future projects in front of them, can be a challenge. However, there are other ways to pique the students’ interest early on, as Luděk explains:

“Sometimes it’s difficult in the first year when we tell them, ‘Look, in your final year you might be able to do this wonderful project that we are planning’. But we’ve taken students to the Czech Republic, we did a trip after they’d done about six months of Czech where we took them to Prague at Easter and spent a few days in and around the city, and showed them how cheap the beer is and how wonderful the country is and what they can see and do there.”

The effort that the Czech Studies department at Sheffield puts into cultivating an interest in the country and language in the students and in motivating them to pursue it to degree level certainly pays off – many of the graduates go on to use Czech in their professional lives. Aaron Bohlman, who graduated with a modern languages degree in Czech, French and Spanish from the University of Sheffield in 2013, initially went into marketing after graduation, and a few years later landed a marketing role at a start-up in Prague. But while he was there, he started doing some translation on the side – initially just for friends or friends of friends, but it slowly bloomed into something bigger.

Illustrative photo: Lukáš Řezník,  Český rozhlas

“I actually work as a full-time freelance Czech translator now, which is not something I ever thought I would end up doing because I just didn’t really think it was possible! But I decided to take that leap because I wanted to get back to the language that I spent so much time learning – so now primarily my day-to-day is translating stuff from Czech. So that’s really great because I get to have that continued contact with the country, with the language, with the people, even though I live in the UK now.”

For some graduates, the pay-off has been personal as well as professional. Lorna Stephen, a Sheffield modern language graduate in German, Spanish and Czech, and herself a former Radio Prague intern, says that learning Czech led her to meet her husband.

“I was offered the opportunity to go to a summer school in the Czech Republic which was open to all students studying Czech and was paid for by the Czech government, I believe – I didn’t have to pay anything towards it. It was a fantastic experience – I made some great friends there, I met my future husband there, and that solidified my love of the land and the people I met there.”

Although she doesn’t use Czech directly in her current role, learning Czech certainly steered the course of her career, Lorna says.

Illustrative photo: René Volfík,  Czech Radio

“I was able to write one of my dissertations for the Czech module – I wrote about bilingual children, specifically bilingual Czech children living in England and learning Czech and English. I visited the schools there and wrote my project on that and through that process I realised I quite like the whole idea of teaching and bilingual children and that steered the course of the rest of my career essentially.”

Aaron says that there is a particular joy in learning a language with relatively few speakers and that the benefits are manifold – particularly in the field of translation.

“There’s a community that develops around smaller languages that you don’t get with big ones. Particularly in the UK, you kind of get to know everybody that speaks Czech or you come across them somewhere else – there’s a real tight-knit community of people that are native English speakers who have learnt Czech and obviously also Czech people that work in the translation industry.”

He also adds that as a native English speaker, it’s easy to travel around the world without learning local languages, but if you do invest the time and effort, you get to see a side of the country that you wouldn’t otherwise.

Prague | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

“Ultimately I ended up living in Prague for three or four years after graduation. As an English person living in Prague I had different experiences to other expats that lived there, just by virtue of the fact that I could speak Czech. Once I was there I was able to have friends that I only spoke Czech to and I met their families and went to weddings and christenings – everyday life I suppose – and I wouldn’t have had that without the language.”

And not only that – the reward of learning a less widely-spoken language is also in the reactions you get from native speakers, Aaron says.

“The appreciation that people have when you’ve actually bothered to learn their language is really great. A lot of speakers of large languages like Spanish or French might expect people to have learnt their language and not be particularly surprised or impressed that you have, but Czech people are generally impressed that you’ve learnt it, but sometimes they’re also a bit horrified, like ‘why did you waste your life learning this language spoken by 10 million people?’”

Whatever they lack in number, Sheffield’s Czech graduates certainly seem to make up for in enthusiasm – their joy in learning and passion for Czech is readily apparent, and is in no small part thanks to the remarkable efforts of the teaching staff in the Czech Studies department, as well as the flexible and open degree structure, which allows students to add extra languages and affords them the opportunity to try something new, which they may never otherwise have discovered.