Small numbers studying Czech at prestigious New York universities

In this edition of Panorama we meet some of those teaching and studying Czech at two of New York’s most prestigious universities. Our first stop is Columbia University, where Professor Christopher Harwood teaches both the Czech language and Czech studies. How do enrolments compare for both classes?

Christopher Harwood
“There are fairly small numbers for both, I have to say. There tends to be a pretty wide fluctuation year to year, which I have to think is for reasons that are pretty much random. We draw a significant number of students into language study through the bait of the possibility of studying in Prague. The semester study abroad programmes in Prague are very popular.”

At New York University Professor Milan Fryščák is – like Professor Harwood at Columbia – the only person teaching the Czech language. Who signs up?

“These are people who have some interest in not necessarily literature but political science, history – these are the people who study Czech.”

And what are the greatest challenges for those who do choose to study Czech? Professor Christopher Harwood.

“It depends a little bit. I get language students from very different backgrounds. Some have experience with say Russian or Polish and other Slavic languages, which gives them a huge advantage.

“I have had a significant number of students with a Czech heritage, and that can be either a more immediate or a more distant heritage. Some of them are for example children of Czech émigrés, who spoke a certain amount of Czech at home but never learned to read or write. So it really depends on what the previous experience is.

“Certainly the case system is a huge difficulty, even for the heritage students, who again have a certain degree of passive knowledge or whatever, but when they actually have to learn to write the endings correctly have real difficulty.

“That’s also a problem for people who say have had Russian or Polish, where there’s a similar case structure but the actual endings and the spellings are also different. So that’s probably a consistent problem.”

Milan Fryščák
How long does it take for an average student to become reasonably proficient at Czech? That’s a question I put to Professor Fryščák at NYU.

“I think we are talking about three to four years. There are very few students who have some knowledge of Czech…Our programme is an undergraduate programme so it’s not really practical for many of the students to study just Czech. When students are doing a graduate programme that’s a different thing.

“We are competing with cultures like French culture, Spanish culture, Italian, German culture…Americans are career-oriented and to learn Czech is not a good investment of time and money. That’s one of the obstacles.”

To get the perspective of perspective of some students of Czech, I spoke to two girls at Columbia named Cally and Elly.

What led you to study Czech?

Cally: “Here at Columbia a couple of years ago Václav Havel was doing a residency and that was the first I’d heard about him or paid attention to anything Czech really. The following spring I decided to take an East European history class and got really interested in Czech history. The following fall I decided to start learning the language too.”

Elly: “I’m from England and in my gap year I went to study in Prague and I fell in love with the city and I also travelled outside of Prague in the country. And I became really interested in the history and literature as well. Cally and I took a class together in which we both became interested in the history.”

How are you finding studying Czech?

Elly: “It’s quite difficult!”

Cally: “I find it pretty difficult. I studied German and Spanish before and it’s definitely a lot harder than either of those.”

Is there anything you like about Czech?

Elly: “It’s unusual and some of the words are very interesting – all the consonants.”

Cally: “Yeah, I do like that it’s unusual. It’s fun to talk about it with other people who aren’t really familiar with it at all. It’s a country that I don’t know much about so it’s fun to talk about all the extra things you pick up in a language class.”

One thing I didn’t discuss with the students was the marked difference between formal and informal Czech. Professor Harwood, whose wife is Czech, says even he finds this aspect of the language challenging.

“That’s a problem. It’s one I try not to confront too much at this level. I try to teach my students literary Czech – spisovná čeština. My personal experience is you can always go down in the register of the language, but once one gets too comfortable in the spoken level it’s difficult to go back up.

“That’s actually a personal problem for me right now, because I learned initially pretty much only literary Czech and that’s what I spoke when I arrived there. And since then my personal relationship with the Czech language and Czech people has led me to use the vernacular and the colloquial variants much more.

“It requires a degree of effort to uphold the standard of the literary language, both when I’m teaching and in other professional situations when I should be using that register. And simply because there is no equivalent to that in English it’s quite a challenge.

“So I try to keep my students entirely in the register of the written language. I draw there attention to the colloquial uses, but I don’t practise it with them.”

Finally, as well as teaching at NYU, Professor Milan Fryscak is the author of a self-study book entitled Say it in Czech. What would his advice be to the general learner?

“To learn the language it calls for extended exposure, use of the language and reading – reading contemporary literature – and trying to find the normal or the usual way of saying things. You can learn the minimum for communicative purposes in a reasonably short time. It’s not easy, but the rewards of mastering it are tremendous.”