Students introduced to all things Czech at Summer School of Slavonic Studies in Prague

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This year's Summer School of Slavonic studies is in full swing at Prague's Charles University. Almost 250 people are immersed in the study of Czech language, culture, and life. Students from all over the world - around 40 countries in all - and all degrees of education come together to brave the difficulties of learning Czech.

Jan Kuklik, photo: Bara Prochazkova
The school - being held for the 50th time this year - is very popular now, a far cry from conditions when it started. The first two sessions were held in 1948 and 1949, but in the 1950s the repressive political climate forced the school to shut its doors for nearly a decade. In 1959, with a relaxing of the political atmosphere, the school was once again able to operate, this time in continuity. The school then grew in size and influence, reaching its peak in 1968 and 1969. Doctor Jan Kuklik, director of the program, remembers that time.

"The summer school had a kind of magic for its students. Sure, there were all sorts of regulations and rules, and it was probably watched by the police. But people from all over the world came here. From east and west they gathered. Sometimes they even planned to meet at the school. The summer school became somewhat of an oasis. There was an informal exchange of cultural and friendly relations among people who normally couldn't come together. I think that is what is so important to say about this era."

The school offers four different levels of language courses, from beginner to proficient. It also has student guides who will help those who cannot understand anything.

Students of Summer School
The use of other languages is allowed only in some necessary situations. But, the school is not all books and musty libraries. Doctor Jan Holub, a professor at Charles University, explains what students do when they are not in the classroom.

"We give practical courses; we give seminars on literature, culture, history, and contemporary political problems. In addition to these things we have guided excursions to various cultural institutions in Prague. On the weekends we travel far from Prague, to show the other cultural monuments and important places from the point of geography, nature, life, and of course, history and culture."

Students come from all over the world to get a taste of Czech life. But everyone has their own personal reasons for studying here. I managed to catch a few students on their way to class at the Charles University Faculty of Arts. Robin Quizar from Denver in the United States is here to brush up on her Czech before taking a prestigious scholarship to teach in Moravia.

"I'm here for my fourth time, it's a wonderful experience, obviously I like it, or I wouldn't come back. Its wonderful, students come from all over the world, most of them are young. I'm an old lady and we have some other old people, but age doesn't matter.

Faculty of Arts and Philosophy in Prague, photo: Kristýna Maková
It's the idea of learning Czech. I married a Czech, way back, during the Prague Spring and then the Russians came and he came home and stayed here. I decided I couldn't stay here. But, the interest was started and I started learning Czech and many years later, I started going to school here. This year I am going to teach in Olomouc because I have a Fulbright for one semester to teach there. So I need my Czech, not to teach because I will teach in English, but because I want to talk to the people in Olomouc."

Matt Sarnecki from New York plans to study in Prague in the fall.

"I received a scholarship to study at the film institute here, but before I go to institute, I would like to know some Czech. In the second semester, I would like to take classes in the Czech language."

Karin Kockeis did not travel far from her home in Vienna and she says it was her friends that got her interested in learning Czech. She has been in Prague for only a few days and was excited about the program and the variety in offers.

"It's really great and there are a lot of people from different countries. They have a really good program and good teachers. We see a lot, not only of Prague, but of other cities in the Czech Republic. Until now, I like it very much. I have only been here for a few days, so we will see."

Doctor Kuklik says despite the program's uneasy history, the school has tried to take what has been positive about it. Also, the school has now modernized. Together, doctors Kuklik and Holub have changed the way they teach the language and have introduced specialized phonetic training for those who need it. Student Robin Quizar welcomes all the help she can get when it comes to learning Czech.

"It's a very difficult language. I have studied Spanish, German, and Russian and I feel that Czech is the hardest of them to speak. Part of the reason that it's hard is that nobody believes you really should be doing this. Because it's one of those small languages. Small country, small language, but I think it's a great language."

With a language spoken by just 10 million people, the Czech Republic can easily be overlooked on the busy map of Europe. This is why the summer school program is so important. There are not only more foreigners who know the language but they know something about Czech nation as well. Doctor Holub explains.

"It important because we want to say something more concrete about our country. We want to avoid the situation where the students in the United States don't know whether we are Poles, Serbs, Croatians, or Czechs; and where in this big Europe we really are. So when they come here, they say: oh-that's a surprise and this I didn't know. That is what I think is important, that everyone in the world knows some important things about our country."

Doctor Jan Kuklik agrees with his colleague, but he adds that there is still some work that needs to be done.

"Where else than the land of native speakers and Charles University should we support Bohemian and Slavic studies? From an international perspective, the university had a 20- to 30-year golden age where it was the absolute centre of Slavic studies. Today, we have a lot of catching up to do."

Prague's School of Slavonic Studies is not the only one in the Czech Republic. The Moravian cities of Olomouc and Brno are currently hosting their own popular schools.