Will foreigners wanting Czech residency have to sit a language exam?

'Strc prst skrz krk' means 'stick you finger through your throat', and is one of the harder Czech phrases to get one's mouth around. This chronic lack of vowels, combined with a difficult case-system, gives Czech its reputation as a fiendish language to learn. But now foreigners wanting to live here on a long-term basis are going to have to take the bull by the horns and learn the language if they are to succeed. The Czech government is proposing to introduce a language test for people applying for permanent residency.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
Vladislav Gunter is from a non-governmental organisation called the Center for the Integration of Foreigners. He has been working with the government on these proposals.

"We think that once you have the right to obtain a permanent residency permit, then you have some obligations as well. Once you obtain a permanent residency permit, you also obtain many rights and new possibilities for your life here in the Czech Republic. You need Czech anyway, for your life here, in the long term. Czech is the main instrument required for living here anyway, for communicating with offices and for defending your rights and making the most of your opportunities here too."

Permanent residency is something that people can apply for once they have been living in the country for more than five years. But, as Czech teacher Tomas Navratil explains, it is currently possible to have been living here for that long, and not speak a word of Czech:

"I think, especially in Prague, you can live here for years not knowing Czech, and you will have no problems. Everybody speaks English, or at least you can find someone who speaks both Czech and English if you need to. But, when you live somewhere for a long amount of time, you know, it is at least polite to learn the language to some level. It naturally depends will level you will be required to learn it to."

According to the proposals, foreigners wanting a long-term residency permit will first have to reach Czech language level A2. This means, they will have to be able to get by in Czech, making themselves understood in shops and government offices in particular.

Vladislav Gunter is the person who set the proposed level of language competency:

"Right now the proposal is for foreigners to learn Czech up to level A2, which is a level fixed across Europe for all European languages. Some people think that this is not enough. But we think that it is sufficient for long-term residency, because we have experience with foreigners, and we know that some basic knowledge - at least a passive understanding and being able to say what you need - can be enough for basic communication. This is even the case in offices, where people want to understand and want to communicate with you."

Tomas Navratil is all for the idea, here's why:

"I think that the Czech administrative system is sometimes complicated, even for Czechs, and the documents that have to be filled in, especially for foreigners, are sometimes very difficult to translate, and indeed to understand. I don't think that it will be possible for foreigners just to go to these offices without a native Czech-speaker even after these lessons, but they will probably be able to play a more active role this way, so I think this is a good idea."

Some other countries already have language tests for foreigners wanting to live there. Holland requires those asking for permanent residency to first pass a course in social and work-place orientation. Prospective British citizens too, must pass a language test.

The Czech government will pay for the language exam that aspirant residents have to take. But foreigners will have to fund their Czech lessons by themselves.

Learning Czech may sound like a near impossible task, but according to language teacher Tomas Navratil, foreigners shouldn't despair:

"I think it is difficult for foreigners to learn, but still, the rumour that it is one of the most difficult languages to learn - it's just a rumour. I really don't think this is the case."