Czech can be a daunting language to learn for some but, like the 1000 mile journey that starts with a single step, it can be learned by making the effort early on to speak it as much as possible.
A friend of mine recently departed New Zealand to live in the Czech Republic and has faced the task of starting afresh — new culture, new people, places, weather, food and of course, language.
As he recounted his story of how he successfully acquired a coffee using nothing but Czech it reminded me of how exhilarating it can be to speak a new language and be understood. It also reminded me about how learning languages by making “missions”.
Missions (thanks to Benny Lewis for this idea) is the idea that you prepare for a specific encounter in a new language then go out and test it. Not only does this give you confidence it also provides the feedback you need to progress faster.
So, recounting my own encounters with the Czech language, here is my primer for the beginner or traveler seeking to be able to use just enough Czech to get by.
Note: If you are learning Czech, I have provided some grammar points which give you the jumping off point to learn more grammar. Having learned a lot of Czech, I recommend learning just enough grammar to know what’s going on but not too much too early. Grammar fatigue is definitely a diagnosable condition for learners of Slavic languages! Use one of the common textbook/audio programmes in the initial stages and you’ll go well, such as: Colloquial Czech, Teach Yourself Czech.
Before you start, check out this Czech and Slovak pronunciation guide.
From the top: saying hello, goodbye and thank you
Dobré ráno Good morning (before 9am)
Dobrý den Good day
Dobrý večer Good evening (after 6pm)
Děkuji (vám) Thank you
Děkuji mockrát Many thanks
Děkuji vám pěkně Thank you kindly (lit. ‘nicely’)
Na shledanou Goodbye
Now you’ve said hello, how do you actually order something? A common way to ask for something in Czech and other Slavic languages is to say “I will give myself…” We would never phrase it that way in English, which serves to show how direct translation between languages is many times not possible.
Dám si jednou kávu prosím I will have a coffee please (lit. ‘I will give myself a coffee please).
The above example is very common and is constructed from the verb dát – to give.
Alternatively, you could use the verb vzít si – meaning “to take”:
Vezmu si jedno pivo prosím I will take a beer please
Using the imperative form, you could say:
Dejte mi… Give me…
Dejte mi jedno pivo prosím Give me a beer please
This form can sound very direct so use please (prosím) either at the beginning or end of the sentence.
Plurals can get quite complicated in grammar terms, but for the most part they just require slight modifications to the noun. For example:
Dám si dvě kávy a tři piva prosím I will have two coffees and three beers please
For plurals of 2-4 items the nouns decline (change ending) in a predictable way depending on gender. There are some different noun endings in each of the genders but here are the main ones
Feminine: káva => kávy coffee, coffees
Neuter: pivo => piva beer, beers
Masculine: salát => saláty salad, salads
čaj => čaji tea, teas (masculine noun with soft ending)
Plurals can get a bit daunting for a beginner and for the most part the ones above will fit a number of common menu items. At 5 items and beyond you encounter the Genitive case and the noun endings are completely different. However, there’s no need to worry about this in the beginning stages.
If you know the nominative noun form then you’ll be able to ask for what you want and refine later as you learn more grammar and the modifications needed.
More complex constructions
If you feel like going a bit further and want to be a bit more expressive, try using different forms, such as the conditional.
In English we’re just as like to say “I would like” as much as “I want”. In Czech the conditional is made in a similar way — using the past tense of the verb with some conditional language:
Já bych si dal I would like (note the past tense of the verb dát)
Chtěl bych ten zákusek I would like that cake (from the verb chtít – to want)
Rád bych I would like (using the rád – to like)
Raději bych I would rather
There is a wrinkle here, and this is where Slavic languages can seem overly complicated. For female speakers you’ll need to add an ‘a’ on the end of the past tense stem.
Já bych si dala; Chtěla bych; Ráda bych
Sometimes you need to know if the place you’re at has something. For this situation use the verb mít – to have in this case:
Máte zmrzliny? Do you have ice creams?
Máte nějaké zákusky? Do you have any cakes?
To ask for “what kinds of” you could say:
Jaké máte vino? What sort of wine do you have?
With or without?
Asking for something with something else we use the instrumental case (don’t panic — it’s a simple noun ending change that is predictable and common). Use the preposition “s” like the s in silence.
Vezmu si jeden čaj s citronem I will take a tea with lemon (citron – lemon)
Dám si jednou kávu s mlékem I will have a coffee with milk (mléko – milk)
The prefix -em is for masculine nouns (usually these end in consonant) and neuter nouns (usually ending in o).
For feminine nouns, use the prefix -ou (pronounced like the word ‘owe’).
Já bych si dal palačinky se slehačkou I would like pancakes with whipped cream (from the feminine noun slehačka – whipped cream).
Without — the Genitive case
The genitive case is simple in many ways as the instrumental. Use it after the word bez – without.
Dám si dvě kávy bez cukru prosím I will have two coffees without sugar (from the word cukr – sugar).
So much grammar in such simple phrases
One thing you can see from these examples is how grammar is woven into the sentences in a seamless way. This is why studying grammar in isolation of sentences is not the optimal way to learn Czech.
Instead, focus 80% of your energy on learning phrases and sentences. Having learned just enough grammar to understand the different cases and how they work, set out to learn language you can use in everyday situations and use it.
I hope, however, this primer into the Czech language can at least get you to use it on your travels. In the next post I will script out a whole bunch of useful travel phrases so stay tuned.