Have you ever been in a conversation in your target language and you get to the point where you’re just stuck and cannot continue? The beginning is always the hardest and the learning curve is quite steep when you studying Czech language which is outside of your native language’s family. Listening tends to come last in language acquisition, and while sometimes you could read and speak some basics, the sounds are just not reaching your brain in a way you can understand yet. And if that person is speaking at native-speed?- forget it. It is a frustrating plateau in the language learning process, and the usual advice is to just give yourself time and more exposure to the language and with enough patience, you will understand it verbally. Playing your favorite TV shows with foreign dubbing is a popular way to gain exposure in an environment where you can pause and rewind as many times as you need, and add subtitles for extra help.
I had lived in Czech Republic for about three months and was struggling with the baby steps of the language learning process. I had some vocabulary words, a weak grasp of the grammar, and a thick accent. When someone tried to start a conversation with me beyond a grocery-store-check-out level, I had gotten accustomed to stopping the speaker and replying with a shaky “I’m very sorry, but I don’t understand.” We then had to fall back on English or give up entirely.
During this period, I was waiting for a friend outside of a potraviny in Žižkov when an elderly woman, toting her little cart behind her, asked for directions to Nemocnice Na Žižkově.
At first I was overwhelmed by her barrage of words, and I began to mentally form my little apology speech about not really understanding the question. At the same time, her words slowly registered in my head, and before I could speak, a lightbulb lit up: I understood her question entirely. No subtitles, no translations, no hand signals, not even a “could you repeat that, please?” I finally could fully understand a spoken phrase outside of a classroom setting.
Czech was my first attempt at actually learning a foreign language (apologies to my high school Spanish teachers) and that moment of clarity acted as a milestone in the journey to fluency.
Unfortunately for the woman, I did not know where the hospital was, but she was able to understand me through the thick accent and atrocious grammar, and I left with the feeling that the monumental task of studying Czech was actually achievable.
What sets learning as a determined adult apart from classes like high school Spanish is exactly scenarios like what happened on the street: what you are learning in class become immediately applicable to the real world as soon as you leave the classroom. Living abroad puts you in the perfect position to be challenged in ways a classroom never will, and while those initial hurdles look impossible at first, the feeling when you overcome them is unforgettable.
American by birth and Praguer by choice, Caroline can be found enjoying Pho Bo at one of the city’s many Vietnamese restaurants or finding the best way to promote public transportation.