The Czechs were forced to abandon their national identity and conform to Austrian culture, beginning a long history of control by other nations.”
The Czech Republic has existed as an independent country for 23 years. I have been here for a week. Czech is the official language. I speak English, Russian, and barely enough German to form a sentence. However, it’s not hard to work around- almost everyone I run into in Prague speaks some English. I’m taking the Czech Language 101 class in my study abroad program, but I could easily survive without it.
Most of my friends on the program are not studying Czech. When I ask why, most of them respond with either, “It’s not necessary,” or “I’m taking too many credits already,” both of which seem like pretty solid excuses to me. I like learning languages, and I like being able to order food at a restaurant without having to point at the menu, but I don’t think speaking Czech is that important.
One day I go out for dinner with my roommate, N. The waitress only speaks Czech, and N needs my help to order. “Why don’t they just speak English?” She asks me. “Like, it’s so dumb to have their own language when it’s such a small country and so few people speak it. Wouldn’t it make more sense for them to at least speak German or Russian or something?”
From the arrival of the Slavs and development of proto-Czech language in the sixth century AD to the defeat of Bohemian rebels by the Hapsburgs at Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, the Czechs were a powerful people, and Prague one of the major cultural hotspots of Europe. The Czechs were forced to abandon their national identity and conform to Austrian culture, beginning a long history of control by other nations. With the dissolution of Austria-Hungary in 1918, Czechoslovakia was formed as an independent nation. However, this independence only lasted until 1939, when Slovakia split off and Czech territory was annexed by the Third Reich as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. In 1948, Czechoslovakia fell under the control of the USSR, and remained under communism until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. It was not until 1993 that Slovakia and the Czech Republic became independent nations.
The Czech language has been spoken in some form since the sixth century AD, and instead of being snuffed out by the languages spoken by dominant nations, it has thrived, becoming a symbol of Czech national identity and endurance. I tell this to N, and she rolls her eyes. “Sure, yeah, but English still seems more practical,” she sighs, wrinkling her nose at my Pilsner and beef with dumplings.
I realize then that speaking the language when visiting a foreign country isn’t just a convenience; it’s a sign of respect. I implore all travelers to consider this when you visit another country, and remember that even learning key phrases such as hello, goodbye, please, and thank you can be a meaningful way to give back to people that are sharing their culture with you.
‘Why don’t they just speak English?’ She asks me. “
Photo header by Nitin Vyas