Duolingo Czech - review and summary
EDIT: OK, it is... longer than I planned.
As you might've guessed already, I've just finished the Czech tree on Duolingo and wanted to share some opinions, especially, but not only, because it's the first course I have completed from the very beginning to the very end and therefore consider it somewhat special.
I signed in for Czech before it was even released and was really disappointed when it wasn't still available on September the 1st. Nevertheless, I was delighted to see it being finally opened to public and quickly moved through first several levels on the first day, just after I learnt the great news.
At this point it's good to ask - why did I want to learn Czech? I am Polish and with our languages so closely related there are many myths about Czech language (especially vocabulary) I wanted to be able to debunk. Then, I wanted to learn what it is like to learn a language so similar to my native one (Russian is still somewhat further). Last but not least, I really hope I will get a chance to Czechia this summer and it's great to know at least a little bit of the language people speak in the country you go to.
So, to the point. How was it? Fantastic!
I have to say I really liked this course, with multiple options for translations (not always but there are few exceptions), clear audio, helpful Tips (I hope there will be more of them over time, especially for the cases lessons) and sentences that felt ORGANIC.
Maybe not all the time but most of it I felt like the sentences reminded of what I could actually hear in everyday (or not-so-everyday) situations, they had context, which some courses really lack (yes, that's you, German, shame on you) and they were built in such a way that they make the learner revise the vocabulary over and over, showing its uses and helping to keep them in memory. It's hard to do so with all the vocabulary taught in the course, but at least those more important words FELT important because we were encouraged to use them.
I really liked the cultural and humorous part, which made me feel that the course was created by real people: the famous (ok, I hadn't known it before I learnt it's important to Czech people) quote of President Havel, "truth and love will prevail over lies and hatred"; "a dog ate my homework"; "he promised us a big, beautiful wall"; "he promised that somebody else would pay for his wall"; "he's put his smelly feet on the table once again" (or sth similar, I don't remember this sentence word by word yet); "his body was hanging above me".
Not too many idiomatic expressions (so that one doesn't feel distracted and in doubt with his or her skills), everything is in its place. This is another problem with the German course, that the creators created only single sentences for some idioms and there's no way a learner can learn them properly. There's no such thing here - in THIS course everything we learn is learn to be used. If we learn that a verb has a reflexive "si", it's used several tens of times so that we know that it needs that "si". If we learn that a construction requires the preposition "na", it's revised so often we can get it and remember it. It's not so complicated.
Or my perception might be biased by how familiar Czech sounds to me anyway.
Another thing - I think that the creators nailed the word order stuff pretty well. By that I mean that I could learn how the Czech word order functions (it's different from the Polish word order!) and now I can, if not express any slight shade of thought, then at least build a sentence neutral or semi-neutral with its emphasis that would be accepted as correct. Maybe I'm still not flawless, but I believe that will be polished while revising skills.
The course was also well constructed - I couldn't point out any level I'd consider unnecessary or boring. The success of the creators is that they managed to make each lesson deliver more or less of grammar and always at least a little bit of new vocabulary. This way each level is interesting, feels like learning something new and doesn't make us stuck with tonnes of vocabulary we don't get and can't remember.
(Here's a shoutout to the German course with its pure vocabulary and pure grammar skills. And Hungarian. Jeez, Hungarian creators could learn A LOT from this course. This is like the complete opposite of Hungarian, which seems to consist almost entirely of locative grammar skills. I don't say it's very boring but it feels tedious to write a 200th nonsensical sentence about a kindergarten teacher flying in every single direction every single way trying not to miss the correct translation of a three lines long sentence that its creator intended us to guess. The course hardly explains nor does it let us practise one of the hardest point for foreigners - definitive/indefinite conjugation, after the last checkpoint I hadn't learnt more than 10 verbs; that's not how it works! Also, they have pure vocabulary lessons that you have to revise 20 times in order to be sure you remember everything. And then you still forget).
I have a feeling of accomplishment, but on the other side I still feel hungry for more. I think the course still needs some improvements (some sentences are a bit weird, missing Tips - again). The casual attempt at vocabulary isn't without its flaws, either - I don't know any countries other than the neighbours of Czechia (+Russia & USA), I don't know any animals other than that which live on a farm etc. I'm guessing this can be fixed with doing the reverse tree (which I'm going to do) and moving on to Memrise or watching videos with captions and a dictionary. On the other hand, including those as separate levels would be quite boring. OK, countries are super boring. Maybe I should thank you for not including those.
The most important thing, which is grammar, is covered pretty well, I'd say. That saying, I feel I can express almost any thought provided I know the proper vocabulary to do so. I guess here the relationship of Polish and Czech helped as well because I could easily understand what was going on most of the time. And here we are moving to how I felt it in terms of my goals.
How did learning Czech feel? Well, a bit like expanding the knowledge of my mother tongue, I'd say, rather than learning an actual foreign language. The stuff with Slavic languages is, they can mostly understand at least some parts of the others. And again, in this situation it was most of the time not even hovering over the words but just guessing their meaning from the context (which is good of the creators) and from the morphemes I found familiar. There were false friends and I still happen to have problems with "a"/"i". I could find out several new things about our language (for instance: the meaning of "są-" in "sąsiad", the origin of "pierścień" and "naparstek" - modern Polish for "finger/toe" is "palec").
Do I think I can speak Czech? Well, not quite. A bit - yes. But there are still some problems I have with pronunciation (I think I can do ř in some words and in some I still can’t, one of those latter is "Jíři") that will hopefully be brushed up over time. Can I understand Czech? Probably fairly more than before doing this course so this was succesful.
A mohu-li psát v češtině? Myslím, že ano, přestože ne mnoho a také to asi nevypadá příliš krásně. Doufám, že se v budoucnosti ještě víc naučím a budu moci poděkovat něčím víc, než krátkým: děkuju moc!
I would also like to thank all the contributors and users who helped me on the Discussion board, answering even the stupid questions :)
My final request/question: the word "pouze" seems very useful so it's a shame it wasn't really taught throughout the course even though accepted as an alternative for "jen". Is there a difference between them? Like in "Zbývají jen dva vajíčka" vs. "Zbývají pouze dva vajíčka" the first would mean "there are only as few as two eggs left", the second "there are only two eggs left and nothing more" or is it wrong?
And one more question: am I allowed answer some questions on the Czech language board from time to time if I'm sure my answers won't be misleading?
Your ample yet kind review humbles me. For better or worse, this course as it entered beta was substantially my brain child. My team mates had sort of given me the rope to hang myself after some discussions as to the contents of the initial couple of rows and only reengaged once we got into beta. Additional recruiting throughout Phase 1 produced marginal results, in part because I could not risk investing training time over and over again.
So thank you for the time you took to provide your encouraging feedback. It is people like you that make it all worth it. We course contributors feel or hope that there is a silent majority of appreciative users, even if the isolated kvetchers tend to suck up the oxygen in the forums. To have one’s work appreciated by someone who actually knows what he is talking about is a great oxygen source.
You are of course right about the Tips/Notes petering out too soon. I realize the course is a case of chewing off a lot of grammar for the number of words it teaches. It is dense. It contains a few features one only encounters in rather formal contexts (the relative pronoun jenž, the word-enclitic conjunction -li, and the infinitive moci, to name just a few), and it does not skimp on the toughest, clearly unsettled case (locative) as others may have done in the first tree. At the opposite end of that spectrum, we have the seriously curved pitch of the final skill, which attempts to compress a preview of effectively a whole separate sub-language into a handful of lessons.
With that ambitious range, the course desperately needs all the grammar tips it can get. The good thing is that it is slowly getting them, often packed close to the 5000 character maximum allowed for a single tips page.
Some words and concepts are still missing. I would have liked to squeeze in the relative possessive pronoun (jehož), present-tense frequentative verbs, phase verbs, diminutives, and verbal nouns--but lacked the energy for it. Likewise, skills dedicated to teasing out the nuance of the word order for shifting various elements between the topic and the focus, more advanced treatment of the clitics and their climbing from nested structures with even more fun multi-object verbs (including the se/si conflicts in the clitic cluster), more verbs of motion, more on aspect distinctions, more of the odd feminine noun declinations between píseň and kost, and maybe demonstrating word formation could all fit well with whatever extra vocabulary is selected. And if the bonuses ever start working again, the past conditional and the transgressive would be loads of fun to work on. I would not dare to include those in the main course.
As far as how vocabulary was chosen, it was in large part taken from lexeme frequency lists (top 38,000 or so from Ústav Českého národního korpusu), always with an eye towards what would be useful for later skills. Some words still did not get used much later, which was often caused by their demanding translatability (too many translations means slow progress). Given time, the residual imbalance can be fixed. Same for future tense, which necessarily was the last to come, as one already had to cover the imperfective present, the infinitive, and both aspects of the past to have the prerequisites for both future tenses) and should be overweighed more in the last part of the tree to get more use. Replacement sentences can take care of this without changing the tree.
The countries, animals, fruit, and other topics tended to reflect the frequencies and what is relevant in our parts. We don’t have penguins, elephants, or lions outside of the ZOOs, so they got left out. Plus some animal names that got included were useful for some entertainment for the tired creator, and maybe for an overtaxed reverse user as well. Likewise, Vietnam and Argentina are not written about in Czech as much as Germany, Poland, Austria, and our former better half Slovakia. Even with these few countries it was possible to see the na/v and na/do distinctions, and later Russia, the U.S., and North Korea made their appearance. Entertaining sentences could be created for additional countries, but Duo is so afraid to offend anyone that it tends to impose boredom instead. Maybe few are offended, but many are dozing off, and if that includes the contributor, then there clearly is a problem. That's my excuse, and I am sticking to it.
The adverb pouze is synonymous and almost always mutually interchangeable with the adverbs jen and jenom. Jen is more neutral in register, pouze is quite formal, jenom more informal, and toliko so archaic as to be nearly forgotten. Frequency rankings were 38 jen, 179 pouze, and 267 jenom (with toliko at 15814, but I don’t think I have heard it spoken in my life and have no idea how I even know it). It is quite similar with zde, which is not included (despite being common in modern Czech), although its two synonyms (tu and tady) did make it.
Your sentences about the eggs are really the same. Just remember that vajíčko is a neuter noun, as is its synonym vejce. If you wanted to distinguish between “As for eggs, only two are left.” and “All that’s left is two eggs.”, you could tweak the word order as “Vajíčka zbývají jen dvě.“ and “Nezbývá nic než dvě vajíčka.“ If you say “Zbývají jen dvě vajíčka.“ in neutral intonation, that would match the neutrally pronounced “Only two eggs remain.”, which allows both interpretations. The useful nugget here may be what fronting the “vajíčka“ does: Eggs set up the topic, the overall frame of reference for the remainder of the statement, as in whatever we do here, we are going to be talking about eggs. Moving to the middle, “zbývají”, now we know it is dealing with the eggs that are left, don’t know where or how. We could end it with something else, like “každou středu“ (When do eggs remain?) or “Kateřině“ (Who is still left with some eggs?) or “protože jsem jich koupil moc“ (Why do some eggs still remain?). But ending it with “jen dvě“ finally tells us that we were really trying to communicate the remaining number, as if someone had asked “How many eggs are left?“, and we added a value judgment with the requested information. The ending sort of becomes the tl;dr version of the answer to the perhaps unstated question: “Jen dvě.“ People with exclusively fixed-order language backgrounds often don’t get why anybody would be talking about questions when discussing the statement word order in more inflected languages. But it is still easier than getting into the weeds with theme-rheme and the transitions between, because then their eyes glaze over and it is all finished. You of course have the Polish advantage.
Back to you. For your participation in the forums, I am positive that the current team will be happy to continue having it. Feedback of our graduates for the tweaks in the present course, including which Tips/Notes deserve attention next, and suggestions for the possible future versioning will be very welcome.
At some point this course is bound to get out of beta, and then it will be time to start thinking about how to extend the course while making the initial two rows of skills easier for the casual user who just wants to collect XPs by tapping without having to think. That user class rules the A/B testing of the new tree versions, and if the new tree does not work for them at least as well as the old one, it’s back to the drawing board.
[Edited to clarify.]
I guess one gets the "archaic" words mainly from reading. Even the classical school readings by the 19th century authors, but also the authors from the first half of the 20th century. And from older movies or movies that preserve the book's language. And of course poetry, even contemporary authors still use certain, otherwise obsolete, forms or words.
For people learning Czech as a foreign language on the beginners level they are mostly useless, and one can't get farther in Duolingo. But for later study at the intermediate or advanced level I think one must meet these topics.
We are not native English speakers and still we do know what Thou art/dost or thy/thine means. One does meet it from time to time, and yes, only in quotes or in old literature, but still meet. The older literature is still being read, Shakespeare, William Blake. After them Dickens, Brontë, Austen who correspond in time to classical Czech 19th century authors.
The Czech literature is probably not that attractive for foreigners as is the English one for us, but is still the important source of our own knowledge of earlier forms in modern Czech (few people know more about about baroque and earlier Czech). We wouldn't be able read almost any classical books without transgressives. And I am sad when I see edits for modern kids like https://i.nahraj.to/f/1RvD.jpg https://i.nahraj.to/f/1RvE.jpg Such books used to be an opportunity to meet somewhat older forms and get used to them, alas, it's still less then 100 years!
I also forgot the Moravia dialects and Slovak which help me so much when reading even older literature (like Old Czech). That is often a great help. Reading Jan Hus sometimes feels like reading some mixture of these dialects.
We are not native English speakers and still we do know what Thou art/dost or thy/thine means.
...and thank goodness we do, so that we may enjoy such goosebump inducing stuff as
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
Congratulations! It's nice to read the opinions on Czech from a fellow Slavic language speaker :) How long did it take you to finish? And how much did you do each day? As a native Russian speaker, I agree with a lot of your points. Most of the time I'm able to just listen to a new word in a sentence and more or less guess the meaning, unless it's one of the false friends I've encountered so far XD
As much as I'd love to learn more animal and country names, I think that more specific vocabulary is something that's best learned elsewhere or the sentences might get repetitive and boring after a while (we decided to add a second animals skill in the Fr-Ru course and it's quite challenging to add variety to the sentences there). And then, everyone will want to learn a bit more of something different; politics for some people, food for others and those who aren't interested in the topic would find those skills extremely boring and useless. So I appreciate the fact that the course provides users with general knowledge in various topics and patterns for adjective and verb endings, so if we really want to learn something else, we just need to learn one form of the word and then we'll be able to work with it right away.
I actually like the German course because of the skill lengths, but I do agree that the amount of vocab and grammar gets a bit overwhelming at times.
The lack of tips and notes in the later skills made some new grammar hard to understand, but thanks to the numerous examples, I can now more or less use it without fully understanding why everything is the way it is.
I'm not a Czech course contributor, but I think you have every right to help confused learners and even if you do get something wrong or leave something out, someone else will correct you. Sometimes fellow learners are actually able to answer questions better than natives because they learned the language as a foreign language and may have some tips and tricks for remembering certain things.
My question for you: Do you recommend me to learn Polish after I finish the Czech tree? Not sure if I'll have any use for it, but if it's similar to Russian and Czech....
As I began on 5th September 2017, it seems it took me almost 5 months to finish the tree. Each day I was trying to maintain the streak by strengthening skills so every day the tree would stay fully strengthened. That meant usually about 5 strengthening sessions a day, sometimes a bit more on busier days. When I felt confident with the already learnt skills, I went forward doing new 1-3 lessons. This way I would never be overwhelmed with too much new stuff at once and stuck as a result but could still progress to the bottom, learning more and more.
Do I recommend you to learn Polish? Well, why wouldn't I? :D It is similar to Russian and Czech but just like any language, it has its own twists that make it interesting. The use of cases is even more complex, including compulsory Instrumental with predicative nominal (hinted in the Czech course) and more extensive use of Genitive (more verbs requiring Genitive and compulsory Acc - Gen in negations). You should be familiar with most of the vocabulary, large part of it having cognates with Russian, Czech, Latin and German, to a smaller extent - French or English - including both loanwords and words with common historical origin (those can be false friends). The moderators of the course are very active and helpful, and they are improving the course all the time, which is definitely something that makes that course worth trying, just like all the people on this board are making the Czech course as great as it is!
If you're not in a hurry, though, I think it would be a good idea to wait by the time the tree 2.0 is released, they say it's gonna be much better than what there is currently.
I'm surprised you only had to spend 5 strengthening sessions a day (admittedly I've had a few days where I did not play, and even a whole week over Christmas), but I am finding I'm having to spend two-three hours on untimed practice to get it all gold then 50% goes off overnight (I'm 3 skills from the last checkpoint before the final and progress is sloooow).
That said, I'm not a Slavic native... I do have the advantage of living in CZ, though living in Brno (bydlim na Morave! Hooa!) means I get a lot of Slovak and Hantec slang, so my spoken production is still a bit lacking or idiomatic where I parrot something... Still, I reckon I'll finish by April and maybe I'll make a thread of my own here!
I wouldn't have the patience for 2-3 hours of review every day XD I find timed practice to be quite helpful to do for strengthening earlier skills that I'm mostly comfortable with; you could try that to add variety to your practice sessions.
Odkud jsi? :D
I always do timed practise only and it's good enough for me :)
I used to learn that way, making the whole tree gold and then advancing to newer skills, but I'm trying a bit of a different approach with Czech. It's a bit of an experiment, actually. I started on November 18 and I'll make a post about it when I'm done :D The bug that's preventing skills from turning golden after strengthening is a bit unmotivating for me, so I only do a few review sessions per day.
Now I understand what you meant when you wrote about how the course has a lot of "real life" examples. I finished the transportation and restaurant skills this week and they're full of sentences that I'll actually say in real life. I'm sure there were a lot of other great example sentences in the beginning of the tree; I just didn't pay so much attention to them.
False friends are really messing me up when learning Czech, but thankfully there's much less of them, than the actual cognates :D
I'm learning way too many languages right now XD I started Norwegian a few days ago, for no good reason at all XD So I'll definitely wait a bit before starting Polish then :D
Przede wszystkim, wielkie gratulacje za dokończenie naszego kursu języka czeskiego!
Nueby – który z pewnością jest o wiele bardziej wykwalifikowany ode mnie – ci już odpowiedział, no, ale ja muszę ci również podziękować: Dzięki za twoje miłe słowa o naszym kursie i że nam powiedziałeś o swoim doświadczeniu użytkownika. Bardzo tego cenimy!
You said that you are hungry for more. Well, there are many resources available. I have written a post about Czech books, nueby linked Havel's Audience somewhere, there are other posts with links to TV shows, newspapers, radio stations... I know there's also a textbook of Czech for Polish speakers called Chcemy mówić po czesku but I don't really know if it's any good or if it's any good for you - it's for beginners, I think.
Of course you can answer the questions in the discussions. We look forward to your insights.
Powodzenia w twoich przyszłych studiach! :)
(Przepraszam za błędy. Moja polszczyzna i polszczyzna Google Tłumacza nie są zbyt dobre. :D
Congratulations on finishing the Czech tree as it is not an easy language (although it is likely less demanding in some ways for you as you speak Polish) I agree with many of the statements you made regarding the course and although i am still working through it i see exactly what you are talking about. again congrats!
The Duolingo community has a strong tradition of user-to-user instruction, by which users share community expectations, encouragement, and learning resources with one another.
So in response to your question, definitely YES, thanks :)
Wow! Thanks for this! I'm definitely planning on learning Czech in the future. (Is it pronounced like "check"?)
"But there are still some problems I have with pronunciation"
Don't worry about it. I am Czech (from Prague, so unlike people around Ostrava or Cieszyn I had nothing in common with Poland earlier) living in Poland for already more than two years and although I speak Polish fluently (I am even translating books from Polish to Czech) I can't properly pronounce sounds like ą, ś, ź or ć (words like mąż or wąż are my nightmare :)) and because of influence of Czech I still sometimes make mistakes mostly in spelling (typical one is where to write y and i)
W każdym razie życie udanej nauki. Wierzę, że ci się na pewno uda, nasze języki jedna mają czasami coś współnego :)
Congratulations, I wish I were more patient in the Polish tree. But as I were already learning Russian these languages (and Czech) were too close to each other Ind I was getting confused and were mixing features of different languages together. Still I remember how we were able to speak with Polish climbers in the Alps about many things without learning the language. That would not be possible with Russians I guess.
The answer to your question is a definite yes. Many questions have quite obvious answers. I even answered some in on the Russian forum and I am a real beginner.