Overall thoughts on finishing Czech tree, why I learned, and where I need the most help

Hello all,

I live in Houston, USA, and first picked up Duolingo when I was making potential plans to go to Italy in 2018. Things went completely in a different direction and I picked up French instead, and with some basic knowledge of pronunciation and a few vocabulary words behind me, as well as three years of high school Spanish, I finished the entire tree in seven weeks flat. Five months after starting study, I went to France for 11 days and needed very little English. I spent time on German as well because the tail end of my European trip was in Germany, but I found the cases frustrating to manage. So go figure that I ended up picking Czech as my "official" third language. But it came to pass because in December, I was accepted to travel to Prague with an American nonprofit organization that takes professionals in behavior analysis to help support behavioral clinics around the world serving populations with special needs. From what I'd heard, the English spoken in the center was rather minimal (only two staff in the entire company as of a team's visit in February), so I decided...

I was going to learn Czech. From absolutely scratch. In seven and a half months. With no prior exposure to any Slavic languages, beyond knowing some Polish and Russian words and being able to read 80-90% of the Cyrillic alphabet.

And it was horribly hard for a while. The cases were twice as complicated as German. The pronunciation was maddening at times. The grammar and word order was an utter pain. And unlike with French, I have NOBODY to practice with, really (not even here in Texas, where Czech heritage is quite common and beloved). I made friends with a native Czech speaker on Facebook who has been helpful, but honestly without this course and all the helpful notes in the lessons, I would not be anywhere at all.

Despite having verbally conversed in Czech with real-life people for a grand total of 20 seconds, and still struggling at times to follow along with people speaking it, I'm at a point where I'm feeling more confident in my Czech than ever. Though the odds are stacked against me, I am now working hard on learning through any means possible. I am planning my trip by writing down all my guides, itineraries, and directions in Czech, emailing accommodations, museums, and restaurants using only Czech when possible, watching Czech TV shows on YouTube and trying to make out words and sentences, saying daily Catholic prayers like Our Father, Hail Mary, and Divine Mercy Chaplet in Czech (which I can now say almost all the way through fluently), and trying my best even to read some technical papers in Czech so I can understand our field's terminology. I make no illusions that I'll be able to communicate even close to fluently, even written (to say nothing of verbal), but since I don't think anyone else on the trip will have learned a word of it (or at least beyond the very basics), and the center I'll be working in has appreciated my efforts tremendously, it is certainly much better than nothing.

My challenges currently lie in the following areas: -The flexible word order is a real pain when trying to capture ALL the elements of a sentence. I have to remember all the previously said words in a sentence while waiting to hear them all, by which time I have often forgotten at least one element (e.g. an už, a reflexive). I have been challenging myself as my Czech has improved, by not looking at the Czech sentence on the lesson screen for as long as possible and trying to translate it, and then once I read the Czech sentence, to not look at the English word bank until I know what the English translation is. But my brain has been giving up and just reading the Czech sentence or English word bank recently. When I don't even know what the subject of the sentence is going to be and already hear direct objects, indirect objects, etc. and then maybe even a word I don't recognize, I start losing sense of a sentence rapidly.

-Trying to determine the beginning and ending points of words. Prepositions like k and v blend into the words follow them and at times sound like one ginormous word that I don't understand, but if I saw the sentence on a screen or piece of paper, I'd have zero problems understanding. If I feel a sentence's cadence, I can more intuitively understand it and remember all the elements, but this is often not easy at all in Czech.

-Trying to make out some of the seemingly silent or very similar-sounding letters. "jsi" and "si," or "jsi" and "se," or even "sem" and "jsem" (in other words, often a "j" beginning a word) often sound extremely similar to me and would completely change the meaning of the sentence. This was a huge problem in French and still remains my biggest difficulty there, and probably will be true of any language I pick up from here on out; for a few months, I was actually using French in a specific professional capacity and I missed out on quite a few words or misinterpreted sentences because of letters I couldn't hear, or words that sounded like words I knew but were something else entirely (but granted it was over webcam, in a West African country where the Internet and audio quality is not always great).

I will be leaving in 12 days and only now am I feeling somewhat well prepared, but there is so much more progress I could make too. I will also be spending three days completely by myself in Prague once the other volunteers have left (if anyone in Prague wants to know when, ask me!) and hopefully after such intensive use for two weeks, my Czech will be competent enough to navigate independently, but I am still a little bit nervous given my problem skill areas and overall dearth of real-life experience and audio comprehension. Is this enough information for some native speakers to give me any suggestions for working on these specific skill areas, to maximize my chances of success?

Thank you all, of course, for making this trip possible. I expect it will be far more successful than it would have been without having this course.

Best wishes, Andrew

July 4, 2019


i am always happy when i hear of someone studying my mother tongue. moreover for a one off visit, that's determined.

i am afraid i can give little practical advice, only to cheer you up. first, the trip assumes dealing with English speakers with no knowledge of Czech and you are already way ahead of this baseline. i'd consider Prague pretty English friendly too. second, i've heard Czech is quite tolerant to incorrect use while still being intelligible. third, i think you already gave it all you realistically could - whatever the result, what more can you do? so sit back (if not now, then on the plane in 12 days) and enjoy the trip.

PS: for the leading j, i think you get a better clue from the context/grammar than from the sound. uneducated natives often write them wrong

PPS: i recall meeting some Mormon guys in a tram who were speaking not too bad Czech. given they're regularly sending here their missionaries, they should have a plenty of experience with learning Czech and navigating in a Czech environment. just a random idea

July 4, 2019

I am a beginner at Czech, and a bit hopeless at it, so I doubt I could be of much help but you should be proud of yourself and good job!

July 4, 2019

yes, give yourself a pat on the back--czech is hard!! i'm lucky (and spoiled) in that my boyfriend is czech and is willing to teach me however he can, but still my go-to is duolingo and youtube videos. good luck in prague (a very beautiful city)!

i also have a problem with the flexible word order. i still translate things in my head in english grammar style (because the main languages i've studied in real life with teachers are spanish and hebrew--their sentence structures are easy to follow as long as you remember feminine-masculine, singular-plural) and studying czech and its somewhat numerous types of cases (even for names! oy vey) still give me a headache.

i hope you get to find a czech friend as it's easier to practice with a native speaker. i think it'll be easier for you in prague as the younger generation will have a basic understanding of english (if you happen to find yourself in a situation where you can't explain yourself, for example). best of luck!

July 4, 2019

Dear Andrew,

You will be fine. I have been living here for over 17 years, and Prague, as others have mentioned, is very English-friendly. Everyone in the tourist or restaurant industry in the old town will speak some English.

Do not worry about speaking perfectly, they will be happy that you speak some Czech. I have been speaking Czech terribly for the past 17 years, no one really cares.

If you use the wrong case, they will understand you. If you use the wrong word order, they will understand you. Just please don't be put off by the slang some people speak, you will get used to it quickly, I promise you.

Good luck, enjoy your time in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, and congratulations on the amazing progress you have made, and the amazing opportunity you are about to have.

July 7, 2019

I am also learning czech, for about 3 months now. To get more speaking practice I thought of having a Discord server to invite language (specially czech-)interested people to come together and practice speaking. Well I am just a language nerd. ^^ Feel invited and let me know what you think about my idea. If there's someone, I will post an invitation link.

July 13, 2019

Czech word order is hard. It's great that it is flexible but it also makes it difficult. I also have trouble with the singular letter words.I think I really sound like a foreigner sometimes because I still say the words separately. And I don't always know if it is jsi or si. So I sympathize those struggles. I've been living here now for over 5 years. Prague (about 3 hrs away from me) is very English friendly so I think everything will be fine.

July 5, 2019

Czech word order is the biggest problem I’m having with the course. It is supposedly “free”, but it seems to be almost as fixed as it is in English. For example, today I had a problem with translating “There was too much sugar in these meals.” The correct answer is “V těchto jídlech bylo příliš cukru.” My answer, “Bylo příliš cukru v těchto jídlech” is wrong because “it sounds like something Yoda would say.” If there are any rules about situations like this, I haven’t found them anywhere. Word order discussions seem to be limited to handling “clitics”, and that the more important words (“new information”) are placed at the end of the sentence. Over time, I’ve figured out that adverbs and connecting words such as to, tam, tady, je, etc. come near the beginning of the sentence because of unwritten “second position” rules, but it seems I have a lot to learn yet.

July 10, 2019

You probably should not make conclusions from an atypical sentence type. Even in English, the existential/occurrence sentence "There was too much sugar in these meals." uses a weird trick to de-emphasize the otherwise prominent final placement of a non-key element. It would be awkward to say "Too much sugar was in these meals.", yet we foreigners would be ill-advised to conclude that the word order in English always places the verb before the subject in declarative sentences if our awkward attempt was rejected. Czech is just using a different trick than the dummy THERE insertion to solve the problem, which is to "background" the adverbial of place by sticking it up front and to place the new, key (most dynamic, least predictable) piece of content at the end. The main difference from many other Czech sentence types is that this placement leaves little wiggle room.

And you are right, the discussions of word order are mostly limited to the clitics for now. Czech word order is a subject so involved that you are not likely to find it treated at length even in textbooks you might pay dear money for, so expecting our very small team of volunteers to fill the gap left by the professionals with any speed would be unrealistic. I am not saying your need is not valid, just that our ability to satisfy it is severely limited.

The unwritten second-position rule for the short words you listed is not entirely unwritten, as it is discussed for "to" in the clitic post you must have seen, and many of the others (tam, tady, copula "je") will be covered by the extension of that post. But this will mostly focus on the clitics again, so it may not be that satisfactory to many if not preceded by some treatment of the non-clitic components of the word order.

We did cover the non-clitic aspect of the word order to some extent in the "I do not drink coffee." comment.

July 13, 2019

I didn’t intend my post to be a criticism of the Duolingo course, just a general rant about the difficulties of learning Czech by an English speaker. In fact, trial-and-error is not a bad way to pick up a feel for Czech sentence structure and is the most one can expected from a free app.

By the way, it just occurred to me that in the Czech release of Star Wars, Yoda was probably speaking in regular English word order.

July 15, 2019

i guess you are already back home by this time. any impressions you'd like to share to wrap the thread up?

August 8, 2019

I flew back home on Tuesday. Overall I found knowing Czech to be helpful to some extent, although in Prague it was indeed rarely necessary. I got a mixture of people who replied back in English and some in Czech. Some of them could figure out I was not a native and continued answering me in English. It was not very easy for me to figure out what people were saying back to me unless it was obvious from the context, so sometimes they repeated what they said or rephrased it in English, or I translated them into English to ensure I had understood them properly.

The most in-depth conversations I had were with a waitress at a Czech restaurant in Karlovy Vary that was almost completely in Czech (pork goulash, a Budvar, and some palačinky for dessert: utterly delicious - yes, food was great!), and with the few center staff we were working with in Prague who did not speak English (we were trying to find a German döner kebab restaurant nearby the office to see if they still were in business and he called them, gave me directions, and drew a map). In most other cases, e.g. when talking to airport staff, museums, ordering in busy restaurants, etc. I needed some English. I would just start conversations in English if I needed something specifically in English, like English museum tours. In situations where I felt too nervous to converse in Czech properly, I would say I spoke English and used Czech when I was comfortable or I sensed people would have time to work through my slowness. In many cases I would default to Czech, and sometimes I would unknowingly speak it to non-Czechs who didn’t actually understand me, like a Canadian guy who was trying to get inside a bakery whose doors were locked even though the bakery was open for business.

I was able to read most menus and road signs, a lot of technical descriptions in the office, and get some conversations going with center staff, although by the time our group visited the center, the English proficiency of the staff had dramatically increased and it wasn’t as necessary as it was before. Also, much of our group got by okay with google translate (it seems largely accurate). I was able to make myself understood in Czech, but was not very capable to translate back what people said.

There were a couple of other instances where Czech was necessary. Our group all sat together on a train to Karlovy Vary, but an older man was sitting in one of our seats and I had to explain to him that we are a group and we have tickets 71-78. The ticket inspectors on the train did not speak English and it was a struggle to communicate when they saw our tickets and tried to tell us we had booked an abnormally and needlessly long route to KV (our organizers booked it that way, we don’t know why). My tour mates were in an Albert where the cashier did not speak English and was trying to explain to them that he wanted 230 Kč in cash payment so he could give a round 100 Kč in change (I assume giving exactly 70 Kč wasn’t possible for him, I wasn’t there), and threw a fit and ranted when they didn’t understand. Czech was not necessary in a souvenir shop in Prague, but when I began speaking it shortly after the owner addressed me in English, he threw in an extra gift for free.

My most memorable incident was in a spa treatment with a therapist who did not speak too much English OR Czech (I believe she was Ukrainian or Russian) and so when she told me to entirely disrobe for the bath, “dress off” sounded like “dress up.” Understandably I didn’t do anything until I could clarify what she meant, but I couldn’t explain the confusion well in English or Czech, and after a few unsuccessful tries at making herself understood, she stormed out of the room saying “Pomoc, ty vole!” I knew exactly what this meant, but decided to just subtly call attention to it by gradually speaking more and more Czech every time she came back to the room, rather than chewing her out for thinking she could get away with that because I wouldn’t understand, and she eventually came around and was very kind.

Overall learning the language was a valuable experience, although the sheer learning curve and discomfort of my inexperience made me so intensely obsessive about picking up new words whenever gaps in my knowledge were exposed and using Czech at any possible opportunity, and stubbornly refusing to use Google Translate or speak English, that it affected my ability to socialize with my travel mates, and focus on and enjoy the actual trip. But that was my own personal problem and not any of yours.

August 9, 2019
Learn Czech in just 5 minutes a day. For free.