Expand your vocabulary
Learning basic vocabulary is your next step in snuggling up to your new Czech lover—er—language. Let's plan a strategy.
1) WHAT WILL YOU USE THE MOST?
Think of your daily interactions—who will you need to speak to as you set up your new life in Prague?
Will you need to ask what aisle the milk is in? Where the toilet is? Maybe you're a vegetarian and you really need to know how to ask if there's meat in that dish. Or in which direction tram number 9 goes?
Take note of your daily interactions with strangers before you set off for Prague and start to learn those basic words in Czech.
2) WHAT'S BOUND TO COME UP IN DAILY LIFE?
Make flash cards of the 1000 most common Czech words, and study 5-10 new ones a day, reviewing yesterday's 5-10 as you go along. At first you will feel like your head is swimming with words that are hard to put into a sentence, but after a while, you'll start to hear and see these words used and the meanings of whole sentences will start to become apparent.
You can make digital flashcards using Anki, a web and mobile app that utilizes time spaced repetition to help you remember those hard to learn words. I use Quizlet since it's super easy to make a deck from a group of 20-30 words I've translated and saved to Google Translate.
See below for instructions on how to make a deck of Quizlet cards from your translated words in less than 5 minutes. You can also play matching games, speed games and practice spelling on Quizlet.
The Google Translate webpage and app (Google Play / iTunes) have dramatically improved since we started using it 7 years ago, and the app even has a photograph feature, which is super helpful for taking a quick pic and translating menus and street signs. The software is not perfect, and idioms and certain expressions will not translate well, so use it sparingly and mostly to grow your own Czech vocabulary or to understand the general gist of a piece of writing.
My first month in Prague my watch battery died, so I went to a jewelry store and read aloud from my Google Translate app:
"hodinky batterie zemřela"
the watch battery died
. After some confusion and a bit of embarrassing improv, the two jewelers erupted in laughter and figured out that I needed a new watch battery. This was hilarious to them because, in a Czech's linguistic mind, something that is not really alive, like a battery, cannot die—it simply stops working. Simple linguistic difference, lots of confusion.
I use Google Translate daily, to help me write emails, to read the newspaper, and in those tough conversations with Czech bureaucrats.
🏰Local's tip: Click the star on the right hand side to save the translation...
...then click on the star at the bottom of the page to see all your saved translations in one place.
Sometimes the best thing is to make good, old-fashioned note cards since the act of writing helps solidify the words in your memory.
Here's another Google Translate tip:
If you have a whole website in Czech and want it translated, simply copy and paste the URL into google translate and click the URL it spits out in English.
It may not be perfectly translated, but it gets the job done in a pinch!
3) LEARN YOUR PHRASES
After you start to feel more comfortable, add some short, useful phrases to your flash cards collection.
This is super important because the structure of a Czech sentence is quite different than in English, and if you go around town simply translating each word in a sentence verbatim, you will confuse a whole lot of Czechs (and frustrate yourself). It's best to get these phrases out of an actual phrase book or a native Czech speaker rather than Google translate, or you'll be memorizing phrases are are garbled or meaningless to Czechs' ears.
A FEW EXAMPLES:
You'll probably want to say "Dam si pivo" as soon as you get off the plane.
This translates literally as "I give myself beer" which sounds a bit declarative and Neanderthal but it is exactly how a Czech orders a beer at a restaurant.
Likewise, instead of literally translating "Can I get the bill, please?" you will simply say "Zaplatím, prosím" Which literally means "I will be paying, I beg."
If you wanted to say, "you're welcome" after someone had thanked you for something, you'd say either "prosím", literally I beg, or please. Or you could say, "není zač" meaning not at all. If you translated "you're welcome" literally, you'd get some strange looks, as if you were welcoming someone into your store.
Knowing the precise phrasing Czechs use to say these common expressions will speed up your interactions and make you feel more like a local.
- Set a vocabulary goal. How many new words can you commit to learning per week? How many will that add up to in a month? In a year?
- Buy a pack of flashcards or get familiar with an online card app like Quizlet (See video below) or Anki. Start translating and saving words to your Google Translations.
- Commit to XX number of words a week, and get started!