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Letter from Bohemian Budejovice

By
October 27, 2004

I’m an impostor here, posing, despite myself, as a teacher of the lingua franca of commerce, that is, English. Every American appears to the educated Czech in such a light. Why not? We’re Americans after all. Isn’t our mission clear? Global markets. Since I can’t seem to shake their conviction that I serve the business plan, I’m left no option but to subvert it. So I’m a traitor to a cause not my own. I’m also a language mule: I meet weekly with 17 distinct groups of students, some having completed seven years of training in English; others, one. I am also a courtesan, to use the polite term. I command a handsome wage among professionals for the privilege of my conversation. One of them told me that my voice puts her in mind of Sean Connery. Oh, oh brother!

It makes no difference that I´m a poet. Apart from a small handful of impressionable teenagers, my Czech acquaintances couldn’t care less. My masters degree is beside the point. My classroom experience: forget about it. My ticket to friendship and fortune here is this: I am a native speaker. The genuine article. My accent by definition is perfect; my ear likewise. I could be…like…a skateboarder…totally. Same deal. I’m a native speaker. It’s like being a seven footer in high school basketball. Like driving a Mazeratti. If I never return from České-Budějovice, it´s because I´ve started a language school. If I put an add in the Zlaté Stránky, so long as it read rodný mluvči , I would have my pick of students. And the reason is this: the Czech Republic is crazy for English.

Get on a bus and find the windows fairly papered with fliers for language schools. Every public bulletin board is matted with them. Sandwich boards on the street announce their class schedules and fees. Every other street has one; it’s right between the beauty parlor and the pawn shop. Last night I met an American chiropractor who has been here for eighteen months. He and the mother of his child had just split up. In his misery how did he find himself branching out? He became an English teacher.

And so it is very strange to a Czech when a native speaker opens his mouth and tries to force it to pronounce Czech sounds. As often as not I’ll get a blank stare. It started this summer with my teacher at UW, whom I would expect to be used to mangled Czech. I would say something. She would give me a look that asked, “Are you Etruscan?” I´d repeat myself. She would shake her head in disbelief. “Unheard of,” she´d hiss. The trouble was she would pronounce it to rhyme with weird love. “That is un-heared of.” It was a weirdly self-referential statement, at least the first time I heard it. She said it often, always the same way, so that in our little group it was much heared. None of us corrected her. It was not our task. Our task was to learn to speak Czech, like natives, if possible. Which it was not.

The reason that Jara could pronounce unheard as she did, without a trace of irony or understanding, isn’t difficult to find. There is no variety of pronunciation in Czech; words are pronounced exactly as they are spelled: svetr, for instance, or utrzhkovity (fragmentary). There are no silent letters. Vowels always sound the same. You may wish some letters away, but it won t work. Try to slur a consonant or pronounce a long vowel as short and you ll get a blank stare. The sound you´ve made is unheard of. Your intention has not been grasped.

Furthermore, Czech is not an imperial language. Perhaps in the time of Otakar Druhy, when Czech lands extended to the Adriatic, Czech overpowered and absorbed the strange tongues of conquered peoples. But it is the language of a people more often conquered than conquering. So, unlike speakers of English, Czechs are unaccustomed to hearing pidgin or patois. Among languages Czech is a sort of Henry David Thoreau, a crank, a fussbudget, a loner who conserves all his eccentricities as a birthright. Czech survived the Roman Catholic attempt to supplant it with Latin as a language of literature. It survived the Hapsburgs, who made German the language of school or of government. It survived the frenchified snobbery of its own nobility. Of course, it survived the Russians. (Every Czech was forced to study Russian in grade school and high school from 1948 to 1989 but you won´t find ten in a thousand who will admit to remembering any.)

The arcane integrity of Czech, its seven grammatical cases and the esoterica of its word order, its impossible combinations of consonants and its unique ř are expressions of its underdog status. Czech does not need to compromise, because in the big world it is an unnecessary language. In this it is like poetry: unnecessary. To learn to hear Czech I find I have to listen the way I listen to poems, not for the words first, but for their boundaries, for the trace of silence that signals one word or phrase is complete, another about to begin. To learn to hear the silence in the language is an important step, perhaps the most important in learning to understand it.

That is why I’m an literature teacher, to teach my students to hear what writers have left out. The language of business, the shorthand of marketing and the acronyms of finance, the bald stylistics of software documentation and all the dreadful new coinages of the boardroom and the situationroom, the whole terminal moraine of contemporary business English are what my students and those who have planned their educations want from me. They want to learn English so that they can participate in the commercial unification of the globe. That’s why I’m an impostor and a traitor. I can teach them durable idioms like dig deep and stay put. I can help them to hear the difference in the various intonations of really from wonder to disgust. But I’m actually here to accomplish the impossible: to learn Czech and thereby to subvert the battle plan, to sow doubt, to teach my students to listen for the unheard of.

G

Stephen Thomas’ poems have appeared in Exquisite Corpse, West Branch, Poetry Northwest and numerous other magazines. His most recent book of poems is Journeyman (Tsunami Inc, 1997). He is currently a Fulbright Exchange Teacher in the Czech Republic.

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