Sunday, March 14, 2010

Czech and Slovak - Are they Mutually Intelligible Languages?

Are the Czech and Slovak languages similar enough to be mutually intelligible? Well, I think it depends on who you ask. If you ask me, I’d say, definitely not.

From the time I moved to Slovakia and over the four to five years I lived there, many times Slovaks would insist that Czech is so similar to Slovak, that once you knew one language, you’d have little difficulty understanding the other. Well, I thought, that sure would be cool. I’d learn Slovak and then I’d be able to automatically understand Czech.

Hmm. A year went by and then two, all the while I’d be watching Slovak TV and see a Czech movie or Czech TV show and realize that though I could understand some Slovak, I couldn’t understand a single thing in Czech. Hmmm. More time goes by and still, really nothing. What was all that talk I heard about the languages being similar? Why couldn’t I understand any Czech?

Slovaks grew up being exposed to the Czech language. Children watched Czech language cartoons. TV shows and films in Czech are widely seen. At university students sometimes study from Czech text books. Of course this was really advanced while the two countries were united under Czechoslovakia. In present day the exchange is less so but still exists. With all of that exposure it’s no wonder that Slovaks understand the Czech language almost as native speakers.

After my husband and I moved to California, we lived with a roommate who was from Prague. My Slovak husband and our Czech roommate communicated by each speaking their own language. It was only after living for one year listening to Czech that I finally began to understand something. Now I can hear some similarities but I wouldn’t go so far as to say if you understand one language you will understand the other.

The Slovak language and the Czech language belong to the group of “western-Slavic” languages. Polish is the other member of this group. I’m certain that if Slovaks and Poles would have been exposed to each other’s language as much as Czech and Slovak are, then people would be saying that Polish and Slovak are so similar that if you speak one you certainly can understand the other.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Slovak TV - What to Watch When You Don't Understand a Thing

My father-in-law is staying with us for a few months longer. He understands little to no English and so watching American TV holds little interest. Thankfully, my husband is very computer-savvy and has hooked up the internet to our TV. There he connects to the Slovak TV station Markíza and my father-in-law can watch all the Slovak TV he wants with just a click of a mouse.

But let me back up a little and explain about Slovak TV in general. In addition to the cable subscription that of course allows access to more than a hundred stations in several different languages, there are three broadcast television stations available through terrestrial broadcasting:
In my opinion, Markíza seems to be the most popular channel. Many people watch the evening news at 7pm on Markíza and watched Superstar – The equivalent to American Idol, when it was on.

I watch the Slovak evening news almost every day and understand so little (sometimes nothing). It got me thinking as to what shows I think are good when you don’t understand much but want to be either entertained, and/or practice your Slovak skills. Here’s my list (in no particular order):
  • Modré z neba (Markíza) A person writes in to Markiza, asking them to make a wish come true for a deserving person they know. Make sure to have a handkerchief handy, this show likes to make people cry, guests and viewers.
  • Bez servítky (Markíza) Five people who, over the course of five days, each host the other four for dinner. Each meal is rated and whoever has the highest score at the end wins a cash prize.
  • Česko Slovenská SuperStar (Markíza) The equivalent of American Idol, this season’s reality singing-contest show finished in January. Due to the overwhelming popularity, however, it will certainly be back. This last season was different in that Czech Superstar and Slovak Superstar shows combined to create Česko Slovenská SuperStar with castings in Prague, Brno, Bratislava and Košice. Moderators and judges were both Czechs and Slovaks. I really liked seeing this collaboration. Not only did it widen the talent pool, it was a great opportunity for cross-cultural exchanges between Czechs and Slovaks.
  • Pošta pre teba (STV) A person wishes to publicly express something to another person and who has just found the courage to do so. The show brings people together, such as a sibling who haven’t seen the other in decades, a person renewing an old friendship, or someone simply thanking another for profoundly changing their life.
There are plenty of game shows on TV but I haven’t found one that I’d particularly recommend. There are also plenty of American TV shows that are dubbed into Slovak. If you are familiar with the shows, it might be interesting to watch them in another language.