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.

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