What it Takes to Become Czech

Today I have the great honour to introduce a new author on my blog, Sean Miller, who taught for 15 years and now has translated for 15 on some of the intricacies of going native in Bohemia. Sean was born in the US but has a Czech citizenship and considers himself as Czech.

In this post, Sean will provide insight into the background of how foreigners can integrate into the Czech society, what exams they need to take for permanent residency and for the citizenship, and whether the Czech Republic should raise the bar from A1 to A2 for granting permanent residency.

I am well aware that this is a complex, multifaceted issue with possible controversy arising, but it is something that ought to be discussed. Sean and I are happy to answer the comments below.

Now, over to Sean:

The Czech Republic is currently discussing increasing the difficulty of the language exam for permanent residence and subsequently the language exam for citizenship.

There are a lot of component issues here that have to be explained or could be discussed and I will try to do that based on my translation of the materials for the website that explains the exams, the discussions behind that and then the ethnological studies that were originally done to discuss how this underpins the ideas of “integration”. https://trvaly-pobyt.cestina-pro-cizince.cz/index.php?p=aktuality&hl=en_US

Just for your information – the citizenship site as well http://obcanstvi.cestina-pro-cizince.cz/?p=&hl=en_US  – Its language exam is level B1 (see below for more information)

So, what is integration?

There are some basic works on this – especially in the US on acculturation. I work from Zdenek Uherek’s works which I have translated that concern various nationalities immigrating to and emigrating from the CR. A key concept here is adaptation – however adaptation as such does not mean integration. I can claim Czechness and not be accepted as Czech by the majority society. This is common for Czechs who left for Ukraine generations ago and returned. Their claims of Czechness in the end meant disillusion and rejection of Czechness for a renewed feeling of being Ukrainian. See Migration Networks and Integration Strategies by Zdeněk Uherek and Veronika Beranská on that in greater detail. I do not want to copy and paste 2 pages into this blog.

Integration itself is debated from two sides in the EU. Naturally, many other states fall somewhere along the scale. One idea is that of the French. Permanent residence is given to people with the hope/belief that this means they will have to integrate. They no longer have a right to an interpreter at the court and are expected to integrate in all ways – to behave as a Frenchman would. While it may be useful, it has its problems in the banlieues of Paris for instance. The other idea is that the foreigner must prove his integration to become a citizen or permanent resident. They are allowed this, because they provide language courses for newcomers and put a great deal of effort into integrating the newcomers. This has not worked perfectly either as seen by the Turkish population that feels more Turkish than German and influenced the Turkish elections for the more conservative, Islamic leader. Had they not voted, the election would have gone for the more liberal candidate.

When the Czechs began discussing which model to follow, they chose the German model. The problem was that ordinary Czechs do not want to pay to integrate foreigners. They feel that the newcomer has the burden of integrating. The other side of that coin is newcomers do not feel welcome, tend to hang out in/create their own language/cultural bubbles and not learn the language as the courses are expensive and often not geared for survival Czech but heavily grammar-based courses for philologists. This led to an agreement that the tests would be on a low level as the Czech government was unwilling to provide free courses – but did agree to free exams, under certain conditions.

What are these levels of exams? Well, that falls under the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which recognizes six levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2. The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines recognizes ten different levels of proficiency: “novice”, “intermediate”, “advanced”, and “superior”, of which the first three are each subdivided into “low”, “mid”, and “high”. That means that the Czechs are only requiring Low Novice at the moment and proposing to raise the bar to Mid-Novice for Permanent Residence. That sounds pretty reasonable, but the exams do not necessarily reflect what the levels would be, because the information required for the different levels was worked out in great detail at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports and their version has some oddities – I do not mean to question its validity or utility, but some vocabulary and grammar do not strike me as particularly useful for certain levels. That is my subjective judgment, nobody asked me and they are incredibly unlikely to ask me ever 😊

The discussion also focuses around the fact that 39% fail now. This falls on the non-Slavic speakers hardest of course as the Czech language is less similar to other language groups. Vietnamese speakers have a lot of problems. I think here we have to say that Vietnamese in general do not want to give up their Vietnamese citizenship in most cases and so there is less of a desire to integrate. Stanislav Broucek has published a great deal on them as has Uherek. Since they tend to use their own small city inside a city (SAPA) and live in a crescent around the city, they have had little need to fully integrate into the majority society. However, as happened in France, the second and third generations have integrated further – that means in this case social mobility and spatial mobility. Yeah, I know I did not get into that above, but the Vietnamese are moving into the professions. The first generation had stalls, now shops, the next generation went to university here and now we see lawyers and doctors graduating from the universities here. Intermarriage is now also occurring, although not yet common – probably because of Vietnamese desires to remain Vietnamese, but I have no data to back up that feeling. It is based on Czechs and Vietnamese being good friends in schools now, hanging out together, but there not being weddings in greater numbers. Naturally, these second and third generations are not taking the exams as they went to Czech schools. That is one way to avoid the exam – to have been socialized/acculturated by Czech schools. [That is a whole other kettle of fish whether schools in any country do that job well. I am thinking of American schools at the moment where some nationalities seem unaffected by schooling and express opinions more consistent with their home environment and also seek marriages within that community.]

Naturally, I am writing this in English and so we can assume that there is an English-speaking community as well. That has also been studied and the discussion led to ideas of an “English bubble” as seen with a “Spanish bubble” in Los Angeles. Certainly, we still have lots of anecdotal evidence of English speakers who have not learned Czech after many decades here. The Italians are also infamous in Prague for speaking with their hands and not bothering with any other languages. Where you can get by in English (Prague generally, some other parts of other towns), there is less of a need to learn the language and adapt to the milieu. Most people learn at least the rudiments, but I hear that most give up after a few months in many companies. The Czech solution is simply that if you do not succeed, you should leave. You have to show the motivation and desire to integrate. That attitude does lead to many simply leaving. Then, we have those who solve the problem by marrying a Czech and so these are where we can see people who have been here for decades and still cannot speak the language.

So, why is the government moving the goalposts? Basically, there is pressure within the Ministry of the Interior for higher standards. They would move them much further, but there are two problems. One is the EU will only agree if they do more to integrate people – say free courses for the first 6 months or at least some attempt to bring the prices down as they are very expensive in Prague. The initial immersion class for Erasmus students is cheap, but it covers very little in fact and then the semester or annual course is very expensive and Erasmus students are not going to invest that much – they are here for one year after all. Those who are here for longer may learn or try to learn, but they will use various strategies to avoid it as well – pubs or restaurants where people speak their language, a workplace where they can speak their language and so on. We even have Slovaks who still do not speak Czech here in Prague 😊 So, it is not just the Vietnamese and English/Americans.
The other problem is the Ministry of Education itself. It does not want to move too high too quickly, because it means revamping all the exams and the materials for preparation (methodology), possibly new textbooks need to be written. It is not an easy process. Moreover, the Ministry of Education gets much more direct feedback from the teachers and exam administrators about what is possible. After all, teachers want their students to succeed. The MEYS wants teachers to succeed. The Ministry of Interior wants integration, but how they define that is changing. It used to be “able to function basically in the majority society”. Now, it will be “Able to understand and use very basic personal, family and job-related language, able to understand enough to meet the needs with slow, clear speech, and able to understand and produce short, simple texts on familiar matter”. That is not what the Ministry of the Interior wants though, they would like “those who have the necessary fluency to communicate without effort with native speakers” – B1 as it is what is used by the British for a permit for an indefinite stay. That is a pretty high level for first generation immigrants who arrive as adults. English is a common second language in many places. Czech is not. Note that this is still being demanded to obtain permanent residence. The French would grant residence and then assume you are there and so you must get there, somehow. It is the German approach to force you to get there in order to obtain residence. The interesting Czech twist is not to help you and still expect success. Kafka would be proud 😊

It will be interesting to see how this goes forward, because the majority society is not interested in getting people there. They complain about those who do not integrate, but there is not a willingness to put their money into making it happen. [They want to come here! Let them pay for it!] Since they do not support integration and often make fun of foreigners in general (accents, language errors, social and racial background), there is not much positive reinforcement to learn the language or adapt for newcomers. In fact, my own daughter has been made fun of because her father was born in the US. Others because one parent is Chinese or Palestinian or Nigerian. I personally have been told many times that I will never be Czech, despite having citizenship for 8 years now. [They get kind of confused on who decides on such issues. It is an official decision by the Ministry of the Interior and not their personal decision. I have tried to teach Civics here and gave it up. The children are indoctrinated by their parents with absolute nonsense about genetics. God help us – historians were saying Czechs and Moravians were distinct genetic groups on TV just last year! https://www.ceskatelevize.cz/porady/10150778447-historie-cs/318281381940002/ ]

Generally, the children of newcomers are a different issue, because there is social pressure to be like the others in school and there is a real chance of social and spatial mobility. They are also exempt from the exam.

I welcome your comments and will try to respond to them or the issues you raise.


4 thoughts on “What it Takes to Become Czech

  1. Anna Bryson Gustova

    This is a very interesting piece for me. I’m English. I’ve been here nearly thirty years. For the last fifteen years I have lived in a village in the country, not Prague. I married a Czech. I make most of my living as a translator from Czech to English. I have permanent residence status from my marriage and am about to apply for citizenship (dual) because of Brexit. I have looked at examples of the exams I will have to pass. As you will imagine, neither presents any great difficulty for me. I have a lot of general knowledge about the CR and its history. My Czech is pretty good.

    I cannot claim to be truly bilingual – I make some mistakes, I can fool people if I keep to standard politeness, but extended conversation will always reveal my accent and other imperfections. On the other hand, my Czech is very fluent – people tend to compliment me on it, and I always say, “Oh come on, if you’d been living in a country for thirty years you would expect to be pretty fluent…anything else would be shameful.”

    Anyway, I’m not sure I totally agree with all the points in the piece (PS – many years ago I too did some translation for Zdenek Uherek). For example, I am fascinated by the way that Vietnamese immigrants precisely don’t form clear large concentrations (at least not in the way that Turks do in Germany, or Pakistanis/Bangladeshis in the UK), but spread themselves quite thinly through the economic mechanism of establishing corner shops, ideally in towns/townlets where none existed before, or not too many. My two nearest small towns are cases in point. The effect is most certainly to encourage a fair degree of integration – even the first immigrant generation has plenty of face-to-face interaction with the “indigenous” locals, and the second and third generations are very much part of the small-town community of nursery-school and school kids, where they rapidly acquire perfect command of the language and a place in what is not a “parallel society”. Comparison with the German, Scandi or UK situation suggests all kinds of other reasons too why integration of Vietnamese – despite the constantly repeated cliches about how hostile and backward the Czechs are compared to the advanced multicultural Western societies – is relatively successful.

    Not that I idealise the Czechs, but I must say, especially since unlike many expats I have been more or less submerged in Czech society for many years and see other anglo- expats very rarely, that anglosphere and other western expats, including those who genuinely want to be accepted and think of themselves more as immigrants than expats, bring trouble on themselves by unrealistic expectations sometimes leading to quite unnecessary righteous indignation. I’ve “gone native” more than most, but it would never occur to me to claim to be Czech (and will not even when I get a passport) or to be annoyed that Czechs might not accept such a claim on linguistic-cultural grounds. The history of the USA means that there is some real emotional and ideological sense in calling people American in the full sense when they acquire citizenship, even if they can’t really speak English, but in Europe – especially the smaller nations constituted as states by reference to ethno-culture, ethno-history, mother tongue and so on, though even in the UK, this is not the reality, even if you think it should be.As my husband likes to quip, “Of course we Czechs are xenophobic, it’s the only reason we’re still here.” It is better not to prod this reality too officiously, especially when – even though Czechs may not accept you as “Czech”, they will often warmly accept your interest in being here, your proficiency in the language, your knowledge of Czech things, and even desire to be a citizen. I’ve never been rudely told I “can’t be a Czech”, but it’s often been assumed that I have citizenship!

    Why on earth did you give up trying to teach civics to Czech kids? I’ve only taught social and political theory to Czechs at faculty level, and with children have only discussed civics sorts of themes incidentally, in the course of a bit of language teaching. Yeah, sure – sometimes Czechs can sound “embarrassing” to a Westerner, because they really haven’t been schooled much in Western-type antiracism, multi-culture concepts and language, and quite a few reject these concepts even when they know of them. But I’d call that a challenge, and even a refreshing opportunity to discuss important themes without too much piety and dogma. Of course Czechs can be racist (notably more about Roma than Vietnamese), but talking to them condescendingly and impatiently only makes them double-down on that sort of thing, and later they will mock you.

    Finally, while I’m a strong critic of much that is done by the Czech government and bureaucracy, on the whole I think their permanent residency and citizenship knowledge and language tests are relatively reasonable and comparable with those of other EU states. But I am very intrigued by your news about possibly making the language tests harder, and like you wonder whether it is really useful. It’s hard not to think that the move is motivated straightforwardly by the desire to limit immigration full stop. Or at least to try to make sure that immigration (hardly large-scale anyway), is restricted as far as possible to young professionals in fields where the CR has gaps. Think Ukrainian and Russian doctors, dentists and nurses, for example. So obviously the authorities are not going to throw money at helping more prospective residents pass.

    By the way, I know that some Czech “returnees” from Ukraine, and also Kazakstan, became disillusioned. Sometimes this was because these returns were state organised with the returnees settled in rather dire accommodation in out-of-the-way places. But I have also read reports claiming that the integration of these immigrants has been particularly successful. Certainly it has been so in our little town down the road.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. seaninprg

    Boiled down: Your mileage may vary.

    Go to SAPA a few times – it is truly a city within a city – or read Broucek’s studies on marriage patterns. I realize you live outside of Prague and so that leads to different experiences. For that matter, you could say the Vietnamese in Cheb learned more German than Czech, because that was their contact group in the markets there. It simply proves that there is no single perspective and that evidence is often anecdotal – which is why I based mine on the academic studies of the issue. I did not mention my personal experiences of Vietnamese in Prosek for instance and their general flight from Ceska Lipa {because they refuse to pay the Russian mafia to be left alone}. I do agree that they have not created enclaves generally. They have also not ended up in ghettos as have the Roma. I touched on that when I said they are generally integrating in the second generation and that they settled in a crescent. That does nothing to change the reality that the center of Prague is Wenceslaus Square for Czechs and SAPA for Vietnamese.

    I renounced US citizenship, so I am Czech. [If you look at the article by Uherek that I refer to, it starts with US studies of integration and adaptation, so you are right on that approach.] The fact I am Czech is a problem for some people. Other people do not like Ukrainians or whatever other group. [Again, it probably depends on how deeply integrated you are. I seldom see English speakers. I would guess about once a month or less. On the other hand, I have many contacts in my neighborhood and see those people often and they are open about their xenophobia and political views. Prosek is more of a village than a part of Prague, because most people have lived in these houses since 1968 or 1972. Everyone knows everyone here.]

    Czechs appreciate your efforts to fit in, but there will always be segments of the population that throw rocks at you on the playground (Vysocany when Sabina was 2) or attack you for being different (Universum Elementary School and now Gymnazium Ceskolipska). This is just part of the society. To pretend it does not exist does not move you forward. It shows ideological blinders. “Know your patch” means recognizing threats even in your personal life. The police station here was split – half was StB. Those people who moved here to live were mostly one or the other or both. Some of the police volunteered for Afghanistan and one died there. A good man and nice guy.

    Your ideas on who the government is trying to attract is also interesting. The discussions have been about bringing in people with needed skills (medicine never comes up in those settings – those meetings are with private companies/investors and not public hospitals after all) but the Ministry of the Interior is not interested in issuing more visas. There are two routes in fact – investing in automation or allowing in many more immigrants. The point I made in the blog is valid here as well – there is a reluctance to invest in robotics AND there is an unwillingness to allow in more migrants.

    My point on the utility of raising the bar is that one has to justify decisions. You have a general need for blue-collar workers or robotics. This resolves nothing, but it does frustrate people and plays to the xenophobia in society/popularism. With the impending economic downturn, I do not think there is a need to increase the tension in society. It plays into particular people’s hands though and elections are coming 🙂 Neoliberalism has not resolved the aftermath of the Greater Recession and that is why extremists are electable now.

    I am not attacking the fact that tests were instituted. I discussed the reasons in the text for the low levels and why they are moving – even if slowly.

    Teaching Civics does not make sense when you fight the same battles every single year and even the adults are still at genetic definitions of nation (precisely why I included the link to the historians discussing it). You may enjoy tilting at windmills. I do not. It is not about condescending to anyone. They simply do not grasp the concepts as your husband’s comment shows. [The class was taught in Czech and English by the way – two teachers, same materials. So, with one teacher being Czech, it kind of undermines your assumptions on where the problems arose.] Xenophobia as a way to preserve your culture and language forgets the utility of cultural transfer or the fact that many of the founding documents of the “nation” are in German. The National Museum’s charter is in German. It sounds like the arguments that led to Czechoslovakia being dismembered by Italy and Germany in the two Vienna Awards before the occupation.

    You may look a bit deeper into the Ukrainian Czechs as well. There are very different stories in different towns – South Bohemia (where the town got a different group than they had accepted and had many problems) vs. North Bohemia (where they have integrated relatively easily) vs. Karvina (where the poor accommodation and lack of jobs is a major problem). The Senate’s report was not as optimist as your anecdotal evidence about the surrounding villages. Those debates in the Senate were also based on studies by the Institute of Ethnology. There are some lingering questions of how they were vetted for instance. That is still a bone of contention for South Bohemia.

    I know your background is history as is mine, but I teach in Jinonice and so have close contacts with the social sciences as well as my work for the ministries on these issues. You are welcome to disagree. Everyone has a right to an opinion. I tried to base the one I laid out above on the research done here among the various groups. Naturally some of my own experiences come through, but I try not to take them as definitive (that people threw rocks at us for speaking English in the park in Vysocany is hardly a regular occurrence, but the regular harassment of the children from mixed marriages in schools is very common).

    I had an American friend who served with the Czech Army for many years and he would tell me what Czechs thought about the bombing of Serbia or Russia in general and I often wondered if he was living in the same society, much less the same city 🙂 Hence my comment on your mileage may vary. His knowledge was limited to people who spoke English and were military officers transitioning into civilian life, usually former communists. That is not the same as the general population, but Dennis drew his conclusions on life here and what people thought from a limited sample. When I was still married, my wife’s family was a much larger part of my Czech experience. Having divorced several years ago, I have met many more people from more walks of life. Less educated tends to mean less open to foreigners, but even that depends on their experiences. I know a forklift operator in a warehouse and he is convinced all Ukrainians are idiots and he does not want any of them in the hospitals here. Extremist but there it is. A cook thinks all Muslims are out to murder Christians and votes for SPD because of that conviction. You can’t argue facts with people’s core values that they believe are well-founded opinions 🙂 That is why I quit teaching Civics. It is difficult to remove by logic an idea not placed there by logic in the first place. (Livingston)

    Have a good evening 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Kamila and Sean,

    Thanks for an interesting post. Re the level required for citizenship, I believe those who are at B1 – and especially if their spoken production and interaction are at B1, which means their reading might even be at B2 – should be able to function quite well and am not sure that any higher should be a requirement. I’ve just checked and it’s B1 in Croatia too. We’ve had some changes proposed to the Citizenship Act a couple of months ago – not sure if they’ve been implemented yet – and according to these children/descendants of Croatians abroad won’t be required to take a proficiency test. This came in for some criticism, but I haven’t been following closely so there may have been additional modifications in the meantime.

    Last year the journal I do proofreading for – Croatian Comparative and Public Administration – published a number of articles on migration (from the perspective of PA) and there was one by Helena Bauerova on the situation in the CR. I thought it provided a good overview http://iju.hr/HKJU-clanak.asp?c=1110&a=Autor:%20Helena%20Bauerov%C3%A1

    Liked by 2 people

  4. seaninprg

    Thanks for the comment. It is hard to read tax and insurance requirements at B2, but I generally agree – an employee can get by. I am a small businessman and I need a higher level of language skills to function. Legal language is complicated.
    Her text has some problems with language – Sb. is Coll. (sbirka = collection) and imaginary is notional. The translator lacks some finer skills, but the ideas come through.
    It relies heavily on the official statements and utterly ignores the academic studies. That is interesting in that the official reports generally rely heavily on the academic background materials. That makes her report seem a bit superficial, but I agree with most of her timeframes and other conclusions. The corruption of the embassies in granting visas is one of the things I was hinting at in the response to the earlier comment – when I said the vetting was an issue 🙂
    Prague has a 11% of its population from the former Soviet Union. That is huge and her paper barely touches on how to integrate them or what integration is – again why I brought up Uherek in the first place was about these problems of adaptation vs. integration. I am not pretending a blog is anything like an academic publication, but the issues are quite complex and the article uses a broad brush to cover a lot of ground.
    Another area that I think is useful for understanding this is the idea of public space. Many people think public space is theirs and should be “clean”. They want drug users and alcoholics removed from the parks and no kids acting up or drinking there. It runs back to an idea of a castle with a moat and drawbridge where they can decide who comes in. The reality is that many people decide to gatecrash and they you have to figure out what to do with them – she is absolutely correct that the local authorities do next to nothing to resolve this problem. The bigger issue remains that the state is not providing language lessons or help in overcoming the cultural barrier and yet wants to demand more from the immigrants. I really feel we all have to do more to integrate newcomers. I know their worry though – they do not want “us” to become migration bridges for these newcomers who used to see the country as a transit point and are now staying.
    Again, thanks for the ideas. It is a complex issue. That was what made me agree to write something for Kamila on this. It is hard to get the balance between an understandable post and trying to make it a solid argument. It is a fluid situation as shown by the mere fact that much of the material on the website for Czech for Foreigners has not yet been translated in the Citizenship section. I am not sure why it has an English section if the news is not in English. 🙂 https://obcanstvi.cestina-pro-cizince.cz/index.php?p=aktuality-3&hl=en_US

    Liked by 2 people

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