This post was prompted in a discussion thread on Czechlist, our Facebook group for language professionals, following a post entitled Ten More English Mistakes Czech People Make by my fellow blogger Tom Czaban. Somehow it was agreed by the group that in order to tilt the balance, a post should be written for the adventurous souls learning Czech – and try to second-guess who volunteered to write it.
To my surprise, one person in the thread suggested such posts should not in fact come into being at all because they focus too much in the negative aspect of language learning. Perhaps it is so, and I can only speak for myself, but I often get caught by clickbaity titles offering advice or tips. When reading, I either see myself nodding or thinking “bollocks”, but I am hardly ever offended by the text itself. If I didn’t want to read it I wouldn’t, as the title is self-explanatory.
How much Czech do you need to know to read my post? I will try to be very clear, but you may not be able to understand some words. If you don’t speak any Czech, try reading on and let me know what you think. I will be very interested to see how much you have understood.
Let us begin with some lower-level mistakes.
- Go or Go? – Jít, nebo jet?
This is probably one of the most common mistakes people make. In Czech, we distinguish between the forward motion by foot, expressed by the irregular verb JÍT, and the motion by “wheel” – or any kind of transport, for which we use the verb JET. JÍT is also used more frequently in collocations. Observe: JÍT do kina/do posilovny/do práce – we often “walk” to the cinema, gym, or work, even though you might be getting there by tram or car. On the other hand, you can also say jedu do práce / I am driving to work if you are in the car and telling your boss about it on the phone.
How to get it right? Two things – first getting used to the idea of moving by FOOT vs. WHEEL. Second, perhaps not enough stressed in grammar books, check / ask your teacher to tell you the most common collocations with JÍT/JET and study those.
2. Will I Die or Will I Go? – Pojdu nebo půjdu?
Closely related to the first item, this is probably my most “favourite” mistake. Watch this: The future of JÍT (walk, go) is PŮJDU /poo:h-yduh/ – I will go. It is a very frequent verb but for some reason or other, learners of Czech love to say POJDU /poy-duh/ , which means I will die as an animal. The infinitive POJÍT means to die and we use it about animals; never about people, unless it’s in a western movie. I actually know why they say it – it is because the future of the verb JET (go by wheel, as you very well know by now), is POJEDU /po-yeh-duh/. There’s only a little step for the poor confused student to mix up the two futures of the anyway undistinguishable forward motions by wheel or foot, PŮJDU and POJEDU, into a simple, easy-to-pronounce POJDU – resulting in predicting your own unfortunate death as a filthy beast.
How to fix it? – Make sure you understand first what the problem is. If you do and you have just internalised the error, ask your teach to correct you every time they hear it. Try saying PUDU instead of PŮJDU (don’t pronounce the “j”), which is what Czechs end up saying most of the time.
3. Dinner or Yesterday? Or Yesterday Evening, Perhaps? – VČERA, VEČER, nebo VEČEŘE?
Any item in this trio may sound very much alike the other to the untrained ear. Here’s the basic info:
VČERA is an adverb and means YESTERDAY. It does not change its form.
VEČER is a noun or an adverb and means EVENING. If used as an adverb, it does not change its form.
VEČEŘE is a feminine noun and means DINNER. It is declined as the other feminine nouns type RŮŽE/ŽIDLE (k večeři – for dinner, po večeři – after dinner, před večeří – before dinner).
How to avoid a goulash in your head: If you can, study them separately. Learn one at a time. Ask your teacher to tell you a large number of sentences and see if you can tell which word she used. Receptive skills are so important! Remember, VČERA is pronounced with a F /fche-rah/. VEČER AND VEČEŘE are pronounced with a V. Or try: VEČER has two Es, like EVENING.
4. Here or Here? – Sem nebo tady?
A very very very important concept in Czech is that of the stative vs. dynamic aspect. If you are going somewhere, you would be using different adverbs and prepositions than if you are/exist somewhere. It’s a bit like I am at work / I go to work. Very simple. You either go somewhere or you are somewhere. Be or go. The problem is, in Czech it gets reflected into many many more areas than in English. Slavic learners usually understand this easily, because it is similar in Russian or Ukrainian.
Petr je tady. – Petr is here. // Petr jde sem. – Petr “goes” (is coming) here.
Banka je nalevo – The bank is on the left. // Jděte doleva – Go left.
But also: Obraz je nad skříní – The picture is over the wardrobe. // Dáme obraz nad skříň. – We will put the picture over the wardrobe. Here, the stative x dynamic aspect affects the case, the instrumental vs. the accusative of the word SKŘÍŇ.
How to go about it: Again, understanding this aspect of viewing things as stative and dynamic at first place is of great importance. Ask your teacher to present you with a number of mixed up sentences and identify which is which, both in reading and listening. Then, focus on associating GO with the dynamic words and BE with the stative words. Try gaining more fluency. Your teacher can help you by asking simple questions: Kde je Petr? – Tady. // Kam jde Alena? – Sem. // Kam jde Petr? – Doleva. // Kde je Alena? – Vlevo.
These things need practice so be kind to yourself if you don’t get it always right.
5. Do you like books? Do you like dancing? – Máš rád knihy? Tancuješ rád?
This is another canonical mistake. Look:
Mám rád goes with nouns.
Mám rád knihy. Mám rád Alenu. Alena má ráda Petra. – I like books. I like Alena. Alena likes Peter – notice the change into RÁDA for the feminine. There is also a change in the neutral RÁDO and a multitude of forms for the plural – let’s not worry about these for now (Do you love me?)
Rád (without MÁM or MÍT – the infinitive) goes with a conjugated verb in the relevant person.
Rád tancuju. Rád vaří. Rád děláš domácí úkol. (I like dancing. He/she likes cooking. You like doing homework)
So basically, you don’t say MÁM with activities. This is not too easy to remember and produce, so what the majority of learners end up saying is: MÁM RÁD TANCOVAT – I like to dance. Which is WRONG.
What to do about it: I strongly believe the two forms should not be presented together in one unit, as they often are. Let’s break it down and make it easier to distinguish. For the teachers, I would suggest designing a sentence builder (don’t know what a sentence builder is? Ask me in the comments!) for each of these and work on them separately, producing a number of correct (ooh, yummy, that’s what we want) sentences.
If you are a student, make a list of things you like doing. Think about the grammar and break it down into two lists. Use the correct introductory phrase for each one. Ask your teacher to test you like this: T: Tancuju? – S: Ráda tancuju. T: Prahu? -S: Mám rád Prahu. (Prague). Then, slowly, expand and prepare a short talk about what you like doing. This is a very common small talk topic and will enable you to share info with your new friends, so it is worth investing your time in.
All right, I could go on, but I will stop here. I wanted this to be Ten Mistakes…, but it is getting late, so please let me know if you want me to add to this series. Also, I’d love to hear if it helped any learner of Czech and whether you understood if you aren’t learning Czech.
Talk soon and thanks for reading!