How I learnt Czech (from scratch) - by Chapman Woodriff

I've been learning languages for over twenty years now and, as a result, my personal approach (style) is a blend of old-school habits that work - throwbacks to the days before Internet, mobile devices, apps and Skype - and new-school tools I've found incredibly useful and practical. I do what works for me while keeping an eye on what's new in the language education "ecosystem".

If you are just getting started with your polyglot dream, I recommend you read this entire article as it outlines a fusion of "past and present" resources and techniques (personal methods) that create a simultaneously structured and freestyle way to learn Czech. This information can be applied to any language by adapting it to the language you are studying.

When I started learning Czech, I actively sought out unwitting "victims" and attempted interaction, no matter how little I felt I knew, because the point was to learn to use the language and there is no better way than to simply make use of it! Of course, I happened to be living in the Czech Republic so this was not difficult to do and the poor souls I most victimized were checkout clerks, random people on public transport and friendly looking folks in pubs. Since I really didn't know much more than a few words, I'd find a Czech person who spoke a language in common (usually English) and start asking lots of questions and repeating back what I heard. I'd make certain to get them to write things down for me, if they were willing, so I could look over it again later. I am not the type of learner who can just hear something and remember - I need to hear it, see it and say it repeatedly to make it stick.

This exploratory process often resulted in the making of new friends and thus, opening the doors to culture, society and further discussions of linguistic nature. While I don't recommend drinking alcohol as a long term solution, it is a major part of Czech culture ("When in Rome...") and I find that, for the outward social aspect of early language acquisition, a beer or two can help inhibit the parts of me that scream "You sound like an idiot" and "You look like a fool", two of the biggest obstacles (alongside maintaining motivation) to actually diving in and learning any language.

If I had not been in the Czech Republic, I would have sought out free language exchanges with Czech people online via any of the major players like Busuu, iTalki and Live Mocha.

Onto more scholarly matters...

The "language zero point" is both exciting and daunting: Where to begin?! One of my old-school habits is to go for a concise introductory textbook (yes, the kind you can hold in your hand). I didn't linger too long on the details, my goal was to get an overview of the writing system, pronunciation and overall basics used in many common situations. My go-to intro texts are the Colloquial Series, in this case "Colloquial Czech: The Complete Course for Beginners" (2010), because they are well-written, include audio instruction for developing your ear and are small enough for travel. I'd used them before when dabbling in Swahili and Polish and found them top notch. While devouring this intro text and accompanying audio, I used a notebook (again, the paper kind) to write down words and phrases I thought would be especially useful for me personally.

The stolid companion text was a book outlining the use and structure of verbs. For Czech in specific I used 401 Czech Verbs, but previously I had used the 501 Verbs Series when learning German, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian. Perhaps out of nostalgia, perhaps for tactile reasons, I still enjoy using a "real" text when dealing with verbs because of their central importance in pretty much everything you want to say. That said, these days there are plenty of free resources online that will give you verb conjugations to work with, two of the most popular being Logos and Verbix, with the caveat that they do not have anywhere near 401 verbs - often with gaping holes like "to thank" - and lack the additional (perhaps language geeky) details you'll find in the texts.

In unison with the above materials, I secured a solid dictionary for my mobile device. I used this all the time (still do) when out and about, looking up anything interesting I came across to a point that verged on obsession. I didn't worry about remembering every word, but I made a habit of "favoriting" terms as I looked them up and, if I saw that I had already favorited a word before, I made a flashcard for it and added it to the current study stack (more on this below). Since I happen to work online and test many language education apps, etc, I use both Android and iOS devices daily. For both systems I used what I consider to be the best offline dictionary app I have come across which is developed by BitKnights. There are free versions available for both systems as well as a reasonably-priced full version. (BitKnights is also available for Windows Phone.)

When on my laptop, I used two different dictionary/translation resources: Seznam.cz and Google Translate. Seznam.cz is the most popular Czech search engine and their dictionary is very complete and includes much slang and colloquialisms not found in the BitKnights app. Google Translate is a no-brainer which I used in a similar way to the offline dictionary app, namely for maintaining awareness of terms and phrases I came across over and over and, thus, deemed important to internalize.

Now we come to the inevitable bit about using flashcards. In this arena, I adhered to the old-school method I have used for years: get notecards and write down vocabulary and phrases with Czech on one side and English on the other. While I have tested and even used (for a while) digital flashcard systems such as Anki and Quizlet, I continue to persist in using handmade flashcards for three main reasons. Firstly, I find the tactile nature of physical flashcards more pleasing and, thus, I am more motivated to study them. Secondly, something happens in my brain when I use my hands to write, something that I believe helps me memorize faster. (Apparently some neurologists agree with me.) Thirdly, something about seeing a box full of words you know just makes you smile and want to learn more.

My not-so-flashy technique is simple: Create five to ten new cards per day (more is possible but can overwhelm) and cycle through them several times per day, often during meals or while waiting. I always kept a stack at the ready in my pocket or travel bag. I kept the ones I was still learning in an "ongoing" pile to which I added the day's newbies. I put the memorized cards in another place and revisited them from time to time, ideally every week or two, to make sure I had not experienced too much memory slippage. Digital flashcard systems like those mentioned above will keep track of what you've learned for you using a fancy-sounding system called spaced repetiton which is pretty cool but, in my opinion, not necessary for language learning specifically as you tend to use and reuse the most important words on an ongoing basis anyway when you actively employ the language.

Finally, I'd like to add to the audio aspect mentioned briefly above by saying that there are two audio-based learning systems any language learner worth their mettle will surely come across eventually: Pimsleur and Michel Thomas. I prefer Michel Thomas's method as it is relaxing for the learner, geared for real situations, uses the commonest sentence structures (you'll definitely end up using them over and over) and is incredibly sticky. Unfortunately, this material is not available in as many languages as Pimsleur, which is a solid second in my experience. If you're short on cash, there is a third audio training series available for free from the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI). A major downside to this system is the materials are often incredibly out of date (Czechoslovakia, anyone?) but that is balanced by the fact that they exist for many uncommonly learned languages (ever heard of Moré, Kitona, Fula or Shona?). While learning basic Czech, I used both Pimsleur and FSI, mostly while driving, cooking and hiking.

I wish you the best of luck in your Czech (or other language) learning endeavors! Please feel free to get in touch if you feel so inclined.

"Chapman Woodriff started Free Language in 2006. His home base is in Southern Bohemia, Czech Republic, where he lives in the countryside with his two cats and three goats when not traveling the world learning languages. Chapman enjoys researching the latest language stuff, making (mostly electronic) music, sailing and kitesurfing.

Free Language is a curated directory of language learning resources, open to all."

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