Is Czech hard to learn?

Is the Czech language hard to learn for an English Speaking self-student?

Czech is the language of some 11 million people, mostly in the Czech republic. It’s a Western-Slavic language closely related to Polish and Slovak and it’s got the reputation of being a fairly difficult language.

But how hard is the Czech language really to learn for an English speaker if you learn it by yourself?

The Czech language is quite different from English and if you don’t already know a language from the Slavic language family, you’ll need to put in a lot of work in order to become fluent in Czech. It’s by no means impossible, however. Despite it’s complicated grammar, difficult pronunciation and different vocabulary, Czech is a language that most people can succeed in learning if they put in the time.

Czech pronunciation – a whole new world!

The Czech language is not the simplest language in the world in terms of pronunciation. In fact, there are several new sounds that you’ll need to get used to, and then there are the famous Czech consonant clusters that seem impossible to pronounce when seen in writing. (But they aren’t that bad in reality).

Czech is written with the Latin alphabet, like English. That’s already something! Then there’s the fact that the Czech alphabet is completely phonetic, meaning that the language is pronounced exactly like it’s written.

As soon as you’ve learned to pronounce all sounds in Czech, you can read any word and know how to pronounce it. Imagine what it would be like to learn English all over again? (How would you pronounce “though”, “tough”, “dough”, “enough” and so on?)

But even though Czech uses the same alphabet as English, it just doesn’t seem to be enough, for the Czech people. The Czech alphabet is a modified version of the Latin alphabet, and while English has 26 letters, Czech has…. 42!

Most of these 42 letters aren’t that difficult to pronounce. Their sounds actually exist in English even though English has’t got a dedicated letter for it. But then there are the sounds that don’t exist in English…

Let’s watch this video for a quick walk-through of the Czech alphabet:

Some of the letters that should grab your attention are:

  • Ch – A sort of snake-hissing sound that can be find in German, for example. It’s pronounced like in “Lichtenstein”. In some (but few) Czech words, the sound can become more “raspy” like a Dutch “G” or an Arabic “خ”.
  • R – A thrilled R is common in many languages, but many English speakers have trouble with pronouncing it.
  • Ř – This is supposedly a letter that only exists in the Czech language, and to some, it’s also the most difficult. It’s a combination of a thrilled R and the Czech letter “Ž” which is pronounced a little like the French word “je”.

My advice is to not dwell too much on the pronunciation of each letter. As you continue to study the language and listen to it more and more, you’ll get used to the pronunciation and it will become easier to replicate.

Another difficult aspect of Czech pronunciation is the consonants and how they are sometimes grouped together in clusters without any vowels. An extreme example of this is this tongue twister:

Strč prst skrz krk

Czech tongue-twister meaning “stick a finger through the throat”. Where are the vowels?

When you try reading the words out loud it seems utterly impossible. But try listening to the audio below:

Audio recording borrowed from Wikipedia

Okay – It still sounds almost impossible, but there’s one thing you immediately notice. It’s actually not pronounced completely without vowels!

I hear a short and discreet vowel sound in each word. This is actually due to something called “liquid consonants” which exists in the Czech language. What it means practically is that even words without vowels somehow seem to be pronouncable.

Still, Czech pronunciation isn’t a walk in the park, and it’s definitely a challenging part of the Czech language!

Is Czech grammar difficult for an English speaker?

Maybe you already heard about Czech grammar… Wait, you didn’t?

Then now is the perfect time for me to tell you that the grammar that makes up the Czech language is absolutely manageable.

It’s got quite the reputation, but as is the case with any language, grammar isn’t learned through memorization and mastering each and every rule. Grammar is something that you need to get used to in order to use it naturally. Think of how you learned English. Do you think about grammar rules when you speak, or do you rely on instinct? If you have to think about it, chances are that you’ll be making mistakes constantly and that your English will tend to sound awkward. (said the non-native).

But what kind of beast is Czech grammar?

Even though I think that grammar should be learned through patterns and through getting used to seeing correctly used Czech over and over again until you get used to it, it’s a good idea to know what you’re up against.

Czech, along with other Slavic languages is known to use cases. In Czech, nouns change their ending depending on the grammatical function of the word in a sentence. The cases represent the 7 different kinds of functions, that nouns can have. You could be talking about ownership (Tom’s bike), direction (to the river), location (around the house) and 4 others.

So each noun has 7 potential case declensions. Add to that that the declensions depend on the gender of the noun, which can be masculine, feminine or neuter. And then there are different declensions depending of the number, so if you’re talking about “a house”, the ending will be different from “7 houses”.

When you do the math, this makes for a lot of declensions. Add to that that you’ll need to figure out where each case is used.

But again – grammar is best learned through habituation. You might be able to figure out the rules and memorize them (if you’ve got skills!) but even if you do, you still need to correctly analyze the sentence and epply the right declension for each noun when you speak.

There’s no way around it: You need to rely on your instinct.

The good news is that almost 11 million people use Czech cases correctly. And these people all learned to do so as kids. If 11 million Czech children can learn to speak correct Czech by instinct, so can you!

Mastering Czech grammar is not something you archive in 3 months, however. It’ll take time, and it’ll be something that you gradually get better at in the long run. While we’re going to rely on instinct to eventually get the grammar right, there’s still a lot of work to do, and Czech grammar isn’t the easiest. There’s also something to be said about Czech irregular verbs and a few other things, but let’s continue on instead!

Czech vocabulary – Are Czech words hard to learn?

Czech is a Slavic language, meaning that it’s lexically quite far from English and most Western-European languages. This means that most words will seem quite exotic and unfamiliar, and it can add to the difficulty of learning new words or coming up with associations to them.

I’ve written an article with some tips to learning foreign words that you might find useful.

Due to the geographic location of the Czech Republic, however, the Czech language has quite a few loanwords from English and German – this can make for a shortcut when learning Czech.

Generally, even when the words in Czech are purely Slavic and don’t resemble English even a bit, there are appeasing factors. The Czech language has a quite logical way of forming new words. Words for complicated concepts are often made by adding prefixes and suffixes to a root-word. This means that you can benefit from the word morphemes you already know and recycle them to form new words.

Czech vocabulary might take longer to learn than, say, French, but it’s actually not the biggest challenge in learning the language.

Is Czech a difficult language? According to linguists, it sort-of is.

The Foreign Service Institute, or FSI is the American government institution in charge of teaching foreign languages to US diplomats going on missions overseas. They teach a wide variety of languages and have sorted their catalogue into four categories according to the time they estimate that the languages take to learn.

The FSI teaches languages in an intensive classroom setting where a teacher or instructor helps a class of 5-10 students learn the language to a high degree of fluency.

I assume that you’re a self-student. And while you’re probably aiming for some degree of fluency in Czech, your immediate goal might not be the “high professional working proficiency” that the FSI aims for.

That being said, we can use FSI’s numbers to give us a ballpark estimate for how difficult the language is. According to the experts at FSI.

The groups in FSI’s rating system look like this:

Group one languages take around 5-600 classroom hours for an average English speaking student. The group one languages are French, Spanish, Norwegian, Dutch and similar languages that are relatively close to English.

In group two we find languages such as Swahili, Indonesian and even German. These are estimated to take 900 classroom hours to learn.

For the third group, which is where we find Czech along with languages such as Thai, Hindi, Finnish and Russian, students need approximately 1100 classroom hours to reach the high level of professional proficiency that FSI is aiming for.

And then finally there’s category 4, which is for languages such as Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Arabic and Japanese. These take a whooping 2200 hours to learn, again according to FSI.

But to get back to Czech: 1100 hours – that’s roughly twice as long as a language like French. (But only half as long as Arabic). That’s quite a lot of time. (Around three years if you put in an hour a day).

But it doesn’t necessarily apply to you since both your end-goal and your method will be different from FSI’s teaching methods. It does however give us an idea of the placement of the Czech language in terms of difficulty.

Finally – Is Czech a difficult language to learn for an average English speaker?

As you might have gathered throughout this article, learning Czech is not something you can finish over the weekend, and it might not be as easy as.. I can’t think of a good metaphor..

But what language difficulty really comes down to is no so much grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary.

It’s motivation, persistence and consistency.

You need to put in the work, and you need to keep at it every day. Learning Czech is like eating an elephant. You can’t swallow it all by once. You need to work at it one bite at a time. And for each meal, or study session, you might not see or feel an improvement, which can lead to a loosing motivation and giving up. (Check my article about motivation in language learning).

To learn Czech, you need to be in it for the long run. You won’t see the results today, tomorrow or next month. But if you keep at it, you’ll eventually be able to call yourself fluent in Czech!

If you want to learn more about my suggested approach for learning Czech, go read my article called “How to learn the Czech language by yourself“.

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