How To Learn The Czech Language By Yourself (A Complete Guide From Beginner To Advanced)
- Mille Larsen •21 mins read
The Czech language is the language of the Czech Republic in Central Europe. Around 10 million people speak Czech which is of the Western-Slavic language family, with it's closest relatives being Polish and Slovak.
Czech has the reputation of being a difficult language to learn. It might very well be so, but as it's the case with all languages, if you put in the time and you're consistent with your daily studies, you'll eventually reach fluency.
In this guide, I'll try and walk you through the possible steps of learning Czech from the beginning stages towards fluency. There are obviously many ways of going about it, and no solution fits everyone's learning style. But this is my take on it!
Read also: How Long Does It Take To Learn Czech?
Helpful tip: One of the most impressive starting points for learning Czech I've seen is a resource called CzechClass101. Take a look and let me know what you think.
Start By Having A Look At The Czech Alphabet And Its Pronunciation
Unlike many other Slavic languages, Czech isn't written with the Cyrillic script, but with a modified version of the Latin alphabet.
This is a relief when it comes to learning to read and write in Czech. But you do need to focus a little on pronunciation.
Let's take a quick look at the Czech alphabet and how it's pronounced. First, watch this short video.
There are a few letters in this video that might seem challenging to the average English speaker. I'll try to summarize them here:
- CH - this one is pronounced somewhat like a Dutch "G" or an Arabic "خ" but the letter in Czech is not as raspy and doesn't sound as much like you're cleaning your throat, but more like a very strong H-sound.
- R - A normal thrilled R. (It's not that difficult - here's a great video that explains you how)
- Ř - This is a letter that's supposedly unique to the Czech language. It's also supposedly pretty difficult to learn to pronounce correctly. I tend to agree with that. Here's a helpful video that gives you a few examples though.
As for the rest of the Czech alphabet, there are several other letters that seem strange. But the sounds actually do exist in English even though we don't have a letter for them. Those shouldn't be a problem for you.
Get A Good Beginner's Course And Get Started With Learning Czech
You've had a glimpse at Czech pronunciation, but now it's time to really get started with learning the Czech language.
To do this, go and pick up a good beginner's textbook that comes with audio recordings. One that I can easily recommend is Teach Yourself Czech. (Link to amazon)
Teach Yourself is a language learning series that introduce you to languages through dialogues that gradually get more and more complex. The course has exercises, grammar explanations and some cultural reference built in, but the main strength of Teach Yourself Czech is its dialogues. The audio to said dialogues can be downloaded for free off their site.
I recommend that you find a good spot throughout your day to study. I like studying in the early morning before everyone else get up around the house - if you're a morning person, try doing the same, and make a routine out of doing one lesson per day.
This is how I suggest you study with Teach Yourself:
- First read the English translation of the dialogue in order to get an idea what is going on.
- Then read the Czech text one sentence at a time.
- After each sentence, play the corresponding audio and repeat out loud as precisely as you can. Work your way through the whole dialogue this way.
- Then listen to the whole dialogue when following along the text in Czech. If you forget the meaning of a work along the way, throw a glimpse to the English translation.
- After finishing the whole dialogue, read through the notes on grammar as well as the exercises. If you want, you can just go over this last step quickly. The most important part of the lessons are the dialogues.
As you progress with your daily studies, I recommend that you revise previous lessons. For each new lesson you do, try going through the previous 5-10 lessons from the days before.
The Importance Of Varying Your Czech Studies Every Day
When you study Czech or any other language for that matter, it's important to attack the language from multiple fronts.
The reason is, that when you keep your study approach varied, you significantly strengthen the connections that your form in your brain for new information.
Think of your brain as a web of strings. Each string represent a memory. A string on its own is not very strong, and can easily break, but if you weave a network of strings that go in all directions - not only between two points, the connections inherently get much stronger.
If you try to learn a new word, but you only try to fix it in your brain with "one string" (or one memory), it's very hard to remember it.
If, however, you learn a new word from Teach Yourself Czech, then write it down, then think about a few associations, and then hear the word used in a Czech radio show a few days later, you won't be relying on just one "string" of memory, but of a web of several connections anchored in different regions of your brain.
I've written about this subject a little more in detail in my article about remembering words.
If you were at an intermediate stage or advanced stage of learning Czech, I'd recommend that you start reading news online, listen to the radio, watch TV and do all sorts of things to vary your approach in Czech.
As a beginner, however, you won't get a lot out of native content (yet).
That's why I suggest that you get a second beginner's course and study it in parallel with Teach Yourself Czech.
Work Through A Second Czech Beginner's Manual In Parallel
For a second beginner's course I suggest that you have a look at Colloquial Czech. (link to amazon)
Colloquial is a language learning series much like Teach Yourself. The lessons are mainly based on dialogues, but it does spend some time on grammar explanations too. This can be useful as a supplement to Teach Yourself.
If you managed to find a spot in your study schedule for Teach Yourself Czech in the morning, I recommend that you try and fit Colloquial Czech into your evening routine. Or maybe you have half an hour to spend during the day?
Work with the Colloquial Czech book as you would with Teach Yourself, and don't forget to revise 5-10 of your previous lessons every day.
Work On Pronunciation, Listening, Grammar, And Vocabulary With Glossika
When you've worked yourself a good chunk into your Teach Yourself and Colloquial books, it's time to add another element to your daily study routine.
For this, I recommend that you start working with Czech sentences through Glossika. (Scroll down for a link)
Glossika is a language learning program that helps you assimilate languages through sentences and repetition. You're gradually introduced to more and more grammar and vocabulary through sentences that you read and listen to over and over again.
With this approach, Czech grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary will begin to feel "natural". You'll learn the details of the language not through analysis, but through habituation. Eventually you'll reach a point where grammar mistakes will start sounding wrong in your ears, like it's the case with your native language.
This is how you use Glossika.
When you first add their Czech course, you're asked to do a placement test to check at which level you should start. Unless you've already studied Czech for a while, you can skip this and start directly as a beginner.
For each study session with Glossika, you're introduced to 5 new sentences which are in turn repeated 5 times at random, meaning that you'll be doing at least 25 repetitions in one sitting.
This is what the Glossika Czech study screen looks like
When you begin your first study session, you'll see a screen with the sentence in English and the translation in Czech. As soon as you click play, you'll hear the English sentence followed by a pause, then the Czech sentence two times followed by a pause. And then Glossika automatically continues to the next sentence.
- After first hearing the English sentence, use the pause to read the Czech sentence out loud. Do so quickly, because you don't have a lot of time. Try to pronounce as correctly as possible.
- Now you'll hear the Czech sentence two times. Immediately after this, try repeating after the Czech speaker. It's important that you try to mimic the speed, pronunciation, tone of voice and rhythm of the Czech speaker as correctly as you can.
- Continue on with the rest of the sentences. This one will be shown to you 4 more times, so you've got a few chances to pronounce it better.
But even through you'll try pronouncing every sentence multiple times, you're unlikely to get it completely right. Most likely, you'll find yourself mumbling quite a bit in order to keep up.
Don't worry about this, Glossika will reschedule each sentence for review several times, so you'll eventually get used to the sentence and learn to pronounce it correctly.
After finishing going through your first five sentences, you'll be tempted to do a lot more. It only takes a few minutes after all. Go ahead, but don't do more than a maximum of 20 new sentences in one go. Why? Because Glossika reschedules fresh sentences quite vigorously and you'll quickly be amassing a mountain of sentences that you'll need to review a lot of times in the coming days. So stick to a maximum of 20 new sentences in one go.
Glossika is a great tool to use in the "dead time" that you might have throughout your day. You can study 5 minutes here or 10 minutes there, and it's all beneficial. Here's an article I wrote about studying languages on a busy schedule where you might find a few more tips for finding time for your studies.
The Importance Of Doing Reps With Glossika
After you've finished your first batch of sentences with Glossika, take a pause and come back some 12-24 hours later. You'll notice that all the new sentences that you've added are up for review. Do these before adding any new sentences.
In the Glossika world, everything is about reps. You don't learn a new sentence from seeing and repeating it once. It's after seeing it again and again that it starts becoming natural and automatic.
For each time you review a Czech sentence with Glossika, it'll be automatically rescheduled further into the future. Glossika bases the rescheduling time on something called the forgetting curve which is a mathematical model that tries to predict how long you can retain a new piece of information before it needs to be refreshed.
Glossika then strategically schedules reviews at the moment just before you're most likely to forget the sentence. For each time you review it, the rescheduling time becomes longer and longer.
If you find a sentence particularly difficult, however, you can let Glossika know by tagging the sentence while in the study screen. Now, this sentence will be rescheduled a little earlier. Likewise, you can postpone a sentence by marking it easy.
With Glossika, reps is everything. This is why your total number of reps is used as an indicator for how far you've come in your studies. The milestones set by Glossika are high: 25.000, 50.000 and 75.000 reps. When you reach these goals, however, chances are that you've made significant breakthroughs with Czech.
If you want to learn more about Glossika, go have a look at my Glossika review.
Or you can go directly to the Glossika Czech website.
It's Time To Start Reading In Czech
At this point, you've just about finished with your Teach Yourself Czech and Colloquial Czech textbooks and you're a few thousand reps into Glossika. It's time to start reading in Czech.
Most people, when considering reading as a technique for language learning, would go straight to reading books with a dictionary.
I don't recommend this approach. Reading with a dictionary can be extremely frustrating, demotivating and it doesn't really benefit you that much.
For each page you read, chances are that you need to look up 10, 20 or even more words. Imagine having to pick up a dictionary, search through it to find a word, match it to the context that you're reading and get back to reading only to be interrupted by another unknown word 22 seconds later!
You'll be spending almost all of your time with your nose in the dictionary and you'll have absolutely no chance of getting into the story or establishing any kind of flow in your reading.
So how, then, should you approach reading in Czech as a beginner? Can you only read children's books and beginner's textbooks until you get better?
No, don't worry. There are better options.
Read Czech Articles Online With A Pop-up Dictionary
Go have a look at Google Dictionary. Google Dictionary is a browser extension that you can download and install for free. It was developed for the Chrome browser by Google (duh..) but alternatives exist for other browsers as well.
With this little tool, you can click any word, anywhere on the internet at get an instant translation that even takes the context of the text into consideration.
Using Google Dictionary to read a Czech article about building a snowman
Go look up articles on whichever topics that interest you. Hobbies like fishing, gardening, DIY, traveling and so on are great topics to read about when learning Czech. To find suitable articles, just run a search term through Google Translate and have a look at the results.
Use LingQ To Learn Czech Words Through Reading
I'm a great fan of the language learning tool LingQ. (scroll down for a link)
With LingQ you can either import texts that you find on the net, or study some of the Czech books, articles or dialogues that are already available in the LingQ archives.
The LingQ reader's main feature is that it "remembers" the words that you know as well as the words that you're in the process of learning. This allows you to measure your progress quite easily, but more importantly, it makes it possible for you to to easily get a complete overview of the words you're learning and therefore, where to focus.
This is how you use LingQ:
Studying Czech in the LingQ android app
When you first start reading a Czech text in LingQ, you'll notice that all of the words on the page are blue. Blue words are "unknown" words (or words that LingQ hasn't registered that you know yet). Click one, and you'll get a little window with a few options.
Now you can choose between a couple of dictionary translations - these are the most common translations picked by other LingQ members. Under these suggestions, you get the options of "I know this word" and "ignore". If you click any of these, the word will turn into a normal word on a white background. I use "ignore" for people's names and other things that aren't really words. (Ignored words won't be calculated in your statistics).
If you click on a translation, the word will go from blue to yellow. Yellow words, also called "LingQs" are words that you're in process of learning. Next time you come upon this word, you'll be reminded by the translation that you've picked, and you can gradually change its status from completely unknown towards "known".
After finishing reading your text, I recommend that you go and work with the yellow words that you have created.
With LingQ, there are numerous ways to work with the words that you're learning. Among them are flashcards and daily reminders sent to your inbox.
Personally, I think that the best way to keep studying and revising the words is to read a lot and see them again and again in different contexts.
I do, however recommend, that you go have a look at the translations that you've picked.
As a beginner, you'll create a lot of new yellow words every day, so I advice you to only pick the words you find the most important for the moment. Now have a look at the translations that you have picked.
Can you come up with something better?
Instead of a direct dictionary translation, I suggest that you think of a Czech synonym or you write an explanation in your own words in Czech (or even in English). This turns the translation into a "hint" instead of a direct answer, and it'll make you use your brain in another way the next time you click the word.
It also greatly helps you to remember the word simply to do something with it. The action of editing the yellow word and the translation is a moment in which you think about the word and try and come up with a specific association related to that word. Chances are that this action in itself will help you remember the word significantly.
If you want to learn more about LingQ, go read my LingQ review.
Or you can simply go directly to the LingQ website.
Read Czech And English Texts In Parallel For Transparency
Some people don't really like spending a lot of time reading text on their phone or computer screen.
I understand that, and I have an option for you, that I can warmly recommend to anyone. Paper or screen-lovers alike.
It's parallel reading. The idea is that you get a book in Czech and a translation of the same book in English and you read them side by side.
First read a sentence, paragraph or even a chapter in English.
Then read the same in Czech. And continue to work your way through the book going back and forth in this way.
Reading the text in English first clears up all the unknowns before you even see them. You'll know what's going on in the plot as well as understand any subtleties or small details that can be easy to miss when reading in a foreign language. (Even if you look up words)
Then when you read the same thing in Czech, you'll have no need to pause and look up unknown words. These you can safely ignore without missing out on the story.
Parallel reading is a great way to make sure that you read fluently and without obstacles. It's not an automatic solution to learning all unknowns by heart instantly, but it helps you read in a foreign language without being bothered by unknown words.
I recommend that you read the kind of book that's hard to put down. Page-turners, who-dunnits and novels with a lot of suspense are great for this kind of thing.
I've enjoyed reading Harry Potter and Agatha Chrtstie books in numerous languages (amazon links), but there are a lot of possibilities. The availability of Czech books outside of the Czech Republic, however, is not fantastic. So if you plan on traveling to Prague in the near future, it's a great opportunity to fill your suitcase with reading material!
Time To Start Speaking And Writing In Czech
With your beginner's courses well behind you, several thousand reps into Glossika and solid daily reading routine, it's time to start taking speaking and writing Czech seriously.
For this, I suggest that you go look for a good Czech tutor who can help you with conversation and writing practive.
Italki is a great place for finding a tutor, but there are many options on the net. Go to the site, pick the Czech language and look through the list of Czech tutors.
When you find someone that you think you'd be able to work with, make contact and start dicussing how you'd like to go forward.
I recommend that you take charge on your Czech studies and try to be very clear about what you want out of your tutor's services.
Do 2-3 tutoring sessions per week of around 30-45 minutes. Ask your tutor to keep these conversational. Many tutors have their own programs, learning materials and teaching style. What you want is conversation, so your tutor should limit any corrections or explanations to an absolute minimum, and preferable leave them for a quick walk-through in the end, or he or she might write you a little session-report.
During the conversation it's important that you hear yourself speak at least 50% of the time. If it's mostly your tutor speaking and you listening, you're not practicing conversation, but listening. And you can do that for free on YouTube!
After the end of a tutoring session, sit down and write a short text about the subject that you just discussed. Try making it 100-300 words long in the beginning. As you improve you can write longer texts. Send it to your tutor and have it corrected. And when you receive the corrected text, make sure to read through it and to try and take note of all the corrections. (But don't worry if you keep making the same mistakes a few times. These things take time).
Finding A Czech Language Buddy - The Free Alternative To A Tutor
Hiring a professional Czech tutor can be costly.
That's why a lot of people prefer going for a free alternative. One such is language exchange.
Language exchange is when someone who's learning your native language acts as your Czech tutor in exchange for you acting as a tutor for him or her.
This method can, potentially, be just as effective as hiring a paid tutor. But it has its pitfalls.
With a language buddy, you have to rely on the ambition level and motivation of your partner in order to succeed. As I assume that you're someone who takes learning Czech very seriously, this isn't always a given.
But even if you're lucky to find a language partner who is as motivated as you are, who's got the time, is a talented tutor, and who's teaching style matches your learning style, you still need to face the fact that you'll need to spend the same amount of efforts on teaching English.
If this isn't a problem for you, however, chances are that you'll be making a new, lasting friendship and that you'll be learning more about Czech culture and customs than you would from paying a tutor.
Finally, What Learning Czech Really Comes Down To
There are obviously a ton of different approaches to learning a foreign language like Czech, and my above suggestions only represent my own approach. But if you were to follow all my advice, I feel confident that you'll end up fluent in Czech.
There's one thing that's even more important than everything I've listed above. It's having the right attitude, motivation, and being consistent with your studies.
You need to put in the work every day, even when it feels like you're going nowhere. Learning Czech is not something that you do in a matter of weeks or even months. You need to be in for the long haul, stay motivated and study every day in order to get there.
But if you do that, I guarantee that you'll become fluent in the Czech language!