Friday, February 6, 2015

The Trouble with Language

Danger: Keep Off Bridge!
Language Problems at Work!
The language in a cross-cultural marriage can be frustrating, but also funny. When a couple marries, they become one; in a cross-cultural marriage, this oneness generally brings together two different languages and the culture of language. By the culture of language, I mean all the nuances and turns of phrase that come with a person’s mother tongue. Idioms, jokes, etc. occasionally don’t cross over too well.

For Example

Just this morning my husband called from the office to ask what "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" means. A few months ago this word had come up in conversation—I can’t remember why. When we had the discussion, Jiri latched onto this tongue-twisting word with wonder and confusion. When he called this morning about the tongue-twister, I looked it up and explained it…which wasn't easy. This reminded me of the trouble we sometimes have between Jiri’s Czech and my English.

Try giving a definition of this word off the top of your head to someone who speaks the same language you do. Now, consider the difficulty level going up by 100% when trying to explain such a definition to a person not from your culture or country, who speaks English as a second (third, fourth, etc.) language. Not an easy job. When Jiri and I first discussed this word, he asked why it even exists? I had no idea—aside from hearing it in the song from the movie “Mary Poppins,” I’d never heard the word used anywhere else.


Slang is another area in language that can cause problems—sometimes serious problems. I hear words on Czech TV, or hear Jiri and other Czechs using words. Sometimes these words stick in my brain because they sound interesting, or sound similar to another Czech word I know, etc. So, I’ll ask Jiri about it later, and sometimes he’s shocked that I picked up certains words These are typically bad words, but I had no idea the word(s) were bad. He asks where I heard it, and then Jiri’ll tell me never to say that word, or that it should only be used in a special context. (Of course, these bad words are the ones you more easily remember).

Slang Gone Bad

I’ve shocked him on numerous occasions since moving here eight years ago. A recent example is the place name Machu Picchu. Mach Picchu is an ancient, abandoned Incan city located high in the mountains of Peru. One day I’d seen an interesting documentary about this site, and wanted to tell Jiri about it. When I told him the name of the place, he was horrified and shocked! It was as if I’d slapped him in the face! This caused me some consternation because all I’d said was a place name.

Don't Say That!

What’s the Problem?

After recovering from the initial shock of hearing this place name come from my mouth, Jiri explained there is a Czech word which sounds very similar to Picchu. (I won’t use it here, so as not to offend anyone; this word is bad slang for a woman’s body part. That’s all I’ll say). Once he had explained it, I understood, for the same word in English is crass and bad.

My husband went on to explain that Czechs pronounce this Incan city name as “Machu Pikchu,” in order to avoid the bad Czech word. Pronouncing the site name with the “k” before the “ch” is a little difficult for me. Try it—you’ll see what I mean. You can’t squish the sounds together, either—each one must be pronounced in order to be correctly understood.

Proper Pronunciation to Avoid Misinterpretation

Czechs are familiar with this type of pronunciation, as the Czech language has many words almost completely made of consonants. For instance “krk” (neck)—the first time I saw this word I had no idea how to say it. “Krk” is now easy for me, while other combinations of consonants are still quite difficult. Foreigners must learn the proper pronunciation of Czech in order to be understood by Czechs. This applies to all languages, not only Czech.

Jiri’s reaction to Machu Picchu has reinforced the need for proper pronunciation when I (try to) speak Czech. I can’t imagine what would happen if I said Machu Picchu (in the English way) to another Czech! Hopefully they would understand I’m a foreigner and would correctly interpret my mispronunciation as the place name, and not bad slang word.

Cross-Cultural Marriage Bridge of Love

Have a Sense of Humor

Jiri and I have found the best way to deal with these language issues is with a sense of humor. We have some great laughs over English and Czech slang. Our discussions are at times quite lively, and sometimes one of us will be frustrated at the lack of understanding—our own or our spouse’s. Mostly we laugh, but do understand that language trouble does crop up occasionally—and that’s OK. Language issues deepen and refresh our cross-cultural marriage (at least most of the time!). In the end, it all comes down to love—love bridges the gap in our cross-cultural marriage.

That’s all for today!

Have a great day!

God bless,

(c) 2015 by Sher Vacik. All Rights Reserved.


Ricky said...

A most enjoyable post, Sher. As you say, when confusion arises, all you can do is try to understand & then laugh at any misunderstanding. One thing that always gets me is hearing Czechs saying 'fakt'. It always sounds as though sexual intercourse is being crudely described in English :-(

Sherry said...

Thanks for your comment, Ricky! And thanks for letting me know there was a problem when you tried to leave the comment!

OMG--yes--"fakt" always gets me, too! When I first moved here, I thought everyone was saying that word you referred to. It was very uncomfortable, until Jiri told me exactly what "fakt" means> "fact." For those who don't know how to pronounce Czech, "fakt" sounds like "fawkt." You can imagine the crude word it sounds like!

Ricky said...

Thank you for rescuing me from the spam folder, Sher :-)

'Fakt' can also be used in Czech as the equivalent in English, of saying 'really?' - a questioning response to what someone has just said. But it does sound otherwise to native English-speakers!

Sherry said...

I appreciate you letting me know there was a problem with the comments!'ll often hear "Fakt, jo?" or "Fakt, jo!" It sounds very bad to English-speakers! :)

Mona said...

Just wanted to say a quick hello as I am relatively new here. I am a Canadian whose partner is also a Czech man called Jiri :) We live in Canada, and I've only spent a few days in Czech Republic, but nevertheless I appreciate many of your posts. As I type this he is shaking with laughter while watching an old timey Czech comedy clip online. A common occurrence in our household. When I ask what is so funny, the response is "untranslatable." I imagine you hear this from time to time as well!

Sherry said...

Hi Mona,
Thanks for your comment! I'm smiling that you're also with a Jiri--we have a joke that many Czech guys seem to be named Jiri :) Yes, I can relate to watching old Czech comedies! Some things are just untranslatable, but living here has helped me to begin to understand a few of these that were once untranslatable. Isn't it funny how some jokes don't cross-over very well?

When Jiri and I were getting to know each other, I sent him a joke. The joke was about hiking in the mountains and hikers had to be careful of bears. The hikers were told to wear bells to scare the bears away. Well, the old-timers told the hikers if they saw bear excrement with bells in it, they'd better get of there in a hurry! Jiri didn't get the joke, and when he passed it on to his friends, none of them got it either! When he asked me what was so funny, I explained, but he didn't see the humor at all! :)

Sometimes jokes are really untranslatable! However, the discussion of the joke can be quite funny and ridiculous. We have a lot of fun with such discussions!

Thanks, again, for your comment and for stopping by!

Sunshine said...

I love the Czech Republic and Prague too, even the touristy bits but the one thing that has put me off moving there has to be the language.

I have lived in many other countries and the only way to really assimilate yourself with the locals is to speak their speak.

Sherry said...

@Sunshine: Thanks for your stopping by and leaving a comment! Yes, the Czech language is not the easiest to learn. I don't know if it's my age or what makes Czech difficult for me to learn!

Anne said...

I've only recently come across your blog, but I have to say, I really enjoy reading your posts! I am also American, married to a Czech and living here in Prague, so I relate to a lot of what you write about. Keep it up - it's always nice to know there are more of us experiencing all the same things (sometimes funny, sometimes frustrating! :) )

Sherry said...

Hi Anne,
Thanks so much for your comment! It is great to know there are more of us going through this process together! Yes--definitely sometimes hilariously funny and other times not so much!

It's so rare to hear of an American woman married to a Czech guy! It's usually the other way around--American guy with Czech girl!

Thanks for stopping by!

Jakub said...

Hi, I am glad you have found great home and a husband in Czech Republic. As Czech, I wish You a lot of patience and strong nerves for learning Czech. I am not sure, whether it helps you, but even native Czechs have sometimes troubles with proper using of Czech language. Declension is interesting, but very difficult part of our language. And as You mentioned pronunciation belong to dificult part either. There´s one interesting tongue breaker "strĨ-prst-skrz-krk". As is said in Czech "Try to say it three times and quickly" :) I am sorry for possible grammar mistakes.