I have always traveled in countries where I spoke the language. I also have traveled to other countries where English is not the primary language, but enough people speak English for me to understand what was happening around me. Slovakia is very different. A lot of young people speak English but many older people do not, and most young people don’t live in the small villages anymore. So living in Slovakia and not speaking the language fluently has definitely been a learning experience!
Slovakian is like no other language I have ever heard in my life. As a child I heard bits of Polish spoken by my next-door neighbor, a son of two Polish immigrants. While Polish and Slovakian are not the same language, they are very similar in sound and pronunciation. Language in this region of Europe is very interesting, because most of the languages are related to one another. Slovakian is the central or base language for all languages in this region, and if you know how to speak or understand Slovak, then you can travel around central and eastern European countries fairly easily. I, however, do not speak Slovakian fluently, and I have a very basic understanding of this language and its grammar so this is not the case for me.
I have always traveled somewhere where I spoke the language, so moving here was something I had never done before in my life. When I first arrived here I had to move to my small Slovak village all by myself. This may seem like a very easy task, but in reality it was and is still one of the more difficult things I have done in my life. I flew into Prague, a city in the Czech Republic, which is four hours north of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. I needed to somehow get from Prague to Bratislava by train, but first I had to get to the train station from the airport with all of my belongings for the next year! Oh, it was quite a headache and there was much miming to bus drivers along the way.
Fortunately for me people were extremely sympathetic and they helped me to carry my huge bags on and off the narrow train corridors, and up and down the train station stairways. To this day I’m still surprised that I managed to navigate the Czech and Slovak public transportation system without speaking a work of Czech or Slovak. It’s one of those greater lessons in traveling: You will rarely travel with grace and you must accept that fact.
Not speaking the language of this country has also been an incredibly humbling experience for me. In the beginning people would give me funny looks after they would ask me a question and I didn’t respond to them; they would think I was unintelligent! This was startling to me, and it gave me a whole new appreciation for the people who immigrated and traveled to my country and had to learn my language in order to function within my community.
While I don’t speak Slovak fluently I have learned some basic phrases that have helped me along the way, such as how to order food and drinks in a restaurant, how to ask for directions, and how to buy bus and train tickets. It’s also incredible to see how my understanding of this language has improved simply by being here and living within this community. This immersion in Slovak life has been incredible and something I’ll be very sad to leave in a couple of months.
Some Slovak phrases you should try to learn!
English: I would like some dumplings and water, please.
Slovak: Chcel by som nejaký halušky a vody sú
Engish: Where is the bathroom?
Slovak: Kde je kúpeľňa?
English: One ticket to Bratislava
Slovak: Jeden lístok do Bratislavy
Slovak pronunciation is also different from English pronunciation of words. In some way I think it is easier! Teaching English to Slovak students has also given me much different perspective on how difficult it is to learn English as a second language! For example, the words “plough” and “cough” both have the ‘-ough’ but have two completely different sounds when spoken! In Slovak all words are phonetically spelled, meaning they are spelled exactly as they sound and there are no hidden sounds.
Some letter combinations in Slovak are different than in English, and they have symbols or accent marks that change the sound of a letter!
š č ý ň ú í á é Ž
I’m really happy that I’ve had the chance to learn some Slovak while living here. And I’m extremely fortunate to get to live in a new place, where I’ve learned so many lessons about the value of learning languages and respecting those who have made the effort to learn mine.