Rebecca Bell: Czech Is a Beautiful and Fascinating Language

‘If you have a Scottish accent, it really helps with speaking Czech’. When I started learning Czech ten years ago, my first teacher tried to encourage the class with these words. Apparently the Czech pronunciation of ‘ch’ was like that at the end of ‘loch’, and a rolling ‘r’ would certainly come in handy.

As someone from the Welsh Marches, I did not have a Scottish accent – I was beginning my MPhil in History of Art at the University of Glasgow, but as a life-long impersonator I enjoyed this double layer of sound effects. As any new Czech language student will know, an early exercise is practicing the letter ‘ř’, an activity that turns a room of students into a group of revving engines, trying to combine that very specific noise that falls somewhere between a hissing kettle, a quick trill and the thick plosive you find at the end of ‘fudge’.

One of the most frequent questions I have been asked in the last ten years is, why Czech? I wish I could say my great-grandmother was Czech, or I have some deep-rooted heritage that I am exploring, but the reason is a happy accident of undergraduate research interests. I had written an essay on Czech Art Nouveau artist Alfons Mucha’s 1910–28 Slav Epic and become fascinated by what interwar British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had so blood-chillingly called those ‘people of whom we know nothing’, referring to the inhabitants of Czechoslovakia during their plea for assistance in the face of looming Nazi invasion in 1938.

I began to question why Central and Eastern European art was so neglected from my undergraduate degree and wanted to know more about the cultural history of a country that was most readily accessed in Britain through the books of Milan Kundera. A passion for interwar avant-garde Czechoslovakian art and design began. Two lecturers at Glasgow University who were equally in the grips of that ‘far away country’ (Chamberlain’s terrible words again) and its Eastern European neighbours encouraged me to apply for AHRC funding, and so my research began.

I left academia after my MPhil to get more closely acquainted with contemporary art commissioning for a while, but the Czech call was strong and I am now doing a PhD in History of Design between the V&A and Royal College of Art, and my research has taken me back to Czechoslovakia – this time postwar design under Communism. For which I need to understand Czech.

Learning Czech is profoundly difficult. And if a PhD alone wasn’t challenging enough, wading my way through what is supposedly a harder language to learn than Chinese makes reading rhetorical Communist texts and theoretical essays tricky, to say the least. But, here’s the thing – I love it. It’s a beautiful, fascinating language, and it takes hard work but it’s worth it. And visiting the Czech Republic is a never-ending delight.

I wrestled with group classes for a long time, but the days of starting (and giving up) a French A-Level still ran deep. Just like those teenage experiences, as an adult in Czech groups classes I felt bemused, confused and nervous of public errors. So I decided to start one-to-one lessons and was lucky enough to find Michaela Sanytrová. Learning Czech with her is a little bit like being in a storybook. She is imaginative and deeply kind, passionate about her subject and always ready to learn more.

Michaela takes me along with her on that journey and though I am painfully slow, we can talk, laugh and learn in a way that compliments the reason I am learning Czech: it’s about finding a way of thinking, of understanding, of getting under a culture’s skin and trying to just get a little glimpse of the place and people that, for some strange reason, have become a very important part of my life.

Rebecca Bell