Dobrý deň. Volám sa Lindsay. Jedno pivo, prosím.
I’ve been learning Slovak for more than 10 years, and while I can effectively greet you, tell you my name, and order a beer, my communication abilities are limited to the very basics. In other words, I have the vocabulary skills of a 2-year old. And even the 2-year-olds look at me quizzically.
Slovak is a difficult language for English speakers to learn. We don’t have letters, or even sounds, like ň, ď, and ľ. We don’t have to decline nouns based on action, gender, or quantity. In English, the word beer is the same whether you order one or two or five (in Slovak, one beer is jedno pivo, two beers is dve pivá, and five beers is päť pív—go figure). Given the lack of formal training back in Portland and my laziness toward self-teaching, I never got much past the beer order.
So how do you really learn a language well enough to read, converse and understand? Most studies on language adoption point to immersion. That’s why, starting tomorrow, I begin a three-week intensive study of Slovak language and culture at Studia Academica Slovaca (SAS), a summer Slovak-as-a-foreign-language program in its 49th year, at Comenius University in Bratislava. I’ll be living like a student, in a dorm, speaking Slovak all day without a native husband to translate for me.
A few nights ago, we were having drinks with Peter’s college friend Tomáš and his girlfriend Mirka. Mirka asked why I wanted to learn Slovak. It took me a few days to come up with a complete answer. I’m learning Slovak because:
- I consider Slovakia my second country. (It’s the country I’ve spent the most time in outside the US.)
- My children will be half Slovak, will learn Slovak, and it’s important to me that I understand as much about their heritage as possible.
- It’s good for my brain. There’s tons of research indicating learning a second language strengthens mental abilities.
- I want to finally have a decent conversation with Peter’s parents and extended family.
- I made a promise to my husband, years ago, that I would learn. Peter has made sacrifices to move to the US and live there so we could be together. Learning Slovak is my thanks for those sacrifices.
Tonight I move into my dorm, and on Tuesday Peter will return to Košice while I make a home in Bratislava. I’m looking forward to making new friends, speaking Slovak, and finally being able to move past the beer order and on to the first course.