Although many people assume otherwise, the language barrier in the Czech Republic is no bigger than in any other European country – in fact, it is easier to communicate in most Czech cities than it is to communicate in Spain or Italy. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, there were not many English speakers in the country, but this is no longer the case. Most Czech workers in the tourist industry now speak English, as do nearly all younger Czechs.
Like every non-English country though, not everyone can speak English, and this can lead to problems in communication. This is most likely to be the case when meeting someone over the age of 40, who works as a clerk or in customer service. Don’t expect people to understand you and, if they don’t, think of other ways to get your point across. For example, if buying a train ticket, simply write down the destination you wish to go to, as well as the time on a piece of paper. Also, if you happen to speak some German, that could be handy, especially in the south, as there are lots of Austrian tourists here.
The Czech language is part of the Slavic languages and therefore closely related to those of Slovakia and Poland, as well as other countries. The most difficult thing about any Slavic language is usually the pronunciation of words. In fact, they are sometimes so tough to pronounce that the first Christian missionaries, named Cyril and Methodius, came to Eastern Europe, they invented a whole new alphabet to include the various Slavic sounds. This is called the Cyrillic alphabet and is still used in countries such as Serbia and Russia.
The Czech Republic now no longer used the Cyrillic alphabet and instead uses the Roman alphabet – the same alphabet used by the majority of the world. There are still lots of diacritics – markings above words and letters – though, and these lead to lots of different sounds. An acute accent (á, é, í, ó, ú, ý) means you linger on that vowel; it does not indicate stress, which instead falls on the first syllable. The letter c always sounds like “ts” (as in “cats”). The little accent (háček) above the č, š, or ž makes it sound like “ch,” “sh”, or “zh” (as in “leisure”), respectively. The little accent over ě makes it sound like “yeh.”
The letter ř
The Czech language has one sound that is not found in any other language in the world, and this is represented by the letter ř (as in “Dokořán”). This sound is like a cross between “zh” and a rolled “r”. Another potentially troublesome letter is ň, which is pronounced like the “ny” in canyon. These are often tough to work out, so it is acceptable for foreigners to simply replace them with either “r” or “n” sounds.