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, which can lead to communication problems. This is most likely to be 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 and 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.
It’s easy to get by in Prague speaking English or German, or older generations will still remember Russian from when it was compulsory to learn it. But you can’t go wrong with a sincere “Dobrý den” [doh-bree den] (“Hello!”). To say “thanks”, say “děkuji” [dyeh-koo-yi].
The Czech language is part of the Slavic languages and therefore closely related to those of Slovakia and Poland, and 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 used the Roman alphabet – the same alphabet used by most of the world. There are still many 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 the canyon. These are often tough to work out, so it is acceptable for foreigners to simply replace them with either “r” or “n” sounds.