Can you thrive as an expat living in Ostrava?

by Michael, expat living in Rychvald.

When I first arrived in Ostrava, I knew a few things about the Czech Republic. 1. I liked the people 2. I  liked the beer and 3. I had only been to Prague before this and that was only on holiday.  

The reason my wife and I moved to Ostrava and not perhaps Prague or Brno, which are more obvious  destinations for expats really came down to my wife having family here. 

We had made a decision to leave South Africa, where I’m from and our plan was originally to settle in  the UK. Before we left, we did many road trips all around the country, so Petra being Czech, got to  experience the rich nature, both lovely oceans and picturesque mountains. I still have fond memories of  those times.  

After completing a work contract in Austria, Central Europe felt enticing, and so eventually we settled in  the Czech Republic.  

I was learning Czech, even back in South Africa on long walks or hikes. Petra repeating “Ja jsem”, “Ty jsi”,  “Vy jste”, etc.  

My first exposure to any kind of formal training was corporate Czech training at A1 level and the  prescribed material was “Czech, step by step revision 1 by Lída Holá”. 

It wasn’t too long before the material got substantially more difficult, and I was left behind. To make  matters worse some Polish colleagues joined the lesson, and with their Slavic background advantage,  the teacher immediately took the book and skipped to chapter 17. It was around this time I decided I  needed another approach.  

I would like to tell you I found a private teacher or went home and studied for 8 hours a day because I  really love learning languages and had a passion for Czech.  

The reality was completely the opposite. Although I am bilingual, I am not naturally gifted with  languages, and I have no personal interest in learning them. I’m not the kind of guy just to learn Spanish  because it seems like a fun thing to do.  

The approach I took is far more honest and realistic. I simply did nothing. And this carried on for years.  So, what we’ll talk about then is my experience living here and what I would do differently.  

Before we get into the meat of things, around last year I recall having a debate with another “foreigner”  on the difficulties of learning the Czech language. This foreigner assured me they had learned the  language from scratch, and it only took him 6 months and that he was now fluent. I remember thinking  that must be impossible. The most overzealous case I have heard of is one guy who documented his  journey on YouTube and spent over 8 hours a day for about a year, what he achieved was a miracle. And  it is quite something to watch, but here was someone claiming proficiency in the Czech language in 6 months now apparently not even making grammatical errors. That is when I asked the guy “Where are  you actually from?.” He replied “Slovakia.” 

Language is everything. 

It took me far too long to reach the point where I felt a necessity to dramatically improve my Czech.  

I think for the most part as an English-speaking foreigner working in IT, you can get by without much  Czech. You can survive.  

For example, when going to the bank there will always be someone there who speaks English. The most  common day to day activities don’t require much interaction, other than polite greetings, things like  going to the shops. 

At work, the situation too is good. IT companies here have English communication policies, and certainly all my colleagues speak English. Some with the same proficiency as a native Speaker.  

It’s worth mentioning that over the years, due to the vast educational improvements and certain schools  implementing partnership programs with Cambridge etc., that the younger generation all mostly speak  English very well. When I first arrived, it was this generation who were in middle school.  

What I want to say is, I understand the plight of foreigners here, because I am one, and not the show  case foreigner who can speak Amazing Czech. I believe my experience is far more representative of the  situation most foreigners are in.  

We’re basically living here getting by with an inadequate level of the language because a) It’s possible  and b) Czech seems really hard to us.  

There have been times when I’ve made genuine effort to learn the language but always after a while I  simply give up.  

I recall one such attempt trying to improve my vocabulary. I whipped out a calculator and typed in how  many words I could realistically learn per day and got an answer how long it would take me to learn a  reasonable vocabulary. 375 years was the answer. Great in that case I guess only an additional 600 years  to learn the grammar. The other day I came across a post on Quora asking exactly “I’ve been learning  Polish since 1960, and still can’t speak it, is Polish really that difficult?” 

To me it’s quite clear from my own experiences and if I look around, that passively absorbing the  language simply doesn’t work.  

It will work well enough for basic interactions, but your life here will never be comfortable. Language here is everything.  

Where I live now in Rychvald, I could not feel more welcomed. I consider my direct neighbors’ friends.  Initially I had 4. However, one couple moved to the center of Ostrava. We are visiting them and stay in  contact. The other 3 neighbors we are interacting with almost every day.  

It was after seeing how welcoming Czech people can be, that really got me rethinking about this so  called “Culture shock” or “Czech mentality”. I realized the biggest (or almost only) limitation is the  language. 

Once your Czech levels start hitting the upper end of B2, or surpassing this, you will find Czech people to  be much more accommodating. You yourself, become much more relatable to Czechs who do not live-in  big cities, or who don’t interact with tourists on a daily basis or who don’t work in the service sector.  Regular people in the community.  

The reverse is true that without this knowledge, socializing can be frustrating and demoralizing. The  point here is that this can lead to you giving up learning the language.  

My advice then. If you have just arrived in the country, then try to make a conscious effort to learn this  language. I know it’s hard and not everyone is gifted with languages, but every effort you make is a step  towards thriving here.  

Apply some formal technique or approach. Study it, using a pen and paper or a graphic tablet and write  stuff down. Practice speaking, reading, and writing. It is going to be a challenge. There will be many  times when you want to quit or feel like you just not have the aptitude. Continue.  

If you’ve been living here for a while and still can’t speak Czech properly, then that’s ok. We’ve all been  there (And I’m still there). Get back into it, and start a fresh, this time with the surety of real progress.  

There are more ways now in 2021 to learn Czech than 10 years ago. All kinds of online material,  Youtubers, various authors, and even Lída Holá herself has revised material.  

I highly recommend Eliška from SlowCzech.com who for me is the gold standard when it comes to  learning Czech. Eliška offers great content that is easy to understand. If you have not heard of her, you  should really watch her YouTube content. Even one of her videos a day will make the world of  difference.  

I’m mentioning Eliška because her approach just seems to work for me. It’s perhaps slightly less formal  but is much more engaging than a boring textbook. Whenever I try and make a conscious effort to  parrot fashion learn the vocab it never works. Flash cards don’t work for me. Eliška takes a more  practical approach of context driven learning. She is based in Brno but offers virtual training material.  

Contextual relationships. 

This is the second point of how to thrive here, we’ve already discussed language, but now we will talk  about relationships or friendships.  

Without mastery of the Czech language many foreigners in the Czech Republic are limited in who they  can and can’t form real connections with, especially when it comes to the older generation, who mostly  as a second language speak either Russian or German. In this area Polish can also be found. 

My approach is simple. I’ve stopped trying to make or maintain friends just for the sake of having  friends. Instead, there must be some meaningful reason to meet.  

In other English speaking countries, I’ve lived in or visited, making friends seemed to come more  naturally than in the Czech Republic.  

Certainly, there is a cultural element to it, that Czechs will seem colder to strangers and don’t typically  make friends as easily as say Americans, but I would still argue that language plays a bigger part. 

The “Hanging out” level of friendships requires strong levels of communication we just take for granted  in our own countries and it’s something we’ve all just always had, and so we kind of just expect it here,  and are disappointed when things don’t just automatically fall into place.  

What I’m proposing then is a practical solution, and that is to rather focus on contextual encounters  with non-English speaking Czechs. In other words, “Do stuff” with them instead of trying to befriend  them directly. Focus on specific activities or interests.  

This will give you loads of opportunity to either practice your Czech or observe it in action. Also, since  the focus is now shifted off just the communication, not speaking perfect Czech is less of an issue.  

There is much more to Czech Republic than the beer, but by all means if you can’t think of anything  other than a cultural exchange meeting in a pub, then go for it. Certainly, you will improve your Czech  this way.  

Czechs are also really active people who love playing sport. Many people here love cycling or hiking. If  you enjoy racquet sports, well there’s everything on offer. I personally find badminton to be a good  option, perhaps squash or tennis, if you play. Football typically amongst friends, or floorball. In South  Africa, people don’t typically ski, but since living here I’m come to love this too.  

What you will also find here in Ostrava are various interest groups. If you play any musical instrument of  any kind, then there’s rich culture to be found here. There’s no shortage of theatres or arts.  

That’s really it in a nutshell. I hope I have encouraged you and given you something to read during these  trying times of lockdown. Please stay safe. If any of you are looking for any kind of particular advice or  assistance you are always welcome to contact me, and I’ll do my best to give you concise and realistic  answers.  

Have a great day,  

Michael

 

Author: Michael Leppan, mjleppan@gmail.com

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