Let’s first get you started with some basic facts about Slovakia, so there can be no doubt about what country you talk about. This also works well to show off on birthday parties:
Slovakia has 5,445,087 inhabitants (as of June 30, 2018) and covers 49,036 sq. km. This makes Slovakia bigger than the Netherlands by 9000 sq. km but with ca. 3 times less inhabitants
Slovakia is often described as the “hidden gem in the heart of Europe”. This makes sense if you consider that Slovakia is still not at all widely known as a place to visit and it shares its borders with five surrounding states - Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine and Hungary
Slovakia is in Central Europe, not in Eastern Europe
The capital of Slovakia is Bratislava (although it almost would have been Banská Bystrica), which is smack in the center of many major European cities. In an hour by car, you are in Vienna; in two hours you are in Budapest; in four hours you are in Prague; and in under five hours you are in Krakow
Slovakia exists for ca. 40% of forests - yep, that is a lot of wood
Slovakia’s top export product is…nope, not wood…cars - Volkswagen, Kia, Jaguar, Porsche, they are all made here.
Slovakia has all wildlife you could wish for. And yes, before you ask, that includes wolves, bears and lynxes
Slovakia is home to no less than 23 UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the city of Banská Štiavnica, Spišský castle, the village of Vlkolinec, multiple original wooden churches and various natural caves
Slovakia is not Slovenia, despite the confusing naming convention of their languages (Slovak = slovenčina; Slovene = slovenščina) and the eerie similarities between their national flags. They don’t even share a border!
Slovakia is not only beautiful in nature and history but in its traditions as well. Unlike many other (Western) countries, Slovakia still hasn’t forgotten many of its old traditions and habits. This is a very good thing. Traditions are part of a people’s identity. Without traditions, an identity becomes hollow and meaningless.
Some traditions are directly connected to known Church holidays, while others are regional traditions recurring every year. Examples are:
Easter celebrations in Slovakia include boys going around the village, armed with whips, perfume and a bucket of water, in order to whip, splash and shower the girls in the neighbourhood. The boys get chocolate, the parents get alcohol and the girls should be beautiful, lucky and rich next year
Christmas in Slovakia is stuffed to the brim with traditions and habits, often changing depending where in Slovakia you celebrate it. It ranges from putting up an extra plate on the table for unforeseen guests, to eating honey and garlic at the start of dinner to be healthy and beautiful next year, to literally binding the dinner table with a chain to keep the family together
All Saints´ Day, celebrated on 1 November, is huge in Slovakia! To memorialize the dead, graveyards are set alight with a myriad of candles, transforming them into sacred fields of burning memories. Incredibly beautiful. Even more important
In the Western part of Slovakia, the period between September and November is a time to eat a lot of duck, geese, red cabbage and potato pancakes, paired with delicious local wines. A tradition that originated in the villages of Chorvatský Grob and Slovenský Grob, who were the royal suppliers of duck meat to the royal household under the Habsburgs, it has now become a regional wide phenomenon. And a delicious one at that!
First some background:
The Slovak language is part of the West Slavic language group, together with Czech, Polish and Sorbian (no, not Serbian). The language is spoken by little over 5 million people (according to the last available census). This may sound weird, considering that Slovakia has almost 5.5 million inhabitants. There is however a big population of Hungarians (who may have a Slovak nationality) and other nationalities in Slovakia, some of who don’t speak Slovak. This might explain the difference.
The Slovak language is arguably one of the hardest languages to learn (at least on the European continent). As a Slavic language, it has very little relationship to any of the Germanic or Romance languages, which makes learning it as a foreigner from those parts of the world insanely hard. Unless you have a knowledge of Latin grammar (which, I know from experience, will help you in understanding the structure of Slovak grammar), the language will feel very “foreign” to foreigners.
Dealing with the Slovak language means dealing with words that don’t even look like words but rather like a few letters bundled together. For example:
Vlk = wolf
Krk = neck
Stlp = pillar
Prst = finger
Strč prst skrz krk = a tongue-twister every Slovak person will make you try to pronounce, which basically translates to “stick a finger through your neck”
Asking Slovaks about what they think are the most difficult words to pronounce for a foreigner, the first words they will try you to get out of your mouth are zmrzlina (ice-cream), čučoriedka (blueberry) and štvrtok (Thursday) but there are far worse candidates like vzbĺknuť (to burst into flames), veľvzslanectvo (embassy), all the superlative words starting with naj- and end with -šie (like najnavštevovanejšie, najržoynorodejšie and najvyrukavičkovanejšie - which are all impossible to translate or don´t necessarily mean anything) or the tongue twister išiel pštros s pštrosicou a pštrosíčatkami Pštrosou ulicou.
Should I learn Slovak?
The million dollar question is: do you actually need to speak Slovak in order to survive in Slovakia? This of course depends on where you are in Slovakia. In Bratislava chances are much higher you are able to use English then in other parts of the country. However, even within Bratislava it depends on who you need to speak to whether you are fine with English or you need to whip out your Slovak dictionary. Talking to officials at governmental institutions, employees of post offices, banks and other similar kind of establishments, you will not get far with English and Slovak is what you’ll need. In most restaurants and pubs, however, English is not a problem.
The fact remains, however, that as soon as you need to deal with official business, you need Slovak. All forms, websites, brochures, lectures, guidelines and policies are generally only available in Slovak. Buying a house means you sign a contract in Slovak. Your mortgage papers will be in Slovak. Arranging a wedding will be in Slovak. Dealing with immigration, frustratingly enough, is done in Slovak.
So should you learn Slovak if you live in Slovakia? Yes, you should.
Is it an easy task? No, hell no.