Učím sa slovenčinu – to make the impossible, possible

After four years living in Slovakia, I finally made the decision to start to learn Slovak…I made that decision with both excitement and some dread. I have always enjoyed learning languages (not counting my German classes at high school, which I always assumed were never meant for me), so the excitement of learning something new is definitely there. The dread, however, is also there…Slovak has absolutely nothing in common with any of the languages I learned or came in contact with over the course of my life.

So far, I have been able to live my life in Bratislava pretty comfortably, using a mixture of English and the few words/sentences I know in Slovak. However, boys eventually become men, and important things in your life will need to be arranged at some point….in Slovak of course. I am talking about my marriage last year, about buying a new apartment a few months ago, and all the administrative, legal and financial stuff that come with both such events. So far, my wife had to arrange the majority of it (for which I am of course very grateful), but I never felt very comfortable with putting all those things completely on her. It is time to step up! Besides, Slovakia is my home now, so I’d better start learning the language of the people I live among. English will get you only so far in Bratislava, but once you go outside of the capital, you’ll be lost without a bit of Slovak. Oh, and did I mention that the offical foreign police department of Slovakia, where every foreigner will have to go to register himself if he works and lives in Slovakia and has to arrange everything with regard to local ID cards, visa’s, permits, etc., does not speak a word of English?

My Slovak currently reaches to the extent of ordering and paying for my food in a restaurant, greeting people and asking how they are doing, answering their return question how I am doing, counting till infinity (which I guess is already a milestone in itself), thank people politely and answering the questions I never understood with a smile, a nod and the occassional ‘áno‘ (yes), ‘nie‘ (no), ‘v pohode‘ (that’s ok) or ‘čo už‘ (what can you do!?), or by simply telling them in Slovak that I don’t speak Slovak (comes in very handy!). Oh, and let’s not forget about the cursewords, which are probably the first words any foreigner in any country learns…

Slovak can be very confusing too! Here I thought I was acting like a well-mannered young man when I politely asked the waitress at the coffeebar ‘pre vás poprosím malé presso bez mlieka‘. As far as I knew, I asked her if I could please have a small espresso without milk and I was proud of myself that I could actually get it out of my mouth correctly. If only that was what I actually asked for…last weekend, I was informed that with that sentence I actually ask the girl at the coffeebar if SHE would like to have a coffee! The correct sentence should have been ‘prosím vas malé presso bez mlieka‘. Funny enough, I always got what I asked for, so either the waitress was too polite to correct me, she understood I obviously did not want to ask her out but was only interested in that coffee without milk…or she was simply not interested in dating me…

Once I wanted to buy some flowers for my wife. I walked into the flower store and managed to ask for ‘tri červena ruža, prosím‘ (three red roses, please). The man in the store picked three beautiful roses and walked to the back of the store. He asked me something I did not understand. I told the man ‘všetko‘, thinking I told the man ‘that is all, I just want to pay’. Instead, he left and came back with a fully arranged bouquet of three roses, leaves, decoration, and ribbons! I had no words how to tell him that I did not ask for this, so I politely paid and left….once I arrived home and surprised my wife with the flowers, I had to ask her what I said wrong. Aparently, as I found out, I should have told him ‘to je všetko‘ (that is all). What I also found out is what the guy asked me when he walked to the back of the store – ‘do you want just the flowers or do you want decoration with it’?…and I answered ‘všetko‘…which, I now know, means ‘everything’.

Words can have double meanings or change in meaning if the accent it slightly different. Mistaking a long ‘A’ for a short ‘A’ can get you in tough situations when calling a group of men (páni) a bunch of women (pani). Ok, pani is a woman singular, but try to explain grammatics in a bar full of drunken men! There are even words without vowels! Who comes up with words without vowels!? ‘hlt’ means ‘gulp’ or ‘mouthful’; ‘hrsť’ means ‘handful’; ‘krk‘ means ‘neck’; ‘prst‘ means ‘finger’ and ‘stĺp‘ means ‘pillar’. Slovaks even have an official tongue-twister made up of only words without vowels – ‘Strč prst skrz krk‘, which translates to ‘stick your finger through your neck’…who’d thought of that!?

I have a lot of work cut out for me, so much is clear. Fortunately, Slovaks are in general very grateful and patient people when it comes to foreigners – they appreciate it a lot when you try to speak a bit of Slovak. An added bonus for us foreigners: they also think you are cute and funny when you do so…just say ‘áno‘ or ‘Ďakujem‘ to any Slovak who doesn’t expect it and wait for the reaction.