Year after year, hundreds of AAU students make the daring decision to study in a country where they are unfamiliar with the language. It’s widely accepted that immersion is the most efficient way to learn a language and that studying abroad is a chance to experience new cultures. So why do some non-Czech speakers living in Prague feel disconnected from Czech culture?
My personal interest in this topic comes from a realization I had during my first semester of studies in Prague. Despite being a Czech-speaking American, I felt that in daily life, separate from family, I had relatively no opportunities to use Czech beyond short interactions in coffee shops or restaurants. This sparked my interest in directly asking non-Czech speaking students about their experiences and feelings surrounding cultural immersion, and seeing how they overlapped with mine. I took to Instagram to gather anonymous survey responses and followed up with willing participants to begin the search.
It’s no surprise that the language barrier is a glaring factor in the cultural disconnect. After all, Google Translate can only go so far. Most non-Czech speaking students who responded to my survey said that they have put forward earnest efforts to pick up any phrases they can, even if it’s simply how to say “sorry, I don’t understand.” Many stick to Duolingo as their primary method while others rely on intermittent lessons from Czech-speaking friends. Still, the additional task of language learning proves difficult amid busy class schedules. Despite their efforts, most respondents said that most people they interact with on a daily basis are either able to speak English with them or communicate through other shared languages. So what degree of Czech is really needed to live in Prague?
A certain level of anxiety is often associated with navigating life in Prague for non-Czech speakers, whether it be not being able to communicate with a Bolt driver who dropped you off at the wrong location or dealing with the weekly stress of grocery shopping. Because of this, some tend to avoid using Czech, which proves to be entirely possible in Prague. Multiple respondents opt to shop at Albert because they can use the self-checkout and others avoid administrative issues in general. Many actively seek out the comfort of seamlessly communicating in their native language, by frequenting more English-accessible establishments such as Ezra’s Bagels, the Globe, and interestingly, cafes in general. Cafes seem to offer a unique escape for non-Czech speakers because coffee is generally universal, making the ordering process simple. They are also often hubs for students where there is a silent yet collective air of productivity. I often find myself turning to cafes for these similar reasons of simplicity and a silent sense of belonging among students.
On the other hand, some cite an issue of access when it comes to opportunities to practice their Czech and engage in Czech culture. By attending a university composed of students from a multitude of backgrounds, along with living in an increasingly diverse city, English is a unifying language. One respondent felt shut down in attempts to communicate with shop attendants in Czech, as English was just easier for both parties.
However, culture is not necessarily limited to language. Many respondents specifically mentioned using Expats.cz as a news source. The English-language publication offers a great avenue for English speakers in the Czech Republic to stay aware of Prague’s wide array of cultural events. The Christmas markets in particular are a favorite among AAU students. Nevertheless, one respondent expressed that Czech culture in the tourist hubs, specifically, Old Town, feels overly commercialized. A disconnect and observer status is felt by non-Czech speakers who find themselves funneled into the tourist market.
Although no one provided a resounding “yes” when asked if they felt immersed in Czech culture, those who felt immersion to a certain degree did so either through AAU classes centered on Czech language and culture or by engaging directly with Czech friends and acquaintances. After all, culture is not an independent activity; it is experienced collectively.
In the end, it all comes down to how individuals define culture and cultural immersion. For some, culture is experienced through organized means like events and festivals and a sense of immersion comes from these direct sources. For others, it is a continuous effort to engage with locals, gathering understanding spontaneously and indirectly. I found myself relating to occasionally avoiding using Czech and craving the comforts of communicating in English. The search ultimately revealed to me how non-commercialized Czech culture can be difficult for non-Czech speakers to take part in.
At the end of the day, human beings crave connection and a sense of belonging. Living abroad can be an isolating experience and so we adapt to find comfort in little ways. Whether we go to Ezra’s Bagels to order breakfast without risk of miscommunication, open our laptops onto our cramped cafe table, or attend whatever cultural event we can, we’re all in search of belonging.