Family traditions, gift of language

Family traditions,  keeping Czech language alive

 Wherever we lived around the world, we have always adhered to the customs of that particular country, while keeping alive our own Czech traditions and culture. We’ve just celebrated American Thanksgiving with a true feast of turkey and all the trimmings. It took three of us to get it ready in two full days. But, compared to the other tradition I want to talk about it was easy.

Family members spanning four generations all speak Czech.
Family members spanning four generations all speak Czech.

          Today, I must admit that the toughest tradition to keep alive is the native language and that is Czech. As a rule, we always spoke Czech at home. It got a lot tougher, when we got visitors.

          I remember when Joe Brabenec from Reed City, Michigan used to visit with my parents during holidays and on Sundays. Joe’s parents were Czech, and his mother never learnt English. On the other hand, Joe knew only a few Czech words from his mother.

          Whenever, he came over to see my parents, he wanted to practice Czech.

          “Jak se mas?” he asked, “How are you?”

          Unlike English, Czech language distinguishes between singular and plural you. When asking more than one person, it’s always “Jak se mate?” Also in Czech language, you can never use singular pronoun when talking to a strange person.

          So, mixing up singular and plural pronouns and corresponding verbs usually results in comic situations. Weaker characters can even get offended if you use the singular form of the pronoun.

          I used the singular form of you in French when speaking to Claude, my daughter’s mother-in-law, when she took me to the airport in Lyon. She gave me a piercing look through her huge eyeglasses. I turned red; I knew I made a mistake.

          And as we diversify as a family, the challenge of preserving Czech grows. My children’s spouses are French and American. The common language of course is English due to its simplicity and universality.

          But, the advantage is that the grandchildren will be bilingual and trilingual. In a global world, I cannot think of a greater gift than the gift of language.

          There is a saying in Czech that you’re as many persons as the languages you speak. I was fully trilingual, when we lived in Montreal in the early 1990s. As time went by, I forgot French.

          Now, that our granddaughter Ella is visiting with us, my French is coming back to me. It is like opening a completely new door into the world.

          When my mother’s German neighbor Irmi passed away in Big Rapids, her German daughter Ellen arrived in US to make all the funeral arrangements without speaking a word of English. If it wasn’t for my mom and Irmi’s bilingual German friends, Irmi would not have been able to finally rest in ashes.

          Back in old Czechoslovakia, we all had mandatory Russian from fourth grade through university, a relic of communism. But, when I finally met a Russian man at the local grocery store Meijer, I was not able to communicate with him except for, “Zdravstvuj tovarisch.” That means, “Hello comrade.” I can’t blame him for laughing.

          During our European travels with my daughter Dr. Emma Palova-Chavent, we dined with French doctor Danielle in Morzine, FR.

          “I speak zero English and I will be visiting with my daughter in Great Britain,” he boasted as if ignorance was ever a virtue while making a zero with his thumb and forefinger.

          I thought, “Buddy, you’re going to have a hard time.”


Copyright © 2013 story and photos by Emma Palova

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