How Hard Is It to Learn Czech?

When you think about the top expat destinations in Europe, Prague is bound to pop up in your list sooner rather than later. The capital of Czech Republic draws people in with its glorious architecture, wonderful (and cheap) beer, and a generally welcoming atmosphere. So, it’s no wonder so many foreigners have decided to make their home there.

Essential in making a home for yourself in another country is soaking up the local customs and culture, and a big part of that is communicating with the locals in their native language. In addition, speaking Czech will also help make your travel experience in the Czech Republic a much more interesting one. So, if you have decided to learn some Czech, let’s see how much of a struggle that can be.

Czech is Closely Related to Other Central European Languages

Czech belongs to the West Slavic language group, together with Slovak and Polish. As highlighted in this post, the three languages share a lot of characteristics with each other. It is fair to say, that in most part they appear more to be the different dialects of a single language that three distinct ones – speakers from the areas close to shared borders will have less trouble understanding each other that those coming from far away geographic areas.

This is majorly good news if you already have experience in learning either Polish or Slovak. Even knowing Russian is a great help – although Czech doesn’t use the Cyrillic alphabet, there is still a fair share of similarities. Thanks to the shared vocabulary and grammar, Czech will become a breeze to learn. But, even if you don’t, the fact that you will get a 3-in-1 deal with learning this language should increase your enthusiasm and motivation for learning Czech. And, in the end, that’s the important part.

Complicated Declension Models

A fairly common reason why Czech is said to be a very complex language to learn is its supposedly fantastically complicated grammar. And sure, it does have cases and a lot of difficult-to-predict irregular plurals, among other aspects that you might not be accustomed to.

What can really be difficult to grasp as a beginner Czech learner, are the more than a dozen different models Czech uses in its declension. Since Czech has seven cases, that, combined with the singular and plural forms, means that you would have to memorise fourteen different forms of one single word. Granted, this is a difficult task and, to make things worse, even when you learn the entire vast table of different declension patterns, you will not be able to always correctly assess which model a specific word uses just by looking at it.

The good news here is that people will understand you even if you make a few mistakes with the cases. So don’t sweat the overly complicated tables and formulas and just focus on being a little bit better every day.

Clear Use of Prefixes Helps to Learn Vocabulary

The more learner-friendly aspect of Czech grammar can be the very clear way it uses to create vocabulary. As with other Central European languages, Czech makes use of a handy system of root words which take on different prefixes and suffixes to create a lot of its vocabulary. These serve much the same function as prepositions do in English (and many prefixes also double as prepositions in various contexts).

The good news here is that once you learn what a specific prefix means and learn to discern them in context, you can often make very accurate guesses as to what a specific word means. So, let’s take the prefix od- which means (among other things) to remove a part, or to make visible, and the root word krýt meaning protect or cover. By combining the two, you get odkrýt – which, quite logically, means to uncover or discover.

You can use this linguistic Find Waldo with different prefixes to understand a significant portion of written and spoken Czech. For a handy list of Czech prefixes and how they can help you make sense of a lot of the vocabulary, take a look at this list. Suffixes are covered by this Wiktionary entry.

Consonants Make Czech Pronunciation a Challenge

There is one more issue we need to cover when talking about learning Czech – and that’s pronunciation. While there is always an internal logic in the way languages use grammar which makes mastering it easier, pronunciation is a different matter. Contorting your tongue into shapes it’s not used to can be a struggle. And Czech does certainly present a challenge in that area. From its notorious consonant clusters to the dreaded ř sound, Czech does tend to frighten many from speaking it.

On the bright side, Czech alphabet is a phonetic one and its letters usually have only one specific sound. You just have to get used to considering y a vowel and the different way the language handles sounds for c and ch (it’s ts and ch, as in loch). And keep in mind that e, é, and ě all sound different. Luckily, this is easily done with a helpful alphabet and even the ř sound can be handled with some practice and Youtube videos.

The good news about learning pronunciation is that it gets better with time and practice. So, even if it doesn’t seem like it now, you’ll be able to handle words like stříbro and čtvrtek like a champ!

Conclusion – Czech Can Be Challenging But Is Learnable with the Right Motivation

As with every language, there are going to be people who claim Czech is the most difficult of them all. This is certainly false. What makes learning a language difficult is the wrong attitude and motivation, not the language itself. With that encouraging tidbit aside, Czech is rather different from Western European languages, since it belongs to the Slavic group. This does mean there will be more unusual aspects of learning Czech if you are not already familiar with any of its relative languages.

Despite that, Czech is a rewarding language to learn and an even better one to master since it opens the door to better understanding the entire Slavic group. If you’re still struggling with deciding on whether to make the effort to learn it, take a look at this list to help you decide.