Category Archives: Bilingual Children

Speaking Czech (& English) with a smile


A café chat with a Czech speech therapist

I meet Martina at Café IF in Prague’s Vinohrady neighborhood. Café IF is a trendy spot, serving exquisite pastries, fresh smoothies with names like Vitality and Elixir of Youth, and boulangerie breakfasts of quiche and soft-boiled eggs served in a glass. Although the coffee list includes espresso, cappuccino, and a flat white, Martina asks for a filtered coffee. The waiter shakes his head and brings her an espresso with extra water.

“That’s a shame. I love filtered coffee. Pour overs are quite popular in America now. It’s one of the things I’ve gotten used to. Having a big mug of warm coffee beside me while I work,” she tells me. “Now, the bread in America is a different story. Don’t get me started on how much I miss Czech bread,” she smiles.

Martina is a Czech speech therapist living with her Czech family in the Rocky Mountains of the American Midwest. I am an American TEFL-certified (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teacher living with my Czech/American family in a village on the outskirts of Prague. Martina is visiting the Czech Republic for a few weeks. At the urging of our friend, Katerina, we have agreed to meet to swap experiences.

Martina and I both wear bright glasses, like to sip large mugs of coffee, and are mothers to three children each. But, we have slipped away from our families this Saturday morning to chat about a different topic of mutual interest – speech. Particularly, speech development in bilingual and multilingual children.

While Martina is a trained speech therapist, or logopedka, my interest in speech is on an amateur level. Over 15 years of living in the Czech Republic and learning to speak Czech (as well as accompanying my own children to years of Czech logopedie), my natural curiosity for the intricacies of the language has grown. Plus, I have deep respect for anyone who holds the key to the elusive “ř” (or r-hacek) sound.

If you are unfamiliar with the Czech language, the “ř” (or r-hacek) is a rolled “r” followed by the Czech “ž” sound. It is described on as a raised alveolar non-sonorant trill. It is the hardest sound in the Czech language. I’m tempted to ask if Martina has any tips for adults who can’t say “ř.”

Instead, I ask Martina about her work. What does a speech therapist do when she’s transplanted thousands of kilometers from her clients? Czech is not exactly an international language, and I doubt there’s much need to replicate an authentic “ř” sound in Colorado.

When her husband’s job led her family to relocate to the US, Martina had the opportunity to see first-hand how a child begins the journey of becoming bilingual. As she discovered, many different factors can affect this journey, including age, personality, genetics, and individual learning style.

Martina’s eldest child didn’t speak a word of English for six months (not at school, not at home), communicating instead in his own kind of sign language. Then, one day while playing soccer with a friend, he turned to translate instructions from his mother to his friend. At once, he began talking in full sentences. “I was so surprised,” Martina says with a laugh. Meanwhile, her preschooler started to mix English words into his Czech sentences soon after the family’s arrival in the US. “It took him months to be understood, and he was quite frustrated at times.”

And the baby? According to Martina, “She is an example of how I would think a bilingual person should be.” Since Martina’s daughter learned to speak in both Czech and English after her family’s arrival to the US, English comes naturally for her. She doesn’t mix the languages.

At the same time as Martina’s children began speaking English and adjusting to life in the US, Martina discovered a large gap in the quality of speech aids that were available to Czech speech therapists.

I nod as Martina tells me this. At each speech therapy appointment in Prague (the cost of which was covered by my child’s state health insurance), I was asked to bring along 20 CZK (circa 1 USD) for materials. In return, my child would receive one black-and-white photocopied page. We were instructed to take this page home, color it, and practice.

The page continued a list of words, pictures without words, or a short poem to practice a specific letter sound. If I was lucky the therapist would scribble some instructions about how to hold the tongue or how wide to open the mouth. When my boys needed to learn the sykavky (the sounds made by the letters S, C, Z, Š, Č, Ž), our therapist suggested that I make my own cards. Speech therapy was a challenge (on many levels).

Martina’s move to the US convinced her to take a professional risk. Seeing the need for well-developed, engaging materials for Czech speech therapists and parents interested in helping their children master proper sounds, Martina created a website called Logopedie s úsměvem (Speech therapy with a smile). She smiles as she tells me this.

She started a blog, hired a graphic designer, and set up an e-shop. Soon, Martina was selling a wide variety of brightly-colored, graphically-engaging materials including picture cards, puzzles, and books. Her materials spanned the areas of speech, hearing, sight recognition, memory, and fine motor skills for toddlers, preschoolers, and school children.

She even developed an online course called S Jonášem do školy (Going to School with Jonáš) and began offering speech therapy online. Since she wasn’t physically in the Czech Republic, Katerina (our mutual friend) managed the e-shop and distributed the products.

What was the reaction to the products in the Czech Republic?

Katerina, who has joined us at the café, says, “At the first conference for speech therapists last autumn, I had only the display materials on the table. Everything else was in a box under the table. Therapists kept coming up to me saying, ‘We’ll take everything you have.’ My son and I couldn’t open the boxes fast enough.”

Looking at the bright graphic picture cards Katerina has brought for me to see, for a moment, I feel sorry that my children’s Czech speech therapy days are behind us.

Still, I am curious about Martina’s children’s language skills – do they code-switch like mine, have they mastered the dreaded “th” sound in English, which language do they feel more comfortable speaking English or Czech?

Martina has a set of her own questions for me. She asks me whether my children make mistakes in English grammar and requests for me to demonstrate just how to make the “th” sound properly. She also wants to know how I feel about the Czech language – isn’t it difficult?

While we share our speech stories, the café fills up. The waiter stops by to see if we want something else. Martina orders a tea. I ask for a second coffee, then change my mind and opt for the Elixir of Youth smoothie. The smoothie is made from blended avocado, spinach, and some sweet fruits. I discuss the ingredients with the waiter.

After the waiter leaves, Martina says, “Your Czech is good.”

“Thanks,” I tell her. “I have had a lot of speech therapy.”

It is true. By averaging one speech therapy appointment a month over the course of nine consecutive years (from the time Anna turned 3 to the time Samuel turned 6) I estimate I have logged about 3,240 minutes (or 54 hours) in a Czech speech therapist’s office.

What I don’t tell Martina is how good it feels to sit in this café for a few minutes and chat with someone else who has a similar story (even if hers is from the other side of the ocean). I have spent so much time worrying whether my children will be able to make the perfect sounds in their native languages, I have forgotten how much reassurance can be gained from the simple pleasure of sharing my experiences and listening to someone else’s.

Of course, I would like for my children to fit in and to be accepted in both the Czech Republic and the US. And I would like for them to say all their sounds like natives. But, I have come to realize that raising children who can communicate in multiple languages and navigate different cultures is (and should be) more important than having children who can pronounce “th” in English or “ř” in Czech perfectly.

To communicate in any language means taking a risk. Sometimes we will sound like native speakers. Other times, we may need a speech therapist with a smile (and good materials) to guide our path.

Martina and I could keep talking, but we realize there is a group in line for our table. Martina’s children are waiting for her at their grandparents, and I have promised to take my children to ice skate at a village rink this afternoon.

We make plans to keep in touch. And I promise Martina if my family’s anticipated summer travels take us anywhere near Martina’s US home, I will look her up.

What could be better than another visit between a Czech-speaking American who lives in the Czech Republic and an English-speaking Czech who lives in the US?

Nothing. Just remember to serve them both a large mug of filtered coffee.

Dear Half-n-Half readers, exciting changes and a new website for the blog are on the horizon this spring. Many thanks for your continued readership and support. If you would like to continue reading these stories, please consider signing up for updates by clicking the Follow button at the bottom of the page.



Raising children who speak “Czechlish”

Czechlish pic 2.JPGLife when code-mixing is the norm

In our house, it’s common to hear 7-year-old Samuel say, “Mommy, can you zavazovat my tkaničky?”

To which I respond, “You want me to help you tie your shoelaces?”

“Yep.” He grins.

“They got so zamotaný when I tried to sundat my boty after the hříště.”

“You got them tangled when you tried to take your shoes off after you came in from the playground?”


Blond-haired, blue-eyed Sam smiles wider. I loosen the knots in Sam’s mud-streaked, neon orange laces, and he slips his chubby foot into his black Adidas hiking shoes. It looks like he’s walked all afternoon dragging his untied, knotted laces through the slushy mud pit that his school’s playground turns into during the mild, rainy days we’ve had since Christmas. Sam knows he’s old enough to do his laces by himself. He also knows, if he’s persistent, I’ll help.

“There. Try to put the laces into bunny ears like I showed you.” While Sam struggles to tame his crusty laces into submission, I fight to push my frustration aside. Muddy laces can be washed.

But is it selfish of me to wish for my son to make one complete sentence in one language?

Sam isn’t the only one in our house who speaks Czechlish. When I ask if he has homework, 10-year-old Oliver says, “Nope. I don’t have many ukoly today. The teacher didn’t rozdávat the new učebnice.”

Before I can give him a lesson in English grammar (i.e. Don’t say “nope” to your mother and homework isn’t plural) or fuss at him for using Czech words when speaking English, 13-year-old Anna bursts into the room.

“Guys, who drank all the šťáva?” She glares at her brothers. The boys shrug their shoulders and look guilty.

All three of my children speak two languages fluently (Czech and English) and are learning a third (Spanish) and bits of a fourth (German). Instead of turning cartwheels at my family’s linguistic versatility, I find myself beating my head against a wall with the effort I put into decoding my children’s sentences.

I should be grateful that slipping in and out of languages is my children’s birthright. Instead, I am wringing my hands. Does it matter if Sam says most of his verbs in Czech? Should I tell Oliver (again) that the word for homework is uncountable in English? And, what do I say to Anna about a word like “šťáva?” In Czech, šťáva can mean anything from the juicy sauce of cooked meat to a sweet fruit or herb-flavored concentrate that is diluted with water to make a beverage. It’s not exactly “juice” but “syrup” doesn’t quite fit either.   

I know many parents of multilingual children who share my frustration.

Code-mixing is a common characteristic of bilingual children, particularly in early childhood when a word in one language might be easier to pronounce or to remember than its equivalent in the second language. Although studies show code-mixing may pose challenges to vocabulary development in early language acquisition, by now, my children are old enough to have developed substantial vocabulary in both languages.

And, I have noticed (unlike when they were younger), they don’t code-mix with everyone. When speaking with their Czech babička (grandmother), they speak Czech. Nor, do they confuse English for Czech at school. With my parents, they speak English. Same with their English-speaking friends. Code-mixing seems to be a treat they reserve for their father and me.

But why?

The thought has crossed my mind that code-mixing, or speaking Czechlish as my family likes to say, could be one of those things my children do just to drive me crazy. (It ranks right up there with picking their toenails in bed or leaving half-eaten sandwiches in their book bags.) But, I hated to make that assumption without proof. Most of the time it seemed as if my children code-mixed subconsciously, almost as if they didn’t even realize they had swapped out an English word for a Czech one.

On Science Daily, I found an article called, “Speaking Two Languages for the Price of One,” which suggested that bilinguals who switch languages consistently are able to avoid the negatives of code-mixing or code-switching. (Research for the article was originally published in the Psychological Science journal.)

From the article, I learned that if bilinguals used the same substitutions (for a word or a concept) each time they spoke about it, they could eliminate time lapses which were often associated with switching languages. However, the research study found that while bilinguals were used to code-mixing, many did not do so consistently when left to their own speech patterns.

What do the benefits of consistent code-mixing mean for my family?

Reading about the normalcy of code-mixing helped me take a step back from my frustrations. Years ago, as brand-new parents, Radek and I made the conscious decision to break the one-parent one language rule (OPOL) in favor of a more as-the-situation demands language. (Groan. I know. How could we?) In our defense, I think we were visiting babička and got fed up with all the back-and-forth translating.

We simply spoke English with English-speakers (and during visits to the US), and Czech with Czech family and friends (and everywhere else in the Czech Republic). The children learned Czech in school, but I spoke English to them at home. Somehow it worked. Apart from their Czechlish, our children weren’t lagging in their vocabulary skills in either language. (Their accents are a different story, but more on that next week.)

After reading about the benefits of consistent code-mixing, it suddenly didn’t seem that strange that my children favored speaking Czechlish with me. Since my children know that I speak decent Czech and would most likely understand their Czech words, I wasn’t surprised that they thought (at least subconsciously) that it was faster to use Czechlish than to translate their thoughts completely into English.

Did my realization mean I would stop correcting them?    

Certainly not.

However, it did make me feel better to know they aren’t code-mixing just to drive me crazy or because they’re lazy (two assumptions I had prior to discovering the research).

I can accept the fact that some words are harder for my children to translate from Czech into English, either because the direct translation doesn’t have as clear a meaning, or because they are words used primarily in a Czech situation (i.e. school words like šťáva, družina, skříňka, šatna, tělocvik – see Key below for translations).

Still, it doesn’t mean I plan to ignore their code-mixing.

Nope. I plan to keep correcting their Czechlish whenever I hear it. How else will their language skills continue to improve?

When I told my plan to Samuel, he said, “Ok, Mommy. I rozumět you. And, if you don’t zvladnout the Czech, don’t worry, I can pomoc you.”


Yep. He’s still working on those tkaničky, too.

Does your family speak Czechlish? If you have any experiences of code-mixing (from any languages), I’d love to hear them.

Next week on Half-n-Half learn more about building strong language skills from a Czech speech therapist (who’s currently living in the US).


  • zavazovat = to tie
  • tkaničky = shoelaces
  • zamotaný = to be tangled up
  • sundat = to take off
  • boty = shoes
  • hříště = playground
  • ukol/y = homework
  • rozdávat = to give out
  • učebnice = lesson book
  • šťáva = fruit drink
  • babička = grandmother
  • děda = grandfather
  • družina = after school care
  • šatna = locker room
  • skříňka = locker
  • tělocvik = gym class
  • mobil = mobile telephone
  • rozumět = to understand
  • zvládnout = to manage
  • pomoc = help