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Speaking Czech (& English) with a smile

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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 quora.com 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.

 

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