Learning to speak another language is like discovering a new poet. First you hear only the sound of the words, reveling in the sounds tumbling against each other. Then the marching cadence becomes an image, a concept, and you begin to glimpse parts of the whole. In the end the your mind begins to march to this new beat, and you begin to think in bold new patterns, as you absorb the culture of the language and your perspective shifts. Your eyes have been opened to new concepts, and you will never be quite the same. At least that was my starry-eyed impression, which was shattered the first time a surly government clerk fixed me with a baleful eye and corrected my mangled pronunciation. Let me add that the Czech language is beautiful. Mellifluous, even. Just unpronounceable.
Wandering through the local farmers market this morning, I found a flower stall, packed with primroses, daffodils, multi-colored tulips, and sprays of long-stemmed pussy-willows. I have carefully learned the names of the basic flowers, which thankfully are often very similar to their names in English. Daffodil is narcis, tulip is tulipan, and so on. After carefully studying my Czech phrasebook the night before, I am thrilled to understand the stall keeper as he mentions the price for the bouquet of daffodils mixed with short branches decked with small, tender leaves. Czech crowns change hands, and I walk off with the bouquet. Next up is a spice stall, a heady array of scents and colors. Rows of spices are arranged in alphabetical order, and here again the names are often similar (basil is bazalka). An English speaking clerk helps me distinguish the sweet paprika from the smoky paprika. Rice is also sold here by the kilo, and I note that red-grained rice (cerveny) is available here. I have a feeling this will become a favorite stall.
Gradually the sounds of the Czech language are sorting themselves into words- pronouns, nouns, verbs. I can recognize the different forms of ‘thank you’, and common phrases are pronounced with more ease. When weaving through a crowd at the metro, I am more likely to say ‘excuse me’ in Czech instead of English. I have begun to read the words on street signs and posters, and can ask the grocery clerk for a food item in Czech. My victory this week? I asked the clerk at the registration office in Czech for directions, and understood her answer. This time, I escaped without a baleful glare.