Br(u)no: Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?

Photo credit: Brno Daily.

Is there an age at which we cannot learn any more? Is there a time that we should stop worrying about cramming more knowledge into our brains? In other words: I’ve lived in this country for years, so do I really need to know how to speak the language?

This is a question with which I often struggle, and it something that comes up when my expat friends and I really get down to the nuts and bolts of life in Brno.

Most of us can order a beer and lunch. Most young Czechs know English. And it’s not hard to get by on a daily basis in Brno without more than a cursory level of Czech.

The trouble comes when you have some sort of a problem. An accident. An injury. Someone on the street asks you a question. When we are forced out of context we are lost. Sometimes you can use hands and feet and get through it. Other times nothing works.

I recently handled a problem with my health insurance without a hiccup. But paying a parking ticket was a linguistic nightmare. Why the difference? Was I in different moods? I don’t think so. Was it that I knew more vocabulary connected to health insurance than the words associated with local parking laws? Doubtful. Was it because the insurance lady was nice and the police officer was not? Definitely factored into it, but not such that it would overcome my inability to speak Czech to a high enough degree.

In any case, these are just two of the many types of interactions that are normal for local expats. We muddle through them; relate the experiences as part of our living-in-a-foreign-country personal narratives; drink another beer; and never even consider learning a few more Czech words or phrases.

Are we rude for not speaking the local language? Should we have stuck with our original good intentions to learn it? Is it enough to simply trot out the few phrases that we know and get the inordinate amount of compliments? (“You speak Czech well for a foreigner!” sounds a little backhanded.)

I guess these questions are coming to mind because it is the beginning of a new year and I am the type who makes resolutions. Improving my ability to communicate in Czech is a constant item on my list.

Just think how much better and more confident everything would be with the ability to actually speak the local language, read the local books and understand everything that people are saying? Can it really be that hard? Here are some strategies that I plan to follow: ­

• Learn a phrase or word every day and make sure to use it in a sentence at some point.

• Watch movies and television shows in Czech.

• Talk to people in Czech and keep talking Czech when they want to switch to English.

• Write your shopping list and notes to yourself in Czech.

• Make sure to stay patient because learning any language is a long process.

• And, most importantly, believe that you can do it.

This last one is the key. It all comes down to the old question: Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

I think that you absolutely can.

It angers me to no end when my students of English use their age as a crutch. Sure our brains may reach a point where they are not as sponge-like as they were when we were younger. But that is the wrong way to think about it. We have all learned so many different things in our lives; learning a language, be it later in life or in our early teens, is something that uses the same neural pathways as those we have used before.

There are plenty of other valid excuses, like little kids, careers, and hobbies. I’ll continue to try to improve my Czech this year. If I fail, these will be my excuses, not age.

I hope that this column will provide thought-provoking observations of local life that will be interesting for a Saturday-morning read. If you have any suggestions or comments, please pass them along to

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. The publishing of this article does not constitute an endorsement of or any other expression of opinion by the management of Brno Daily.

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