"WHAT'S the use of learning Slovak when it's a language that is spoken by only 5 million people and is completely useless outside Slovakia," foreigners living in Slovakia might ask. Although such reasoning is logical, the number of registrations that language schools are getting for Slovak courses suggests that this attitude is not shared by all; Slovak courses have found their place in language schools' portfolios alongside those teaching English, German and French.
With the number of foreign investments pouring into Slovakia, the demand for Slovak courses has made its way beyond Bratislava's borders and into the regions. International corporations often bring in their own managers and employees for whom learning the language is a must.
"The motivation to study Slovak is basically to understand Slovaks, to be able to talk to people on the street and in restaurants, to be able to talk to a partner and their family, to understand colleagues during meetings and read newspapers," Gabriela Ondušová, the head of the Slovak Department of the language school International House Bratislava told The Slovak Spectator.
Morning courses are mostly attended by housewives, mothers and teachers, said Ondušová. Lunchtime brings people who work in the centre of Bratislava and take advantage of their lunch break to study Slovak. The rest of the students are mostly international students who are studying in Bratislava, employees of embassies and international companies and people who are living with a Slovak partner.
Milena Vdovičenková of the E-KU Institute of Language and International Communication in Nitra said that the students enrolled in her Slovak courses are mostly managers but also include English teachers and foreign students at Nitra's secondary schools and universities.
"Learning the language of the country they are living comes naturally to them," Vdovičenková said.
Three words a day makes 21 words a week
Mária Leitmanová is a university student in Trnava who used to teach Slovak to French people at a language centre, teaching 40-hour long one-on-one courses that lasted four months. She said that her students mostly took the classes because they wanted to and not because their employer demanded it, even though some companies were willing to pay for the classes.
"The French people who were interested in the language wanted to learn Slovak in order to be able to get in touch with Slovak culture," Leitmanová told The Slovak Spectator. In order to effectively teach Slovak, she imitated the way a little child learns its mother tongue. She started with basic things that kids learn first, such as the answers to questions like "What's your name", "What is it", "Who is it", "Where is it" and "What colour is it". The vocabulary focused on things we meet with in everyday life, such as food, clothes and the human body.
"To learn the language efficiently, you need to do it systematically - a little every day," said Leitmanová. "If you learn only three words every day that makes it 21 words a week, which isn't that bad."
According to Leitmanová, focussing too much on Slovak grammar is not helpful, especially at the very beginning. She does not like the textbooks that are available on the Slovak market. Each lesson "attacks" the student with tons of grammar, she said.
"I taught just a little at a time," said Leitmanová. "This way you really notice the progress, and that's motivating for the student."
When it comes to the textbooks, many language teachers share Leitmanová's opinion.
"There's a lack of quality literature for 21st-century students and commercial language schools," Ondušová said, adding that teachers at private language schools are waiting for universities or the Institute for Language and Academic Preparation to fill in the gap. At the moment, each school uses its own internal materials developed through years of practice.
With the literature available on the Slovak market, supplemented by their own materials, E-KU was able to bring their students up to level that allowed them to pass the internationally-recognized Slovak exams from the European Consortium for the Certificate of Attainment in Modern Languages.
"It was really interesting to watch the Austrian and French students' determination to pass the exams," Vdovičenková told The Slovak Spectator.
From where and why?
Students usually prefer individual classes but have no problems with being enrolled in a larger class, language schools report. Courses normally open twice a year - the summer and winter term. International House offers courses at four levels while E-KU divides the students into Slavic and non-Slavic groups.
Since long-term courses often do not suit every client, International House offers three-day Basic Flexi courses. According to Ondušová, the 18-hour weekly study load provides the opportunity for a foreigner to learn the basics needed for survival. Another option that has proved successful is studying Slovak during two-week intensive summer courses, Ondušová said.
The tradition of teaching Slovak to foreigners at summer schools is 43 years old. Since 1965 people from all around the world have gathered in Bratislava for the three-week Summer School of the Slovak Language and Culture "Studia Academica Slovaca" (SAS). The SAS centre operates under the Faculty of Arts of Comenius University in Bratislava.
"Students from Slavic nations have the advantage, but on the other hand, the Chinese or Japanese are very hardworking," Renáta Mráčniková, teacher of intermediate courses at the SAS told The Slovak Spectator when asked who the best learners of Slovak are.
Courses for advanced learners are mostly attended by university students from Canada and the US, especially Cleveland and Pittsburgh, where Slovak natives live, Mráčniková said. Some of the students who come to improve their knowledge of the Slovak language and culture have already studied Slovak for five years in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and, thanks to scholarships, are able to spend three weeks in Slovakia. Those paying for the course themselves are usually people who plan to spend some time here on business or those with Slovak partners.
"In three weeks, the students learn the basics needed to understand the system of the language and to be able to speak," Mráčniková said. The course curriculum is designed to allow students to get to know the Slovak culture, art and geography through workshops, discussions, evening programmes and trips.
When asked about difficulties with Slovak grammar, teachers provide a colourful list of grammatical challenges, ranging from declensions to verb aspects.
However, according to Ondušová, the biggest disappointments are usually met outside the school, for example when the foreign student dares to try to order a coffee in their broken Slovak: "Prosím si jedna káva." Sometimes they get immediate feedback on their speaking skills from a surly waiter: "JednU kávU!"
"Reactions like this take foreigners by surprise and dampens their initial enthusiasm," Ondušová said.
25. Jun 2007 at 0:00 | Michaela Stanková