If you are a foreigner who has tried to learn Slovak, you are likely familiar with one of this country's chief paradoxes: it is easier to find formal English language instruction here than formal Slovak instruction. At least 16 language schools teach English in Bratislava, for example, while only six teach Slovak (only four of which responded to questions for this article).
Quality is also suspect (as it is, of course, among English teachers). In my experience, Slovak teachers either focus too little on grammar, seemingly uncertain themselves as to its essential points, or too much, neglecting those fun phrases that keep students interested.
None of this is surprising considering the brief history of teaching Slovak to expats. The language was first taught formally to foreigners in 1960 when nine Iraqi university students came to study in Slovakia under a programme providing scholarships to students in developing countries.
When the Iraqis arrived, the inexperienced and unprepared teachers didn't have a clue as to how to teach them. They used textbooks designed to teach children, and when that didn't work, stayed up every night developing new strategies.
"It was horrible," said Tomáš Dratva, one of the original teachers. "But we gradually learned. The second year we were more successful. The Czechs helped us develop texts and methods."
By 1967 Dratva had developed a textbook for foreigners.
The nameless, fledgling institution to which Dratva then belonged today goes by the acronym ÚJOP (when spelled out in English it means the Institute of Academic and Linguistic Preparation of Foreign Students). Since 1967, ÚJOP has taught Slovak to 8,000 foreigners and published nearly 80 textbooks. By accounts from former students, ÚJOP is Slovakia's sharpest and most experienced Slovak-teaching institution. It offers courses at all levels for the general public, but they are rigorous and time-consuming. Casual students beware.
Five- and ten-month ÚJOP courses ($1,600 and $3,200) mix students with diplomats, business managers and anyone else desperate to learn Slovak. Multiple daily lessons are taught only in Slovak - no English allowed. Dorm rooms are also available for $40 monthly. ÚJOP also offers intensive summer and year-round tailor-made courses for large groups and businesses. Call 02/5557-7333 for details. ÚJOP has branches in Bratislava, Modra and Košice.
The following three Bratislava-based language schools provided the Spectator with information about their Slovak language programmes:
The Caledonian School
Obchodná 25. Tel: 02/5292-0985. Price: private lessons 530 Sk to 590 Sk, group rate 5,990 Sk for 72 lessons. Times: Tues + Thurs, 16:20 and 17:20 (non-beginners), Mon + Wed 18:00-19:30 (beginners).
Dostojevského rad 1. Tel: 02/5296-8519. Price: 80 Sk/hour (group lessons), 450 Sk/hour (private lessons). Times: N/A.
Prešovská 39 Tel: 02/5557-1203. Price: private lessons 400 Sk/hr. Times: Weekdays 7:30-19:30.
If classrooms and homework aren't for you, you may want to try buying a textbook and giving the language a whirl alone. Having gone through three popular textbooks during my first year in Slovakia, I recommend Slovak for Foreigners (Slovenčina pre vás), by Aďa Böhmerová, available in most Bratislava bookstores, for the serious learner. It has reasonably interesting lessons, an attractive layout, large vocabulary, nice pictures, an in-depth look at grammar, and helpful exercises.
But learning Slovak well on your own is nearly impossible. With book in hand, one of your best options is to recruit a private Slovak teacher. Here is some advice from personal experience:
- If the person is not a professional teacher, make sure they understand what you expect from them. I found it helpful to explain to teachers that I only wanted to speak Slovak with them, that I wanted to work on one grammar point per lesson, and that they should make me repeat every sentence I said until I said it fluently.
- Pay the person a reasonable amount. Reasonable is subject to interpretation, but as a rule, if the teacher is a friend or colleague, paying them an attractive sum will ensure they approach lessons seriously. Try 200 crowns for a 90 minute session.
- Buy a textbook and follow it. This will give your lessons structure.
- Take learning grammar seriously. Slovak is very complicated, but if you don't get the endings right at least some of the time, no one will know what you are saying.
If attending a language school or meeting a private teacher is not an option for you, I advise you to study newspapers and listen to the radio or TV, repeat what you hear and drive your friends nuts with questions. When it comes to language there is nothing more important than using it day in and day out.
Veľa Šťastia! (Good luck!)
Foreign Affairs is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners navigate the thrills and spills of life in Slovakia.
The next Foreign Affairs column will appear on stands September 10, Vol. 7, No. 34.