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Review: Slovak language text strong on cultural orientation

Published late last spring, Beginner's Slovak came to The Slovak Spectator's attention during research for a profile on its Slovak author, Elena Letňanová, a concert pianist, translator and repatriated dissident émigré (see "Returning pianist feeling shunned by compatriots" By Zuzana Habšudová, Vol. 7 No. 30). Letňanová was the first Slovak to play at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and has written a large tome on classical music, but would her rookie crack at a Slovak language textbook add anything to the market?
Yes and no. The 208-page book is intended for the casual learner (no tedious language exercises, the barest-bones approach to grammar), and follows a salesman and his wife through 10 encounters on Slovak soil. Like all such beefed-up phrase books, the text seems an arbitrary compilation of words and phrases, with some everyday lingo omitted in favour of the esoteric. However, Beginner's Slovak contains the pithiest and best written summary of Slovak history I've ever read in a textbook, and offers a superb guide to negotiating modern Slovak life.


A useful, if somewhat flawed, introduction to Slovak.

Beginner's Slovak

On sale at: Eurobooks (by order only), Jesenského 5-9, Bratislava, and in New York City bookstores
Open: Mon-Fri 8:30-18:30, Sat 9:00-13:00,
Tel: 02-5441 7959,
Price: 790 crowns
Rating: 7 out of 10

Published late last spring, Beginner's Slovak came to The Slovak Spectator's attention during research for a profile on its Slovak author, Elena Letňanová, a concert pianist, translator and repatriated dissident émigré (see "Returning pianist feeling shunned by compatriots" By Zuzana Habšudová, Vol. 7 No. 30). Letňanová was the first Slovak to play at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and has written a large tome on classical music, but would her rookie crack at a Slovak language textbook add anything to the market?

Yes and no. The 208-page book is intended for the casual learner (no tedious language exercises, the barest-bones approach to grammar), and follows a salesman and his wife through 10 encounters on Slovak soil. Like all such beefed-up phrase books, the text seems an arbitrary compilation of words and phrases, with some everyday lingo omitted in favour of the esoteric. However, Beginner's Slovak contains the pithiest and best written summary of Slovak history I've ever read in a textbook, and offers a superb guide to negotiating modern Slovak life.

Letňanová appears to have realised that the novice learner will need to know not just how to order a taxi, but also how much to tip the driver (5-10 crowns); she feels her readership is better warned not to change money on the street, or that grocery stores don't stay open on the weekends. Readers' fodder for conversation is also stocked with trivia titbits such as the fact that American dancer Fred Astaire's father was Slovak, that French philosopher Rene Descartes visited Nové Zámky in the 17th century, and that the Slovak village of Krahule is the geographic centre of Europe. All this is accompanied by a pellucid pronunciation guide.

The reader meets Mr. Konečný, a Slovak-American businessmen who visits Bratislava, attends dinner parties, travels in taxis, eats bad food and gets sick. With the book's practical start, I was disappointed that Letňanová did not focus more on common parlance. Jasne (which can mean it's clear, of course, and all right) and hej (yeah), words I probably say and hear 100 times a day, are absent from the 10 lessons, while two words I'd never heard of, pribornik (cupboard) and vytknuť (to sprain), make it in. The foundation of transacting in Slovak, prosím si (I would like), is shunned in favour of the ultra-formal rad by som si objednal (lit I would be glad to order). And the easy everyday meškať (to be/run late) loses out to the exotic mouthful oneskoriť.

Not paying more attention to the way people actually speak is a flaw common to most textbooks, and although Letňanová's Beginner's Slovak makes no progress in this department, because of its history lesson and guide to living in Slovakia, it's the book I would buy if a friend of mine were arriving tomorrow, fresh off the plane to Bratislava.

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