As a native English speaker, the world is my oyster. Everywhere I go, people not only speak my language, but they also often want to speak English to practice with a native speaker. They even pay me for it, which is how I ended up being an English teacher in Prague. The expectations for Americans especially are so comically low that if I say even one word in someone else’s language, I am praised as some kind of linguistic goddess. Because of this, I have little motivation to truly learn a second language.
That is, until I spent a few days in Košice, Slovakia, a town that will now always have a piece of my heart.
I went to Košice to visit a student-turned-friend’s family and to get a taste of authentic Eastern Slovakia. On my first night, the only person in our group able to speak both English and Slovak was a 7-year-old kid who was (legitimately) much more interested in scooter tricks than in adult conversation. I struggled through the first few hours, waiting in vain for someone in my temporary family to magically develop fluent English. I listened to them chattering in Slovak, but the only words I could pick out were prepositions like “in” and “from” and directions like “left” and “right.” Clearly, these were smart, interesting people full of stories they could tell – but not to someone with the language ability of a directions-obsessed 2-year-old.
By dinnertime, I was at my wits’ end. I sat in silence with Katka, my host, for about 20 seconds before deciding it was time to learn Slovak. Anyone who knows me won’t be surprised by this – I’m the kind of person who talks to everyone, always, and usually about inappropriately personal things. For example, it’s very common for me to be having an in-depth conversation with my waiter about his life goals and ambitions within five minutes of walking into a restaurant. So sitting in silence because of something as trivial as a language barrier? Not going to happen.
“Mám ráda Slovensko jedlo,” I stumbled, hoping she’d forgive me for not knowing the adjective form of “Slovakia.”
”Ahh!” Katka exclaimed, pleased by my attempt. “Áno! And you … likes beer?” She responded in her own hesitant English.
“Yes, yes! Dobre. Áno, mám ráda pivo. Velke pivo.” I mimed drinking a giant glass of beer. We laughed, thrilled by this small victory.
For the rest of the meal, Katka spoke only in English and I spoke only in Slovak, relying on Charades and Google Translate when our vocabulary failed us. We repeated the same pattern for the next two days, both of us encouraging each other with constant smiling and assurances of “Dobre! Good!” before gently correcting each other’s grammar. I woke up early to study Slovensky on my phone, memorizing the words that would be most helpful. I compared English and Slovak menus, asking questions about noun endings or words I didn’t know. I was forced to put aside all embarrassment and frequently act out verbs in the street, gesturing wildly in a way that surely alarmed passersby. I knew I was communicating like a child (ako dieťa) – but at least I was communicating.
The empowerment of that small bit of communication allowed me to speak not only to Katka but to her children and their babička, grandmother. Through them, I learned about Slovakia’s religiosity, wedding customs, and history of handcrafts like ceramics. I learned the names of animals, food, and flowers. I went to a library full of Slovenské knihy and started reading Pride & Prejudice, learning phrases like “I’m single” and “I want a rich husband,” both of which proved useful later that day when I found myself having a beer with two 20-something Slovak men at a pub.
Instead of being a barrier, language became a bridge. Its very difficulty is what made it worthwhile, as the strain of communicating in a new language demanded the best of both Katka and me. I was so much more engaged in conversations than I usually am, because I needed to listen with my whole body – watching hand gestures, memorizing inflections, and searching for meaning in people’s eyes. So much of the time, we can float through life half-listening, half-participating, half-investing. In Slovak, I became whole-heartedly involved in everything.
On my last morning in Košice, I was reluctant to leave. I knew I’d be returning to my English bubble, easily sliding back into my less-stimulating and less-challenging comfort zone. But as the train pulled out of the station, I knew that Košice would remain part of me. When it comes to the people and places that have had a genuine impact on us, we never really say goodbye. Instead, we say Ďakujem, thank you, and we carry what we learned with us for the rest of our lives. I may forget every word of Slovak that I learned in those few days, but I’ll never forget the kindness, the connection, and the value of understanding people through understanding language.
So Ďakujem, Košice, for challenging me to be a better listener, a better traveler, and a better version of myself.
Melanie Zook is a native Texan teaching English around the world. She is a featured contributor for UnearthAway. Learn more here.