Prague: Language policy leaves foreigners at a loss

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Sep 18 14:08:30 UTC 2007

Language policy leaves foreigners at a loss

Author: Vlaïka Kubíèková <(at)>, Section: Feature, Published: 17. 09. 2007


 When Vlaïka Kubíèková's British friend moved back to his home country
citing difficulties such as Czech officials' terrible lack of English
language skills, she decided to investigate. Although a Czech herself,
Kubíèková decided her enquiries would be more revealing if she assumed
a Danish identity.

"Czech public officials are mostly unable to speak to me in English,"
my friend Peter noted, during a dinner. An insurance actuary, who had
been working in the Czech Republic for about a year, he described an
encounter at a post office counter where he was paying his phone bill.
"They were not interested in helping me at all. They would very
quickly become embarrassed because they could not speak English," he
said, adding that when such people realized he could speak a little
bit of Czech, they did not try to effectively use the situation by
speaking simply and slowly.
When he became so frustrated by the language barrier and other
difficulties that he moved back to the U.K., I found myself pondering
how it is that our country is not more adjusted to non-Czech speakers,
especially given how many foreigners currently live here.

Dead end at the town hall

My investigation as a "Danish woman" first took me to Prague 4 Town
Hall. It is early afternoon, during office hours. At the reception
desk I approach an employee doing a crossword puzzle, and start to
speak English straight away. He says "Moment," in surprise and heads
to a door for help.

A woman, slightly over 40, asks, "What can I do for you?" Her English
is not perfect, but she can understand that I need building permit
information for my new flat. She takes me up to the building
department and fetches its head, a young woman with "Ing" before her
name, meaning she has a university degree. "This lady needs something
from you, but she only speaks English," says the woman from reception.
"Ha ha," said the head official, "this is not going to work." All the
women in the department start hurrying between rooms, looking for
someone who speaks English. No volunteers emerge. "Nobody speaks
English here. Just a little bit of Russian," she says. "The official
language here is Czech. It's no go." I ask if I should come another
time. "Yes, with an interpreter," said the woman from reception.

Get in line—but how?

My experience at Prague's main land and property records office is
very similar. Confusion is immediate. All the wording on the automatic
ticket number machine is in Czech, so which button should I press? I
go to the "Informace" kiosk. The assistant doesn't speak English, but
she sticks her head out of the cubicle and calls to bystanders, "Does
anyone speak English here?" A young couple approach. They try to help
me in English, then the man pulls out his business card and says,
"Call me, if you need anything. I am a lawyer."

I now know which button to press. I take my ticket and wait. Some 30
minutes later, I face a woman in her mid-50s. She looks like a
natural-born state official. "Do you speak English, please?" I ask,
knowing the answer. "No," she replies in Czech and looks nervous. I
start to speak anyway, giving her time to adjust. "I don't
understand!" she says, getting a bit angrier. I point to her
colleagues, such as some younger ones, who might be able to help
translate. She stretches her fingers into fans, in a hysterical,
powerless gesture. "None of them speak English. We only speak Czech
here," she says.

'Learn Czech, it's the official language'

I am confronted by a similar scenario a few more times. Seeking
information about a lost package from Canada at a post office,
enquiring about marriage documents, requesting details about dog
registration … the story is always the same.

Supposing I do not understand a word in Czech, a macho receptionist at
a Prague district municipal office, sporting a grayish crew cut and
tattoo on his arm, talks to me in a very informal way, as if to a
little kid. Then he tells me to learn Czech. His colleague calls the
retriever I'm claiming to want to register "a pooch."

In only two cases out of eight was real help available to me—either
the addressed representative spoke English (a very young woman with a
bandana working behind a post office counter) or someone who could
translate for me was brought from another department. The latter case
occurred at the dog registration office of Prague 2. A 20ish female
globetrotter in an orange T-shirt with a stylishly disheveled hairdo
arrived quickly and told me in perfect English that as a non-Czech
citizen I would not have to pay anything for my dog.

But for the most part, officials fenced themselves in with the magic
formula, "The official language here is Czech."

I certainly did not expect all officials to break out in fluent
English. I just supposed the system might be set up in such a way that
officials would know what to do—call for a specific person who could
offer help in English, or perhaps at least German. But I found that
there was no system at all. The attitude of Czechs, usually those with
limited education or of the older generation, is that foreigners
should speak Czech. "When we travel abroad, nobody bothers to speak to
us in Czech, so why should we trouble ourselves," people say. There is
no thought of accepting the plain fact that English and German are
world languages. There is no thought that attracting foreign investors
with foreign employees must involve offering friendlier assistance to
those who do not speak Czech.

Lower-level officials

Who, I wonder, might be responsible on the language side for making
the Czech Republic a country easy to do business with? At the Ministry
of Industry and Trade (MPO), spokesman Tomáš Bartovský says that the
MPO "with regard to its powers awarded by law, cannot initiate changes
on authorities that are not subordinate to it." He also tells me that
there is language education for central authority state officials such
as ministry employees. But he is unaware of any educational program
for minor officials.

Remembering all those investment incentives organized by state
investment and business development agency CzechInvest, I get to
thinking that perhaps it indirectly influences the language skills of
the authorities. Its press department tells me that they used to
publish a booklet advising foreigners how to deal with state visa and
working permit officials. But this is now history. "A lot of employees
have been replaced recently and I do not really know what the new
management plans," a representative told me.

What about officials working on better integration of the Czech
Republic into the European Union? Any pressure from them? Hardly.
During an approach to the Representation of the European Commission in
the Czech Republic, established by the Government Office, I am told
that, "Sure, there is language education for state officials going on
in connection with the oncoming [2009 EU] Czech presidency." But it's
only for those who will deal directly with the EU authorities. No one
seems bothered about the low-level municipal officials, as nobody from
EU headquarters will ever see them. The key phrase at the central
bodies mentioned here seems to be, "It does not fall within our

The ignorance, you might say, is almost willful. One young woman at
the European Commission (EC) office asks why a Czech state official
should speak English. "If you go to a registrar office in Germany,
they will only speak German," she says. Since this was the third time
I heard this "German" argument from a state official, I telephone a
"Standesamt" (registration office) in Frankfurt, Germany, asking what
documents I need to arrange my marriage. "What nationality are you and
your future husband?" asked a voice in fluent English.

More buck passing emerges when the press department of Prague City
Hall tells me to take my questions to the civil services governing
body, the Ministry of the Interior. "None of these [civil service]
authorities falls within our scope," says Hana Malá, the ministry
spokeswoman. "These municipal authorities are autonomous. It depends
on each individual town hall, on whether they are interested in the
language skills of their employees," she adds. The same applies to the
police, it seems. "This is purely a matter for police headquarters,"
Malá insists.

Danish disguise removed

I throw off my disguise and go back to some of the offices subjected
to my undercover survey. I ask whether they do anything to promote the
improvement of the language skills of their people, and if they
require knowledge of any world language when accepting a new employee.

Their reactions fall within two categories. We can call them the
"There is no need for English" category and the "We are perfect"

Category one, for instance, includes Prague land and property records
office. "There has been no reason so far to cope with [such a demand],
so we stick to Czech," I am told. Meanwhile the Prague 4 office that
told me to come back with an interpreter says it advertises that
knowledge of a foreign language is an advantage for a job applicant,
but that it does not really require it. And what if someone who does
not speak Czech needs their services? There is a person in each
department who speaks English, so it is claimed.

The Prague 5 district goes into category two. It says it has a
language program that any employee can participate in for two hours a
week, during working hours. My observation that I enjoyed no success
with English at its information desk and registrar office is met with

Prague 3's personnel department is almost annoyed by my skepticism.
"We do not have any uneducated people here. We have lots of employees
speaking fluent English or German, so they would solve any language
problem," a staff member says. A call to Prague 3 registrar office
elicits the following answer in Czech: "I don't understand. The
official language is Czech here." No attempt to find an
English-speaking colleague is made.

Police language mystery

The winner of this contest, the greatest believer in the abilities of
its own people, is the press office of Police Presidium. "Everybody in
the police speaks one world language. Even if it is just a small unit,
there's always one person who can speak English. And of course there
are language courses," said a woman who answers the phone at the press
department. I share my fresh memories from my visit to the Alien and
Border Police. All the signs were in Czech. "Only Czech. We speak
Czech here," said an irritated female police officer.

I would say this provided further evidence that Czech officials get
irritated easily, especially considering this was at a counter for EU
citizens. The woman marvels at my experience. "They are always obliged
to call for an interpreter for every foreigner," she says. Later, when
I asked if her name could be printed, she says she does not want to be
identified and she is not an official spokeswoman for the department.

I get an explanation for this discrepancy between the police head and
foot at one small police station in central Prague. I arrive on the
pretence that I need to report the loss of my husband. A pleasant
young man and woman are on duty, but they can't find anyone in the
building who can understand me. One policeman passing by asks if it is
a joke when the man asks him if he speaks English. A few minutes
later, however, they get an interpreter for me on the phone. I take
off my disguise once more and question the man, the woman and the
interpreter. The interpreter works on a contract basis but like his
counterparts is usually not available immediately, even if the
foreigner needs to catch a plane that day.

The woman says she's not allowed to attend the English course because
she must cover staff shortages. She and her colleague also note that
there is no financial motivation for police officers to speak a
foreign language.

"Police headquarters might have this feeling [that an English speaker
is always available] because they believe the reports of their
subordinates. But these reports always describe the situation in a
better light, as they are written by chiefs of individual units, who
are responsible for the state of their station and are paid
accordingly," says the man, who asked not to be identified.

Solutions on the way?

So is there any hope that the language inadequacy will be bridged
soon? With little evidence of any conceptual, systematic solutions in
play across public administration, the situation looks grim. It might
take another decade to shift the false patriotism often used to hide
the language deficiency and for Czechs to realize that if you are only
able to communicate in the language of 10 million people, your value
in the labor market is very often quite low. Even as a state official.


Most other countries get an A in English

Those frustrated by the lack of English in the Czech Republic might
wonder whether the situation is actually any better in other former
communist countries where learning the language was suppressed for

Radka Fialová, who has worked in Poland for about a year as a
journalist for the Czech News Agency (ÈTK), thinks Poles provide more
English than Czechs. "I went to a local town hall in Warsaw and they
had all information available in English," Fialová said. Such a sight
would be very unusual in Prague, she said, adding that all Polish
state officials are obliged to attend English language courses.

David Tichý, who worked in Poland for about half a year, had similar
observations. "The Poles are much more diligent and ready to help [in
English]. You can sense their famous businesslike spirit from any
activity in everyday life. … Even if they do not know the language,
they try to communicate with body language. Even at the post office."
On the other hand, Tichý rated the English aptitude of Polish middle
managers as poorer than that of their Czech counterparts.

Jan, a lawyer who has worked in both Romania and Poland but who
declined to be fully identified, found that Romanians made more
effort. "I think that the knowledge of English in Romania is
significantly better than what is found in the Czech Republic, and it
is even better than the level in Poland," Jan said. He added that the
Romanian willingness to help foreigners is also stronger than that of
the Czechs.

Leonard Vrška, a director for Czech Airlines (ÈSA) who is based in
Yekaterinburg, Russia, said his experiences showed Russians have
little English ability, but he noted that he is in the Asian part of
the country and that the situation might be better in Moscow. "They
speak absolutely no English here at the state offices, only Russian.
Even in business meetings they rarely speak English," he said.

Vrska speaks good Russian, but he often goes to various offices with
counterparts from U.K. carrier British Airways and German carrier
Deutsche Lufthansa where he witnesses that nobody bothers to speak
with them in English at all. Even at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
you might be able to speak English with the minister, but not with
lower officials, he added. "The Russians are aware of the fact that
they are getting richer and their economic power is getting stronger.
So they do not feel any need to learn English. Whoever comes from a
foreign country to start a business here and speaks no Russian is in
trouble from the start."

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