Vol 1, No 13
20 September 1999
B O O K R E V I E W:
Colloquial Czech: The Complete Course for Beginners (second edition)
By James Naughton
London: Routledge, 1999
Book only, ISBN: 0-415-16134-7
or book with two cassettes, ISBN: 0-415-16136-3
If you've ever tried your hand at learning Czech or browsed your local bookshop thinking of doing so, chances are that you've used or at least stumbled across James Naughton's Colloquial Czech. One of the mainstays of Czech language teaching and learning for the last twelve years, this venerable handbook has now been thoroughly revised and republished. As someone who used the book as a supplementary text while learning the language, and has also had occasion to teach from it at Sheffield University, I was interested to see both how the new version stacked up for me as a teacher, and what it might bring to the casual or independent learner.
I'm happy to report that Naughton has done more than give his 1987 textbook a facelift for the post-Communist era: the new edition has been rebuilt from the ground up, with a welcome reorientation towards a more communicative style of language learning.
Chapter titles like "Welcome to Prague" and "What are you doing?" set the tone for the textbook's newfound approachability: Those familiar with the old Colloquial Czech will notice that the largely grammar-driven presentation of the original, in which each chapter was focused on one or more grammatical structures, has been replaced by a more welcoming topical approach: the grammar is more explicitly tied to helping students talk about certain themes and master conversational basics.
Czech, like other Slavonic languages, has the reputation of being inaccessible and difficult for Anglophone learners. It's true, of course, that the learner of Czech is faced with large amounts of unfamiliar-looking vocabulary and alien grammatical structures that can't simply be 'intuited' or 'picked up', as can often be done with more closely related languages. A good textbook should mitigate these difficulties by presenting and ordering material in a digestible fashion, allowing the learner to achieve a degree of fluency commensurate with his abilities and commitment.
Naughton does his best to make Czech non-threatening. Although noticeably longer than the first edition, this book is still clearly presented and uncluttered. Naughton's prose makes short work of difficult subjects, and takes a conversational and reassuring tone without oversimplifying or coddling. (In introducing the concept of cases, for instance, he writes on p. 66: "Cases are vital, but at first one of the hardest things for English speakers to master. We'll try to make it as simple as we can... We shall focus on each case in more detail later. At first, just concentrate on recognition and learning common phrases.")
The economy of presentation is a disadvantage when it comes to realia. I counted only four graphics in the entire book: a map, two beer coasters, and a collage of public transport tickets. Such pictures are no doubt superfluous for the learner based in the Czech Republic, but they're a welcome touch for students abroad. I would have liked to see more items like these, as well as some exercises challenging students to actually read the words on them.
Dialogues and reading passages
Dialogues and reading passages have assumed a more central role in the second edition than they did in the first. They're now based around clear conversational and topical themes for each lesson, and there are more of them - sometimes up to five or six per lesson.
The dialogues aren't structured around a tight cast of characters. Instead, we meet a large number of Czechs (and Britons) going about their daily business, meeting up, talking about their plans and where they've been - the bread and butter of everyday interaction in any language. As in the earlier edition, there were places I felt Naughton shoehorned in too many grammatical points into too few lines, to the extent that the dialogue started to sound stilted. Generally, though, I was pleased with the readability of the dialogues and the occasional flashes of quirky humour.
The dialogues are all read aloud on the tapes. The speakers take it at a moderate pace, clearly making some allowance for learners while trying to preserve a decent rhythm. Their demeanour is understated and neutral. I tend to prefer a slightly more hyperbolic presentation, where you hear more of the extremes of Czech intonation, but that's a personal bias; a lot of people will find the calm tones of the readers on these tapes much less grating.
Another innovation is the provision of English translations of these dialogues in the first five lessons (and occasionally thereafter), and of the first few reading passages later on in the book. I haven't made up my mind how I feel about this yet, and will be interested to see how it goes over in our classes this year. On the one hand, I think it might provide less confident learners with a leg up. For others it will become a crutch that will be hard to throw away.
Vocabulary is presented in two formats. There are keys to each dialogue, with new words and phrases, as well as thematic vocabulary with each chapter. The thematic vocabulary lists are detailed enough to cover most objects and situations a beginning learner needs to cope with, but are not overwhelming. Sometimes they are presented as a table, and other times are inserted into an English paragraph. The effect of the latter is a bit macaronic, and not as communicatively immediate as using a picture, but it gets the point across efficiently, and possibly more accurately at times. In Lesson 5, for example, we learn that:
"Typical kinds of pokoj 'room (for living in)' or mistnost '(any kind of) room' are: kuchyn(f.) 'kitchen', obyvaci pokoj/obyvak 'living-room', loznice 'bedroom', koupelna 'bathroom', predsin 'hallway'. In more spacious circumstances: jidelna 'dining-room', pracovna 'study'. To which we must add schody 'stairs', sklep 'cellar' and garaz (f.) 'garage'." (87)
The format allows Naughton not only to name rooms in a house, which is more effectively done in a picture, but also to point out concisely that the typical Czech home would not have as many rooms as an English or American one, and that pokoj and mistnost are not synonyms - facts which a picture would not convey. These sorts of lists make interesting reading for those interested the "culture" of everyday Czech life, whether or not they are learning to speak Czech.
Presentation of grammar
The second edition's approach to presenting grammar is a sea change from the first edition. For instance, instead of learning that a chapter is "about" the accusative case, as in the first edition, we find that it's "about" work and the family, with grammar presented in that context.
The order of material seems to be a compromise between the most useful grammar and the most accessible grammar. This is a reasonable accommodation to the needs of the casual learner. The less linguistically inclined may only want to make it through the first few chapters, and it's better that they master something they can use than be faced with something that they can't fathom. Those who like everything in tidy paradigms will find the new Colloquial Czech less straightforward than the old one; it takes a few lessons for all the facets of a grammatical point to be presented. But I approved of many of Naughton's priorities (such as emphasising the use of verbs like 'come', 'put,' 'set', 'place' instead of sweeping them into a footnote or a final chapter, and demoting less important material like minor declension patterns).
There were a few places where I wasn't entirely happy with the organisation. I cringed to see all the plural oblique cases swept into lesson 14, almost as an afterthought, and I have my doubts about presenting two similar-looking cases at at once, as Naughton does in lesson 5 with the dative and the locative.
Each lesson is provided with six or seven short written exercises, with answers given in a key at the back of the book. The written exercises are the one facet of this text that cries out for supplementation. Fortunately, Naughton provides such a wealth of well-organised material in the dialogues and readings that it will be easy for even a moderately inventive language teacher to spin exercises out of them. Those trying to teach themselves will find it harder going. Many of the dialogues are left hanging, with no written exercises attached to them at all. This seems needless, when the material is rich in possibilities for relatively structured work that could easily be keyed in the back of the book. On pp, 122-3, for example, there are two reading passages where no additional work is offered. Yet it would be easy to ask students to rewrite the passages with a plural subject, or in the future tense/past tense, or to complete a similar passage. Such exercises would help the independent learner to get the most from the dialogues and readings.
Typical written exercises focus on the grammar points in the chapter, asking for translations of sentences, conjugations and declensions of particular forms, and gap filling. Work on vocabulary is infrequent. There are some more inventive tasks: Naughton regularly asks the learner to correct statements about the dialogues and reading passages. This approach could, for my taste, have been used more widely throughout the book.
The paucity of written exercises is redeemed by a useful set of oral exercises on the tapes. In addition to hearing the dialogues read aloud, students are asked questions about the dialogues, or occasionally given a similar scene to replay with one of the voices on tape. Answers are given on the tape as well, so it's easy to check yourself. For those interested in working on their conversational skills and making full use of the dialogues, the tapes are an essential purchase and an integral part of the course.
Colloquial Czech continues to have both an English-Czech and a Czech-English glossary, as well as an improved and more comprehensive index. Many textbooks dispense with English-Czech glossaries, but given how difficult Czech dictionaries are to find and use for non-native speakers, it's welcome at this level. The book also has a key to exercises and a complete grammatical appendix including not only tables of nouns, adjectives, pronouns and verbs, but also lists of irregular verbs, prepositions and conjunctions. (Many of the excellent vocabulary lists that formed part of the back matter in the first edition have been integrated into the body of the new edition.)
Use of spoken and written forms
Colloquial Czech has an accurate and yet unobtrusive treatment of the difference between common spoken Bohemian Czech and formal written Czech, an area many introductory textbooks ignore. As anyone who has studied the language knows, the informal language used in Bohemia has a noticeably different grammar and vocabulary from "standard" Czech. Teachers and textbook authors are faced with two problems from the outset. First, should we complicate students' lives by presenting them with multiple variants that they can't yet stylistically appreciate? Second, should we simplify matters by "sanctifying" either one form or the other, or by labelling them consistently as "formal" and "informal"?
Previous textbooks have tried a number of approaches. One is to ignore the informal variants altogether, and assume students will pick them up from their friends, if at all. A second is to create a single mixture of formal and informal variants that seems appropriate to the speech of educated people and present it as the only option. (This has been used in vocational Czech courses for foreigners.)
Naughton opts for a third approach, presenting these alternate spoken forms right from the beginning of the book. Instead of immediately labelling all such forms as either "formal" or "informal", Naughton explains each one individually and in brief. Some may feel these distinctions needlessly complicate an already complex picture, but the existence of these multiple forms is a fact of life for learners residing in the Czech Republic; they hear those "unofficial" words and forms everywhere, and need to know where and when they are appropriate to avoid embarrassment.
Naughton's approach may be harder for students to "latch onto" as a system, but I think that's a strength, not a weakness. Learners need to appreciate that the "feeling" of each form is used slightly differently, in a different range of situations and contexts. (His treatment of the forms dekuju and dekujou in lesson 4 is a good example of how he distinguishes different levels of formality and officiality.) Informal language as a system is presented near the end of the book, in lesson 17.
The one problem I found is that Naughton doesn't explicitly state which forms aren't acceptable in writing - but all the forms, of course, appear written down in the text (just as, for instance, we have ways of writing gonna, ain't. but generally avoid using them in our writing). Any teacher worth his salt will make sure his students know the difference, but those working on their own may occasionally find themselves caught out.
Should I buy Colloquial Czech?
The end of a book review is where the reviewer gets to parade his credentials by ferreting out tiny infelicities and errors and blowing them out of all proportion. I'll try to keep my comments in perspective; after all, I have only a few small bones to pick with Naughton -- for instance, with his playful claim that words like vzdycky and ctvrt are simple to pronounce (p. 8), and with his implicit recommendation that we say na shledanou 'good-bye' to a server who has just brought us our beers (p. 24). And yes, despite its length, Colloquial Czech is still a very compact presentation of Czech grammar, and this condensation can occasionally be problematic. By and large, though, Naughton has struck a good balance for his readers between detail and conciseness.
Colloquial Czech has shortcomings, but they can be rectified by adding material. What is there provides a solid base for learning Czech that will benefit all beginning learners, as well as those in need of a brush-up and those looking for some structure for Czech learnt on the fly. If you fall into one of these categories, this new edition will meet your needs in an economical and friendly format. What more can you ask?
Neil Bermel, 17 September 1999
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