Behind the Iron Curtain part 16 – Languages

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

In Czech we have a saying – how many languages you know is how many times you are a human. As a grown man I do appreciate the wisdom of this saying, since language barriers are difficult to breach and in combination with other things they do lead to a lot of nasty stuff. It is for example very easy to other people whose language you do not understand and with whom you therefore cannot effectively communicate. Even with all other barriers removed, language barrier in itself can be insurmountable obstacle. And when you can and do speak with people, all other differences tend to fade away.

As a child, I did not appreciate the saying at all. My parents were trying to get me to learn German from early age, but since they are not the pushy type and I was not too receptive, it did not work out. Later at school from age 10 Russian language was compulsory. But there we hit the snag of not only another language, but another alphabet as well – for me it was difficult enough to learn writing in one alphabet and sure enough, another one was difficult even more and soon I started to write fluently but illegibly in Azbuka as well.

I do not remember whether the explanation as to why we must learn Russian was given to us as a matter of course or whether someone asked, but it was given to us nevertheless. It was argued that it is useful to know at least one widely distributed language so one can communicate with more people. And that most widely distributed languages are English, Spanish and Russian, because USSR covers one eight of inhabitable land and Russian is spoken in all other countries of the Warsaw Pact, covering most of Europe and Asia, therefore Russian is the most useful language for us of them all. Q.E.D.

You probably have spotted already the flaw in that argument, as did I – the area of inhabited land is not as important as the amount of actual people with whom you can speak using given language. But lacking further data, I have not questioned the wisdom of this and I thought that it is a valid argument at the time. So I plodded on with difficulties trying to learn Russian, torturing my teacher in turn as much as she tortured me.

However it did not take long to learn how untrue this argument is in real life. It started when I saw how difficult it was for children to get help with homework in Russian language. Nobody could read it and nobody understood it much, despite the fact that they all learned it in school. That way I learned that actual use of Russian among ordinary people was so minimal that most of them forgot most of it as soon as they left the school. Second observation was when I was at a summer camp in German Democratic Republic. We were allowed to have some pocket-money and to do some shopping. Hooray! We are in a foreign country, but people here learned Russian in school, therefore we will be able to communicate with them! And to this day I remember the totally blank expression of a quite young shopkeeper when I told her that I would like to buy that aeroplane model of – (I forgot the exact type) and I had to resort to pointing and grunting instead. Huh, so much for that argument then.

By the time my elementary school education was nearing its end, I was convinced of two things – first was that I am hopeless at learning other languages and I hate it. Second was that learning foreign languages is nearly useless.

For the second conviction I actually had some solid data at the time – the Iron Curtain was an effective barrier going anywhere west of my home, making any need to understand people living there moot. And from experience I knew that even if I manage to get to some of the other eastern countries, Russian will be of nearly zero use.

To this day my generation and those older are still the least language-savvy generations in our country. And the country as a whole has therefore still abysmal proficiency in other languages, as well as in many other former east bloc countries. The Iron Curtain persists in this form, still fostering xenophobia and bigotry. A reminder that a regime change is not enough.


  1. Kreator says

    I like that saying. Je suis humain trois fois!
    Here in Argentina we have a problem with foreign languages as well. Learning English in high school is mandatory, but for the most part our public schools lack qualified teachers. If you aren’t interested and/or don’t complement your learning with a private tutor like I did, you’re not likely to get very far. That said, online media exposure thankfully helps a bit.

  2. Some Old Programmer says

    (There’s a word missing in the 2nd paragraph:
    It is for example very easy to [?] other people whose language you do not understand …)

  3. says

    Some Old Programmer
    no, there is not a word missing, only the “other” is meant as a werb (as in “othering”). Maybe its not proper English, in that case I am sorry for the confusion.

  4. Some Old Programmer says

    Charly @3:
    Ah, ok, sorry for mistaking the construct. I took “other people” as a noun phrase.

  5. Ice Swimmer says

    This article contains truths that are easy to forget in a small country in which the economy is dependent on a large proportion of people speaking foreign languages, mostly English, but also German, French, Spanish and others.

    I didn’t realize that the Russian instruction in the East Bloc, outside of Soviet Union, was as useless as it was, but of course it makes sense that people who didn’t actually want to learn it and couldn’t use the language wouldn’t learn properly. Most people here don’t want learn their mandatory Swedish and avoid most opportunities to use it.

  6. chigau (違う) says

    Me, too. That use of the word “other” was confusing on first reading.
    I think from now on, if I use “other” as a verb I’ll use “quote” marks.
    or bold or italic

  7. dakotagreasemonkey says

    I, regrettably, grew up in the USA when American English was the only thing taught.
    So, i am handicapped when it comes to languages other than English.
    First introduction to a different language was in High School, when I took a mandatory language class, and chose French, for two years. 10th and 11th grades, So I was 15 and 16 years old, to try to learn a new language. With nobody I knew who was a native French speaker. So, other than a small set of words I can remember, it was as useless as you being taught Russian.
    So, “In Czech we have a saying – how many languages you know is how many times you are a human.” I have tried to be more human, and learn other languages, but still run into the problem of being language stunted, by being American.
    I know a few words of Spanish, French, Japanese, Chinese, German, Korean and Oglala. Pretty much just enough to thank my servers in a restaurant for their service, which to me is an acknowledgement of their value as a human being.
    I have been upset for years about my inability to really speak a different language. I have bought software, DVD’s , books,, and tried to study, all to no avail. Basically, I have had no one to talk to, who has wanted to teach me real conversation in a different language.
    White privilege sucks, on so many levels, It keeps me “retarded” (as in Giliells next post), as there is no pressing need to actually become fluent in any other language.
    When I have traveled to Quebec, Canada, and China, and Korea, during those immersive times, I have been partially fluent, Some of the best times of my life, though all to brief.

  8. lumipuna says

    Unfortunately, it’s not very feasible to learn new languages just for the sake of being more human. If you have no regular need for language X, you probably have to go out of your way to even practice X -- and it takes a lot of practice to become and stay fluent in any language.

    The internet is an awesome way to access language learning resources, up to and including social contact with native speakers.

  9. rq says

    I grew up bilingual by default, trilingual through schooling, and have now gained a basic knowledge of two other languages. Three, if you count Spanish. But this is a pitfall of living in a minority-culture family (boy, was I surprised to learn that other kids didn’t speak other languages at home, I thought English was just a sort of public language!), then bilingual Canada (the National Capital region had obligatory bilingual education and I was good enough to go to immersion and good enough to get my bilingual certificate). German I studied in university, up to third year, but it didn’t fit with my other courses after that. I’ve picked up very basic Russian, though I’m loathe to attempt speaking it (I do understand most simple phrases such as “how are you”, “what time is it”, “get the fuck out of my way if you’re not getting off the bus”, mostly learned by osmosis). I can figure out written Spanish and Italian if I try, but I’m lost once it’s spoken.
    Considering my age and occupation, I get a lot of very surprised faces when (mostly elderly) people realize I’m not actually faking the fact that I don’t speak or understand complicated Russian, a testament to the decades of obligatory Russian. Slowly switching over to English as the obligatory second language, but in grade 4 kids are expected to choose a third language, with the most obvious choices being Russian and German, though Spanish and French can be available (depending on whether the local school has a teacher). The funniest (not really) thing is that young people can still go all the way to grade 12 without learning Latvian at a proper level (formal grammar, yes -- fluency for random usage in the world, no), and certain groups are resisting laws that would make this obligatory (learning the language, I mean), because… well, I don’t know, becaue they’re kind of shooting themselves in the foot (their kids, actually). Because if you want to go to university, and you’ve only ever learned Russian, you’re extremely limited in your choice of higher education, as most programs are in Latvian or, these days, also in English. Plus also if you want to get into government jobs, you need to prove fluency (not having any formal Latvian education, I had to take the language exam a couple of years ago, which felt like a joke, because I’d already been working for years without it, but they changed the requirement -- I made one mistake (commas are the devil), but even the examiners were asking me what I was doing there).

    Anyway, I recently re-discovered an online learning program that is based on a lot of repetition (of silly phrases, but also basic vpcabulary) that has worked as a stabilizer, but since I’ve been using it to review the languages that I sort-of do know, I can’t comment on how well it actually teaches (without having someone to speak with). Although -- Middle Child is currently using it to learn Korean, so we’ll see. Perhaps in a year I can report back and say that it really works. :D (What I do like about it is that it emphasizes the importance of daily practice, even if it is only 5 minutes, annoying daily reminders and all.)

  10. avalus says

    To me some Languages are much more difficult than others, but without the need to speak them regulary it is extra hard.
    “In Czech we have a saying – how many languages you know is how many times you are a human.”
    So I am a fractal-human :D Only english stuck next to my native german. French I understand some but talk like a 5 year old, I confuse what little I know of spanish and italian (with hilarious concequences…), I tried russian and just do not get it out of my mouth and my finnish is limited to … perkele (Every finnish person I met spoke perfect english and quite a few german, which utterly suprised me at the time. And I was too young to force myself out of my comfort zone and learn, I guess).

  11. says

    @rq, strictly speaking, everyone who grew up in former Czechosovakia is bilingual, because we had bilingual Czech and Slovak media. Despite Czech and Slovak being very similar, they are definitively distinct languages and today’s young Czechs, who are not exposed to Slovak from early age, do not understand it as well as our generation.

  12. secondtofirstworld says


    Bilingual de facto, one language de jure, the constructed Czechoslovakian. Also, I think it’s only fair to anyone who isn’t that well acquainted with the history of Central Europe, beyond Russian being a mandatory language (except for Romania, they never had to learn it), the USSR had her own divide and conquer policy.

    They were well aware of preexisting animosities between nations that led to WWII (and WWI), so it did not take much convincing to not learn each other’s languages. Russian enabled for the occupiers that the only language we all spoke with each other was theirs. Speaking a Western language behind the Iron Curtain was risky. If you said orange instead of Sonnapfel as Ossies called it, it was assumed you have unreported Western contacts.

    It really is a shame, that Masaryk, who was killed to prevent a reconnection with the West has Klaus as a successor who’s but one man, Czech, in the sense that his Euroskepticism is on radioactive levels.

  13. says

    Czechoslovakian was a “thing” only before WW2. In my lifetime it did not exist and Czechs and Slovaks were recognized as two nations with two languages, de-facto as well as de-jure.

    The Russian Pan-Slavism was really played up, that is true. It did not work, as far as I could see, all they have managed is that here people started to hate Russians whilst not stopping to hate Germans.

    Klaus is a libertarian, a catholic and had a creationist as a spokeperson during his time as president. Enough said.

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