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.