The Czech Sock in Bristol

 An Interview with Chris White

Written by Blanka Šustrová
Edited by Martina Krénová

Studying English language at university is not unusual these days for non-native speakers. But what if a young English-speaking man from Bristol decides to devote his college years to studying Czech language? It was a pleasure to ask Chris White what had led him to this decision, how he found the language and what the department of Czech studies in Bristol looked like.

You are studying Czech language at University of Bristol. Why did you decide to go for a language that only has some ten million speakers?

I wish I had some edgy, wacky reason for choosing Czech, but I have to admit that it is in large part because I am half Czech, and figured it was about time I learnt the language. I have also studied Russian for about 9 years, which is a related language so I knew it would help my Czech. I think Slavonic languages are brilliant so I hope Czech is not the last I will learn.

Ironically I almost did not major in Czech. In my first semester I found out it would be possible for me to do Czech language as part of the Russian wing of my degree, which would have allowed me to switch to German, which I studied at A-Level. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending how you look at it), Bristol could not timetable my modules without a clash, so I had to sacrifice one of Czech or German, and German was always going be the one to go.

At the end of the day, the Czechs are reserved in a way that reminds me a lot of the Brits, and they are always up for a beer, so what is not to like!

I am definitely glad I have kept Czech; it is a tiny department at Bristol so you get to know the lecturers really well and they are all lovely. Plus the opportunity to do a semester abroad in the Czech Republic is way more unique than going to Germany or Austria.

What does your study programme look like? Do you also study linguistics, literature and Czech culture?

Our study programme consists of about 3 hours of Czech language tuition per week, plus a couple of hours of non-language units that we can choose from a selection of Czech literature, politics, sociology etc. The actual language itself only counts for a third of my degree credits, which irritates me because it is by far my strongest academic thing and I am quite bad at essays, particularly timed ones!

Last year I took a unit on Czech gender relations and an introductory literature module. I really enjoyed both, but made the fatal error of writing my literature coursework on Němcová’s Babička, which is one of the most boring books I have ever read! Am I allowed to say that?

You have said that the Czech department in Bristol is quite small. How many students and teachers do you have? What does the entrance exam look like?

Yes, it is very small. Czech language for beginners is available as an open unit to all language students so there is normally about 30 people per year doing that, but I was the only person in my year majoring in it last year, so there were more lecturers than students! That sounds a bit depressing, but I love the chance to do one on one classes with the lecturers, you get a much more personal learning experience.

And the entrance exam? What entrance exam? (laughs). Most courses at most unis do not have entrance exams, we are normally admitted based on our A-Level results. I think Oxbridge have entrance exams, but you know – “ain’t nobody got time for that”.

I love how Czech words have fixed stress on the first syllable; Russian stress moves around without warning and it is an absolute horror to get right, particularly when stressing the wrong syllable changes the meaning of the word!

What aspect of the Czech language do you find the most difficult?

Good question! I do not find it too hard to be honest, I think the most difficult concept for me to wrap my head around as a non-Slav has to be verb aspects, but that would be equally difficult for me in any Slavic language as it is in Czech. A lot of people I have spoken to find the pronunciation challenging, but I can say “ř” without much difficulty, and besides that it is okay. I love how Czech words have fixed stress on the first syllable; Russian stress moves around without warning and it is an absolute horror to get right, particularly when stressing the wrong syllable changes the meaning of the word! I am about to head off to Siberia for a semester and I already know I will say “I am pissing” (which sounds the same as the Czech “píšu”) rather than “I am writing” (which is still “pišú” but has the stress on the second syllable) by mistake at least once while I am there!

ponozka-on-st-nicholas-day-photo-courtesy-of-chris-whiteUsually at British universities there are student clubs and societies associated with the particular colleges. Does something like this also exist within the Czech department?

Yep, I founded it! (laughs). For a long time at Bristol there has been a society called SlavSoc, but that is really just for Russian students despite its name, so my lecturer Jana Nahodilová and I (well, mainly Jana!) decided we should form a breakaway Czech Society, so I did just that!

We are called Ponožka, a pun based on the trend to call societies SomethingSoc. Get it? Sock? (laughs). Yeah it is a dreadful pun, but we are such a small society that it suits us to have a non-serious name, and almost everyone so far has liked the name so it is here to stay for now.

We are open for both Czech students and Czechs studying at Bristol, so it works for both parties: Czech students can get more involved in the culture and the people, and it lets Czechs here find someone who speaks their language when they are getting fed up with English. We just do little events like meeting for drinks and watching Czech films, but this April we are having a trip to Prague, which will be by far the biggest Ponožka event so far.

Did you experience any cultural clash after coming here for the internship? What struck you the most?

I think I was prepared for the culture thanks to my Czech relatives and a trip to Prague a few years ago, but I think everyone has a wave of homesickness about a month into your semester abroad. Once I got over that though I was fine. Probably the hardest thing for me was working out how to spend my downtime without my Xbox or my guitar which I tragically had to leave in the UK!

I did have one or two moments where I found myself at odds with the xenophobia a lot of Czechs have not quite grown out of yet, but I was expecting that to be honest. At the end of the day, the Czechs are reserved in a way that reminds me a lot of the Brits, and they are always up for a beer, so what is not to like! (laughs).

Němcová’s Babička is one of the most boring books I have ever read! Am I allowed to say that?

What is your favourite aspect of Czech culture?

I just adore Czech beer, both the taste and the price! Why is it that you can pay £4+ for a pint of Carlsberg in a UK pub when less than a pound in the Czech Republic will buy you an infinitely better beer?!

For a nation of its size Czech cinema is very good. I have watched plenty of Czech films at Bristol and in Brno, and they have all been entertaining. It was a somewhat surreal experience watching Pelíšky with my ex-girlfriend and her mum and hearing those two quote pretty much every single line of the film by heart, but I gather that film is a bit of a Czech classic!

My overall favourite book is actually probably The Unbearable Lightness of Being (by Milan Kundera), but I have only read that in English; reading Czech fiction is pretty exhausting with my current vocab level, but I definitely want to get my teeth into Czech literature in the future.

Czech humour? Yeah I am not sure I will ever grasp that! (laughs).

What would you like to do when you finish school? A translator? An ambassador? A teacher?

I wish I knew! I know I would like to use my languages in some capacity once I have graduated, but beyond that I do not know. I would like to do a masters and then see where I stand I guess. Czech might not be much use to me in the job world but I am definitely glad I chose it!


medailonekChris White is a student of Czech and Russian at University of Bristol, hailing from (near to) sunny Liverpool. He spent 5 months working at MU as an office assistant at the CEITEC biochemistry labs on the main campus. At the moment, he is enjoying Tomsk in the sunnier part of Siberia, studying Russian for a semester at Tomsk Polytechnic University before coming back for a final year at Bristol.

One of the rare breed of Northerners amongst Bristol’s sea of private schooled home-counties Oxbridge rejects, Chris enjoys being blunt about things, being a chirpy unintelligible Scouser, daytime drinking, and boring his friends about whichever foreign language he has just looked up on Wikipedia. He also likes heavy metal, Formula One, football and video games in his spare time.

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