Lessons from Teaching Slovak in D.C.

As strange as it may sound, my best memories from spending two years in Washington, D.C. involve teaching my mother tongue, Slovak.

There was never any shortage of enticing opportunities in the U.S. capital. Between 2009 and 2011, I studied public policy there, worked at the World Bank’s research department, and helped compile an index of foreign aid effectiveness at the Brookings Institution. On the streets, it was not unusual to run into well-known politicians or economists. Washington, D.C. had a lively cultural scene that included, among other perks, free entry to almost any museum. It also boasted a variety of historical sites and tourist attractions. Last but not least, the city attracted a diverse mix of young, educated and ambitious people who were active in every walk of life — in the private sector, in international organizations, at embassies, as government employees or in NGOs.

In spite of all these temptations, my favorite activity was teaching Slovak for two hours every week during the spring of 2011. I came across teaching Slovak by coincidence. I don’t remember how exactly it happened, but shortly after arriving in Washington, D.C., I found out about a non-profit called the Global Language Network. This organization had started out as a group of international students who wanted to teach their languages to one another. Over time, it grew to become a very active non-profit that offered very cheap (in fact, almost free) foreign language classes to any interested learner. All classes were taught by volunteers — mostly international students or immigrants who spoke the languages natively. Soon enough, I became one of these volunteers.

In this article, I would like to offer some observations I made as I taught my Slovak lessons. I suspect that many of them apply just as easily to the cases of other rarely taught languages.

#1: There is a great deal of interest in learning Slovak in the United States.

Initially, my biggest fear was that my lessons would not attract enough students. In order to make it easy for anyone interested to attend, I strategically scheduled the classes for early Saturday afternoons. I reached out to several Slovak mailing lists (such as SlovakInfo), and asked them to forward a brief recruitment e-mail.

In the end, my strategy turned out to be successful and my fears unfounded, as about twenty-five students attended the first lesson. Most of them completed the entire Slovak course.

#2: People interested in learning Slovak are very diverse.

The twenty-five students could not be more different from one another. The youngest one was an eighteen-year-old first-year undergraduate student. He, apparently, chose to study Slovak because he had already mastered Spanish and French, and wanted to crack yet another European language. Why he chose Slovak in particular remains a mystery. But that’s okay — after all, as my ancient Roman friends would say, de gustibus non est disputandum.

My oldest student was a gentleman who must have been about seventy-five years old. He had Slovak ancestors, and had long been fascinated by his origins. His fascination went so far that he even tried to self-study Slovak, but found the process rather difficult. As a result, he was very glad to find a native speaker to teach him the language.

Each of my students had an interesting life story that led them to study Slovak. One of my students was a real estate salesman whose ancestors had been members of the Rusyn ethnic minority in Slovakia. Another of my students was a young teacher who had spent two years living in Nitra, a city in Slovakia, where she had taught English. In those two years, she managed to fall in love with the country, but did not quite manage — despite some genuine effort — to learn the language. She brought her boyfriend to my classes. After one of my lessons, the boyfriend privately approached me, and told me that he was planning to propose during their upcoming trip to Slovakia. Today, these two students are happily married.

One of my favorites was Chad, a young man who had married a Slovak woman. He told me that he had signed up for Slovak lessons because he wanted to understand his wife a little better. With a pinch of humor, I replied that I can’t possibly guarantee that the lessons will help him understand his wife, but I will do my best to make sure they improve his understanding of her mother tongue.

#3: Basic communication skills are more important than grammatical perfection

Slovak is a difficult language. This is especially true for students who are native speakers of English. Perhaps the only thing that is easier to learn in Slovak than in English are the tenses. Slovak only distinguishes between the past, present and future tenses — as opposed to the variety of past present continuous and other tenses in English.

I knew that my course could be my students’ only chance to learn the basics of Slovak. For this reason, I decided not to spend too much effort making sure that my students can form grammatically perfect sentences. Instead, my goal was to teach them to understand simple conversations and to communicate simply and effectively — and, especially, to communicate without fear.

From my own experience, I know that the difference between success and failure in learning a foreign language comes down to not being afraid to communicate. If students can overcome the fear of saying something that might not be entirely correct but would nevertheless be intelligible, they will be able to pick up the language else much faster and without experiencing any unnecessary stress.

#4: Internet lessons can be an effective complement to traditional classes.

Since most of my students were working adults with families, I knew that many of them may have to miss a few classes due to their other important commitments. At the same time, I wanted to make sure that the occasional absence of some students would not slow down everyone else’s progress in the course.

I therefore decided to set up a website for the course, and to publish a summary of the material I covered after each lesson. I added a sound recording to each of the Slovak sentences and examples on the site, so that students could also study and practice the pronunciation. I recommended that all my students — not just those who were absent— review the corresponding online lesson after each “live” class.

If you are interested in my Slovak language lessons for beginners, you can find the website here.

#5: Internet lessons take on a life of their own.

As soon as my Slovak lessons became available on the Internet, they took on a life of their own. Over time, I started receiving e-mails from people living in every corner of the world (including unlikely places such as Sri Lanka or the Philippines) thanking me for the lessons.

Many of the messages were quite touching. I learned, for instance, that the lessons made it possible for several foreign boyfriends and girlfriends of Slovaks to communicate with their (perhaps) future in-laws.

Of all the e-mails I have received, the one that left the most profound impression on me came from a police commander in England. He wrote that he commanded a unit that protected a community of ethnic Roma from the Czech and Slovak Republics living in England. The Internet lessons, he wrote, allowed his police officers to communicate more effectively with the community.

One of the most rewarding facts of life is that, sometimes, one may not even realize that he or she is being helpful to another human being.