Main Challenges Faced by
Czech as a Medium-Sized
Language: State of Affairs at
the Beginning of the 21st
Jiří Nekvapil, Charles University, Prague
Czech Republic
Czech Republic: Basic facts
• Territory of 78,866 square km (approx. as
large as Austria or Portugal)
• Population of 10,230,000 (approx. the same
as Belgium or Portugal)
• Exists since 1993 as a result of the split of
Czechoslovakia (which had approx. 15
million inhabitants)
The Issue of Small and Large Languages
or Is Czech a Small Language?
• In some language pairs, the first language may be
classified as small, the second one as large. This
may be done on the basis of the following criteria:
number of speakers, spread of the language, its
economic strength, status of speakers, how the
language is elaborated, and its prestige.
• The notion of a small or large language is relative:
with respect to a particular language, a language
may be small and with respect to a different
language, the same language may be large.
Population by mother tongue
“Linguistic confidence” of the
Czechs in the Czech language
• The belief in the healthy functioning of (standard)
Czech has been widespread among Czech
linguists. Statements of leading specialists
working in the field of cultivation of Czech
include formulations such as “standard Czech is
perfectly and thoroughly capable of complying
with all communicative needs of the educated
speaker” (Uhlířová, Svobodová, Pravdová 2005).
Significantly, the linguists’ self-confident
formulations draw on the “linguistic confidence”
of a considerable section of the Czech society.
“Czech is a small language used only
by the Czechs” - An ideology typical
for the Czechs
A consequence: The Czechs willingly accept that they
must accommodate linguistically, they don’t expect the
(western) foreigners (tourists, expatriates…) to speak
A consequence of that consequence: The Czechs
indirectly discourage these foreigners from learning
Czech (the absence of the Czech Foreigner Talk)
Position of English in the Czech
• Up to now, Czech domains and genres have been
relatively sheltered from the expansion of English
by the rather low level of knowledge of English of
the general populace in the Czech Republic
• Until now, English has also appeared to be
hindered from overtaking Czech in some domains
by its competition with German in the Czech
Republic. While this still holds true to a certain
extent, English is obviously gaining ground
Impact of English
• Use of English in highly specialized branches
(science, military affairs, astronautics, cybernetics)
is compensated for by the rich metaphorical
feature of technical terms used in a nonterminological way by the whole population –
overall, there is an extensive process of
Czechifying of the English terms both in semantic
and morphological aspects
• Moreover, Czech is used on all levels of the
schooling system
Threats for the structure of Czech
• Mechanical introduction of foreign elements into
the language which break up its typological, that
is, inflectional character
• Non-declinable attributes (such as „fotbalová
Gambrinus liga“ = the Gambrinus Football
League ) violate the traditional rule according to
which attributes that do not have the form of an
inflected adjective should be placed in
postposition (> „fotbalová liga Gambrinus”)
• The rejection of forming feminine forms from
masculine ones (masc. Johnson, fem. Johnsonová)
Relevant historical milestones
• Czech national movement of the 19th century,
revival of the Czech language
• Struggle with German
• 1918 – birth of multiethnic and multilingual
• 1945-47 – forced evacuation of 2,5 million
• 1993 – split of Czechoslovakia (loss of the
Dominant position of Czech
• The contemporary language situation in the Czech
Republic is characterized by the fact that, in spite
of the presence of tens of languages in the country,
Czech holds the dominant position in nearly all
spheres of social life, from official communication
to everyday communication. This has not always
been the case – the current situation has only been
in place for the past 50–60 years.
Recent growing linguistic
• Ever since the opening of the borders in 1989,
when the Communist regime fell, there has been a
clear shift toward greater linguistic diversity in the
Czech lands, especially in large cities. This
growing linguistic and cultural diversity in the
Czech lands constitutes a great challenge to realize
changes in the Czech school system, language
policy, and last but not least, in the attitudes and
communicative habits of the Czech-speaking part
of the population.
Czech as a Foreign Language and
Lingua Franca
• One of the evident changes concerning the status
of Czech is an unprecedented increase in the
teaching and use of Czech as a foreign language
during the last ten to fifteen years. This is due to
the fact that the Czech Republic has become a
place attractive for tens of thousands of foreigners,
both as a result of migration within the EU and
external migration. The teaching of Czech as a
foreign language has therefore become a
pedagogical problem which hundreds of Czech
teachers have to face.
Czech as a Foreign Language Abroad
• The Czech state has been relatively active in
spreading Czech abroad (teaching fellowships),
but there is no institution specializing in the
propagation of Czech, comparable to the Goethe
Institut for German or Polonicum for Polish
• Moreover, the teaching fellowships are not even
represented in all the EU member states (they are
lacking in half of the EU countries).
The issue of minorities
• The Framework Convention for the Protection of National
Minorities (ratified in 1997) and the Ethnic Minorities Act
(2001) protect Czech of the following ethnicities: Bulgarian,
Croatian, German, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Roma, Russian,
Rusyn, Serbian, Slovak, Ukranian. This approach was
implicitly criticised by the Advisory Commitee on FCPNM in
its report published in 2005.
• European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (in
effect only since 2007) protects only these languages: Polish,
Slovak (provisions of Part II and III), German, Romani
(provisions of Part II only). Why? The criterion of historicity
Relative size of the Slovak linguistic
cca. 200 thousand speakers of
Slovak, but:
• no Slovak-language education,
• high language-shift rate.
‘Minorities’ vs. ‘communities’
in the Czech Republic
• Who is a ‘minority’ and who is a ‘community’
• The issue of the Vietnamese group amounting to
cca. 100,000 members
• Legal view vs. common sense view
• Classifications are consequential
• Scientific approaches should be based on common
sense categories rather than on legal documents
• ‘Majority’ is just one ‘community’ among all
‘communities’ in a given state
Conclusions: Main challenges – not
for the Czech language but for the
Czech speakers
• Restrict their Czech monolingualism
• Becoming aware that Czech is not used only
by the Czechs
• Accept that Czech is not necessarily a small
• Maintain the typological, that is, inflectional
character of the language
Some References
• Marti, R. and Nekvapil, J. (eds) (2007) Small and Large
Slavic Language in Contact (= International Journal of the
Sociology of Language 183, special issue)
• Nekvapil, J. (2007) On the language situation in the Czech
Republic: What has (not) happened after the accession of
the country to the EU. Sociolinguistica 21 (Max Niemeyer
Verlag), pp. 36-54
• Nekvapil, J., Sloboda, M., Wagner, P. (2009)
Mnohojazyčnost v České republice. Multilingualism in the
Czech Republic. Praha: Nakladatelství Lidové noviny
• Neustupný, J.V. and Nekvapil, J. (2003) Language
management in the Czech Republic. Current Issues in
Language Planning 4, pp. 181-366
A to už je konec
Moltes gràcies,
Thank you

Main Challenges Faced by Czech as a Medium