Photo by Chris Barnes

Photo by Chris Barnes. cc

“I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions,” said Vaclav Havel, a Czech playwright and human rights advocate who became president of Czechoslovakia, replacing the communist government. Despite the power of words in their country, Slovaks were not always able to learn many other languages. As of 25 years ago, they are allowed to learn languages besides their native tongues and Russian. Language learning has soared since 1989, and now children can begin language learning in school as six-year-olds.

Andrea Palenikova, a Slovak native, explains the change since the fall of communism. “The transition is always hard. My parents . . . were growing up in communism, and then it just collapsed and they had to really . . . change basically their whole mindset and everything. So, because of that, it is sometimes hard for us younger generations to understand that.” She muses, “I can’t . . . imagine not to be able to have this opportunity, you know, to learn, because I just love it so much.”

Palenikova’s enthusiasm for learning other languages started young. At home, she grew up speaking mainly Slovak. However, her paternal grandmother only spoke Hungarian, thus Palenikova was exposed to another language. Listening to accents of family members from near the Polish border and watching a German TV show at a friend’s house further sparked her curiosity with foreign tongues.

Palenikova began learning English early, but as she says, “[Slovak children] can even take other languages really early right now, like when they’re three or four. But normally it starts when you go to elementary school, so in the age of six.” The system of schooling had recently changed, and she began at age 10. Palenikova says, “I was just always drawn to English. I really wanted to learn the language. And then I just figured out that it was a very common language, and just very universal, so I started to like it even more.” In high school, Palenikova learned French, and she later picked up Dutch on a proselyting mission for her church to the Netherlands. She also said that she understands a little Polish and Russian.

In Slovakia, younger generations see a vast array of language possibilities opening up and even becoming requirements in public schooling. Schools offer language classes at younger ages and require students to pursue language learning longer. As of 2013, there were 56 bilingual schools throughout the country. There, teachers teach all school subjects in both the mother language (Slovak) and other languages.

Natalia Seidlova, also a multilingual native of Slovakia, learned more languages as her schooling continued. “In high school I had to learn three languages. One of them was Slovak, the second one had to be English for everybody, and then we could choose the third language from German, Spanish, French, or Russian.”

It doesn’t stop there, though. The Helen Doron Langue school teaches “children who are three months old until they’re 12 years old to know English as their first language,” Seidlova explained. This special learning program is currently available in 34 countries.

Lucia Evans started a Helen Doron English school branch in Zvolen, Slovakia, beginning with a small group of six or so children. “Everyone was telling me I was crazy,” she says, “and that they were too young.” After all, how can a baby learn a second language? “If they’re immersed in the language from very young they can actually learn to think in the language.” Being able to think in another language is, according to Evans, what distinguishes language learners who are exceptionally fluent.

The concept of the program is total immersion—no translating—and involves activities both at home and at Helen Doron. Children meet weekly at the school and participate in activities, songs, and lessons that involve lots of repetition, motion, and fun. Then they receive DVDs and CDs to use daily in their studies. It is an innovative program that mimics the most natural ways to acquire language skills, tying in the senses and using song and play to help kids learn. Helen Doron English continues to grow in Zvolen, and internationally.

Photo by Natalie Browning

Photo by Natalie Browning.

Learning another language may consume much time and require rigorous mental effort. But for many like Palenikova, Seidlova, Evans, and others, it means so much. For one thing, knowing multiple languages increases one’s chances at finding a job. Both women mentioned receiving jobs where they were able to use multiple languages in their workplace.

Not only do language skills make individuals more marketable, but in Europe where the countries are smaller and there are so many languages within relatively close proximity to each other, knowing another language is almost essential for traveling. Seidlova explains, “Ever since I was little I loved traveling, and growing up in Europe helped me to realize that if I want to travel, I have to know many languages. Traveling in Europe is different, and each state had a different official language, so that helped me to make my decision and to be my motivation to learn languages.”

While words may be “mightier than ten military divisions,” Palenikova comments, “Language is not just about words. You can respect the people more. . . . I think [learning another language is] helpful to understand other people more. . . . Languages just help me so much to understand the world in a different way, to open up my perspective.”

People of Slovakia, traditional and varied, are demonstrating the beauty of their own culture while experiencing the beauty of other cultures through language. When we speak each other’s languages, we share a special piece of ourselves. It’s clear to see that Slovakia is headed in an exciting direction of multilingual growth, creating opportunities for children to widen their perspectives of the world.

—Natalie Browning