The extraordinary life stories of Soňa Zajícová and Anna Burchardt intertwined this year at the methodology course for teachers from expatriate communities. Although they have not lived in the Czech Republic for most of their lives, they share a love for the Czech language they teach and a strong affiliation with Czech culture.
In Prague, the city where Soňa Zajícová had lived until the age of eleven before moving to Argentina with her parents, she spent two weeks going back to the role of a pupil. At the methodology course at the ÚJOP UK Prague-Krystal centre, she and nineteen other participants learned about new teaching methods and drew inspiration for their own Czech classes.
Soňa was born in Czechoslovakia, but her father yearned to return to Argentina, the country of his childhood, where he was born as a descendant of immigrants from the 1920s. And so, as a national of Argentina, he applied for the possibility to move there with his whole family. The original plan to return to Czechoslovakia in two years changed, and Soňa has been living in Argentina for 44 years now.
The beginnings were not easy for the 11-year-old girl. She didn't speak Spanish and she had given up her Czech school and friends. In her new homeland, she found her new Argentinian family, but: "We were only returning to our family, the Czech communities were very scattered at that time, so I didn't really speak Czech for 20 years. We didn't speak Czech at home either, since my husband was an Argentinian and so were my daughters. It was only thanks to Covid, the Internet and Facebook that I got in touch with Czech associations and groups and now we occasionally see each other," explains Soňa. For many years, she had maintained her mother tongue only by reading books from the large family library, until the Internet allowed her to listen to spoken Czech again. She returned to her native country for the first time in twenty years.
A big change in the contact with her compatriots came during the COVID-19 pandemic, when online Czech language teaching became a new hobby for Soňa, who is a chemistry teacher by training. Even now Soňa teaches her compatriots who are the second, third or fourth generation and who have forgotten Czech or whose families have not passed the language on to them at all. These people are scattered all over the continent and previously had no opportunity to attend Czech language courses. Most of them have Czech roots, friends, or they simply like the Czech culture, so they are also interested in the language. This year, Soňa came to Prague again after a five-year absence, this time to attend the methodology course for teachers from expatriate communities, because she wanted to learn more about the approaches to online teaching. "The methodology course was one pleasant surprise after another," says Soňa enthusiastically. "First I discovered that there are a lot more of us in Argentina than I thought, and then I made contacts with compatriots from all over the world - I now have friends from as far as Canada, Germany or Mongolia."
There are several expatriate associations in Argentina. There is a Czech, Czechoslovak and Slovak association in Buenos Aires, and another in Cordoba, but the possibilities for meetings are limited because of the thousands of kilometres between the cities. That is why the expatriates organise the “Czechs and Slovaks in Latin America” festival once a year, for which all the associations prepare as carefully as for a carnival - they rehearse dances and prepare food and a rich programme.
The Czech story of Anna Burchardt begins, surprisingly, in Copenhagen, her hometown. It was preceded by the meeting of her parents, a Czech girl and a Danish man, at a student party in Brno. The carefree beginning of the relationship was ended by the invasion of the Warsaw Pact troops on 21 August 1968. The parents overcame several months of separation by correspondence, and the dramatic story ended with a wedding, a life together in Denmark and the birth of a daughter. All her life, her mother spoke Czech with Anička and every summer they would go back to their grandmother's house in Ostrava for holidays. As she herself says, she actually felt like a Czech. After graduating from high school in 1989, she decided to study Czech at the University of Copenhagen and spent two years as an intern in Prague as part of her undergraduate studies, so she is, as she calls it herself, "super-czechised". Now she has decided to join the activities of the Czech association in Copenhagen, she has completed the methodology course for teachers from expatriate communities at ÚJOP UK and is planning to advance her teaching career in the expatriate community.
Anička has been translating and teaching Danish and Czech for more than ten years. As she had studied foreign language teaching, she never got bored at the methodology course. She reviewed the theory, was intrigued by the presentation on how to teach without a language of communication and not only that. "Suddenly my eyes opened. I was greatly inspired by the idea to use culture and history in language teaching. I discovered new textbooks and materials that are available online and can be downloaded. It was great to meet so many nice people, make new friends from all over the world and it was also inspiring to see how things are done elsewhere. At home I have my own everyday routine and there is often no time for development," she says of the two-week course, adding, "This course was absolutely fantastic! It was wonderful to live in Prague for two weeks. I come here quite often because it's not that far, but this was different. I had time for myself. It gives you a youthful, student-like feeling."
The story of every participant in the methodology course for teachers from expatriate communities would be worth hearing. These are stories of people who keep a strong connection to the country of their origin and help their compatriots in their local area to maintain it. Sometimes by means of language courses, sometimes through friendly meetings or by upholding Czech traditions together: cooking goulash and baking buchty, dancing polka or singing carols.
Text: Petra Köppl
Photo: Vladimír Šigut