Thursday, June 23, 2005

Slovak for You - Book Review

Slovak for You
by Ada Böhmerová
Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers

Once upon a time, or so it seemed, the best way to learn Slovak was to learn Czech and try to sort out the differences. Those Slovaks I know would consider such a statement heresy, but the sad fact was that there was very little out there of any quality for learning the Slovak language.

The poverty of good Slovak materials became readily apparent to the author of this text when she began teaching her language in the US in the 1990s. To fill the need, she wrote her own textbook based on handouts and materials that she used for her classes. The result is a thorough and thorougly usable guide to the Slovak language.

Slovak for You starts with an introduction that makes clear the author's grounding in language teaching methodology. The text meets the introduction's promises. Unlike the too common teach yourself programs that either give you tables to memorize or conversations to memorize, this manual has the essential tools for communicative language teaching and learning with a view toward real proficiency. The units do not merely give you a few phrases for certain situations but teach the necessary skills for navigating linguistic situations that never seem to come up in phrasebooks.

As a textbook, Slovak for You is quite nice. It abounds in realia (education jargon for the stuff you see in real life, as opposed to in textbooks). From folk songs to want ads to pictures of daily life, the student gets to see Slovak not as a code for speaking in Slovakia but as the way a people expresses itself. The conversations, too, have an authentic feel that will give the student the sense that he or she is actually using the language, not just parroting phrases. And the grammar is comprehensive enough that the curious can learn more than they ever wanted to know about the structure and syntax of the language while clear, not too frequent tables will provide the less dedicated learner with an easy outline of the essentials from each chapter.

For the self-taught, Slovak for You will present a little more of a challenge. The CDs (not available at the time of this review but coming soon) should give a good idea of pronunciation as well as helping in the development of a Slovak ear. But because Slovak grammar is quite different from English, relying less on word order and more on word endings, those new to language learning will need to frequently remind themselves that not all languages work like theirs and that what one really needs to know is how to express an idea, not how to translate a phrase from English. Those who have had a foreign language in high school, however, shouldn't have too much trouble.

The best thing to be said for Slovak for You, if you're teaching yourself, is that you don't have to learn it all. With the wealth of actual language examples available, I would stick to working my way through the texts and glancing at the tables and their explanations. Anything else, I'd skip altogether, at least on a first run-through. That alone will be enough to immerse you in the language and give you an idea how to communicate.

Whether you're preparing a class or teaching yourself, Slovak for You is one of the better textbooks available. Used in combination with a Pimsleur type program, even the self-taught will develop a strong foundation in the language. But the book is especially useful for actual classes. Students will appreciate a text less focused on using the right word-endings in phrases like "The teacher is holding the pencil" and instead directed toward soaking up the language and culture in order to get a feeling of really knowing Slovak. And teachers will be glad for this wide-ranging resource which won't leave them forever scrambling for supplementary handouts.