I have been studying the Slovak language for around six or seven months now—throughout my exchange and shortly prior. Recently, my proficiency has gone way up! I have held several (basic, but nonetheless) full conversations and found it much simpler to understand day to day speech. This increasing comfort has resulted in me becoming much more conscious of language in general, especially how and why Slovak and English vary.

In addition to our full alphabet, Slovak contains the following characters:
á ä č ch ď dz dž é í ĺ ľ ň ó ô ŕ š ť ú ý ž

At 46 letters, Slovak has the largest alphabet among all European languages! (Though q, w, and x are only used in words borrowed from English and other foreign languages.)

Slovak is a Western Slavic language (alongside Czech and Polish) and part of the greater Indo-European group.  It behaves as a sort of intermediary between the various Slavic tongues. Slovaks boast that where a Pole and a Croatian would be unable to effectively communicate, a Slovak can get a point across with both. This ability, however, comes from Slovak’s inclusion of aspects from these languages and more. Slovaks borrow from other Slavic tongues, like Russian and Rusyn, but also from German, Latin, Hungarian and, most recently, English. Such broad influence from other languages makes Slovak a deep, and difficult, language.

The Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State created a system to classify languages by their difficulty for the average English speaker to learn. It ranks Slovak in the fourth of five difficulty categories, requiring 1100 hours of study to attain a proficiency of a professional level, putting it alongside some notoriously difficult languages like Finnish and Georgian, as well as some Asian languages like Vietnamese. Much of Slovak’s difficulty comes from how the endings of words vary in respect to gender, number and—especially—grammatical case. These cases consist of the nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, locative, instrumental, and the rarely used vocative. It is difficult to explain how these categories are employed without writing a unbearably dense passage, so I will leave them out of the equation. We can look into the simpler aspects of the language for now.

Some basic pronunciation! As you probably saw from the array of letters above, Slovak liberally uses diacritic marks in its alphabet. From the perspective of an utterly unadorned language, like English, this appears exotic and challenging. Contrarily, I have found that it makes pronunciation much simpler! English speakers do not realize it, but the sounds our words make are extremely unpredictable. While there are technically rules… we don’t really follow them but half the time and many of the relationships between letters are senseless relics of linguistic history that we simply memorize and live with. Why does ‘Ph’ sound like ‘f’? And why do we have ‘C’ when we could just use ‘K’ or ‘S’ in all the same situations? The internet has also put some thought into this.

In contrast, Slovak pronunciation is extremely simple! Indeed, there are more characters, but each one tends to have little variation in its pronunciation. In fact, the only substantial deviance I have encountered in my studies so far is that of the letter ‘V’. Occasionally, it will be pronounced like a ‘U’, but the pattern is easy to spot after just a bit of study. For example, the Slovak words “Práve” (Prah-vay) meaning “Just” and “Polievka” (Poly-ou-ka) meaning “Soup”. Trying to pronounce the latter with a “V” sound simply breaks the rhythm of Slovak, something you pick up on after a short time of learning the language.

This does not make the accent any easier. I certainly still sound terribly like a foreigner, even in the simplest of phases. Yet, Slovak words never surprise in how they are said and I can usually get really close to saying the most complex of words correctly on the first go. That is more than my classmates, who have been learning English for six or seven years now, can say. Frequently, in English class, a new word will crop up and they must shake their heads at the irregular insanity that is our pronunciation.

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