Czenglish or interlanguage?

The idea for this post was inspired by Sandy Millin, an EFL teacher currently based in Sevastopol, Russia. Sandy has lots of experience with teaching English but she’s also a keen foreign language learner. What I find particularly interesting about Sandy is the fact that she used to live and teach in Brno, the location of my alma mater, where she tried to learn Czech in-country. While reading about her experiences on her blog, I came across a post which directed me to an interesting slideshare presentation including a list of Czenglish corrections, i.e. incorrectly used language items which Sandy collected from her Czech students’ written and spoken assignments.

According to one definition, Czenglish is ‘the poor English spoken or written by some Czechs’. This is a very simplistic definition and it’s useful to read what interlanguage stands for if one wants to delve into the problem. For those who are not familiar with the term, interlanguage is a dynamic linguistic system that has been developed by a learner of an L2 who has not become fully proficient yet but is approximating the target language, preserving some features of L1, or overgeneralizing target language rules in speaking or writing L2 and creating innovations.

Back in 1989, Don Sparling, once a member of the Department of English and American Studies at Masaryk University (Brno), published a collection called English or Czenglish?. The volume became quite popular over here and later, quite rightfully, appeared in the list of compulsory study materials for BA students of English. I found the book fascinating and I still use it in classes now and then because I find it both valid and useful. Obviously, as the language has evolved since, there are items which are disputable now but overall, things haven’t changed a great deal – probably because L1 will always have its distinct impact on L2 regardless of the subtle changes taking place in both languages.

Figure 1

It’s no surprise that at the time when Sparling published his book, I had no idea what a corpus was. All I had was a good monolingual dictionary and the recent edition of a popular grammar book. What was written there was absolute truth. Nowadays I’m not so credulous, though. When correcting my students’ assignments, I always check a suspiciously looking language item against a corpus to see if there is a teeny tiny possibility that it could be used in a particular context. I don’t wish to dismiss something just because I’ve never used or seen it myself. Let me illustrate this with the following examples; according to Sparling, one of the typical mistakes Czech students are infamous for is the wrong position of enough in a sentence, such as not have time enough to do something.

Figure 2

The simple rule we teach in English classes is that enough comes after adjectives and adverbs but it comes before nouns. The rule is crystal clear; the trouble is that in Czech enough usually comes first, regardless of the word it determines (one exception would be I’ve had enough (of it)). A quick look at the British National Corpus reveals, however, that the ‘incorrect’ version have time enough has been used in written books and periodicals a couple of times, even by native speakers of English (see Figure 1). This may open up a very interesting discussion in an EFL class which will eventually lead us to the conclusion that time+enough+to+verb is possible but it sounds archaic and odd nowadays. Nevertheless, for an L2 learner it suffices to know that have enough time is more frequent and it’s wiser to use what’s commonly accepted (see Figure 2).

Another example would be the famous case of happy end vs. happy ending. Some of the reasons why we tend to use end instead of ending may be 1) the lack of exposure to the right collocation 2) the fact that it’s the direct translation of the Czech phrase, but also 3) the fact that movies used to close with the final The End title screen and so the visual is etched in our minds. Here the corpus shows that the gap between Czenglish and English is much wider, i.e. happy end is much less frequent than happy ending. My inference is that if I use happy end, I will be understood, but I guess I won’t sound very native-like.

Figure 3

If I search happy end via Google, I’ll see that Czechs really love the phrase – I’ll find a Happy End comedy movie made in the former Czechoslovakia, there are music bands, e-shops, companies, restaurants, clubs and bars called Happy End. Happy Endings, on the other hand, is a name of a US TV series and there’s also a My Happy Ending song, written by Avril Lavigne, a Canadian artist. I’m sure there are typical ‘Czech’ mistakes, clearly influenced by the way our mother tongue is structured and used, but overall, I’m sure that many of the errors in Sparling book can be found all over the world, and they are even uttered by native speakers of English, as corpora reveal.

Figure 4

My final message to the English learner:

Dear English learner,
Study grammar rules diligently but don’t panic if you say something incorrectly because the native speaker might not even notice and/or care as long as you are understood. And remember that there are as many Englishes as there are speakers of English. Your English is unique and dynamic – exactly like you.


About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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6 Responses to Czenglish or interlanguage?

  1. Sandy says:

    Hi Hana,
    Thanks for referencing my posts and for building on the idea of Czenglish and interlanguage.
    It's interesting to see the phrases you've chosen to focus on, because some of them are problems for Russian speakers too. There's even a song called 'Happy End' in Russian: I also really like the English song 'Happy Ending' by Mika:
    I think your message at the end is the key to the whole issue, particularly “Study grammar rules diligently but don't panic if you say something incorrectly” – it's an important lesson for all language learners to internalise!


  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for your comment, Sandy. Yes, I'm sure there are 'universal' mistakes, such as the one you mention. Obviously, the fact that both Russian and Czech belong to Slavic languages may partially explain why we make similar mistakes. Anyway, now that I think about it, I realize that 'happyend' has actually become a regular vocabulary item used by Czechs, though only in colloquial context; we say: “To byl ale happyend”. This might be one of the reasons why we use it in incorrectly when we start learning English. I think the same happens to some computer-related words, which we never translate into Czech. What happens is that language learners pronounce them incorrectly, i.e. the way they are used to pronouncing them when speaking Czech, which is actually the way they are spelled (such as wi-fi, router, etc). Hm…this is an intriguing subject 🙂


  3. Anonymous says:

    I couldn't agree more with the perspectives you all developed earlier!!Language learning and teaching should have the FLEXIBILITY rule applied in all its aspects. There are all these nuances of languages that make the difference and some times it's much better if they are described in the language they were born.We, just, need to remember that languages convey ways of thinking,lifestyles,customs,ethics and so on and so forth. What would do our learners wrong if we tried to bring that real life into our classrooms?Additionally applying comparing and contrasting techniques between the two worlds would also generate intrinsic motivation. I use the approach a lot with my 1 2 1 lessons.
    As per NS and NNS I think it is' an absolute racism..If one doesn't not find an interviewee suitable just turn the application down.


  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting. I particularly like the line: … “languages convey ways of thinking, lifestyles, customs, ethics” …. I absolutely agree and that's why I think it's desirable to preserve some of the features and aspects of L1 in the L2. There's no need to achieve native-likeness at all costs. On the contrary, the bits and pieces which point to our real identity and our roots are precious; they are the source of richness and diversity.


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