Keeping a Heritage Language Alive in Minnesota: A Case of the Czech & Slovak School Twin Cities

Keeping a Heritage Language Alive in Minnesota: A Case of the Czech & Slovak School Twin Cities

by Jitka Sebek

Tenemos las mejores enchiladas. Ven a visitarnos. Todo para la comunidad. It is March, time for spring break, but Renáta Tichá, President of the Czech and Slovak Cultural Center, and I are not strolling down Cancun beaches. We are wrapped in our coats, gloves, and scarves, and squinting into the Cicero, Illinois sunshine. Despite the Latino storefront signs, our long weekend will be filled with Czech language, culture, and food. 

Czech and Slovak organizations exist everywhere, and it is always mutually beneficial to exchange anecdotes and ideas for teaching the two heritage languages to our children. Throughout the years of the Czech and Slovak Schools’ existence we have developed close bonds with teachers in Texas, North Carolina, and California. However, we primarily know teachers in Chicago, and it was time to pay a visit to their T. G. Masaryk Czech School. It houses classrooms, guest rooms and even a garden while serving 30 students from the wide community.

Renáta and I represent a group of devoted teachers who come to the C.S.P.S. Hall every weekend to teach Czech and Slovak as native and non-native languages. With close ties to our home countries and with the support of academic research results, we focus on teaching our heritage languages in order to prepare our students for the Seal of Biliteracy that will prove multiple-language proficiency and multicultural knowledge.

On Saturday, from the school near Cermak Street, we took the ‘L’ train to downtown Chicago. The afternoon was spent with the Consul General, Dr. Bořek Lizec, and his staff reviewing our past events, plans and wishes. Dr. Lizec pointed out at ongoing efforts in reconnecting with expats and in attracting their interest in both countries. He encouraged us to stay in touch with the consulate and with other representatives of the Czech government as well. We look forward to Dr. Lizec’s next visit to St. Paul. That evening we accepted an invitation to see a Czech movie and to meet one of the lead actresses. We felt proud of our own successful efforts to present such movies to the Twin Cities audience. Exposure to new movies not only helps our community keep up with ever-changing languages but also reconnects us with current societal issues in both countries.

The next morning found us back on the ‘L’ trains and feeling like mass transportation pros as we wished for more light rail lines back home. Our end stop was the historic Palmer House with its frescoed lobby and opulently draped windows. Our laptops and presenters’ tags ready, we were part of The Central States Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Eagerly entering a display area filled with textbooks and computer programs booths for language teachers, we soon realized that the conference was dominated by a handful of well-established foreign languages. A fine presentation on college Spanish classes for bilingual students with a focus on culture and communication echoed our efforts to achieve both goals in our native languages in the Twin Cities. But one of our aims in attending was to expose attendees to languages other than the dominant five.

In our presentation we summarized the history of the Czech & Slovak School Twin Cities, the solid collaboration with others under the C.C.P.S’s roof, and the benefits of knowing a heritage language.  We laid out our vision and future goals for our school: to support our heritage language literacy, to achieve a higher level of proficiency resulting in broader employability, and to broaden intercultural awareness. We strive to give back to our own ethnic community and keep the connection between the U.S. and E.U. active. We have known that other small local ethnicities share together with us the same goals and at the conference enjoyed a dialogue with representatives of a Greek school.

That evening, as the plane climbed away from Midway, we felt included, valued as language professionals, and with a renewed zeal to continue building our school.  Our students must be prepared for the 21st century when being bilingual and possessing a deep understanding of a heritage language is starting to be a fully-supported American norm.  It’s never too late to join us!