By Conrad Dudderar
What started out as a Czech genealogy research session last year eventually turned into a full-blown four-week overseas language immersion adventure for one area resident.
Having taken a Czech language class last year at Yukon Czech Hall, Amy Otto decided to do a little genealogy research to brush-up on her family’s heritage.
While doing her internet research, she discovered that the Czech embassy website was offering five scholarships from each consulate.
“I’m half Czech, and my mother spoke Czech,” Otto said. “So, I wanted to learn more by doing some online research. On a lark, I applied for a grant entitled Summer School of Slavonic Studies through the Washington, D.C. consulate.
“Amazingly enough, I got the award. My boss approved four weeks of leave for me to go to the Czech Republic for a month of language immersion, and the rest is history.”
Otto flew to Brno, where she went to a language school at Masarykoya University with people from all over the world to major in the Czech language.
“There were people there from Germany, Canada, Japan, Vietnam, Texas, and Nebraska,” she said. “Over 100 of us were in the school from across the globe. We went to class from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and Friday was an excursion day.
“Then, we had class on Saturday, but were off on Sunday. I lived in the dorms and took the Brno City Transit everywhere. It was an amazing experience.”
On her excursion days, Otto went to Czech caverns via bus, shopped in bookstores, attended festivals, and toured shrines with her classmates. The group also went to museums and churches around Brno.
One of Otto’s most treasured excursions was to her grandmother’s ancestral village in Vsechovice.
“While I was there, I connected with some family and ended up spending several weekends with them,” she said. “They showed me some of our relatives’ names on a World War I monument, they helped me find relative’s headstones in the village cemetery, and I even went to a couple birthday parties.
“On a visit to one of their country homes in Buchlovice, we visited their garden and I saw the orchard they used to grow plumbs for their homemade Czech liquor, as well as a vegetable garden and fishing ponds.”
HARD LANGUAGE TO LEARN
In hindsight, Otto believes her Czech improved greatly from the experience.
“I can speak more Czech definitely – but it is a hard language to learn. I loved it when a local asked me a question in Czech and I was able to respond, ‘I don’t know!’ in their language,” she said, laughing.
“My classes were very grammar focused. The Czech language has seven declensions, and we learned two of them at the university over four weeks. So, I’m at an early stage, but I can understand more when people there were talking to me.”
Much of the language learning occurred outside of the classroom.
“We all learned from each other in class, too,” Otto said. “I showed my professor and the people in my classes photographs of the Yukon kolache bakers, and they were in awe that we made so many kolaches. It was fun to show them what the Czechs in Oklahoma were doing, and they found it interesting that we did such things to honor our heritage.
“I took the book The Czechs in Oklahoma,” she added. “They couldn’t believe how many Czechs were in our state. I showed them photos of Czech Hall and of people Polka dancing there, and they were so surprised. They loved learning about the Czech Republic in Oklahoma. It really bridged the gap.”
Otto happily returned home to her beloved dog with certificate from Masaryk University in Brno, a newfound respect for the language and a bevy of lifelong friends.
And while her dog was happy to see her, too, she looks forward to continuing to learn the language and then making a return visit someday.
In the meantime, Otto plans will continue her work in the area’s Czech community – which includes serving as secretary of the Bohemian Cemetery in Perry, selling souvenirs for Oklahoma Czechs, Inc., visiting Yukon Czech Hall, and working with the Sokol Scholarship.
She offered a “big thank-you” to the Czech Consulate in Washington, D.C. for this “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.