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Crossing the Language Barrier: Jagr and Hertl

(Originally published at Sports Radio Service)

SAN JOSE- Tomas Hertl arrived in the US with several adjustments to make. He had to adjust to NHL hockey. He had to adjust to being a young man in a new country. He had to learn to get by in a foreign language. That last one is the toughest. You need language to understand instructions, to make your requirements known, and to connect with people. Hertl is climbing the language barrier now, playing for the San Jose Sharks. Jaromir Jagr did it at the start of his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The best way to learn a new language is through immersion. If you want to learn to teach English as a foreign language, you don’t have to learn to speak the local language, because translation isn’t how you will teach. You build the new language word by word, the way a child does when they first learn to speak. It is a time-proven method, but just as being immersed in water can drown you, being completely immersed in a foreign language can be overwhelming.

Hertl’s language skills are improving quickly but that doesn’t mean he can understand all the questions asked of him or, probably more frustrating, answer thoroughly the ones he understands.

It has been estimated that you can’t really learn to use and remember more than ten new words in the space of an hour of studying. Multiply that by the number of words you use in a day and it takes a very long time to become conversationally proficient in any language.

Hertl did not come here without any English at all. He did study it in school. That foundation should give him a leg up.

Today he did an interview with a Czech reporter just before we English speakers descended on him. Listening to him speak at some length with the reporter made me ask him if it was nice to speak Czech. His smile answered the question, but he also explained:

Yeah, it’s much better for me… For me it’s difficult, talking English, and Czech interviews for me [are] very very easy … and I like speaking in interviews, and English is hard.

You might not know how much you like to speak until it is difficult to do so. The limitation can be exhausting and stifling. Yes, you learn faster when you have no other outlet than in the new language. But the mental fatigue factor of not being able to express yourself has to be considered. Like so many things, it is a matter of balance.

Today, going to a country where you don’t speak the language is not so isolating as it once was. Twenty years ago, your options for venting your words were more limited. Jaromir Jagr, now with the New Jersey Devils, explained how it was for him when he came to North America, and how it might be different for Hertl:

I was staying with a Czech family so it was kind of easier for me. To have a Czech player on the team always helps. [Hertl] has that now, I didn’t have that in my first few months… then there was a trade made from Calgary to Pittsburgh, Jiri Hrdina.

He knows more English than I did, at least he should because they’re learning it in school. I didn’t, [we learned] Russian.

A lot has changed in the Czech Republic, but a lot has changed everywhere since the 1990’s:

Of course we didn’t have cell phones so … I always tried to [call on] Sundays. Now, he can call all the time. After every good game, he can call.

And the parents and the friends, they have a chance to see him. There was not much media [in Czech] for NHL, no internet, so it was totally different. [My family] didn’t know if I’m alive.

Jagr said that last part with a smile but he was not exaggerating that much. I was in the Czech Republic at about the same time as he came to the NHL. I had to go to the post office to make an international call, ask an operator to put the call through, and wait for my turn in a booth. I was in a fairly small town far from Prague but international communication in Central Europe just wasn’t that easy in the 90s.

Hertl is not staying with a Czech family, but he has access to some Czech language. He has Martin Havlat on the team, and many different ways to let his family and friends know he’s alive. The Sharks have put him in a good situation to make progress, but no matter how you slice it, it will take time. It does sound like once he has more words in his arsenal, he will have a lot to say.

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