Stories| Jakub Musil

Student Jakub Musil: Few Czechs take humanities abroad.

Did anything unexpected surprise you at the beginning of your studies?
I don’t recall any typical initial difficulties. Perhaps managing money. By that I don’t mean that I tended to spend everything in the first week of the month; it just took me a while to find a stable approach to budgeting. The most difficult period in terms of the ‘adult world’ was searching for lodging for the second year when the university no longer provides dorms. That was one big fatiguing and frustrating race.

Are cultural differences still apparent at a school with so many international students?
You probably can find cultural differences; but then again, they also exist between English and Scottish students. More than that, you can see that British students in the same school year are much younger than most of those from continental Europe. That gives rise to stereotyped assumptions on their lack of independence and their inability to organize their own lives. But it does no good believing stereotypes; after all, this is similar in dorms in Prague. I do see one trend, though: While my group of humanities students includes several nationalities, the vast majority of the Czech, Slovak and Polish students I have met are in technological, scientific and economic programs.

How would you explain this?
Perhaps students interested in these programs are more motivated to study abroad than those interested in the humanities. I think that’s a pity. Only few Czechs study humanities abroad.

Did your very first year at school change you?
Although I never considered myself to be a narrow-minded person, I think that the contact with people with so many national, ethnic, sexual and gender identities as well as political and religious convictions has truly expanded my horizons. The university often reminds me of a reactor running on people who blaze with new and radical ideas. That’s quite exciting and addictive. Affirming your own independence does a lot too, but you should take that with a grain of salt, because without the support from The Kellner Family Foundation, I could not have experienced anything.

Many students say that studying abroad gave them a broader perspective very quickly, but they fell out of touch with home. How did studying abroad make life easier, or more complicated, for you?
A trip home costs me thousands of crowns instead of hundreds, and that’s quite a complication. That said, I lived ‘outside my home’ while I was at Open Gate for eight years, and so the change was not so radical for me. First and foremost, I am happy to study abroad a combination of fields and subjects that is a perfect fit for me. As for linguistics, studying outside the Czech environment may be an advantage, but for me this stems primarily from an experience that really offended me. According to Charles University’s website, the admission tests for Phonetics included an evaluation of ‘how cultivated the candidate’s verbal expression is’, in order to sign up for a mandatory subject called Culture of Speech. Not intending to offend anyone, I regard this as a grotesque relic from the depths of the 19th century. I daresay that, in the British academic environment, believing in the supremacy of what is referred to as correct or codified language over its other variants would totally discredit a linguist these days.

Where did your interest in linguistics start? What do you like about your field?
I remember bringing an English picture dictionary to kindergarten several times, and I loved to create my own secret languages, but they were not specifically structured. I guess I liked that different people call the same things with different words. Ever since I was a little kid, my family would go for holidays to Veľký Meder, a small town on the Slovak-Hungarian border where ethnic Hungarians were the majority population. Their incomprehensible language fascinated me. I am equally fascinated today when I find a hidden system in a language. That’s not the least bit to say that I like when things match their pigeon holes and follow an order set in stone. There is something very human, imperfect and not quite tangible in languages, which appeals to me. All languages address the same cultural needs, albeit each in an entirely different manner. This is why I love working with lesser-known languages and dialects so much.

You participated in the production of a London staging of Janáček’s Little Cunning Vixen - how did the conductor find you?
I really love contemporary classical music, and I was lucky to meet pianist and composer Simon Smith, who specializes in modern classical, in Edinburgh. It was through him that the conductor Garry Walker contacted me a few weeks before starting the Vixen rehearsals in London. Conductors are supposed to know how to read the libretto correctly, but they often get away with only knowing Italian and German. Not so with the Vixen, which is not only in formal correct Czech, but also, and to a large extent, in the Líšeň dialect. So our collaboration combined my elocution, recording, explanation of phonetics and phonology features, explanations of the dialect and cultural milieu, and so forth. I hope it contributed at least a little bit to the final performance, which was very warmly received.

Is Czech understandable for foreigners at all?
I have been noticing for a long time that native English speakers have insurmountable difficulties pronouncing the soft d, t and n (ď, ť and ň), and not even forcing them into an exaggerated pronunciation of “new” will help. A Czech ear will almost discern those phonemes in many dialects of English, but for a British ear the sounds are as hopelessly exotic as “ř”. But dialects play a large part in the Vixen. In several places they signal not just the origin but also the social status, and the same person often speaks differently in different situations, as probably many of us do in everyday life as well. I’ve always pointed that out, but I’m afraid that foreigners without a deeper knowledge of the language will not notice anyway.

What are your other extracurricular activities?
I am still trying to find some time to create something myself. And currently I am pitching a screenplay in Gaelic that I would like to enter into a national competition. I also volunteer for the SHRUB cooperative, which redistributes unneeded things back to the student community. It was only in the U.K. that I got to know a truly consumerist culture. Young people here will buy almost anything to use it just once, so products that are almost new end up in a dump. So every year we collect unneeded things from the students departing who, and then in September organize the Freeshop event where the items can find new owners from among the new students. I got to equip my kitchen that way last year. Then I assist with a festival of traditional Scottish art. I love organizing cultural events, so I try to find jobs or volunteer at Edinburgh’s club cinemas.

Governmental organizations pay school fees for local students in Scotland. Do they contribute to international students too? 
Students from the EU in Scotland have the benefit of governmental organizations paying their school fees, as they do for Scottish students. Unlike in the rest of the U.K., students therefore need finances for the costs of living, but they cannot obtain a loan without having already stayed in the country for several years. Aside from The Kellner Family Foundation’s Universities project, I also signed up for the Zdeněk Bakala Foundation’s Scholarship program. I’d recommend anyone to do the same -- there is no rivalry. Naturally, I wanted to see if I could obtain financing from the university itself, but such grants are usually tied to specific fields of study or countries – you have to go through the school’s website thoroughly or inquire with the department in charge. A friend of mine had part of his fees covered by the only general bachelor’s degree grant, so trying does pay off.

You are an Open Gate graduate. Do you think Open Gate students stand better chances of obtaining the Foundation grant for university?
Studying abroad had been presented as a realistic opportunity to us all at Open Gate from the very beginning. I have been asked a few times whether obtaining a grant is more difficult for someone who did not attend Open Gate. My answer is: the conditions and requirements are the same. But Open Gate students may be better prepared, because they are used to meeting similarly demanding requirements in classes every day, to say nothing about the IB program. Students from other schools must really do a lot of work over and above their duties, and motivate themselves to do that. I admire them for that, I have to admit.

Do you want to go back to the Czech Republic? Do humanities enjoy sufficient prestige in our country?
A linguist can always perform best in a well-equipped institution that will let him or her do good research work, publish, and pass on knowledge. Prestige is not too relevant for me – quality is. Despite my previous critical statement about Charles University, I can’t say that my motivation to go abroad to study has anything to do with distrust in Czech universities. It’s just that the intensity of research in the U.K. is markedly higher. Of course, my interest in ‘small’ languages and the Celtic language family played a role. All I could study in the Czech Republic is Irish, and only in passing (that would make Josef Baudiš roll over in his grave!). But a master’s or doctoral program at Masaryk University is a viable option for me. Luckily, I still have a few years to make up my mind. In my opinion, the language situation in the Czech Republic is interesting, and I’d prefer studying that to English, but for example the Edinburgh course is very good. Then again, I think the correct Czech’s ‘rule of terror’ in schools will not end on its own. With a bit of a hyperbole, my country may actually need me. And when one day I write a text like this one in my native dialect and nobody finds it weird, that will be the day I can die in peace.

Is that how you’d describe your dream goal?
Until recently, I used to say, but not in all seriousness though, that I would like to be the Sir David Attenborough of linguistics. I find it a bit irreverent today, but it still holds true. I would be immensely happy to popularize language issues like others do with biology, psychology, archeology, and so on. For adults and children alike. While many of us have had books on dinosaurs and watched popular programs on physics on TV, language is often left out – we see it as just a physiological function. Just imagine what a positive influence the respect for and openness to the diversity of language would have on communications between people! That’s just my fantasies, however. First of all, I want to earn a doctorate and plant myself in academic soil. Only then will the time for crusades come.

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