As I mentioned in my previous post, I spent a lot of time in Slovakia this summer. This was mostly because it’s a wonderful training venue, with mild weather and suitably inexpensive living conditions. It was also because Slovakia is renowned for its development work on racing and lifestyle mindset, and I was hoping to capture some of this for myself.
One of the most enjoyable parts of living and learning in Slovakia, was learning to speak a little Slovak. As a Brit, it’s almost embarrassing when people apologise for having poor English. I can speak incompetent, conversational Slovak. Yet people are still apologising for not having the advanced English fundamentals completely nailed yet.
An interesting example of how famous Slovakia is for its medal-winning mindset, is the case of Rio Olympics 2016 bronze medallist in C1¹, Takuya Haneda. Takuya is the first Japanese paddler to take home an Olympic medal in canoe slalom. As a Japanese athlete who also speaks fluent Slovak, Takuya is a demonstration of how a mix of cultural upbringings can produce an athlete who takes the best from each nation. Takuya moved to Bratislava as soon as he finished high school in Japan, and spent his university life studying and training completely immersed in Slovak culture.
Because I have regrettably poor Slovak, and absolutely no Japanese at all, we conducted the interview in English over Skype. Takuya had just finished a training camp in Pau, France, where the canoe slalom world championships will take place later this year. Fresh from the plane, Takuya answered my questions about language, culture and his life in Slovakia in precise English – and he only classes himself as a speaker of ‘two and a half’ languages.
Did you speak any Slovak before you moved to Slovakia?
Absolutely nothing. I moved to Slovakia when I was eighteen years old, and at first I thought I wouldn’t speak the Slovak language. I just began for fun with friends. At first they taught me a lot of slang. But I began to enjoy speaking it, especially because when a Japanese person tries to speak Slovak it’s extremely interesting and rare for Slovak people to listen to. They were very happy to listen and loved it when I tried to speak with them.
I understand that when you moved to Slovakia, you had a Slovak coach. How did you communicate?
Before I moved to Slovakia, we were in contact by email. We just spoke English to begin with. But my coach wasn’t so good at English – so I told him alright, you don’t have to speak English anymore. I will learn Slovak.
Why did you choose Slovakia to be your training base?
One of the biggest reasons I chose Slovakia was that in Japan, we don’t have any big artificial whitewater courses. This is the most important thing for canoe slalom training. In Japan we were still missing a lot of things, such as coaching and training groups. Slovakia has some of the best C1 paddlers in the world, so as a C1 it seemed like the right choice for me.
Were there any cultural issues you encountered when you first moved to Slovakia?
I had previously spent a lot of time in Prague and in Europe as a whole, during my career through junior world championships. So I was already pretty familiar with a lot of European customs. But one issue I discovered only when I moved to Slovakia, was that they don’t eat dinner; just bread or cereal. Athletes eat more normally, and usually have meat with every meal. But the normal people I stayed with didn’t, and in Japan dinner is the biggest meal of the day. So I was so surprised when it was finally eight in the evening, and I asked when we are going to dinner, and they just said; ‘you don’t have any food? You didn’t buy anything for dinner? We have bread and milk.’
What is the most difficult thing about learning Slovak?
In the Slovak language, there are lots of changes with vowels and tenses. It’s completely different from Japanese. One thing which is still very very hard for me is gender. There are so many changes, I can’t say anything correctly.
Are there any cultural expressions that don’t really translate between Slovak and Japanese?
It depends on what kind of situation. In Japan there is a lot more polite language than in Slovakia. In Japan, if someone is even just one year older than you, it is important to speak more formally or respectfully to them. But in Slovakia if someone is older than you by ten years or more, it doesn’t matter. You still speak to them like friends.
In Japan it doesn’t work like this. In Slovakia it seems as though people don’t want to cover their emotion. They have to put out their emotions, even while training on the water. Japanese don’t want to show emotions, for politeness. It can be quite complicated.
Do you feel as though studying and training in Slovakia has given you useful insights to Europe as a whole?
Yeah definitely. Before I moved to Slovakia I was already familiar with European culture. But since I have lived here, my personal character has changed. I don’t fully know what a Slovak character feels like, but I think it has a good effect on my performance and I am happy to still live here in Bratislava.
Where do you feel most at home?
At this point in my career, I am so neutral – I can feel at home when I’m in Slovakia and also when I’m in Japan. For the first five years when I lived here, I always missed Japan. But now I am totally used to life here in Slovakia.
Does having another language give you cultural opportunities with other teams that wouldn’t otherwise be possible?
Yes, of course. When I started to speak Slovak, everybody began to be more friendly with me. Elena Kaliska, the Hoschorner crew², especially those paddlers who don’t speak as much English. In Slovakia, people are actually more shy than the English or Americans. But once you are friends, they are like your family, and they want to help you with everything.
Moving to Slovakia for Takuya was more than an educational opportunity. It was a lifestyle choice that immersed him in a new culture, that he made for his sport. Every athlete has an individual path to their goals, and often it requires radical situational changes like moving to a new country. Takuya is an exceptional example of someone who embraced this choice so fully that it became a huge part of his journey to Rio 2016 – where he stood on the podium beside his Slovak brother, Matej Beñuš.
¹ Canoe Slalom is divided into four Olympic categories: C1 stands for ‘[Canadian] Canoe Singles’ (men and women), and K1 stands for Kayak Singles (men and women).
² Team Slovakia is somewhat legendary in canoe slalom. Elena Kaliska (K1W) is two-time Olympic and World champion. The Hoschorner C2 (double canoe, unfortunately no longer an Olympic discipline) crew are three-time Olympic champions.