I love being challenged every day, and after all, learning is one of life’s greatest joys. But at some point during this learning process, I reached my own personal Mental Chaos. I needed a frame a reference, so I used whats most familiar to me: flying.
So it’s like my passion for flying. I love it so much, I wanted to fly so much, that my passion enabled me to overcome all the difficulties I encountered. In order to fly, I needed to master the physics, the schematics, the complex ins and outs of all the aircraft systems, the technology, the programming, the emergency procedures, the theory, the operational aspects and more. But all this just to fly the plane? Yes, I did it, it was well worth it. And I knew that it was all required of me in order to reach the end result. And you know, the actual “flying” of the plane, (which is what I really wanted) is by far the easiest part of all that. So that’s my frame of reference for learning Serbian. I want so badly to speak it, and in order to do that, I must master the cases, the grammar, the sentence structure, vocabulary, listening skills, syntax and style. In order to speak, I must do these things. And so I will. But at this point, I think I’d be more competent at handling an airplane on fire over the mountains at night than correctly asking directions from a stranger in Belgrade. Ahh…..but I digress.
“Chaos before Clarity”, was the advice my language instructor gave to me upon over hearing my conversation with my classmate after a particularly difficult lesson on cases. A, e, ih, i, u, og, eg, om, em, oj, ova, eva, ovi, evi, zi, ci, ki, ke, li, la, lo…These are just a few of the seemingly endless case endings that can be tacked onto pretty much any word in Serbian. In English we don’t have cases, in Serbian there are 7. In English we don’t have genders for objects; in Serbian everything pretty much has a gender. So after about 50 hours of intense language instruction, 80% of which is focused on grammar, I was about to lose it with the cases. Seriously. And get this, in Serbian, there are SIXTY different endings for possessive pronouns, yes, you read that right, 60 different endings to possessive pronouns. In English we have about about 7 or so. My, mine, yours, his, hers, theirs, it’s, In Serbian 60 different endings to these!! And oh yeah, these 60 types of possessive pronouns (which includes all the different genders and singular and plural) are also changed as if they were adjectives, according to their respective cases. Can you believe it? So imagine me trying to think of a sentence that uses 1 possessive pronoun: mentally I sift through 60 endings to find the correct word, then find the correct case and change it, and of course, during that processing time, the person either jumps in with the correct word, or they say, “it’s ok, I speak English”. Neither of which helps me learn the language one bit.
So in order to actually say a phrase, not even a whole sentence, just a phrase, I first have to think:
1) Do I know how to say this word in Serbian? Yes?
2) Is it a noun or adjective? Say it’s a noun.
3) Is it a feminine noun, masculine noun, or neutral noun? Say it’s feminine.
4) What case will it require, Nominative, Genetic, Dative, Accusative, Vocative, Instrumental, or Locative?….umm….(this one takes a bit) ok, let’s say it requires Genitive.
5) Then I think, is it singular or plural? Say it’s plural.
6) So at this point, I know what the word is in the nominative form, I know it’s a feminine plural noun and I should be using the Genitive case. Ok, got that? Now, let me mentally reference the table of endings in my brain for that particular category…..
7) At this point, I must take note of the exceptions. Is it an archaic word from the old language, such as kost, uho, oko, prst, gost, ruka, or noga? Yes? Ok, then reference the table of exceptions. No? Ok, and then add the appropriate ending….
8 ) But wait, say it’s not an archaic word but it does have a group of consonants next to each other, such as nt, jk, kl, or lj, in that case, let me add an extra syllable first to separate the hard consonants with an “a”, and Then Finally tack on the appropriate ending at the end of the word.
9) Oh, and don’t forget to change the accent to the 2nd syllable instead of the 1st after you’ve completed steps 1-8.
Now do this all in 2 seconds while you’re sitting in class with the Serbian teacher standing over you, saying? It’s so Easy! Come On, You Know This!! Why aren’t you saying it already!!!!?!?!
Ok, so that’s just the cases. In addition to the cases, you have a plethora of exceptions that follow each case and each grammatical rule. For example, in Serbian, some days of the week change endings, some do not. Plural numbers are sometimes singular depending on what number they end on. Each number has an associated case, regardless of the sentence as a whole. For example, the number one, (which could be written a number of different ways depending on the gender of the object), requires a Nominative Singular word to follow it. But the numbers 2-4 require Genitive Singular. Did you get that? Not Nominative, Genitive. Not Plural (as the number implies since it’s more than one). 2-4 requires Genitive Singular. Why? No clue. Then after that, 5 and up require Genitive Plural. And don’t forget that most numbers that end in a zero use the Genitive Plural as well, unless it’s a number above 5 but it ends in a 1, then use nominative singular. And don’t forget about the feminine nouns masquerading as masculine nouns, that are changed as masculine, but their adjectives are changed as feminine. Now add this to the cases endings, the reflexive verbs, past tense, perfect and imperfect verbs, and possessive pronouns, and you’ve got yourself one big mess.
Why? It’s Easy, say my language teachers at Srpski Jezik Radionica na Beogradu.
So at this point I’m in chaos. Finally after weeks of studying hard every day, reviewing, doing exercises, and don’t forget about the additional 500 new vocabulary words that I’ve been diligently writing on flashcards and practicing….I finally reached some sort of clarity. Aha! The sea parted, the heavens opened, the light shone through, and all of a sudden, it clicked!! Yes, I understood….for a few days. And now my brief respite of Clarity is gone and my state of Chaos has resumed, for after all, the more you know, the more you don’t know.