So after 1 month in Belgrade struggling through my very intensive accelerated language course, I’m back home, (Thank God! Clean Bathrooms!) And I know that all too soon, I will be reunited with the Serbian community and they will want to know what I learned. What did you learn? They will ask. Say something! They will demand. Or perhaps, they will just test me by speaking Serbian to me and gauging my response. I fear this will be a problem, because many Serbs (actually many people from all over the world), don’t know how to speak to someone who is just starting to learn their language.
For example: One day, I was exploring Belgrade and trying to figure out where I was. I had been practicing my Serbian on tons of unwilling locals already that day, and currently I was trying to figure out if the place I was located at was called Ada. So I approached the youngest, most educated looking Serb at the bus stop, and said
“Izvini, molim vas, da li znate ako ovde je Ada?”
(excuse me, do you know if this here is Ada?)
And she looked at me and said something rapidly in Serbian, which I assumed to be something like this:
“Oh, wow, ok, I’m not really sure if I can help you. You see, I don’t speak English, however, this is actually part of Ada technically, but if you want to see what people actually refer to as Ada, from Ada Ciganlija, then you should cross the river back to Old Town and then find the lake area, either by bus, cab, or foot. ”
Umm…..hello? Do I sound fluent to you?
Maybe I should have repeated my question and then said simply…
“Da? Ili Ne?”
(Yes, or no?)
Then she could have said simply, “Ne”.
And then I would have responded “Gde je Ada?” (Where is Ada?)
And then we could go from there, instead, I had no clue what she said in her response, and I just said Hvala and walked away.
She could have said something like this slowly in Serbian, and I would have understood:
“Ada is not here. Ada is over there. Go on bus #73. Go 5 stops. There is Ada. Understand?”
This would have been a much better way to talk to someone new to the language.
Now that I’m back, I’m afraid the Serbs will say, “What did you learn?” And I will pause, concentrate hard, and then say something so simple like, “I came to California on Saturday. I’m happy. Yesterday I had dinner, today I will buy milk.” And they will laugh at me and correct my endings before proceeding to speak quickly in Serbian and pretty soon I will be as lost and isolated as I was before I left here….
Oh, and another thing. Correcting my endings is pretty much useless unless you can explain why the ending should be like that. If you can say, oh, it has to have a “u” at the ending of this word because it’s a plural, masculine, possessive pronoun, therefore changed as an adjective in the akusativ case because of the verb type, and you have to add this extra letter first because of the hard consonant grouping and the multi-syllabic word, then Fine! By all means, correct me. But if you can’t tell me why other than “it sounds right to me”. Well, that doesn’t help me except to make me realize that you have no idea of the complexity of your language and how extremely difficult it is, and how many hundred hours I have already spent studying, practicing, and speaking, and yet my level is still extremely basic.
I found this on another American’s blog, a woman who is living in Serbia. This was an anonymous comment posted in response to a post about the struggles of the language barrier.
“My message to all the native speakers – please be encouraging and praising when you come across someone who’s putting effort to learn this difficult language. Don’t embarrass them and hurt their feelings with your critiques and pronunciation corrections. Let them be proud of their accomplishments.
In my mind – it is better to speak broken Serbian then no Serbian at all.”
Pre nego sto sam dosla u Srbiju, znala sam samo nekoliko srpskih reci, i to je predstavljalo problem za mene, jer moj suprug je iz Srbije i njegovi prijatelji u Americi su pretezno srbi i ja nisam mogla da ih razumem. Sada, nakon mesec dana, znam mnogo vise. Nadam se da ce mi to pomaci u buducnosti.
Now its time to practice my new skills before they start to inevitably deteriorate.
Ja Sam Ovde! Back in California! 🙂