Say Something in Serbian!

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! ๐Ÿ™‚


8 thoughts on “Say Something in Serbian!

  1. If you’re fat, Serbs tell you you’re fat. It hurts. But it’s true. We don’t do that to hurt your feelings. On the contrary, we do so, because we love/care/respect that fat guy, and by telling him the truth (as we see it) we’re trying to help him.
    Same goes for correcting. We correct you, so you could be better at something.
    As for the laugh, well, try speaking first before Serb girls, maybe they’ll be more kind than bunch of guys with a beer in one hand and pljeskavica in other ๐Ÿ˜€
    I’ve seen this before – They correct me to annoy me – We correct you to help you. I guess it’s one (of many) cultural differences we share.
    If you want, ask me on my e-mail to send you several other English blogs I remember their authors had the same problem, and later found out it wasn’t a problem actually ๐Ÿ˜€

    Btw, how many endings do we have? Just 60? Is it harder to learn just 60 endings or how to write/read every new world you hear/see for the first time in your life, since you’ve learnt those 26 letters? ๐Ÿ˜€
    It takes ages to be fluent in Serbian, but it takes more than any lifetime to know how to read a new word in English. ๐Ÿ˜€
    With that said, how you read this: GHOTI (hint: it swims good) or GHOUGHPTEIGHBTEAU (hint: Irish can’t figure it out) [don’t use Google] ๐Ÿ˜€

    Btw#2, nice blog ๐Ÿ˜‰
    Btw#3, please, feel free to correct my bad English ๐Ÿ˜€

    • Yes, I’m quite aware of the blunt manner in which Serbs speak. I was rudely awakened to this over 3 years ago, and now I’ve adapted some of the same manner of speaking which has made my own friends and family start to think I’m rude. No, its just the Serbs rubbing off on me and making me more direct. As for the endings, its not just the endings, its the grammer in general. And actually Serbian has way more than 60 endings, that was just 60 types of possessive pronouns, and each of those 60 changes according to the various endings of the 7 different cases with Serbian has. So yes, its definitely harder for Serbs to spell well in English, but when you speak, I don’t hear what a bad speller you are, you can become conversational and not sound stupid. When I start to become conversational in Serbian, all the complex grammatical rules must be applied to every word, and that is something that I think is probably impossible for me to really ever master. And I won’t be able to speak at a normal pace because I muset first apply at least 10 rules to each ending before saying the word. In terms of corrections, yes I expect them, and I don’t think it matters whether its a female or male who I am speaking to. The point of my comment there was this: If every single phrase I make is met with a correction instead of a response, then we will never get a conversation going. At some point, you have to let a few errors slide in sake of getting the communication flowing. And actually, its quite well accepted among linguists that the Serbian language is one of the most complex and difficult languages to learn! Thanks for the comment! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. As a Serb studying in Czech (which i didn’t know before, of course), I understand completely. I even have a Russian-speaking friend who learned Serbian here (as well as Czech), and I know the issues she faced. And if I could boil down all that experience into a single sentance, it’d be something like:

    Forget about the endings. Don’t think about them. Yes, you will make mistakes. Yes, native speakers will probably make fun of you (or just misunderstand you). Yes, you’ll feel that all you need is more studying of the rules. But the moment you start over-analyzing the word endings, you have lost already. Language doesn’t work that way. Few of the Serbs actually know that that word is masculine genitive ending in a soft consonant and that’s why it ends in -whatever. It just comes naturally after a point. So just keep at it, make mistakes, and after you hear a given word enough times, at one point it will all just click and you’ll never repeat the mistake again. Obsessing with it will just make you a slow speaker and you’ll just make the same errors anyway.

    But hey, Slavic -> Slavic IS easier than transitioning from a non-Slavic language (in some ways, cases included), so what do I know. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Thank you. I love reading your observations! I am having similar problems learning Serbian. And my Serbian friends always respond to my questions by saying “because that’s how it is”. I don’t think most of them even see or understand the rules and patterns, they just learned through a lifetime of hearing it.

    In some ways they have it easier learning English because their lifetime exposure to English (whether or not they learn it) is greater than our lifetime exposure to Serbian. Also, as you say, you can spell English words incorrectly but who knows that when you are speaking? And in America there are 10 of millions of people (more than the entire population of Serbia) for whom English is a second language, so we are quite used to hearing and understanding broken English and our first reaction is not to correct (although we may do that later if we know the person well), but to try to respond to the conversation and answer in a way that will be understood. We are more likely to speak slowly (and sometimes loudly) or choose simpler words in order to maintain the communication. It is in our nature, I think. I have not found that to be true with my Serbian friends. And yes, they are trying to be helpful by correcting, even when they can’t explain in a way that is meaningful to me, but they often forget to converse first – correct second so the conversation is dead before it begins and I learn nothing. Conversely, when they ask me what an English word means, they often don’t have the patience to hear the entire explanation so they don’t understand when to use a particular word and when to use a different word – it’s the same to them. I had a difficult time explaining the difference between “in the street” and “on the street” one time! And don’t get me started on the problems I had explaining why you say a deceased person is “at peace” but you also say “rest in piece”. They couldn’t understand why one was “in” and one was “at”! I tried to explain that the preposition needed was because of the verb of each sentence/phrase, but in the end I had to say what they always say to me “because that’s how it is!” LOL. Anyway, I am experiencing the same problems remembering which endings to use (which we compensate for that lack by having different words to convey different subtle meanings) and how word order changes things sometimes, and how they often use double negatives and redundant phrases (like takoฤ‘e i). It’s a rough barrier and the slavic languages are very difficult for English speakers to learn, but I hope to someday overcome it and become passable! ๐Ÿ™‚

    And for those learning English as a second language, I understand your pain learning how to spell the words, but remember that English is really not one language, it is made up from many different languages (starting with French and German) and we historically chose to respect the languages that many words came from by retaining their spelling (usually) rather than changing the spelling to match how it sounds. It’s hard to learn the spellings, true, but it has made English a very forgiving language to people who do not speak it well, because they often already know some of the words, especially when they come from speaking other European languages. And it has made it a very flexible language and enabled it to grow and survive through many, many changes.

    Thanks again for your observations! Priceless!

    • Great Comment! You make so many good points, like that English is a conglomeration of many languages, which explains our unusual spellings. And also, I hadn’t thought about the fact that we are so used to talking to foreigners, but Serbs probably rarely speak to a non native Serbian speaker. I mean, we’ve been talking to people with broken English since we were little kids! So we really know how.
      One thing I’ve learned is that my keeping track of what types of mistakes Serbs make when speaking English, I can actually use that to help my when I speak Serbian, for example, if they use a particular construction that sounds wrong, I then use that to assume that I should try to construct a Serbian sentence in that same way, like with their wierd use of prepositions, double negatives, etc. Thanks so much for your comment and good luck with your Serbian! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. It’s a bit silly a Czech person, whose native language also has 7 cases explaining to a native English speaker “oh, just don’t worry about it. You’ll get it right”. To a native English speaker, you need someone who actually understand the linguistics of it to explain it properly. There’s absolutely no point in trying to sound it out, because often the noun declines in similar ways for different cases based on the gender. You really need to spend time working at it to get it right and spend time with someone who knows how to teach it, not just a native speaker who speaks fluently.

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