Two and a half years ago, I was in Belgrade at a little store trying to buy batteries for my camera. I had been in Belgrade for two weeks at that point, I had traveled there on my own, and was halfway through my intensive language course. I was deep into the cases and the grammar drills were enough to make my head spin. Still, I insisted on speaking Serbian every chance I got, and was grateful for every time I could do so. I treated every opportunity like my own personal language mission. Tuesday Afternoon: Purchase batteries using my limited 2 week knowledge of the language. Use one new word, one new grammar construction, and at all costs – do not resort to English! I perused the store, mustering up the courage to approach the guy at the counter, while formulating my simple question in my head. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, he stopped me. “I speak English, its ok!” “No. I know. I speak Serbian”. “No, you don’t, but its ok, I speak English”. “No, I want to try speaking Serbian” “Why would you do such a thing?” He was puzzled and laughing at my attempts, at my earnest determination. He laughed at my coarse, faltering, miserable attempt at Serbian, with my childish vocabulary, my caveman grammar, my speed like a dementia patient. This was a common reaction when I tried my Serbian. I got so frustrated at people responding in English when I attempted Serbian, that I finally came up with a good response. “Ne hablo Engles” Ha! That will stop them!
A year before that, it was my wedding weekend. I was in California, surrounded with all my closest friends and family, and by everyone that loved me, and in addition to that – all the Serbs were there. So was my Grandma, the wise old owl of the family, the sage. It was to her that I listened the most, it was her that I tried so hard to sear the memory of her words into my brain so that I could carry them for all my life, and that I could channel her soul so to speak, to help me throughout the challenges that life would undoubtedly bring. She had always been my sounding board. Calm, courageous, daring, graceful, elegant, classy, sophisticated, and yet grounded. She was grandma. And so I listened to her. So as it was, it was a perfect Sunday afternoon, and were lounging on a beautiful yacht, drinking champagne and basking in the festive glow that surrounds wedding festivities. We were also surrounded with all the Serbs and a few of my loved ones. At that moment, my grandma, usually the belle of the ball, was suddenly swept into my world. I saw the transformation. She, usually at ease in her surroundings, confident, poised, and put together, began to look a little bewildered. She found herself in a sea of Serbian. The language swirling around her, the waves of foreign conversation sweeping her off her feet as she lost her footing, grasping for a word, a life raft, on which to hold on to. She followed the conversation, smiling at the right times, laughing at the right times, but she was lost. She was me. It was at this moment that she turned her beautiful silver head towards mine, her granddaughter bride, and discreetly whispered to me in that wise old voice that spoke only the truth and said “You really must learn this language”. “I know Grandma, I know.”
Up until this point, I had tried, desparately and unsuccessfully to learn as much as I could. I took a “Serbo-Croatian” course at the Beverly Hills Lingual Institute, I practiced counting and basic phrases with my muz while hiking the Santa Monica hills, I watched DVDs in English that were subtitled in Serbian, I did what I could do. But I barely scratched the surface.
Luckily for me, I grew up in an incredible garden of international awareness. My family, Midwesterners true and true, were citizens of the world at heart. My great uncle was writing a book in Russian at his 96th year on his deathbed. I look at my brothers- one did his Masters’ degree in Japan, another brother speaks Arabic, and the other recently came back from a language emersion program in Mexico. My sister majored in French, and my parents always encouraged language, travel, understanding of the world. So here is me: As per the school curriculum, I studied basic French and Spanish in elementary school and Latin in middle school. In high school and college, thanks to the prodding of my progressive older brother, I took on Mandarin Chinese. Because even in the late 90s, as a high school senior, my forward thinking brother told me “this will be the language of the world soon, you better learn it now” So I trusted him, and I enrolled in Mandarin classes at my school as a 13 year old freshman in high school.
High school is thankfully, just memories now, but I still don’t speak Chinese. I don’t really speak French or Spanish either, and I certainly don’t speak nearly enough Serbian to really even be called conversational. But I did take something away from all those experiences, even if I can only remember how to say “Ni Hao and Zai Jian”. I learned what is important about language. I learned that syllables and grammar are the building blocks of preserving culture. I learned how to position ones tongue in ones mouth to produce different types of sounds. I learned how alphabets develop differently and how languages spread across continents, diversifying with their environment, and slowly changing to reflect the people that speak it. I also learned that I am verbal. Some people are oral, I am not. Sometimes I struggle expressing myself aloud. I am quiet when I should speak, I am loud when I should be quiet, but I love language. I love the craft of writing, I admire great public speakers, and I take joy in learning about the origins, the history, and all the little insights that language gives away about its people. I learned that you can discover a people by learning a language. Why do the French call it “an affair”, when Americans call it “cheating?” Why do Chinese have the phrase “to eat bitter?” “Why do Serbs say “—– once you have been bitten by a small snake, you will always be afraid of lizards?” These are the things that delight me.
In America, relatively few people speak Serbian, in Serbia, many of their people speak English, so why even try? I certainly wouldn’t be the first westerner I’ve met who partnered up with a Serbian without giving much thought to breaking down the language barrier. Even Chinese, though my brother did have a point, is arguably obsolete as the world has already decided its international language: English. Some would say I have been lucky enough to be born into the language since I will never really need to try that hard to understand a language other than my own to get by in this world. I choose to disagree. I think I am at a disadvantage. Had I not been born into an English speaking family, I would have by necessity, probably learned another language by now. As it is, I have not, but I am determined to do so. I do however have the luxury of choosing what language I will target as my personal language challenge, and of course, it will be Serbian. Before my muz, I might have continued with Chinese, it certainly makes for good cocktail conversation, or I could have switched to Spanish. Spanish would have been an obvious choice, as nearly everything in America is written in both English and Spanish, and many neighborhoods are predominantly Hispanic. Plus, the grammar is easier. Instead I choose Serbian, because that is what infiltrates my world. Serbian on Friday nights when we go to dinner with friends, Serbian at holidays in LA where all the extended family is present, Serbian, I hear every day when my muz is talking on the phone with his parents in Belgrade, or his brother in Chicago, or most everyone of his friends. Serbian, because even at my own wedding, I could not understand the guests. Serbian, so I can one day speak with my own children, to read them bed time stories in the language of their ancestors, and help preserve and pass on part of their heritage. Serbian, because one day, hopefully, they will speak it better than me.