Language Learning and Me: Serbian

Claire Handscombe

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When thinking about language learning, it can be helpful to hear about the journeys of others, so that we can find inspiration and get helpful tips from what's worked from them.

A. is a talented and experienced linguist, but Serbian has been a new adventure for her. Here are some of her thoughts on the process of language learning.

1. Why Serbian?

My husband is from Serbia and we moved to Belgrade last year.

2. You’ve learned other languages before. What were they, and did they help you with Serbian at all?

I studied French and Spanish at university, and also learnt Tok Pisin, the trade language of Papua New Guinea when I worked there several years ago. I’ve also studied written Hebrew and Greek… Serbian is a Slavic language so not related to any of the languages I’ve learnt although there are a few odd Latinic root words that crop up in Serbian. I think learning any language helps you with learning another, both in terms of having your strategies for going about learning and also for understanding grammar concepts.

3. What are the particular challenges of Serbian, particularly when compared to the other languages you speak?

Serbian has 3 genders (masculine, feminine and neuter) and 7 different cases (accusative, locative, genitive etc). I’d come across gender before in Spanish and French, and cases while studying Greek. However, I only studied written Greek so never had to actually produce the right case endings in speech. The Cyrillic alphabet was also a challenge initially, but I’m finding it easier to read the more I practise. One great thing about Serbian is that you write as you speak and vice versa, none of the horrible English spelling difficulties! Tenses are also a lot more straightforward than in English.

4. How have you gone about learning Serbian? Has it differed from how you learned the other languages? How successful has it been?

I did a fair amount of self-study with a book before we moved to Serbia. Other languages I had always studied initially in a class context rather than just by myself. However, the self-study was really helpful in helping me not to feel so overwhelmed when we moved. Since moving to Serbia I’ve been having private classes initially twice and now once a week. But most of the work is still up to me! I try to study a bit everyday, mainly from books, but now also by reading the newspaper or magazines. A lot of my learning is from being immersed in the language with everyday life here. I get a lot of speaking practice when I’m out and about with my young son, and with my relatives and friends. Serbians are very welcoming. People are very patient with my efforts!

5. What resources would you recommend for someone wanting to learn Serbian? And what advice would you give them?

One friend said to me that the first 6 months of learning Serbian are the hardest, and after that it’s easy! Well, I’m still waiting for it really to seem easy, but certainly learning all the cases, genders, corresponding endings and when to use what, which seemed so hard at the beginning is starting to become more natural. So I would say persevere, it does get easier.

I’ve used several books from the Institut Za Strane Jezike (Srpski Za Strance, Reč po reč, početni tečaj — Serbian for Foreigners, Elementary Course, and Srpski Jezik za Strance 2). The first book is nicely laid out with pictures so is nice to work through. Book 2 is rather older and less attractive looking but still contains a lot of useful texts, vocabulary and grammar practice. Every other chapter in book is in Cyrillic rather than Latinic script.

6. Do you think it’s important for expats to learn the language of their host country? Why/why not?

However long your stay in a foreign country, the experience will always be enriched by getting to know local people, their culture and customs. At least some amount of language learning is essential for this. If at all possible, I think an intense period of language learning at the beginning, followed by continued learning is the best way to do this.

7. What’s your favourite Serbian word or idiom?

Err, hard question. Any word without a č or a ć which I find still it hard to differentiate between!

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

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