Lessons Learned about Learning Language

After three months in Sarajevo, my journey is winding down to just the last few weeks. Now that I’ve been here a while, I’m being asked much more frequently if I feel like my language has improved at all. That’s not an easy question to answer. Realistically, I think yes. I’m able to hold longer and more frequent conversations than when I first arrived, and I have a better feel for the grammatical structures while I’m speaking. However, today I felt tired and understood very little of the movie I was supposed to watch for homework. That’s usually enough to make me feel like my proficiency level has jumped back to square one.

While learning a new language in a new country has been a challenge, not letting myself feel discouraged has been a close second to that. The improvement happens gradually, and it can be pretty difficult to feel most days. Thankfully, what seems to be one of Bosnia’s most-frequently used words serves as a nice reminder to slow down and pace yourself: polako.

Polako simply means “slowly,” and I think I must have heard it three or four times a day when I first showed up.

“You’re learning Bosnian? Polako.”

“You’re new to Sarajevo? Polako.”

“You’re drinking coffee? Polako.”

There’s even a bridge across from the Academy of Fine Arts called “Festina Lente” which is Latin for “Požuri polako” (or: “Hurry up slowly”).

Polako has become one of my favorite words, and I’ll say it quietly to myself if I begin to get frustrated with a particularly hard text, or if I’m having one of those days where all I want to do to study is listen to music.

And while I have had plenty of challenging moments with the language, for every frustrating moment, there have been just as many (if not more) truly rewarding ones. A few days ago I chatted with my cab driver about Sarajevo’s film festival. The day after that, my teacher and I were discussing idioms, which I don’t think I could have tackled with as much confidence before coming to Bosnia. My essays are covering more and more complicated topics.

This semester has been incredibly valuable, both in the experience of learning the language, and in learning the culture. I came to Bosnia because I didn’t want to learn the language only in a vacuum, never truly experiencing it in daily use. I got that experience and so much more. Through learning the language here in Sarajevo, I was able to discover so much of Bosnia’s culture. Without physically being here, and without having such an intense focus on the language, I never would have understood this amazing country so well. Studying in Sarajevo has been one of the most important things I’ve done in my life, because it didn’t just teach me about another culture, but let me actually experience and live it.

By: McKinzey Manes

Program: Balkan Language Initiative

Term: Spring 2016

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