Grammar or Speed?

I’ve recently been thinking about how an aspect of my personality—namely, my perfectionism—makes me a great Bosno-Croate-Serbian (BCS) speaker, but also really holds me back. Before studying Serbian, I lived in Bulgaria for a year and gained a great deal of skills in Bulgarian. “Who said Slavic languages are hard?” I thought. Then, 3 years later, I began classes in Bosno-Croate-Serbian (as it is called in the US now; some still maintain the name used during Yugoslav times—Serbo-Croatian. Here in Serbia, you just call it Serbian. I don’t have space in this post to discuss the political implications of these names!).

The first month of BCS class was great. “This is so much like Bulgarian! There are so many verbs that are the same!” Then one day my teacher announced we were going to learn this thing called The Accusative Case. How naïve I had been. You see, I did not fully comprehend what it meant that Bulgarian had no cases and BCS most certainly did.

Fast forward two years of study in grad school and I arrived in Belgrade in June with a strong handle on grammar. While American universities are not always the best at teaching speaking, I do think mine excelled at teaching me grammar. Unfortunately, that has led to a unique form of speaking while here. When I first arrived, I realized my vocabulary for ‘daily’ tasks was quite small. “What’s that word for fork? How do I tell my host mom I’m heading to the shower?” The learning curve was steep, but quick. My ‘casual,’ some might say ‘survival’ Serbian developed over the course of the first month or so here. And now is where my dilemma comes into the picture.

I’ve noticed that there are two types of people when it comes to speaking Serbian (as a foreigner). The first, and I’d say perhaps the luckier group initially, is the type that will just plow through a sentence to get their point across, but not worry too much about having the perfect case when they are speaking. I have noticed that more people here fall into this category. I, on the other hand, cannot STAND saying the wrong case when speaking. It hurts my ears, I am very hard on myself, and I sometimes end up switching to English out of embarrassment even though Serbians are incredibly forgiving about cases (and in some parts of the country, don’t even use them!). Therefore, I sometimes stick to the ‘survival’ Serbian I’m comfortable with and I’ve found that this perfectionism of mine has held me back in this second month here.

When talking to my teacher today, she reiterated that I have a good command of grammar (a great compliment!) and that I now need to focus on not running through every single case until I get to the right one when in the middle of a sentence. That certainly makes normal conversations difficult! Imagine someone saying the same sentence 5 times until it is perfect. We certainly don’t have the expectation of those learning English as a foreign language—the most important thing is that I can understand what a person is trying to say, not that they maybe didn’t say it in the perfect way.

Nevertheless, the greatest gift that these two months here (and the AC program) has given me is the ability to feel comfortable in ‘survival’ Serbian. I studied Hebrew for years, and while my vocabulary was large, I never felt comfortable enough to have full conversations like I do here.  I can attest this success to the excellent structure of the Balkan Language Initiative, and AC’s other language programs—First, my host family, with whom I only speak Serbian. Second, my conversation partner, who knows perfect English, but keeps me committed to only speaking Serbian together. Finally, the language pledge that we make with American Councils to only speak in Serbian with the staff. The other language programs I did had none of these three items. Of course, my classes here are excellent, and I love one-on-one classes. However, these three unique aspects of AC programs are what make this program truly superb. I’m so grateful for the comfort I have gained. Now if I can only allow myself to make more mistakes, I can move from a strong command of survival Serbian to a level where I am comfortable talking about politics and other difficult topics.

By: Katy Swartz

Program: Balkan Language Initiative, Belgrade, Serbia

Term: Summer 2019

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