On the Value of Language Cafes

On Saturday, I told my host mom that her cooking “stank” instead of saying it “smelled good.” This morning, when my new professor asked me when I’ll graduate college, I heard, “when did you wake up this morning” and told him “around 8.” In both cases, the sentences were phonetically close in Serbian and I could play the foreigner card, but they were embarrassing nonetheless. Even worse, I’ve been speaking Serbian with my family for most of my life, and I still couldn’t catch these little nuances. I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother, laughing with a mix of genuine amusement and frustration at my elementary language skills.

For my first couple of weeks in Serbia, daily classes and time with my host family was all I needed. I felt my speaking skills improve daily. However, I quickly plateaued. I could hold basic conversation like a pro, but when it came to talking about real subjects—politics, life in the Balkans, college drama—I found myself lost for words. I realized the only way I could improve this part of my repertoire would be to meet people my own age. And talk to them in Serbian.

But where to start? I joined a couple of “Foreigners in Belgrade” and “Expat Society” groups on Facebook at the recommendation of a friend from my internship. After scrolling through weekly postings about trivia nights and weekend hikes, one posting in particular caught my attention: Language Exchange, Mondays at 8. I had never heard of a language exchange before—they’re not a “thing” in the US, as far as I knew. I didn’t know what to expect, but figured that some Serbs would likely be there. On Monday at 7:30, I set out.

I arrived to an uncomfortably well-lit conference room, decorated with old Serbian dictionaries and complete with off-brand Serbian sodas. There were separate tables, each with placards designating different languages: English, German, French, and so on. There was only one rule: whichever table you sat at, you had to speak that language. There was no Serbian-specific table, so I sat at the English table hoping to introduce myself to some Serbian speakers. Indeed, I started a conversation with a couple of 20-somethings who insisted I spoke to them in Serbian and they could respond in English as a way for both of us to practice our skills.

The first question they asked me, and the first question any Serb seems to ask, is which curse words I knew. Serbian is a colorful language, so the insults are witty and targeted. I, however, learned Serbian from my grandmother so my curse-word index was limited and old-fashioned—the equivalent of “punk!” and “rugrat!” They laughed at me and went on to list a plethora of insults really too graphic to write here. We talked for a couple of hours, and what started out as an unbearably awkward “first day of class” type-of-night ended with dinner plans for the next day and budding friendships.

Language cafes were everywhere, operating at all hours of the day and serving every demographic, from elementary school kids learning English to polyglots learning their sixth language over beers. The language café was the first opportunity I had to talk with people my own age about life, politics, drama, and the like. I learned vocabulary actually used in everyday life, as opposed to vocab lists from textbooks, and because I wasn’t in a classroom, I felt much more comfortable making mistakes.

They highlighted how integral language was to Serbian life and education: everyone in the room spoke at least two languages, many spoke three or four. Now, these exchanges have become integral to my language-learning regimen in Belgrade. Whereas formal courses emphasize grammatical accuracy and proper language learning, these language cafes allow free-flowing conversation where one can gain confidence in their abilities and connect to the greater overall purpose of learning a language: building relationships with people. In this way, these language cafes have connected me to the main artery of Belgrade’s intellectual life, and more broadly, to the city itself.

By: Eva Isakovic

Program: Balkan Language Initiative , Belgrade, Serbia

Term: Fall 2019

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