Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Why I Don't Want to Learn Serbian (Or Croatian) Just Yet

It's not laziness. Ok, well it is, but a more poetic kind of laziness than perhaps you are imagining.

After nearly four years with my husband, I know most Yugoslavian swearwords, plus the words for 'I love you", "my wife", "good", "pretty", "very", "fart", "what?" "strawberry", "potato", "apartment" anything that sounds English (ie. 'Internet') and "watermelon." Actually, as a Croatian friend rather sadly pointed out, I only know the word for watermelon in Serbian. It's one of a few but growing number of words that are completely different in Croatian.

Given how long I've lived in a native Serb-speaking household in the US, the number of "teach yourself Serbo-Croatian" books and tapes I own, plus the amount of time I've spent in both Serbia and Croatia these past years, it's a damned poor showing.

Learning new languages is hard, especially when you're not a kid. And, especially when as a kid, you spent a summer on an immersion course living with an Italian family and then managed to utterly fail Beginner's Italian in school the next year. Although I've got a fantastic ear, the ability to parrot back phrases sounding just like a native, the words don't stick with me. It's all quite literally in one ear and out the other.

But, I'm not whining about how lousy I am at languages, or how hard Serbian is to learn (Cyrillic, blech!) I realized the other night when my husband point-blank dared me to learn 100 words in 100 days, that the true problem is I REALLY DON'T WANT TO LEARN SERBIAN.

Why? Because when you don't speak the language, no one expects you to speak.

I cannot describe the bone-deep relaxation you can feel when sitting amidst a whole bunch of chattering people, none of whom expect anything more from you than be clean and calm. It feels like what I imagine being on one of those ultra-luxury cruises is like. You lounge back on your deck chair, caressed by the sun and a light ocean breeze. Occasionally a waiter appears to inquire if you need another beer or perhaps a gin and tonic? You pick up your book and glance at a page, you lay it aside again and close your eyes. You don't even have the obligation of sleeping, just laying there is enough of an activity.

Pure pleasure.

After a lifetime of being asked for my opinion, of being a business leader, of giving speeches at national conventions, of instructing others, of endless 4000-word-a-day professional writing and emails, being absolutely silent is the hugest vacation you can possibly imagine.

I've noticed whenever I am on this type of non-speaking holiday, my own creative output -- from writing to ideas to drawing -- triples or even quintuples. Bereft of the obligations of conversation, my mind bubbles and ferments with its own creations.

Someday this nirvana, like all, must end. In its place I'll be able to take my rightful place in the larger family, chat amiably with neighbors instead of just their teenaged children, understand jokes, read the local newspaper, and bicker with my husband in two languages instead of the lone shared one. Instead of relaxing when in Serbia, my brain cells will be on overdrive, declining verb tenses, selecting the correct nouns, alert and translating every moment.

I'll miss the old days. Shameful, lazy, but true.


Anonymous said...

BTW, what's the Croatian word for watermelon? I always assumed it was "lubenica", just like in Serbian.

sasha said...

Interesting approach but I must say that to learn a language is to delve into a different culture and experience it from the inside.No amtter how small or insignificant it is like Serbian is, in this case.

Evolve said...

two words you have to know in serbian is the equivallent of MAN & DUDE in english