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

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Struggles of a Multi-Language Home & Marriage

When, in the first flush of blossoming love, I promised my then-fiance, "Of course I'll learn your language", I imagined a year or so of hard work, followed by decades of of family jokes over my Amerikanka accent.

I never imagined five entire years later not speaking a single word of Serbian, beyond scraping-the-barrel-bottom (swear words, "good day", "yes/no", "potato", "to fart", "I love you", and that's about it.)

At first I blamed my job, then an 80-hour a week mental marathon. Then I blamed the language itself in which all nouns change given tense, even people's NAMES, often violently. (For example, my step-son's name on his diploma from Croatian Culinary School is spelt "Petrova" instead of "Petar" because it's in the "we're being really official" tense I suppose.)

And I'm sorry, but no matter how much you "ch, ch, ch" at me over the dinner table, I will never discern between Č and Ć. It's just not possible.

At last, we all realized I would not be able to learn the language while we still lived most of the year in the US. I would need an in-depth course in Serbo-Croatian in either Zagreb or Belgrade for several months when we moved over, and then to live in a non-English-speaking community for a year at least thereafter. So, whenever we really, honestly, truly move over, that's the plan. A few years from now.

In the meantime, there's the language thing at home. Everyone on my side speaks English and rocky high school French, but my relatives, like most Americans, visit infrequently. Everyone on his side speaks Serb and pretty good American English and like good Serbs are over at the house all the time. I feel GUILTY insisting that people speak English when I'm in the room. But at the same time I catch myself having an absolute nervous breakdown if they do not. I hate feeling completely left out of conversations, and by extension, cut out of the family.

On the other hand, my husband *should* be able to speak his own language in his own home. I'd got nuts if the tables were reversed! And his children, surrounded by American friends day and night, are delighted to get home for the release of being able to speak Serbian once again. (As my step-daughter once remarked, it's kind of awful knowing you're the only one out of 10,000 people on campus who speaks your native language.)

But then, there they are all chattering away, and I feel... completely left out. I get to cook up a few snacks, set the table, clear plates, and then sit at the side smiling blandly, blindly. Completely left out. Sometimes I feel a bit like the family dog, beloved and patted on the head, but ignored in conversation.

My step-brother Tom, who is also married to a Serb, has the opposite problem -- the offended grandparent scenario. His wife's mother and father, who are divorced, split the year, each spending roughly half in Belgrade and half in the USA with the grandchildren. Despite a Serb mother and year-round grandparent encouragement, the kids are not interested in speaking anything but American English. It's the language of their peers. Period.

Tears have been shed and adult feelings hurt.

Which pretty much mirrors my household. Sometimes though, I think even if I learned school-perfect Serbo-Croatian tomorrow, I'd still be left out. There would be cultural and family history jokes and references I would never get. I'd never, ever completely fit in. Which will always hurt and probably offer some pleasure at the same time. Families need oddballs, and oddballs need families.

When you marry a Serb, you are a permanent oddball in his family. It's just a fact.


Anonymous said...

Nice. When the couple has a common language to fall back on, it's hard to learn each other's mother tongue.

Mario said...

Don't worry abouth CH, I can't resolve them either as native. Here in Slovenia only Č is used. Insist on English as you are helping everybody.

would-be said...

The way i learnt Serbian was just by listening to a lot of their music (even the awful stuff) and watching a lot of Serbian films and also Croatian tv (which I had when I was living in Slovenia.)
It is possible. Good luck.

By the way..
I always had the same problem with the č and ć, until a Serbian friend gave me a little tip.
Č is like in the word Chips, and Ć is like the start of the word 'tuesday.'
Hope that helps...

Pozdrav iz Engleske :-)

hdragoo said...

Oh Rosemary, can I ever relate, a newlywed to a Belgrade born and very recent to US Serb, we have had multiple conversations about how I sat for very long periods of time staring at the wall and straining my "english only ears" for just one word in Serbian I can understand so I can get a basic grasp on the overall content of the conversation. When his amazing parents and younger sister visited, I was done for :) Being the new Snaha, I did not want to be rude and insist upon English to my new in-laws. They were pretty good about stopping and catching me....up-sometimes that is....but most of the time, it was up to me to advocate for myself so I did not slowly blend into the carpet. I am also trying to learn the language, but have discovered how minimal the learing tools are for Serbian. And being here on the west coast, the closest class is 2 hours away in LA. My husband does his best and his older sister as well, she has lived here longer and is better and speaking English when I am present, it is my husband who defaults back to Serb. And like you said, who can hardly blame him?! It is his language after all. But it can most definitely be a very lonely place over a yummy dinner with Serbian company. A culture I love, but a language I only slightly understand. :)

Mirjana said...

Dear Rosemary,

I can chat to you so much on this subject :o
I am on Facebook and let me help you :)
If I relocate to Belgrade in next year or 2 I will teach you in easy way.


Leann said...

I think they made up the different "ch" thing as a joke to mess with Americans. (Must like "snipe hunting" with new campers.) As a soon to be bride marrying a Serb it is refreshing to know I'm not the only one who can't seem to grasp the language. Fortunately for me he, and all of his local family, speak wonderful English 95% of the time. My almost 5 year-old son is catching to little things though and that makes me happy...at least one of us is getting it.

aboblfitz said...

Verbs change tenses, nouns don't Nouns are put in different cases. English lost almost all of its cases throughout the history. But just as you make a possessive form by adding -'s in English (Petar - Petar's), you do the same by adding -ov/ova/ovo in Serbian. Because 'diploma' is feminine, you add -ova. It's not a 'violant change' anymore than adding the -'s in English.

Anyway, I don't think there are difficult or eas languages to learn. There are difficult and easy ways of learning the language. Once you start living in Serbia, you're bound to start picking up some of it effortlessly. And if you still find it difficult... well, I don't think it's the most important thing in the world. :)

Persephone1964 said...

Hi Rosemary,

I feel the same when I'm with my in-laws..only I don't have the excuse of not sharing a common language. Most of the time, their conversation excludes me, even though we ALL speak midwestern English. Good luck!

My husband has a horrible time with Serbian, too...even I do sometimes, and I'm a heritage speaker, soo don't feel too bad. I've been trying to brush up on my serbian lately, and I like to watch youtube videos of serbian singers & bands.

You know what helped me learn to speak French? French comics, like Asterix and Tintin. Because they don't go too fast, like TV does. And I could match up the language with the picture and spend time pondering over it's meaning. Also I spent 3 months in france. Speaking with kids helps, too, b/c my french cousins did not slow down for me or patronize me by speaking English to me when I had trouble. If you live there, you'll be amazed at how much you pick up!

The difference between the two sounds is, the first ch is like the one in "church" (like in "chitam"--"I'm reading").

The second is like the ch in "chew" (think of the serbian word for turkey--curka. Also in "cevabcice"--I'm sure you know what those are). I think the second is used more commonly.

Anyway, I hope this helps! Take care, Mira

Anonymous said...

And then there is a case of a 4 year old putting lots of effort to speak Serbian, despite her dad being an American and despite living in the US.

And instead of Serbian relatives in the "motherland" being proud of her and her efforts, they make fun of her pronounciation and grammar.

It drives me crazy because two of us work very hard to cultivate Serbian language in our little household, and I'm worried that she will get embarassed one of these days and decide not to even bother.

My message to all the native speakers - please be encouraging and praising when you come accross someone who's putting effort to learn this difficult language. Don't embarass them and hurt their feelings with your critiques and pronounciation corrections. Let them be proud of their accompishments.

In mind mind - it is better to speak broken Serbian then no Serbian at all.

Marie Ottem said...

Hi Rosemary.
I know exactly how you feel.
My fiance is Serbian, and I have a hard time learning the lenguage. I understand quite a bit, but I cant speak the leguage at all.

An even bigger problem is the fact that my fiance's dad is romanes (gipsy) and at home they hardly speak Serbian, but almost always romanes. I do speak alot of romanes, but that doesnt help me at all in serbia or with my "mother-in-laws" family. As you mentioned, the family is over at the house ALOT.

They all love me, kiss me, tell me how pretty I am, and that my eyes are gorgeous (because they are green), but I never get included in conversations. I make dinner, do the dishes, clean.. But other than than I usually sit listening to their conversations.

His parents doesnt speak english, norwegian (which is my language) or any other language I know. Neighter does the rest of his family with an exception of his brothers wife who speaks english because she grew up in sweden. And his brother ofcorse, he speaks norwegian.

Im moving to Zrenjanin next week, and as much as im looking forward to seeing his family again, I am really worried about the language.

Sorry about my english :) Its not so good, but i try.

aboblfitz said...

One other thing - about č and ć, the thing is, the English sound (ch as in church etc.) is somewhere in between the two Serbian sounds. So the people who say č is like ch in church are not really helping much.

Holly said...

I think unless you grow up with the two "Ch" sounds, it will just not take. I can't hear the difference either.
My husband is Croatian, and I appreciate your blog so much.
I try to learn what I can and teach our little sons, but *I* am the one making all the effort. He does not care or help at all. Once in a while he seems to be pleased at my efforts, but mostly..it's a solitary pursuit.
*sigh* I blame it on first generation immigration habits, i.e. one must blend into the new country.
He wouldn't let me name the boys Croatian names either although I was willing to do so (with limitation). In the end I insisted they have Croatian middle names.
I adore my Croatian in laws and extended family there. It's such fun and wonderful experience to visit and stay.
I understand what I can from inference and some study, as well as a bit from language books/CDs (which i REALLY should study more!)
GL and thanks again for the blog. I'll be commenting again! :)

nevina said...

Man I can totally understand! But my situation is a bit different to yours: I am the daughter of a Serbian expatriate in Malaysia.
My story is somewhat convoluted, in that my parents tried to raise me speaking Italian, Serbian and English, which failed miserably. At a certain point a kindergarten teacher strongly suggested to them to stick with only one language as I couldn't communicate properly at all. English won out, and I know only a smattering of Italian and a handful of words in Serbian.
I often feel like I've shortchanged my mother (who's the Serb in the family hahaha) by not making an effort to learn it. She said I would have gotten it down pat had we been able to go back to her town (Krusevac) in the summers, but then the war happened, and, well, that kept us our of there for a while.
And now I feel so intimidated to even try and start learning it. Hopefully someday I'll find the stamina to sit myself down either with my mum or get some classes somewhere and learn it properly :)

Anonymous said...

So I know this post is quite old now, but I just came across it through the RHOB blog. I also have my own "Serbian Culture Shock" blog. www.livefrombelgrade.wordpress.com
I am married to a Serb and we live in California. The topic of not understanding Serbian has been extremely sensitive with us lately. For 3.5 years, we have been together, and the Serbian community in the LA area basically have completely ignored me even though I'm married to one of their Serbian friends, who they love dearly. They always speak Serbian in front of me even though they know I don't speak it. I find it terribly rude, especially since they all speak English fluently. If we all have 1 common language, why not use it? I understand wanting to speak in your own tongue. But if you have 3 people standing in a group, that all speak English. Why speak Serbian to exclude 1? It's been really hurtful the last few years and moj muz tries only half heartedly to get them to speak a little more English around me. Finally I went to Serbia to take a 1 month intensive language program, but even with that, I still have only a very, very, minimal skill level.
You can try researching the Azbukum Serbian/English Language School. They have programs in Belgrade, Novi Sad, and also an online program which I heard is quite good.
Good luck to you! :)
Oh, also, I really enjoyed this part of one persons' anonymous comment
"My message to all the native speakers - please be encouraging and praising when you come accross someone who's putting effort to learn this difficult language. Don't embarass them and hurt their feelings with your critiques and pronounciation corrections. Let them be proud of their accompishments."