I have to give credit where credit is due: not only does David Sedaris accurately portray the long, difficult, and often humbling stages of learning a language, but he also helps me to laugh about my blunders instead of break down in tears. In Me Talk Pretty One Day Sedaris writes about learning enough French to graduate from toddler-talk to sounding more or less like a character out of Deliverance:
On my fifth trip to France I limited myself to the words and phrases that people actually use. It’s like using a word frequency counter to reduce the number of words in an article so that its concise and clear. From the dog owners I learned “Lie down,” “Shut up,” and “Who shit on this carpet?” The couple across the road taught me to ask questions correctly, and the grocer taught me to count. Things began to come together, and I went from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. “Is thems the thoughts of cows?” I’d ask the butcher, pointing to the calves’ brains displayed in the front window. “I want me some lamb chop with handles on ’em.”
-David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day
So far, learning the language has been the greatest difficulty of my life here – emotionally and intellectually it leaves me exhausted every. single. day. I’ve never been too much of a language person, but when in a classroom with a teacher and a structured syllabus I tend to do ok. Unfortunately for me and most of the people suffering my Bosnian around me, I’ve only had about 24 hours total of formal language instruction. I quickly found a tutor here, in Tuzla, who is absolutely fabulous and who knows both English and Bosnian better than me. But there are only so many hours (and maraka – the Bosnian currency) I can spend on being tutored.
Inevitably, I’ve been left to my own devices to learn this difficult and confusing language. I’m still wondering just where to start in learning an entire language while balancing work for Advocacy Project, work for BOSFAM, and some semblance of a social life. Do I start with vocabulary or verbs? Grammar or pronunciation? Besides being generally overwhelmed, I have three major enemies in my battle with the language:
- My terrible pronunciation (so few vowels in Slavic words and a decade of Italian diction from opera singing means I sound like a Slovenian, according to one friend).
- Unfamiliar and frustrating grammar with seven different cases (all you classics majors, I envy you for mastering locative and accusative and genitive and dative, etc..). Seriously though, why do we need to have three genders, singular and plural, and then seven ways to say both nouns and adjectives? I wander around Tuzla muttering to myself “which is it? Is it padila sam na ulici or padila sam na ulicu. (I fell in/on the street – but with two different endings – because I’ve failed to fully memorize the locative case’s endings for feminine nouns).
- My terrible memory. I simply have a sponge for a brain that is already oversaturated with culture, food, work, and news. Remembering vocabulary feels like lifting the weight of the world and, more than occasionally, I think it’s just a losing battle. On the plus side, I can remember such useless words as “leptir” (“butterfly”), “šišmiš“ (“bat”), and “paun“ (“peacock”). If it’s got wings and is nearly never used in conversation, you bet I know it!
Luckily, I don’t yet know enough of the language to have a complete idea of what is happening around me all the time, so this helps me not realize when someone is trashing my language skills in rapid-fire Bosnian. Up to this point I also have realized that muttering on, despite sounding like a fool, is probably the most useful thing I can do to improve my speaking.
Over the past few weeks though, I have begun to understand enough that I can easily identify when someone is saying (to me or anyone else around me) how “she doesn’t understand anything!” I can now say “Ja razumijen tebe sada” (“I can understand you now!”). I think being in the dark about my mistakes and how people reacted to them was more fun. Just now, while writing this blog, I heard my colleagues poke fun at me for always saying “mislim da” (“I think that….”). Since these are my friends and they are kind and patient with my language, it is fine and even a little funny to point out my idiosyncrasies, but there is a point when I just want to yell “I promise, I really am smart!”
Some of my earliest mistakes were probably the best. Instead of asking a friend “do you want my meat” (since I am still trying to be a vegetarian here, though challenges with that abound as well) I asked – across a room full of people – “do you LOVE my meat?” He said yes, of course. This was only after I had already asked a lovely, gentle peacebuilder who I know from Banja Luka if he liked my meat. He and I were both reddened at the cheeks once I had realized what I had asked him.
Another time, not long after the meat incident, I started to confuse the words “sretna” (happy) with “gladna” (hungry). This confusion became ultimately apparent when, after my friend Maxime and I successfully scaled a slippery mountain with some Bosnian friends, I proclaimed “Ja sam gladna!” I meant I was happy to have made it, to be in Bosnia surrounded by beautiful landscape and friends, to be eating fresh, wild raspberries. I said “I was hungry” instead. I think they got the point though.
I’m not really sure when the torture will end. I don’t expect it to cease for at least another 6 months, if not much, much longer. I don’t particularly care if I don’t sound like an intellectual, but I would really like to be able to use more than the 10 or so adjectives I’ve successfully memorized. I’d also like to be able to understand everything Tima, one of our older weavers, says so she stops telling me that I don’t understand anything to my face. Ouch.
If there are any language learners out there please give me some information, some advice, some hope! I don’t know what to expect of myself in the relationship with this Slavic language, but right now I would really like to break up with it. If I could dump the Bosnian language, I would. But I realize that learning this language is more than essential to my work here, and my personal life. Every intellectual challenge – from Smith’s tough classes, to my field research in South Africa, to learning and lobbying on Jubilee’s international economic policy reform – has been easy next to learning this damn language. So, u Pomoć (help!). Right now I think I’m stuck between the evil baby stage and the hillbilly stage – hopefully a thoughtful, yet spiteful teenage stage that David Sedaris has yet to write about will come soon. I think that might more accurately match my current sentiments toward the language.
Posted By Julia Dowling
Posted Aug 1st, 2011