Speak Serbian So the Whole World Understands You

There’s a saying in Serbia:  “Speak Serbian so the whole world understands you.” I won’t be getting into the history of the saying but there is an ironic sort of reason to it. My spin on the saying would be, “Come to Serbia, where we all understand you.”

In this country and most countries of the former Yugoslavia, bilingual and multilingual individuals like myself are next to normal. I often hear pleasantly surprised visitors from back West commenting on how it seems that nearly everyone speaks English in Belgrade and the larger cities. While we Serbs generally are a bit tough to deal with in a business environment and we are often strongminded and opinionated, I know there is one thing we do well and with ease – communication. In fact, that goes for all but one of the former Yugoslavian countries (and the ex YU crew will know who I mean).

Lately, I keep finding myself in the same, somewhat bizarre “Groundhog’s Day” situation and it happened again yesterday. I was running errands somewhere downtown, when I was randomly approached by a passing Westerner visiting Belgrade. I know this seems like nothing out of the ordinary, but keep in mind that I happen to speak three native languages and three more on the side. This is the summary of what usually happens in these increasingly more common situations:

“Hello. Excuse me, could you help me?” says the befuddled visitor, handing me a map of Belgrade.

I know what’s coming so I take a deep breath before I take the piece of paper and reply, ” Oh, sure. No problem. Let’s see what you’re looking for…” And then it begins. The same 20 questions, like someone had prepared a questionairre and handed it to them as soon as I spoke English fluently with a mixed New England American accent.

The visitor raises his/her eyebrows and in a tone that is at least a surprised pitch above their habitual voice range says, “Oh, you’re not from here [Serbia]?”

Oh, boy. When I reveal that I’m a full fledged, honest to goodness Serb, our visitor immediately quite forgets the map that I’m still holding. For the next 10 minutes or so I proceed to satisfy their curiousity and watch their interest in the international character of my life story, trying to use no more than 5 or 6 syllables in my answers to each question. I really don’t mean to complain. I always have that minute or two for most anyone who needs a hand, whether foreign of local, but… I live here, I work here, I’m on the clock and have somewhere to go. As the number of tourists rises in most of Eastern Europe, including Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia, I figure I have two choices: either a) start pretending I don’t speak anything other than Serbian or b) prepare a detailed FAQ on yours truly, hand it to them and be on my way.

Whether it’s in person, on the phone, on-line or plain body language, Serbs are all about eat, drink, speak (loudly and in tongues) and be merry. This is why we seem to pick up languages and integrate into a new life in other countries easily. Yesterday, after leaving yet another wandering tourist thoroughly impressed with my linguistic abilities, I came home and ran a little survey on the ex YU crew on Twitter. Willing and able to communicate as usual, I got what I was looking for. Everyone who responded listed English as the foreign language they speak best. While they all had English as a subject in elementary and high school (some also in university and private lessons/courses), most claim that they had learned the language through cartoons, movies, books and conversation. I find it’s the very communicative nature of the region that creates an openness to learn.

The vast majority of the group went on to list either German, Russian or one of the Romantic languages (Italian, Spanish and French) as their second best language. Here comes the part that will really surprise others: about half of them reported that they are currently either taking a course to perfect a foreign language or learning yet another language from scratch in their spare time, just for the hell of it. The latter included Japanese, Gaelic, Hebrew, and Ukranian! I was impressed but not to surprised. Some individuals taking part in my little “study” also listed Esperanto, C++, AS3, PHP and Basic as languages they are fluent in or “live and breathe”… I actually don’t think they were kidding. However, what did surprise me (and plesantly at that) is that many of those who listed their native language called it Serbo-Croatian. This brought back some nice memories and, again, showed the ease with which people from the region not only integrate, but also REintegrate into a community.

A visitor’s everyday experience and the “data” I collected from the very responsive ex YU crew on Twitter are both proof that, while we still have some technical snags to work out, this region is among the most international, receptive and communicative you might ever get to know. Try us. In any language. We double dog dare you.

*Many thanks to the above mentioned ex YU Twitter crew for their time, especially: @Blogowski (censored, blog dealer), @drveni_advokat (for performance above and beyond the call of duty), @dzejndou (wow!), @aurorans (our in-house expert linguist), @vranac (011011000110111101101100 !), @dijica (pozdrav mami i ako se računa ono polaganje u stomaku onda sam i ja bila na Kanarima :P), @llevo3 (zajebavaj ti, moraćeš da nas vodiš u rest da vidimo mi taj tvoj grčki), @papitas (que quizás entendera completamente de que estoy hablando), @rantalica (subarashi!).

2 responses to “Speak Serbian So the Whole World Understands You

  1. Very interesting post! I’ve always thought the reason behind that saying was that Serbs can be found all over the globe though (certainly my experience: everywhere I go, I always meet at least one).

    + I think calling the language Serbo-Croatian makes sense because Serbs understand the words that are typical for Croatia and vice versa. The only problem I have with it is that I always think “What about Montenegrins? What about Bosniaks?” Ex-Yu linguistics drive me insane. 🙂

  2. Yes, I’ve had the same experience of meeting a Serb everywhere I go. I suppose the saying itself is kind of like the “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” question. Are there so many Serbs around the world because we are communicative and pick up languages easily or have we become accustomed to doing so BECAUSE there are so many of us around the globe? Chicken? Egg? o_O
    As for ex-Yu linguistics, all except for Slovenian derived from the Shtokavian dialect. When considering the different dialects, we have to take into account that “Serbian” as a language, as an ethnicity and as a nationality are all separate. So, the languages spoken in Serbia, Montenegro and B&H are in fact 3 different dialects of the Serbian language… Uh-oh. I have a feeling one of my future posts will be on this very subject 😉
    I’m glad you enjoyed it! Stay tuned.