Contributed by Olivia Johnson. Check out more of their posts from this summer here.
While I’ve traveled to other countries where few people speak English, this is the first time I’ve traveled to a country without knowing any of the language. The night before I left I practiced saying the different forms of hello, but the foreign Serbian phrases did not stick. The only words I was confident of during my transatlantic flight were hello (zdravo), yes (da), no (ne), and good (dobro). During my layover I pulled out my Cyrillic alphabet intent on learning it in its entirety only to give up in a search for coffee. Upon arrival at Nikola Tesla airport I fumbled through customs following the lead of those in front of me, hoping I was exiting the airport correctly. When I finally re-connected with the group I was relieved to know I was not the only one inept at Serbian and the Cyrillic signs around us. At dinner on the first night we fumbled through the menus embarrassed that we did not even know how to say thank you, much less do you speak English? On my first day of work I stopped to grab coffee only to respond that I was good when someone asked what I wanted. Unsure of what I was asked I hoped it was a how are you. The puzzled expression of the cashier told me otherwise. After a few more fumbles I got my coffee and hurried away. While I have avoided that coffee shop for the time being the blunders have continued. I wish I could say that after a week of Serbian classes later I have a handle on the language. My vocabulary has broadened to include food items, polite expressions, greetings and some street names but I still freeze up when people speak to me.
To be sure, I blame myself for my laziness in not learning the language. The Duke Engage Serbia team from last year stressed to us how much we should try to learn basic Serbian upon arrival so of course I pushed it to the back of my to do list. I knew the signs would be in Cyrillic but I thought Belgrade would be easy enough to navigate. And in all honesty I was expecting people to speak English. How much, I am not sure, but I knew I could get by with little effort on my part. My reliance on English as a common denominator proves the privilege that I inherently brought with me on this trip. I assumed I would not need to learn Serbian, as I knew there would be enough people who spoke English. Enough people who spoke my language–the visitor’s language–that I could get by without assimilating. I cannot imagine this situation in reverse. If a Serbian visited the US for a two-month trip without any prior knowledge of English she would be in for a tough time. Not only would she have a difficult time finding someone who actually spoke Serbian, but I doubt Americans would be as accommodating as the people here have been to me. Would the waiters help her fumble through the menu and get excited when she responded “thank you” in poorly accented English? Could she ask any young person on the street for directions in Serbian and hope for a coherent response, since of course ALL Americans take Serbian in school? Could she go to the workplace and have the whole office switch to Serbian around her, understanding that even though this student came to volunteer she doesn’t speak English so they as an office should accommodate the one volunteer? I know you might be thinking “but English is a common language, unlike Serbian. They don’t expect you to speak their language.” In some ways this is true, in others not so much. I won’t go on a rampage against western colonialism/imperialism but a strong reason the global world speaks English is due to the American hegemony and the British one prior to that. Something that I have always despised is this imperative for other countries to learn our language–the language of education, power and economics–while we give little effort to learn theirs in return. I am fortunate to have English as my first language as I know I can travel almost anywhere with it. Yet this insensitiveness to learn another language reflects the power dynamics I am bringing with me. Languages should not have power yet what you speak and how you speak it has great bearing on your experiences. Yes, not many people speak Serbian but out of respect, I should try to learn the language of the place I’m visiting. Serbia has had a tumultuous history (more on that later) and one thing Serbians hold onto is national identity. I am still learning what it means to be Serbian but I know language is essential to this. The unique inclusion of both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabet and the Turkish influences are just part of the beauty of the Serbian language. It seems like a small thing on my part to learn a bit more.