Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Serbia - what I did wrong

In embarking on my mission to learn Norwegian, I've frequently been prompted to look back on what I did wrong in my previous time learning a language, in an effort to learn from my mistakes and go in with a fresh, open outlook.

My last big attempt to learn a language was Serbian, which I did as my degree course. This involved a year of study at the University of Belgrade. A year abroad should be a time of immersion, to fully experience life in the country where the target language is spoken, allowing the learner to properly appreciate how the language is used in context. I didn't manage to do this: I didn't embrace the opportunity, and therefore I didn't come home with a level as high as I would have wished. I've made a lot of excuses about this in the past, and while I recognise that some of these are valid reasons, I have to face up to the fact that the reason my Serbian didn't improve was, quite simply, my own fault.

The main problem, in essence, was that I missed home too much. I was quite naive, liked my home comforts and was in a relatively new relationship. I wasn't ready to be thrown into a situation where I was out of my depth and, for these reasons, I came up with several coping strategies that ended up being detrimental to my long-term language prospects.

I didn't speak to people!
Just reading that headline, it's blindingly obvious that I was doing something very wrong. I have to admit that I was very intimidated about talking to people, both to strangers and to my Serbian friends. It may seem strange that I was worried about speaking Serbian to my own friends, but I was very conscious of making mistakes around them, and thus hampering our communication. Similarly, while I did communicate in Serbian in shops and restaurants, I wasn't making enough of an effort to just talk to lots of people. Looking back, this is obviously something I should have been doing much more.

I isolated myself
I also couldn't face staying in the (free) student accommodation we were provided with. They were extremely cramped, didn't feel clean and I couldn't get used to sharing a tiny room with a stranger, so I struck out on my own and rented an apartment. In hindsight, this was a mistake - many people seemed to improve greatly from time spent with the other foreign students speaking in Serbian, an opportunity I missed out on by spending a lot of time alone, chatting with friends back home on the internet. This also meant that I was missing out on social bonding, which would have probably helped to make the whole experience more pleasant and enjoyable.

I spoke English

And when I did hang out with my friend from back home who was also learning Serbian there, we generally spoke in English. I also made other British or American friends, and even got a job teaching English to local teenagers. All of this meant that I was spending far too much time speaking English, and not enough time speaking Serbian. I thought that because I was going to the classes, and living among the sights and sounds of the language, that would be enough, but of course, I was wrong.

I was looking for ways to cope

Looking back, I know now that this was all very much a coping strategy, as I was finding it incredibly difficult to be away from home for such a long period of time, and in an alien environment that frequently made me feel stupid. Michael Sieler at No Nonsense Spanish recently blogged about 'benefits'. I recognise a lot of my own struggles in what he describes:
"I had a goal to speak to at least one native German speaker each day. Some times I would talk myself out of starting a conversation with someone I didn’t know and would instead just sit quietly next to them on the bus. For me, at that time, the benefits of not starting a conversation were greater than starting one. By not talking to strangers, I was able to feel safe and secure. I didn’t realize this was sabotaging my ultimate goal of becoming fluent."
For me at that time, the benefit of learning Serbian that would have been gained by hanging out with more Serbs, living in student accommodation and chatting more freely were outweighed by the benefits of not doing so - the security I felt I needed that came from the apartment, the English conversation and not exposing myself to the potential humiliation of making mistakes.

Like Michael, I now know that I was sabotaging myself. I felt at the time that I was doing what I needed to do in order to get myself through that year, emotionally and psychologically. However, in doing that I lost sight of the long-term benefits of being there, and didn't make the most of them.

It was clear when I came home from Serbia that I'd fallen well behind several of my colleagues in terms of being able to hold discussions and converse fluently. My Serbian still isn't as good as it 'should' be for the amount of time I've spent on it and the amount of work I put in. And looking back, and being honest with myself, I know it's because of the mistakes I made during my time in Belgrade; and they're mistakes that, if the opportunity arises again, I'm determined not to repeat.


  1. Great post Sam!

    I congratulate you on being honest with yourself and the world. It's not easy to own up to past mistakes. A mistake is only a mistake if we don't learn from it, otherwise it's a learning experience. I think you've learned from your experience in Serbia and now you can be successful in your next adventure.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement Michael! The things I wrote about have been dwelling on my mind for a long time, so it was good to write them down and be very honest with myself and with everyone else.

      Unfortunately, it's unlikely I'll ever have the chance to learn a language in that way again, just because of my life circumstances, but I am trying to learn from my mistakes in my current learning-from-home.

      Needless to say, I'm very jealous of you out in Gautemala!