Written by: Olivera Tolimir
If you’ve ever told anyone you would like to learn Serbian, you probably saw the other person fainting or giving you plain simple: “Isn’t Serbian a hard language to learn? Why would you bother? Besides, everyone knows English anyway.” But what if your parents of Serbian descent would appreciate you improving your Serbian skills? What if you have a significant other from Serbia whose parents don’t know English that well? Maybe you’ve got a job in Serbia or just love a good linguistic challenge. Is Serbian that difficult and impossible to learn? Well, you probably wouldn’t be able to learn Serbian fast by yourself, but let’s go step by step.
Alphabet and pronunciation
Serbs like to brag a little about their alphabet. One letter – one sound, it’s perfect – you would often hear them say. And it’s true. At least in the Cyrillic script. Oh, yes, we have one alphabet and two scripts – the Latin one and the Cyrillic one. But don’t worry – despite that fact, it’s much easier to learn reading in Serbian than in the language you’re reading this in.
While English grammar is not so complicated, its pronunciation is a nightmare for most foreigners. In Serbian, you won’t struggle with this, because the braggy part from the beginning of this paragraph is correct. As soon as you learn to read all 30 letters, you will be able to read any word in Serbian with ease. Including the longest one – prestolonaslednikovica! In the Cyrillic script, one letter always represents one sound, while in the Latin one, there are three exceptions.
The only complication of having two alphabets is that some letters are written the same way, but pronounced differently. For example, there is a P in both scripts, but in Latin, we pronounce it like an English P, and in Cyrillic, like an R. Yes, it can be confusing, but compared to English though, through, thought, through, and tough, it doesn’t seem that difficult, right?
Let’s see how you can say “Tamara gave Ivana a gift” in Serbian:
- Tamara je dala Ivani poklon.
- Tamara je dala poklon Ivani.
- Tamara je Ivani dala poklon.
- Tamara je poklon dala Ivani.
- Ivani je Tamara dala poklon.
- Ivani je poklon dala Tamara.
And the list goes on. The rules for arranging words in a sentence are pretty loose. There are slight differences in the meaning – you choose word order depending on the word you want to emphasize. Still, all are correct, so everyone will understand you no matter how you compose the sentence.
But what magical thing allows us to play with word arrangement in a Serbian sentence? It’s Their Highness Grammatical Cases.
Grammatical cases are both the charm of the Serbian language and the ones to blame for all the struggle. They’re also the reason why some people who wanted to learn Serbian fast, gave up. But if you give our grammatical cases some time, you’ll realize their beauty, and won’t be one of them.
Our beloved cases help us realize who does what in a sentence. In the examples with the generous Tamara, you’ve noticed we changed Ivana’s name to “Ivani”. The name changed its form because Ivana is a gift receiver. Tamara is a gift-giver, so she gets to keep her name as it is.
There are seven grammatical cases in our language. In singular and plural. And masculine, feminine, and neuter gender. We know, we know, but wait, don’t give up already! Let’s compare grammatical cases to something we all learned in elementary school – a multiplication table. It was so boring memorizing it. Just remember reading and repeating 2×2=4, 2×3=6, 2×4=8, and so on. But now remember how much this basic knowledge helped you figure out your savings or tips in restaurants. The same thing goes for the cases.
In Serbia, there’s a male name Jovan and a female name Jovana. So, if you hear a friend talking about their boyfriend saying: “Ja volim Jovana” (Ja volim – I love), you might get confused, or even worse – wonder if your friend is cheating on their loved one! Don’t worry, your (hypothetical) friend’s love life is just fine. Jovana is not only a female name but also one form of the word Jovan.
We talked and talked about different aspects of learning Serbian, but it’s time to answer the question from the title. Is Serbian a hard language to learn? The answer is – it depends.
Of course, there are some objective criteria – it will be a lot easier for a native speaker of a Slavic language, than for a Mandarin one. But the similarity of someone’s native language to Serbian doesn’t mean anything if a person doesn’t practice!
Learning new words and grammar is necessary. For learning new words, it’s always useful to create flashcards and make a game out of them. You can play it yourself or compete with a friend. Also, never learn words separately. For example, if you want to remember the word nebo (sky), add an adjective, such as plavo (blue). That way, as soon as you hear one word, it will remind you of the other, so you’ll make associations in your brain.
There are some other tips to make learning more fun. For example, it’s great to translate every word you see while going for a walk. There are open hours written at the door of every store, restaurant, or coffee shop. Pay attention to them and soon you’ll remember that otvoreno means “open” und zatvoreno “closed”. In the same way, it will be easy to remember words for a flower shop, pharmacy, or exchange office.
Another great way to practice is to listen to Serbian music and watch our TV series and movies. This is an interesting way to learn new phrases and get used to everyday communication in Serbian. Of course, don’t rely only on popular music, or else you’ll learn phrases such as “I’m dying for you, my only love” sooner than “Hello”.
Speaking of love, the best way to learn Serbian and consider it the easiest of all languages is to find a boyfriend/girlfriend from Serbia. Yes, it sounds funny, but talking to native speakers is a big part of learning a language. So, the boyfriend/girlfriend thing aside, finding friends who could help you practice your speaking is always a great idea. With some help, you’ll be more than able to learn Serbian fast!