Having been living in Ljubljana for six months, it’s high time I talked about my experiences of trying to learn the local lingo: slovenščina.
Many Slovenians are surprised that I am bothering to learn Slovenian at all. Indeed, the reaction of one of my colleagues when I first told him I was taking Slovenian classes was a mirthful “Why?!”.
After all, he and all my Slovene colleagues speak excellent English, so why would I trouble myself with this little-known language of just 2 million speakers, that everybody tells me is “very difficult for foreigners” and another summed up as being “pretty hard and not that useful”.
Indeed, I have met several expats who have been living here for years, have Slovene partners, yet don’t speak Slovenian at all. In Slovenia, and especially Ljubljana, it’s easy enough to rely on the locals’ excellent linguistic skills and spare yourself the trouble of tackling mind-twisting grammar when it’s quite possible to operate in English alone for the vast majority of daily life. (Although you can still run into problems, as I discovered at the uprava enota…see: Battling Bureaucracy: A Taste of Red Tape in Slovenia).
But I don’t want to become another foreigner who never bothered to learn the language of the country in which they reside. The British already have a reputation for being lazy when it comes to languages so I want to learn as much of the local lingo as possible. Not only will this help me understand and operate better here, but it’s a matter of manners too. Taking time to learn your host country’s tongue opens the door to cultural insights and shows a level of respect and interest in your adopted country, which I think is important and worthwhile.
I’m not completely alien to language learning; I have an intermediate level of French, I lived and worked in rural Japan for two years so banked some nihongo, and I even (reluctantly) attended Russian classes at school.
It’s true that Slovene is not the easiest language to grasp for non-Slavic speakers. It’s grammatically complex, with an annoying number of ‘cases’ (sklon) which mean that you have to constantly modify the endings of words depending on the context of the sentence. For native English speakers, this is an ongoing trip hazard. I rarely get the endings of all my words right, although for the most part, the meaning of my sentence can still be understood.
Slovenian also has something called the ‘dual plural’, a rare, archaic feature which has all but died out in most other languages, if it ever existed at all. But the dual is something that Slovenian has held on to, and of which Slovenes are very proud. This means futher changes are required when you are only talking about two things or two people (as opposed to three or more). And of course the word endings change again depending on whether it’s two male things, two female things or two neuter things.
Just when you think you’re beginning to get a handle on all of that, your teacher then casually tosses another Slovenian hand grenade into the classroom which explodes in a fireball of ‘finished’ and ‘unfinished’ verbs (akin to perfect and imperfect tense). And as you’re reeling from shock and awe at their very existence, there’s the ongoing struggle of Slovene’s tongue-twisting nature.
For the uninitiated, trying to pronounce seemingly vowel-deficient words like pospravljajo (they clean), vprašajta (a question [dual form]) or nahrbtnik (backpack), requires highly dextrous mouthparts, the likes of which only a native Welsh speaker could appreciate.
Perhaps the biggest challenge with any attempt to learn a language is motivation. Knowing myself, I decided that classes, rather than pure self-study, would be the best option for me. So I signed up for courses offered by the Univerza v Ljubljani, Filozofska fakulteta. These were very good, and I now know a hell of a lot more than I did before I begun. These classes have now ceased for the summer, so I’ve reconnected with my old Slovene teacher, Valentina Zupan from LearnSlovenianOnline.com, to continue my twice-weekly classes, in the hopes that I’ll keep the SLOmentum going.
Despite all of this, I sometimes feel that the top of Mount Speak Slovenian, is a very long way off, and that I am only a few steps in to the journey. The fact that most Slovenians speak such excellent English, means that despite living amongst them, I don’t speak much Slovene on a day to day basis.
When I lived in rural Japan, the farmers and fisherman that surrounded me spoke no English. So I was forced to (try to) speak Japanese daily, and speaking a language, no matter how badly, is the best way to obtain and retain a language. But here, seemingly everyone, from my 12-year old neighbour, to the cleaning lady at work, speaks English fluently.
I always try to order in Slovenian at bars and restaurants; sometimes the reply comes in Slovene, but half the time, my accent or my failure to use the accusative case correctly betrays my foreignness, and the waiter replies in perfect English before handing me an English menu.
It is when I am in Koroška, at The Kingdom of Breg House, that I find I progress most. It is here that I can really practice speaking Slovenian with no fear of my neighbours switching to English, as most of them don’t speak any at all. It’s here that I feel I have actually made some progress, as I stumble through, somehow, actually communicating in Slovene. Albeit sounding like a troglodyte.
I know learning a language is a long road and one filled with frustration. Some days I feel like I’ve made progress, others I become angry at Slovenian’s audacity to be so tricky and annoyed at my constant mistakes, and my inability to remember words I really should know by now.
Nonetheless the SLO must go on. It will be an up and down ride, but I hope, malo po malo, I will improve, and one day, mogoče, I’ll be able to read the Slovene version of Where’s Spot? (recommended for ages 2-4), all by myself.
Great Post! I totally feel you!
Great insight! Good luck! It’s a bit easier for those who have at least some idea of some other slavic language, but still…
I’m convinced the Slovene language was created by really smart people who decided to make it difficult just for fun.
So hilarious and true.
It’s even worse if you live in a more remote area where the local dialect sounds like a completely different language! I live near Dreznica in the Soca Valley for 6 months a year and my neighbour’s wife comes from the coast and says the other locals still think she talks strange even after living there for 17 years!
My feeble attempts to learn from a book/tape course sound nothing like what the locals speak. Fortunately they are such warm and welcoming people that I get by fine, but I curse my hopeless UK education in languages coupled with my own lack of abilty to learn them.
Hi, which book is that forth pic from? I know it is from one of the books on this site: http://centerslo.si/knjige/ucbeniki-in-prirocniki/ I am currently slogging my way through the grammar! Daniel
The Sklon table? It’s from Slovenščina Ekspres 1: http://centerslo.si/knjige/ucbeniki-in-prirocniki/osnovna-stopnja/slovenscina-ekspres-1/
Me veseli, da se učite slovensko in da se trudite uporabljati slovenščino v vsakdanjem življenju. Znanje slovenščine je gotovo koristno, če živite v Sloveniji. Kar tako naprej!
Kako zanimiv blog. Hvala za ogledalo, v katerem se lahko vidimo skozi oči tujca. In ja, veseli in ponosni smo, če se tujec uči naših navad in jezika. Običajno je ravno obratno.
Living here for 4 years. Ok, in Prekmurje – strangest possible dialect in the country, LJ friends are asking me in the store if the guy speaks Hungarian?! – and alone. News and such – official language, like closest to Celje dialect and pronounced normally – I understand. Others? No way. Neither I can make a proper sentence. I know loads of words, so I just put them together, doesn’t care about grammar. Yeah, uprava enota makes you suffer. And basically 95% of the state employees and many times shop employees. Other than that, it’s very easy to get along with my shitty English. 🙂
Hi! Great post. Im moving to slovenia and i could need some help.. Do you have any tips?
It’s lovely to read your story as I can connect to your story. My husband (American) and I (Emirati-Arab) have been visiting Slovenia every other summer with the kids as we fell in love with it. We have indeed started with twice a week visit by a teacher from the University followed by few sessions as we went back To Dubai, our residing country. We love cultures and learning languages as it truly connects you to the people and country. I’ve noticed that Slovene we have spoken with, appreciated our effort for learning and speaking the language. Also I am more comfortable with the language give many similarities with Arabic such as the numbers, change in the ending of words depending if dual, singular or plural, female or male.
I wish you all the best and I hope that once we are able to stay longer and properly have the chance to learn, fate brings us to meet and talk about it.
yeah just like czech and other slavic languages the case system is bookey i wont lie