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.