I frequently feel disheartened whilst trying to learn Slovenian. There are often times when I think I’ll never, ever get this language. There’s no sugar coating it; for native English speakers, Slovene grammar is an almighty pain in the arse.
I have sometimes found myself feeling resistant, hostile almost, towards the seemingly unnecessary complexity of Slovene. In particular, the declension structure, where you get to play Skloni Lucky Dip and choose any one of 18 different ways to end your nouns and adjectives, depending on context. (There are actually rules to it and I concede I could put more effort into memorising the system, rather than hours moaning about it).
But then there are the Little Victories. Times when I realise that I have learned at least something of Slovene. Today was one such occasion. The annual ritual of switching winter tyres for summer ones on my car had arrived. And I found that I was able to conduct my business, entirely in Slovene.
Granted, this wasn’t a complex situation, and I certainly ended many words wrongly and missed out a few useful prepositions. But it didn’t matter. I was able to explain why I was there, what I wanted, and answer the mechanic’s questions.
Furthermore, during the hour-long wait, I headed to a nearby café. Intrigued by a drink on the menu I hadn’t heard of, I asked the waitress what it was, and after a further question, I was able to understand her explanation.
These are just small victories. But they are important in the ongoing struggle with learning a language; brief moments of comprehension, in the world where incomprehension is my default setting.
It’s a reminder for me not to get too bogged down in the brain-damaging grammar. I may sound like the child of a Slovenian caveman when I speak Slovene, but communication is king.
I’ll point out that when it comes to Slovenia, a) this list is far shorter than the best things list, b) most points are not unique to Slovenia, and c) this list presents somewhat of a ‘first world problems’ line-up, in that if these are the worst aspects of living in Slovenia, then overall – things are pretty good.
And of course, this is just my personal experience of life in Slovenia. Please add your own thoughts and experiences in the comments.
1. Slovene Grammar Destroys Neurones
As someone trying to learn Slovene but unfamiliar with the family of Slavic tongues, there are several concepts which exist in the Slovenian language which are quite head-twisting for me. Though Slovenes are quick to cite the ‘dual plural’ as being the foreigner-proof aspect of their language – for me it’s the declensions (skloni) which I find most frustrating.
This ongoing mental tripwire is what I call the ‘Slovene Skloni Matrix’; a giant table of word-ending modifications which intersects six cases, three genders, two types of plural and a single type of singular, (not to mention the different endings for adjectives and nouns), that must be memorised and applied in order to end your words correctly, depending on the context.
In Slovene, even proper nouns are modified, thus my name can be: Sam, Sama, Samu, Samom, etc – depending on what’s being said.
I acknowledge that if I spent more time actually learning the grammar rules, rather than complaining about them, it probably wouldn’t be on this list.
2. Death Wish Drivers: Blind-Corner Road-Hoggers
Too many Slovenian drivers have a terrible
habit of straying from their lane on blind corners. Every time I drive to Breg,
at least once during my journey (and normally several times), I will come around
a corner to find an oncoming Slovenian driver with at least 50% of their car on
my side of the road, forcing me to take evasive action. This also triggers my ire
in the form of a lengthy horn blast and some ‘Get the hell over!’ gesturing.
With this dangerous habit so common here,
it’s little surprise to me that Slovenia is ranked in the bottom third of EU
countries when it comes to road safety and has more than double the road deaths
per million inhabitants, compared to the UK.
It’s a strange and somewhat sad situation
here, that Slovenians seem to have an unusually high frequency of neighbourly
feuds and disputes; apparently, neighbourly envy is deep seated.
There’s a well-known Slovene saying which
illustrates this trait:
Naj sosedu crkne krava, če je že sami nimamo.
It translates as:
‘May the neighbour’s cow die, if we don’t have one.’
The longer version of the story goes
something like this: there were three neighbours, each owning a cow. One day, the
cow of the first neighbour dies. This makes the other two very happy. Then the
cow of the second neighbour dies. This makes the last neighbour even happier
still – neither of his neighbours has a cow, yet he still does!
But then he realises that his now cow-less
neighbours will come begging for milk, so he then wishes for his own cow to die
too, so that he doesn’t have to give them anything.
The rather sad meaning of the story is that Slovenians would rather see their own cow die, before having to share anything with their neighbours.
Now, I must point out that most of my neighbours have been very generous and very sharing. Despite hearing several stories from Slovenian friends and colleagues about their neighbourly problems, I took the whole ‘hate thy neighbour’ trait, as an exaggeration.
That was until I myself started having my own problems with one of my neighbours, which now makes the cow story sound quite accurate. Though my dispute involves neither dead cows nor any calls for milk, I have personally experienced the unfortunate depths to which neighbourly relations can fall, over the silliest and smallest things.
I’ll again say that all my other neighbours have been lovey, helpful and pleasant people, but if this really is as common as I’m led to believe from my Slovene friends, then for me it’s the most (and perhaps only) ugly side of Slovenia that I’ve so far experienced, in what is otherwise a very pleasant place.
4. Service Culture: Not Very Proactive
As with much of the rest of continental
Europe, table service is the norm here and going to the bar (like in the UK) is
generally not the done thing. This is good. I like not having to waste my time
queuing, waving a tenner at the bartender hoping he’s going to serve me next
rather than the guy who just barged in front of me.
However, in more than half of the places I go to, I find that although the table service upon first seating yourself is quite prompt, follow up attention is much less so. Normally you need to flag down the server, rather than getting a proactive ‘Would you like another drink/something else/ the bill?’ attentiveness.
I reiterate, there are some places with great service but there’s definitely room for improvement in the many of cafes and bars I’ve visited.
5. Unreliable Tradesmen: No shows and Radio Silence
It’s not unique to Slovenia by any stretch,
but I’ve found it even more difficult than the UK to get tradesmen here to
actually turn up when they say they’re going to turn up. I’ve had numerous
dealings with various trades over the years, and more often then not, they have
not appeared when they said they would.
This has been especially frustrating when I have driven two hours to Koroška on the agreed date just to meet with a tradesman, only for a no show, then radio silence, with my calls and texts going unanswered.
This has led to my default position being to expect them not to appear at the agreed time and date, and the acceptance that things always take longer than I want and require more pestering than I’m used to.
So – there it is. I suspect this list might change over the years; some things may improve (my grasp of Slovene grammar for example!) and new items may appear. I make no complaints about life overall here – but there’s always room for improvment.
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).
Tools for the job
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.
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.
My least favourite aspect of Slovenian: ‘cases’ which mean you must constantly change the endings of words, depending on context
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.
This is more my level of Slovenian literature
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.
On my reading list. Kids books are a good way to learn
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.
Our masterpiece Slovenian poems, as published in the department magazine
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.
In Slovenian, Sam-I-Am is Jan-I-Am
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.