Life in the Language Isolation Chamber: When social situations create Lingo Loneliness

I’ve been mulling over writing this post for years. It’s not a post specifically about life in Slovenia, or the Slovene language. Instead, it’s a post for anyone who has spent extended time in a country where the local language is not their own. It’s a post for people who share life with a partner, but not a native tongue. And it’s a post for those who recognise the ‘Lingo Loneliness’ feeling but until now, didn’t know it had a name.

So what is the Language Isolation Chamber?

I have coined the Language Isolation Chamber term (a first I think?) to describe the feeling of social isolation, disconnectedness, awkwardness, exclusion or loneliness, due to being immersed in an environment where you do not understand the vast majority of what’s being said around you.

You might think that any time you visit a country where the native tongue is not your first language, you would immediately enter the LIC. But in my experience, this is not the case. For the most part, in the foreign lands in which I have lived, I have spent most of my time in the Blissful Ignorance Zone (BIZ) rather than the LIC.

There can be a cosy comfort to the BIZ bubble, your train of thought completely uninterrupted by the world around you. When out in public you are oblivious to the conversations in which you are immersed. Like a boat on a lake, the water flows around you. You move through it, you are surrounded by it, but you are not part of it.

The LIC experience only truly occurs during social settings where etiquette demands your attention; at the dinner table, perhaps in an office or at a formal event. And you only truly enter the Language Isolation Chamber when you are:

 a) Not fluent in the local language and

 b) The conversation moves exclusively into the local tongue and

c) You are not in proximity to a native speaker of your own language

My First Taste of The LIC

I had my first taste of the Language Isolation Chamber way back in 2004, when I spent two years living in rural Japan. (If you’re interested in reading more about that experience check out the book I wrote about it: For Fukui’s Sake; Two Years in Rural Japan).

At this time, everything still felt so new to me, that initially, I didn’t have a sense of feeling isolated. I remember sitting at a low table in a tatami-floored room, sipping on sake at one ‘enkai’ (a social event with my co-workers) and just listening to the tangle of high-speed Japanese that was flying over my head. I remember feeling quite content to just let it wash over me, and to enjoy the delightful exoticness of the experience. However, as I spent longer in Japan, I did start to undergo times of loneliness too.

Sometimes, some time could pass, with me having no ‘adult’ conversation at all. Aside from classroom English, and a few pleasantries with my colleagues, I could go a few days without any level of intelligent verbal communication. That was my first realisation of the importance of spending time with people with whom you could speak completely effortlessly.

The Expat Factor

I believe this is one of the reasons that expats bond so rapidly, especially in countries where the local language is not their native tongue. Until you have lived outside of your own language comfort zone, you cannot know how much you begin to miss the simple act of talking effortlessly with people who truly understand you.

You begin to crave connection through natural conversation; conversation that isn’t laboured, or child-like. Conversation that flows and brings humour with it. And when such conversation is in limited supply, you’ll take it anywhere you can get it. Hence expat friendship groups often bring together people who would – in their natural habitat – never be friends, but quickly become close on foreign soil.

Expats quickly bond with other expats when outside of their home turf

It’s now been almost three years that I have lived in Slovenia, making it my single longest stint of time outside of my native UK. I suspect this is one of the reasons why I am now feeling the Language Isolation Chamber more acutely than ever before.

But there are other factors too. The Coronvirus lockdowns of 2020 meant that my opportunities to ‘recharge’ in English-speaking settings were severely curtailed. Normally I would spend some time in the UK, catching up with friends and family, enjoying the simple pleasure of being able to converse without effort.

Likewise, I normally welcome a few visitors to Slovenia, meaning my year is punctuated with opportunities to get my English-speaking fix with good friends and family. For 2020, this was not so. And I have now, more than ever before, come to realise how much I value such times.

Slovenian Coronavirus grafiti – as seen in Maribor

Thirdly, related to the lockdowns, I have spent more time than ever in the close presence of people whose language I do not speak well, or at all. When I moved to Slovenia, I thought I might end up meeting a Slovenian girl. Instead, I met an Austrian girl who lives in Austria. This has further complicated my language situation, as I have been attempting to improve my Slovenian, but now frequently spend time in social situations where there is yet another language that I need to learn from scratch, at the same time.

I must say that I am fortunate that most of the people I spend time with on an extended basis can speak English very well and are kind enough to do so with me. As for my own foreign language abilities, although I have some (see: Struggles with Learning Slovene) a sad reality I’ve become aware of, is that I suspect it takes a very, very long time to become fluent enough in a second language, to truly be free of the Language Isolation Chamber. Though it is of course a spectrum; the greater your linguistic talent, the less trapped in The Chamber you will be.

But when I think back to my relationship with a French woman some years ago, even though my French was at an intermediate level, when sitting at the dinner table en France, trying to keep up with multiple conversations, where slang and unknown cultural references were being bandied around, I quickly switched off and retreated into The Chamber. Such times became a source of conflict between us.

The Awful Awkwardness

The absolute worst part of the chamber is the terrible awkwardness it creates. This is most severe when you’re in a setting such as a meal at the table. Social etiquette dictates that you must be attentive but if the conversation is taking place in a language you don’t well understand, you very quickly switch off and enter your own head. On the outside, you must still appear like you are enjoying yourself. But the reality often is that you are just feeling awkward.

The awkwardness spikes when a joke is cracked and the table erupts in laughter. You have a decision to make: do you laugh along, pretending you got the gist, or do you sit in silence, further highlighting your inability to understand?

If you feign comprehension, you risk being asked if you got the joke and the even greater embarrassment of then admitting that not only did you not understand, but you committed the sin of fake laughing too.

When in Rome

There is an even greater complexity to the situation, and that is that you, as the idiot who can’t fluently speak the local language, don’t want to be responsible for everyone else having to speak your language.

Especially when you are the one who is abroad, and you are the one whose own lack of linguistic ability is the cause of the situation. For most people, speaking a tongue other than their own requires effort. Even for those who have strong grasp of a second language, it requires additional thought. It’s tiring. And you’re never going to be able to articulate those jokes so well and craft those sentences as quickly as you can in your own language.

So why should everyone else be expected to forego the fluidity of speaking their native tongue in their native country, just because you – the idiot abroad – haven’t learned theirs yet?

The Other Side

I have been on the other side of the table too. During my first ‘proper’ job in my early twenties, I worked with some foreign colleagues, some of whom were new to the UK and did not yet speak English particularly well. I remember sometimes during afterwork drinks, feeling slightly guilty for not wanting to sit next to them, because I knew the conversation would be limited to a more basic level and that I might miss out on the rapid-fire banter occurring amongst my English-speaking colleagues. This must be exactly how my Slovene or Austrian companions feel, when they get the short straw and have to sit by me now.

A common prelude to the Language Isolation Chamber (LIC) is that at the start of the evening, everyone kindly converses in your native tongue. But as alcohol consumption goes up, people break out of the second-language group to speak their own, eventually leaving you outside of the conversation and inside The Chamber.

An irony of this situation is that the greater the social exuberance of the gathering, you more isolated you feel. The fact that people are chatting and laughing away right next to you, only serves to increase the feeling of you being outside of the group. You are excluded from all peripheral conversations so miss context and background infomation. There is no malice or bad intention in this. It’s simply the natural preference to speak one’s own language. But at such times, I miss the ease of being able to understand what’s going on around me. I miss being able to listen. I miss being able to contribute and dip in and out of talk at will.

At such times, I’d sometimes rather be alone than feel so awkward. At such times, I’d like to be permitted to ‘check out’ of the situation in a socially acceptable way. But of course, pulling out your phone or grabbing a book would translate to your hosts as:

“Hey! Forgo your own conversations and talk to me. In my own language.”

This would of course be rude. So instead you must grin awkwardly and bear it.

I have found myself not wanting to spend too many hours in such environments due to the fear of finding myself in The Chamber. A few hours being immersed in partial incomprehension is fine – but as the hours pass, your novelty wears off, the dynamic often changes and the likelihood of entering the LIC increases.

I suspect anyone who’s in an ‘international’ couple will have spent a stint in the Language Isolation Chamber at some point (unless you are fluent in each other’s language, in which case – congratulations – you can avoid it).

I am fully aware that the only way to avoid the LIC is to continue to learn the languages of the countries I spend most time in. But I’m also aware of the reality that it takes a long time, and the likelihood is that the LIC will always be part of my life to some extent – as long as I live outside of my native country.


The social exclusion caused by the Language Isolation Chamber is self-inflicted. I chose to live in a country other than my own, and it’s my own lack of linguistic fluency that is the source of the problem. There are many pros to living in foreign lands, and I recommend everyone should spend at least one year living outside of their homeland. It really does give you a lust for life because everything is new, and every day an adventure into the unknown.

The LIC isn’t fun. But it’s a price worth paying for scenery like this

But as the number of years I spend outside of my Motherland increases, the honeymoon phase diminishes. I increasingly understand there are challenges to being a longterm fish out of water. They are however not insurmountable, and I hope that by working on my lingo skills, I’ll reduce the amount of time I end up in the Language Isolation Chamber.

Until then, the LIC is just part of the rough that comes with the smooth of venturing beyond your borders for a life less ordinary.

Getting Pastoral and Priden in the Pandemic

It started with a virus. Then followed the excitement of the lockdown-high. I had zoom calls with long-lost friends and was added to a zillion new WhatsApp groups. Then came the come down. Winter returned, life was cold and isolation felt strange.

Now, a month after running to the hills of Koroška, and I have found a certain peace. We humans have the ability to adjust to our situation, no matter how strange, and I seem to have reached a gentle contentedness to living more simply, more frugally and more physically than before.

This has been achieved by turning to a more pastoral way of life. In addition to working on various home improvement projects, (I spent two weeks with a chainsaw and chisels, making traditional wooden rain gutters for my house from tree trunks) I have been helping my neighbours – forty-something Štefka and her 74-year old mother Ančka, Breg’s Matriarch – work their land.

They have a mountainside farmstead (think Heidi landscape); a couple of cows, two pigs, a few chickens, some alpine pasture and a scattering of plum and pear trees. And with each new season, there are new tasks to be done.

Assisting them was the least I could do considering their extreme generosity. They have been bringing me homecooked meals, to the point where I had an excess of food and had to protest. And that is just their most recent act of kindness. Ever since I bought Breg house in 2007, Štefka, Ančka and Jaka (God rest his schnapps-drinking soul) have been nothing but the best of neighbours to me.

I spent two afternoons raking dried leaves and dead grass from the meadows with Štefka. It had the instant gratification of cleaning a dirty window with a squeegee. It was a simple, even mundane task, yet I enjoyed it immensely. With this simple act of raking, we were helping to maintain the meadow and hold nature in stasis by preventing the forest from reclaiming the ground. No tractors, no machines. Just hand rakes, exactly as it has been done here for the last 300 years.

I have come to enjoy all this physical work. There’s wood to split, logs to bring in, the Piazzetta fire to light. There’s a fence to repair, a pipe to be fixed, a stone wall to build. I have found pleasure and fulfilment to the slowness of lockdown life. I am never bored. I become completely absorbed in my tasks. I forget all other worries and lose awareness of time passing. I feel fitter, more focused and more content.

I recently watched a documentary about the Amish. They believe that daily physical labour is a joy in itself. This is why they shun modern-day labour-saving devices as these would, in their eyes, reduce the amount of hard work required, and thus reduce the quality of life. I’m not about to swap my car for a horse and buggy, and grow a weird beard, but my pastoral BREGxit lockdown has made me realise that perhaps the Amish are on to something.

It is also through interaction with my neighbours that I have been able to practise speaking Slovene on a daily basis. Which is ironic. Because in my normal Ljubljana life, when I see far more Slovenian people, I speak far less Slovene. Though my level remains crude, we have been able to converse to an interesting-enough level. And I have discovered more about their lives as we have toiled together.

“My brother would have been 50 today” Štefka told me, as we pulled our wide rakes towards us, gathering hay and leaves at our feet.

Though I knew she had a long-deceased brother, I knew nothing of the circumstances of his death. I decided it would be an appropriate time to enquire.

“He hung himself. His girlfriend left him for someone else.”

A little later, Ančka arrived with a can of cold beer and two glasses.

“She’s come to check on our work!” Štefka joked.

We took a seat on a wooden bench, sipped the beer and looked out over the mountains and Meža valley below, now in the golden sun of spring. I asked them if they knew everyone who lived in the farms we could see, perched on the sides of the surrounding hills. Štefka proceed to point out each farm, recount the family name and the number of inhabitants of each.

“Do they ever come here?” I asked.

“Yes, once or twice each year.”

“Do you ever go there?”

“No!” – Ančka said, shaking her head, as if the idea of her leaving Breg was absurd.

Indeed, Ančka does not leave Breg. Incredibly for a Slovene, she has never seen the sea. She has no desire to visit lands beyond her borders. She believes she has everything she could want right here on the planina of Breg.

If you want to see Ančka, you must come to her. And come they do; she has no shortage of visitors. Despite living 850m up a mountain, the gravity of this Matriarch is strong. There is always someone popping in for a kava or homemade schnapps – be it the snow-plough driver, a relative or one of their many friends. No matter how busy, there always seems to be time for a little malica.

The difference between their worldview and mine, perhaps makes our friendship an unlikely one. I have jumped at chances to leave my own country and go far beyond its borders. I have lived in Asia and North America, and visited exotic lands: Beirut, Beijing, Burma and Kashmir.

Back home in the UK, I had never spent so much time with such deeply rural people. But I seem to have an affinity for rural folk in secret corners of the world. Indeed, amongst others, it was the lives of the farmers, fisherman and other local characters of rural Japan that fascinated me most, during my two years living there. There’s something appealing to me about those who still live the ‘old way’.

It’s thanks to Štefka and Ančka that I have met many other Slovenes in the area. But I have returned the favour too.  Whenever friends come to visit me in Slovenia, I always take them to Štefka’s and Ančka’s. So ironically, Ančka, who rarely leaves the borders of Breg, let alone her country, has shared her kava and klobasa with people from America, Scotland, France, Iran, England, Austria, Ireland and New Zealand – and she seems to enjoy such visits.

Štefka and Ančka run a tight ship up here in Breg and keep a critical eye on my projects. After I have finished any given construction or garden task, Ančka soon arrives to inspect my work. My wooden gutters met with her approval, but at the same time she remarked on my untidy garden. She approved of my new vegetable plot, though instructed me to make a fence to keep out the deer.

Often when I am working away outside, Ančka will suddenly appear. Normally, I would rely on Štefka to translate her mother’s heavy Koroškan dialect into more understandable Slovene for me. However, a few days ago, Štefka was absent, so for the first time ever, I had a long, one on one conversation with Ančka, and to my surprise (and joy) I found we could communicate.

We talked about the number of eggs the chickens are currently laying (seven or eight a day) when the cows will go out to pasture (late May), if they’ll be any plums this year (last year there wasn’t) and when it’s time to start planting the vegetable garden (first of May). I also learned that despite their ample supply of eggs, Ančka doesn’t eat them, and for all the plums they pick, she never drinks schnapps. Instead, such commodities are used as currency; gifted to friends who visit and help out on the land.

As lockdown goes on, I have started to go the way of Ančka, becoming almost allergic to leaving Breg. When I had to make a trip down to civilization this week for supplies, I didn’t enjoy the strange, new COVID-mask world, and I was glad to get back to the sanctuary of Breg.

And so, I have been settling into the rural Slovene life, working with my hands and working outside. Global lockdown makes it easier to appreciate this simple life. Because for now, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) has been cancelled. One thing we can all be sure of right now, is that there IS nothing to miss out on. And this allows us to gain contentment from life’s more simple pleasures.

This morning it was ‘casually suggested’ by Štefka (likely she was delivering orders from up on high) that it was time I got my flower beds in order (which I confess, have been neglected for more than a decade). So, I spent an hour weeding them, and as I raked in the last of the cow-manure compost, Ančka appeared. She lent on her stick, silently observing my progress.

I awaited her ruling nervously. Had I done enough to please The Mighty Matriarch of Breg? Finally, she put me out of my misery:

“OK, now your house is beautiful.”

It’s taken me over ten years, but I think I just got my priden* badge.

*Priden is a Slovene word meaning ‘diligent/hard-working and seems to be a Slovenian trait to aspire to.

This post was first published in Total Slovenia News and was the third part of The BREGxit Corona Lockdown Diaries.

Little Victories: communication is king when learning Slovene

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).

Slovenia: horrible grammar, amazing scenery

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.

Learning Slovenian: tips and advice from 8 foreigners that speak Slovene

During my darkest hours of Slovene Grammar Hell, when I’m lost in the Slovenian Skloni Matrix, utterly demotivated to learn Slovene due to the fact there are 18 different ways to end every f*cking noun, there is only one thing that keeps me going: other foreigners who have made it through the horror.

So, I spoke to a selection of Slovenia’s Slovene-speaking expats to get their advice on tackling this most-tricky of tongues.

Anika Dziewior Pavlin

Nationality: Polish
Number of Years in Slovenia: 6 years

One half of the popular YouTube channel – Foreigners Speak Slovene – Anika is also talented video maker and animator who used those skills to co-create her interesting vlog about the challenges of learning Slovenian and living in Slovenia.

Describe your level of Slovene

Last year I had an elementary level of Slovene. Right now I would describe it as advanced. I was fed up with repeating govorim malo Slovensko and I forced myself to finally learn it.

How did you approach learning Slovene?

For me, it was all about finding motivation. I tricked myself into setting a deadline for myself. I just picked a date and applied for Izpit na osnovni ravni organized by Center za slovenščino kot drugi in tuji jezik.

It costs way less than a language course and it was encouraging enough to open my A, B, C … GREMO to finally learn the basics.

Passing the exam was like a friendly tap on the shoulder. It helped me to believe in myself. To advance my Slovene skills I surrounded myself with books in Slovene, friends speaking Slovene and Slovene YouTubers.

But what paradoxically helped me the most were other expats speaking Slovene. I was following Mariah Dolenc on YouTube and Kasia Rižnar on Instagram. Listening to them made me realize that it is the effort that counts. So I put the fear of being judged aside and tried speaking Slovene on a daily basis.

Top tips for learning Slovenian?

When someone asks me how to learn Slovene, I have the simplest tip: find your drive to learn and then practise, practise, practise. Even if it is just a few phrases to amuse your Slovene friends over a glass of wine. It’s a good start.

Hardest thing for you about learning Slovene?

The hardest part is hearing: “Oh, but it’s easier for you, you are Polish”. It sometimes takes away the satisfaction, but I learned to ignore it in the end. I think any progress is good and it’s the effort that matters.

Noah Charney

Nationality: American
Number of Years in Slovenia: this is my 8th…I think

US native Noah is quite the celebrity in Slovenia. Amongst numerous media projects with various Slovene celebs, Noah is the author of the excellent book (and now podcast) Slovenology. If you want a fascinating insight into Slovene life and culture – check it out.

Describe your level of Slovene

Fluid but I can’t say fluent because just about every sentence has at least one grammatical error in it. That said, I do work entirely in Slovene often, have friendships entirely in Slovene, and have even hosted events and TV programs in Slovene…call it the Noah dialect.

How do/did you approach learning Slovene?

I did buy the book Colloquial Slovene and browsed my way through it half-heartedly, but the main way I learned was not seeking out expats, speaking Slovene whenever possible, not caring if I make mistakes, and having a non-anglophone mother-in-law. Also my dog, a Peruvian Hairless, speaks only Slovene, so this helps.

Top Tips for learning Slovenian?

I never studied (perhaps I should have) so I’ve no idea what the declension endings are. You just have to memorize them and I’ve never gotten around to it.

What’s the hardest thing for you about learning Slovene?

Declension endings. There are no rules. It’s like Thunderdome.

Tom Norman

Nationality: English
Time Living in Slovenia: 3.5 years

Brit Tom Norman is a deep thinker, and the founder of How To Be Human, a fascinating and growing global project which asks the big questions about life, love and happiness. A resident of Ljubljana for three and a half years, Tom learned a thing or two about learning Slovenian.

Describe your level of Slovene

Simple conversational. I can hold conversation but there are typically mistakes with simple vocabulary.

How did/do you learn Slovene?

I used to ask lots of questions. All the time. And also working in a Ziferblat, a really cool time-cafe that used to be in Ljubljana helped a lot too. Every day I would try to chat with guests in Slovenian.

Typically they would switch to English quite quickly, but over time we stayed in Slovenian longer and longer. We held events called Let’s Talk Slovene where a group of foreigners and locals got together and chatted in Slovenian every Monday. This was amazing since it was 1.5 hours dedicated to conversations.

Top Tips for learning Slovene? 

For me the key was using it as often as possible, unapologetically, without caring how I looked or sounded.

What are the hardest aspects of learning Slovenian for you?

1. Cases (skloni) – we simply don’t have them in English and in the beginning, they can really take a long time to get your head around. Especially because Slovenian people like to teach you by reciting the lessons the had at school “koga ali kaj?” which just don’t help a foreigner trying to learn.

2. People speak amazing English. This is great for maintaining a good social life here but makes learning Slovenian a luxury, not a necessity. And for many that luxury just isn’t worth acquiring.

3. Pronunciation and where you put the accent in the words are very important here. In England someone can call you “love” and it might sound like “loov” or “luv” but we understand regardless.

Here, if you misplace the accent slightly or if you pronounce something a little “unorthodox” you’re sometimes met with blank faces.

Alexander Niño Ruiz

Nationality: Colombian
Time Living in Slovenia: 11 years

Columbian coffee scientist (café owner, architect and designer too) is the founder of Ljubljana’s best (and possibly smallest) coffee shop: Črno Zrno.

Situated in Ljubljana’s expanding ‘Latin Quarter’ (a new taco bar just opened opposite), Alexander’s mission is to share the true variety of flavours that coffee can possess, when made with the right beans, with the right grind, at the right temperate with the right amount of water.

Not only does Črno Zrno serve truly the most interesting and uniquely flavoured coffees I’ve ever tasted, it’s a great place to meet people too. Which is why it gets a place in my Slovenia: A-Ž.

Describe your level of Slovene

I consider I have a basic level when talking and intermediate when listening to street conversations.

How did/do you learn Slovenian?

It has been a constant evolution and struggle. At first (1st, 2nd year), I took classes but I couldn’t apply what I had learned in real life.

Then (3rd-5th year) I got a permanent job as an architect and I learned words from my trade, but got isolated talking English most of the time. Whenever a meeting was in Slovenian I had to seriously concentrate, because people couldn’t be translating all the time for me.

Third stage, I went back to Colombia for 3 years (6th to 8th) and I wanted to speak Slovenian with my wife as a way of having a private language.

Last stage, I came back to Slovenia and opened a café in which I can control my interactions and am forced to be a host in Slovenian. People are kind to me and I answer their questions in Slovene as much as I can. Since then my Slovenian improved a lot.

What are your top tips for learning Slovene?

Don’t close yourself in a comfortable position, try to be in situations in which you are forced to interact in Slovenian, and try to make those situations happen more often and for longer. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and kindly ask to be corrected.

What’s the hardest aspect of Slovene for you?

The hardest thing for me to learn is new vocabulary. There is no relation between the Slavic roots of Slovenian, and Spanish, so I need to memorize a lot, which is something I don’t really like to do.

Terry Anzur

Nationality: Dual citizen of USA (birth) and Slovenia (ancestry).
Number of years in Slovenia: It’s complicated. I divide my time between Southern California and Slovenia.

Californinan journalist Terry Anzur went to school with Steve Jobs, was a TV news presenter in the US, and is the author of the travel blog: StrangersInTheLivingRoom. She has been tackling Slovene as part of a desire to reconnect with her Slovenian roots.

How did/do you learn Slovene?

I feel strongly that because I’m a citizen I should learn the language. My Slovene grandparents were dead by the time I was born. My dad was born in America and never learned the language, so I didn’t hear it growing up.

I started from rock bottom. I wrote a blog about my first experience in the two-week course at the University of Ljubljana Faculty of Arts summer school of Slovene language.

Although I vowed to continue practicing with my textbooks and the Memrise app, it was hard to make any progress on my own in California, where I have no one to speak with. 

I returned to the language school in the summer of 2017 and winter of 2018 in a slightly more advanced class each time. I now feel that I have hit a wall. I can say simple, childlike sentences, when asking for directions or making a purchase in a store.

As soon as I try to express anything more complicated I either don’t have the vocabulary or make so many mistakes that the Slovenes switch over to English.

I usually understand the basic meaning of what people are saying but miss the details and struggle to respond. I found the LearnSlovenian website to be a fun way to practice by myself but it stops at a very low level. 

I recently tried a conversation class at Jezikovno Mesto and plan to attend regularly on my next trip to Slovenia. Getting more opportunities to speak and be corrected is the key.

Top tips for learning Slovene?

I’m a journalist so I follow a lot of Slovenian-language news as well as political and tourism websites on social media. I try to read at least the headlines and the posts with a dictionary to learn new words.

When I start to get discouraged, I look for opportunities to get out on my own in Ljubljana — without my son jumping in as the translator. When I can have a simple conversation with a street vendor or a postal worker, I feel a sense of accomplishment and motivation to keep going.  

Hardest thing about learning Slovene for you?

Managing the cases and correctly changing the endings of the words. The second hardest thing is getting the words in the right order.

Andrew Anzur Clement

Nationality: Dual citizen of USA and Slovenia, as described above. 
Number of years in Slovenia: Full time resident for one year. Summer language school 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Terry also introduced me to her son who is an author of a series of fantasy books.

How did/do you learn Slovenian?

I learned Polish in high school and college, so Slovene was my second Slavic language. In addition to three courses in the summer school, I also took an advanced class offered in Brussels while finishing my PhD.

I was forced to improve when I moved to Ljubljana full time. In certain situations, like health care and official paperwork, people find out I’m a citizen and they expect me to speak Slovene.

Top tips for learning Slovene?

Break down the words. Many Slovene words are composed of smaller words and prefixes or suffixes which change the meaning. 

Hardest thing about learning Slovene?

Getting by at the bank or the uprava enota or the bank is one thing. When I’m in a social situation I find it hard to interact because I don’t have the vocabulary to discuss ideas. 

Mariah Dolenc

Nationality: American
Time living In Slovenia: 7 years

American Youtube vlogger Mariah Dolenc is the creator of a popular channel that focuses on fitness, health and life in Slovenia.

Describe your level of Slovene

Intermediate/advanced. I understand just about everything, or at least the context. I’m still working on speaking well, and especially without errors. 

How do/did you learn Slovene?

I first tried to study a textbook on my own, but quickly realized I was getting nowhere. Without any experience in the language, it was just too difficult. I took a few classes: and introductory class and an intensive course.

These helped to round out my understanding on how the language works and is structured. However, coming out of those classes, I didn’t speak much better than when I started.

To really improve I began speaking only in Slovene for at least 15 minutes a day. Then I also started answering texts and messages in Slovene. This was slow going, but made the fastest improvements. Getting over the feeling of looking and sounding ridiculous was the biggest help in making progress.

Top Tips for learning Slovenian?

Speaking in Slovene every day is by far the best way to learn. Also, when making mistakes, it is best not to be corrected initially. Just do the best with the knowledge you have and eventually you will get to a point where you can ask for corrections and it will be helpful instead of just slow you down. 

Hardest aspect of learning Slovene for you?

The hardest thing for me to learn has been the large amounts of cases or “skloni.” I have lived here long enough that I am able to guess what sounds right, but it really is challenging. The constant change in the endings of words is mind-numbing. 

JL Flanner

Nationality: UK
Time Living in Slovenia: 4.5 years

JL is a writer and editor for the excellent Total Slovenia News. Serving Slovenia’s expat community with original news content, investigative journalism and translations of Slovene media, JL is always on the lookout for a hot Slovenian story.

Describe your level of Slovene

Basic, but developing fast. I can understand daily conversations that happen around me, in terms of topic, attitude and some details, and I can watch the news and get things out of it, and can also read comic books.

With regard to production, I have most of the words needed to express the things I want to, but my declensions are all by rote (learned in chunks) or random, with no theoretical basis, and thus three errors can appear in the most basic statement. But automaticity is coming along well – I can babble like a 3-year old and amuse myself for hours.

To put it another way: I’d say after a long time of hacking away at a piece of wood I finally have something that looks like the human form, my new Slovene self. Now I just need to spend the rest of my life working down the rough edges and then polishing things to a high shine.

I expect to be “functionally fluent” by the end of the year.

How do/did you approach learning Slovene?

I was very enthusiastic about starting to learn. Before Slovenia I lived in Taiwan for 16 years and learned Chinese on “the streets”, so I thought Slovenian would be easy. Then I got here and discovered skloni, and the good English of all the people I interacted with in cafés and stores, which prevented me from practising the basic I want, Do you have, How much, and so on.

So instead of speech I threw myself into reading. I took pictures of street signs and billboards and learned basic phrases from there. I started writing shopping lists in Slovene as soon as possible, and used (still use) supermarkets as immersive picture dictionaries.

I picked up some translated editions of Calvin & Hobbes and would spend 10 minutes over one strip. I made flashcards with Quizet (an app) and grew a huge vocabulary while barely speaking at all.

My approach remains one of total attack, by any means necessary. So I’ll watch dumb sitcoms with the Slovene subtitles on and the sound down low, pausing to look up words when needed, trying to get the set-up and the joke.

I’ll pick up the brochures and junk mail and go through the drugstore ads and learn the names of new things. If I go to a tourist centre and they have flyers with English and Slovene versions then I’ll use those as dual texts.

I also have a lot of dictionaries, which I like dipping into so I can see the related words and make notes of word families. And I listen to Slovenian hip hop to feel cool and get some idea of how the language can be played with.

What are your top tips for learning Slovene?

My favourite book, which I’m really starting to benefit from now, is Peter Herrity’s Slovene – A Comprehensive Grammar. This covers everything, and is an invaluable reference, with the best thing being that every example word, phrase and sentence is presented in Slovene and English, so you don’t need to turn to a dictionary every 30 seconds.

It’s expensive, but all books for learning Slovene are, and this one will provide a lifetime of learning. I have two copies – paper and e-book, so I never need to be without it.

What’s the hardest thing for you about learning Slovene?

I live in downtown Ljubljana, so for me the most difficult thing was getting motivated when everyone around me could speak much better English than I could hope to speak Slovene for years.

Then when I did get motivated I’d ask what’s the word for X? And I’d get one answer in this context, and a slightly different one in another, and then the full horror of skloni was revealed in those tables that turn up in textbooks and I almost gave up, until I decided to just learn them in chunks and not worry too much.

Another problem is the lack of compelling Slovene language media. I’d love it if there were telenovelas in Slovene with Slovene subtitles.

What are your tips for learning Slovenian? Add a comment below.

5 Worst Things About Living in Slovenia

In the interests of balance, to contrast my 10 Best Things About Living in Slovenia, I’ve compiled a ‘worst things about living in Slovenia’ too. No country is perfect, and having lived in six different nations so far, I’ve experienced the pros and cons of each.

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.

Damn you skloni – damn you all!

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.

Slovenia is ranked 21st out of the 28 EU countries for road deaths

What does surprise me though, is that Italy is not ranked even lower than Slovenia. Whilst driving from Barcelona to Slovenia (and back) during the Road Trip From Hell in 2017, the Italian drivers stood out for being by far the worst of the six countries that we drove through.

3. The Habit of ‘Hate Thy Neighbour’

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.

Being a Slovenian cow: not recommended

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 unbelievable level of vindictiveness that a nasty Slovene neighbour can go to, 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.

A tradesman found kipping on the job
(To be fair – Glyn here is an excellent and reliable grafter who’s been integral to the development of Breg House)

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.

Do you agree with the list? Post a comment below.

7 Similarities between Japan and Slovenia

Japan and Slovenia…similar? Yeah right.

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Japan and Slovenia have absolutely nothing in common. After all, on the surface, the two nations appear very different.

Japan is an Asian island nation, Slovenia a European continental country. Japan is an ancient land of 127 million people; Slovenia a new born, with just 2 million inhabitants. Japanese culture is a subject of global fascination, Slovenian culture is unknown to most of the world.

However, having myself lived in rural Japan, as well as Slovenia, I have discovered a surprising number of similarities between these two great countries.

  1. The Landscape

The most obvious similarity between Slovenia and Japan is the natural landscape. Both countries are blessed with green, mountainous terrain, interspersed with flat field-land. Looking out from my balcony in Ljubljana, I gaze upon a landscape of green fields, woodland and mountains.

It’s very much like the view from my balcony in the small town of Ono, Fukui. Whilst Japan’s crop of choice is rice, and Slovenia’s is wheat, barley or corn, the scenery is very simlar. Indeed, two friends who also lived in Fukui – Colin and Chris – recently visited and both independently commented that the landscape in Slovenia ‘could be Japan’.


Fellow former Fukui-ites – Colin and Chris – agree that parts of Slovenia ‘could be Japan’

  1. The Language

Japanese and Slovene as languages, share nothing in common. They have no grammatical or structural similarities and knowing one will not help you in any way to learn the other. But there are traits that the two tongues share.

Firstly, both Japanese and Slovene are thought to be foreigner-proof by the locals. Both nationalities remark how difficult their native tongue is for foreigners to learn and are therefore both surprised and pleased when foreigners attempt to speak it.

Indeed, the Japanese believe that only those possessing Japanese DNA are equipped to speak nihongo. Uttering the simplest phrase in Japanese – for example ‘Watashi wa Igirisujin desu’ (I am English) – will undoubtedly trigger the ‘Ehhh! Nihongo jouzu!‘ (Wow! Your Japanese is excellent!) response.


Likewise, as I recently discussed in my post Struggles with Slovenian: 6 Months of learning Slovene, most Slovenians do not expect foreigners to bother to learn Slovene, and hence when you drop a phrase or two, they too are pleased and surprised.

The owner of a café in Bohinj once waived my coffee bill, simply because I asked for it in Slovene. It’s a show of respect that someone takes time to learn another’s language, especially when that language is not easy to learn, and this effort does not go unnoticed by the Japanese or the Slovenes.

  1. The Climate

Though Japan stretches over several climatic zones from sub-tropical Okinawa, to sub-arctic Hokkaido, I spent my two years living in Ono, Fukui, which is half way down the main island of Honshu, and the climate there is very similar to that of Slovenia’s.

Both countries have four, very defined seasons; cold, crisp winters with oodles of snow  (ideal for snow-lovers such as myself), a pleasantly warm spring season; hot, sunny summers (though Japan’s is more humid), and a beautiful autumn with spectacular colour changes in the mountain forests.

And both have big, warm, tropical-esque rain storms, after which the scent of the earth is divine.


Autumn colours, Jezersko, Slovenia


Winter scene from my balcony, Ono, Fukui, Japan


Winter scene from my balcony, Ljubljana, Slovenia

  1. A Love of Slippers

Most people know of Japan’s strict ‘slippers only, when indoors’ policy, which is well documented. Indeed, even in schools, kids and teachers must leave their outdoor shoes at the door, and switch to slippers for class. But I was surprised to find that Slovenia has a very similar custom. Just like in Japan, every Slovenian home has a stash of slippers at the door for guests, and walking into a home in your outdoor shoes is most certainly a faux pas.


Copati (slipper) shop, as seen in Ljubljana, Slovenia

  1. A Love of Gardens

Both the Japanese and the Slovenes seem to take immaculate care of their gardens. Although in Japan where space is far more limited and lawns are rare, plants, trees and bonsai are kept perfectly pruned, watered and even trussed up come winter to protect them from the heavy snowfalls. In Slovenia, grass is kept neatly cut, flower boxes perfectly arranged, and vegetable patches weeded and watered. Both nations seem to have a deep connection with their plants and the love of tending for them.

  1. A Fever for Festivals

Japan and Slovenia both love a festival. Slovenia has the saying ‘a festival for every village’ and I think the same could be said for Japan. Neither nation needs much excuse to dress up, play music and parade, and even the smallest towns have found something to celebrate.

Japan has the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (snow festival); Slovenia has its Snow Castle Festival in Črna na Koroškem. Japan has its Festival of the Steel Phallus, Slovenia has its own fertility festivities in the form of the Kurant Festival. Japan has numerous sake festivals, Slovenia has numerous wine festivals. The list goes on…


Japanese sake festival

  1. Pride in Regional Dishes

Both Slovenia and Japan have great pride in certain foods that come from certain regions of their countries. Despite being a relatively tiny country, Slovenia boasts numerous specialities that hail from certain areas, and there is strong regional identity, for example Jota from Istria or Kranjska klobasa, a sausage that has caused political fighting as Slovenia and its neighbours – Croatia and Austria – battle over it.


Klobasa (sausage) as served by my lovely neighbours in Koroška, Slovenia

Similarly, Japan has built a whole industry around food tourism, and almost everywhere, from whole prefectures right down to the smallest villages, has at least one special dish that it claims is completely unique to the area. Thus people will travel a long way to sample the firefly squid of Toyama prefecture or the Ishikari nabe of Hokkaido.

Echos of Rural Japan

With so many similarities between my experiences of rural Japan and Slovenia, it’s really no co-incidence that I was drawn here. My two years living in rural Japan were deeply formative; I was struck by its rural beauty. I loved living life outdoors, roaming mountains, paddling rivers, exploring lakes, trying to learn a new language, and feeling like everyday was an adventure into the unknown.


Exploring deserted lake, Fukui, Japan


View from my balcony, Ono, Fukui, Japan

When my time in Japan came to an end and I returned to live in the UK for the next ten years, I could never quite get Fukui out of my system. I was always searching for a life like that again.

When I sit outside on a hot summer evening in Slovenia, look out over the layers of mountains, and listen to the crickets chirp, I hear echos of rural Japan.


Early morning mountain mist, Ono, Fukui, Japan


Afternoon haze, Mount Peca, Koroška, Slovenia (pic: Benito Aramando)

It took me 11 years to make it a reality, but I think I finally found what I was looking for, here in Slovenia.


If you’d like to read more about life in rural Japan, For Fukui’s Sake is available from Amazon

Struggles with Slovenian: 6 months of learning Slovene

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”.

Trying to learn Slovene inspired me to create this desgin (based on a classic Slovenian cigarette brand) – available on t-shirts & other mearch at

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.

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.

Where’s Spot? High brow Slovenian literature

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, 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.