All about Teaching and Learning Serbian:
an Interview for the English Podcast in Serbia
If you wander about the core principles of my teaching and the method I’ve developed for learning Serbian, don’t miss this interview I had with Michael of the English Podcast in Serbia in September 2021. We talked about how I started teaching Serbian, why I chose this profession, what methods are the most efficient, and basically all about teaching and learning Serbian as a foreigner.
We’ve transcribed the podcast here if you’re a reader, like myself. You can also scroll down for the video format, if you prefer to watch or listen to this episode.
How Magdalena began teaching Serbian
Michael: We all know that the Serbian language is a language that doesn’t have many speakers nor high-level teachers. There are many teachers of English, German, or French, but not Serbian. So, how did you get into teaching Serbian
Magdalena: I am a Serbian language teacher. I graduated in Serbian literature and language in Novi Sad, that’s all I’ve always wanted to be. However, I wanted to work with Serbian kids in a Serbian school. But even as I was studying at the university, I started teaching languages because before that, when I was a little girl, I was fascinated by French and English. Those were the first languages that I started learning when I was 8 years old. So at the university, I took Italian as a third language just because I liked learning it, for no other reason. I learned it so well that I started teaching Italian. And that was the first foreign language that I started teaching. That was in 2004/5.
Therefore, learning foreign languages made me want to teach my language as a foreign language. I exchanged with foreign people, with whom I spoke in English, Italian or French. And in that exchange of culture and language, you are forced to start teaching your own language, because it’s who you really are. Your language is what you think, what your mind is wired like. But I definitely decided that it’s what I want to do as 100% of my time in 2013, when I was in Greece.
I got a scholarship to study the Greek language at the University of Ioannina and I went there. I remember saying that it was my plan to teach Serbian to foreigners full-time when I come back home to Serbia. At that time I worked as a translator and book editor and I wanted to change because I got tired of being alone with my books and laptop. That’s how I decided to start teaching Serbian 100%.
Michael: What made you want to go all in with the Serbian language?
Magdalena: When I do something I tend to give all that I can give, and I can’t give all that I can to a lot of different professions. That’s how it goes for me. But I still teach Croatian as well.
I didn’t finish my thought here, what I was trying to say is this: I still teach Croatian a couple of classes a week, but I intend to stop that after taking my last Croatian students to C2, and go on 100% Serbian.
Differences between Croatian and Serbian (read all about these differences)
Michael: Isn’t Croatian the same language?
Magdalena: Linguistically, it is the same language. I have to change my accent when I teach Croatian, and I had to learn some subtle differences, but that doesn’t make it a completely separate language. If I spoke only Serbian and Croatian, I wouldn’t call myself bilingual. But when I teach Croatian, I use Croatian books and I change what needs to be changed. And still, sometimes I make mistakes. But the differences are very small, like between British English and American English. Imagine yourself teaching American English.
Michael: When I was studying some Serbian, I noticed that in Croatian they ask questions differently. It’s more emphasis on the li, like they’ll say Mogu li? Možeš li? And in Serbian it’s Da li možeš?
Magdalena: I will tell you a secret. That’s a strict Croatian standard rule, but people still use “da li” when they speak naturally. Besides, my husband and I live in Sremska Mitrovica, which is on the road to Zagreb and very close to the Croatian border and to the Bosnian border. So there are all kinds of people in the town. We have people from Croatia and Croats from Srem etc. It was politically problematic area in the past, but I don’t want to speak politics here. Anyway, languages spill over borders. And in this region, we witness a language continuum.
Language spillover or a language continuum
Michael: Can you explain what is a language continuum?
Magdalena: Language continuum means that the language spills over the borders. For example, in South Serbia people speak a language or dialect that is close to Macedonian and Bulgarian. In the part of Croatia that is close to Slovenia, which is called Zagorje, they speak a dialect that is close to Slovenian. So, in the part of Serbia where I live now, we’re close to Bosnia and Croatia. Originally, I come from central Serbia so I can notice the difference between these two areas. For example, in central Serbia, we say mesara for ‘butchers’ but in Sremska Mitrovica we say mesnica (which is Croatian standard). But everybody understands all these varieties and differences.
Michael: I’ve heard that in North Serbia, in Subotica, people speak a bit of Hungarian as well. Right?
Magdalena: There are Hungarians there and Hungarian is also an official language in that region. When you go to Subotica, you can read official announcements in Serbian and Hungarian. However, these two languages are so different that we don’t have that continuum. But what we have from that continuum is the change in the accent. So the people in Subotica speak Serbian with a Hungarian melody. When I was a student in Novi Sad, I met many people from Subotica and I’ve always found their singing accent amusing.
The most difficult thing for learning Serbian
Michael: What has been the most difficult thing for learning Serbian as a foreigner?
Magdalena: The most difficult thing about learning languages, in general, is consistency and not giving up. Because learning a language takes a lot of time. Some people still don’t understand that. They’re misled by some different definitions of learning a language and fluency. Some of them take the A1 level, which you can get in a couple of months, if you study hard, and call that fluency. But that’s really not fluency.
However, if we talk specifically about the Serbian language, the most difficult things are cases and the verbal aspect. The cases come right on the first level and the verbal aspect comes later.
And not to forget the word order. That’s also confusing oftentimes. I have students on a B2 level (high intermediate) who understand each and every word in a sentence but still have difficulties in connecting them into meaning because of the word order. Then I teach them how to hunt the meaning and how to connect the words.
What causes that trouble are not only the clitics (the little words that jump around the sentence), but the fact that we don’t always follow the subject-verb-object order in the sentence. When we want to emphasize, we will put the object first and then some adverbs etc. and then come to the subject in the end. So that’s also tricky, but you get to it only at B1. At A level, we use simple sentences so as not to confuse people.
Recommendations for learning Serbian for the first time
Michael: Would you say that it’s better to approach Serbian learning it from books and from grammatical point of view first, or do you go straight into talking with people in person? What would you recommend for someone who wants to learn Serbian for the first time?
Magdalena: I’ll try to explain that from my personal story. When I started teaching Serbian I didn’t have anyone to tell me how to do it. So I bought books and I wanted to teach by the book because that was all I could do at that time. I had a British student who had been living in Novi Sad for a couple of years. He had a Serbian wife, had a company there and he wanted to finally learn the stuff. So we started by the book and at one lesson he took his notebook and a pencil and said: ”Okay! Let me learn those Serbian cases!” I stood in front of the white board and started explaining. Case by case: nominative, accusative, etc. That’s what he asked, that’s what I gave. But if you had asked me now to do that for you, I would have never done it. That’s not how you can learn it. Often, I have students who come to me and say that they have been learning Serbian for six months or a year and they have learned all the grammar, but they can’t speak at all and don’t understand anything. That’s because of the grammar approach. (Read about a fascinating experience that made me change my teaching style.)
Since the books didn’t help, I decided to write my own program with my own approach. Firstly, I wrote an A1 course on the Serbian Courses website and then we made a Serbian learning platform on the Serbonika website. The old website wasn’t that modern. We just had videos for learning and pdfs for printing and doing exercises. On the new website, we have all sorts of exercises and a lot of images and tasks and quizzes and all the modern stuff, and we go very slowly with the grammar. It’s very rich in content, audio, visual and textual. (Check out and try free!)
And my approach is this: I give my students a piece of grammar and I give them a lot of words that they can use with that grammar. Therefore we don’t learn a bunch of grammar at once but we give some grammar and then lots of phrases and words to work with. But we also have another approach – the lexical approach. It means that students are learning words and phrases as they are, without necessarily understanding the grammar behind them. But these are the basic phrases that they will use every day. So they learn phrases by imitating pronunciation. That’s why we always have audio files that students listen to and imitate.
However, we don’t neglect grammar, because as they build up their grammar understanding, the sentences that they have been learning will make more sense. So they have two parallel paths that they need to follow: lexical and structural.
One of my witty students said that the problem with the inflected languages is that they are not inflected enough. Which is to say that one ending serves different cases. For example, you have -a ending for feminine gender singular žena (woman), and then you have the same -a ending for neutral gender plural jaja (eggs). The language is not inflected enough to make strict differences. And it goes on with other cases. So you have this –og –a ending for accusative masculine gender animate (Imam dobrog prijatelja) and it’s the same in the genitive case for masculine gender for all – animate and inanimate (od ovog crnog televizora). But we go step by step, drill it in and add on information. At the same time we learn lots of vocabulary, lots of words and phrases, and in the end eventually it all makes sense.
The future for Serbian learning
Michael: What would you say you see as the future for Serbian learning?
Magdalena: I would say Serbonika. (laughter) But I’m not saying it without grounds. It is a program that works. If you start learning from other books, you will find a grammar compilation with some texts. What I did is, I wrote a program that teaches grammar and then gives a lot of meaning to that grammar. That’s why it works.
Michael: Why is the Serbian language growing?
Magdalena: I think that in the past 10 years learning foreign languages generally has expanded because of the internet and lots of materials that are available today. When I started learning English, or even later when I started learning Italian at the university, I had to use paper dictionaries. At that time, we didn’t have that much material online and especially not free information available.
Today we have marvelous dictionaries for English online. But for Serbian, we only have one-language dictionaries. We don’t really have Serbian to English dictionaries online worth recommending. That’s the reason why I always suggest using Google Translate, but to translate word for word, not whole paragraphs.
And that’s not only about dictionaries, we don’t have that much material in general. However, what is definitely sure is that more and more people are interested to learn Serbian. When we published our first course on the Serbian Courses website, there was only one or two more, and now I can see that it’s growing. More and more people are teaching Serbian, so it means that there are more people who want to learn Serbian. So, the future of Serbian learning is definitely expanding.
Michael: What do you think is the reason why more and more foreigners want to learn Serbian?
Magdalena: We’ve had a lot of Serbs going abroad after the First World War, the Second World War and it continues nowadays. A lot of people left and are still leaving. So the ones who left a long time ago now have their descendants who want to learn Serbian. Also, the new generation that goes abroad for work makes friends or partners. And their friends and partners want to learn Serbian. In my experience, there are not many foreigners who actually come to live here and want to learn Serbian. It may be because I work online, but I’ve found that it’s the people that live abroad and come here for a visit or have Serbian friends or relatives who actually learn Serbian.
Teaching methods Magdalena implements
Michael: Do you do any roleplaying with your students?
Magdalena: No, not much. But it can be fun. However, what I do is that I talk about the student and myself. And that’s what teaching really is. We create friendships. I learn about my student. When they tell me about their parents or friends – where they live, what are their names – I remember that. When they write me their essays about their best friends, I remember their names and other things.
So next time, I’m able to ask them about their friend in Serbian and they understand me. For example, they may not remember the word for friend, but if I say: “Does your friend John, who is a doctor, have children?” they will connect, understand and remember. That’s what gives confidence to the student and it really feels good.
Michael: Therefore they feel appreciated and they feel that you’ve invested.
Magdalena: Not only that. The best part is that they understand what I’m talking about and they can understand me at the beginning of learning the Serbian language. So I mostly talk about real life and when they tell me they like something, for example Lord of the Rings, then we start talking about Smeagol, and what are elves or dwarfs or orcs like. It makes them engage in the conversation. Roleplaying is good for the classroom, but I think it doesn’t work that much when we do one-on-one. I never found that to really work for me.
We didn’t get to talk about this in the interview, so I’m adding here:
I use a lot of conversational drilling, which are improvised guided conversations to make students remember the words they’ve learned and practice grammar. I will show them around my house or office, show my objects, when appropriate. I never hesitate to talk about personal opinions and experiences, but I never ask my students to talk about something they don’t want to talk about.
Above all, I aim to teach my students to say as much as they can with as little as they know.
With groups, I use games, discussions and theater techniques. I invent games and instruct my students to practice specific skills with them, depending on the curriculum. My main goal is to connect the group and encourage their exchange and conversation in Serbian, so that they even forget that they’re learning and being scrutinized at the moment, as their main goal becomes to communicate, win the game, or prove their point.
Magdalena’s goals with Serbonika
Michael: What are your goals with Serbonika?
Magdalena: We only have the A1 level completed on Serbonika at the moment, and it’s a lot of material. Now we are compiling the A2 level, piece by piece, and we’re publishing small courses. For the A1 level, we have more than 10 little courses. Because when everything for one level is in just one course, the learner gets lost easily and the course could look unconquerable that way. So we have small courses that people can do quickly, move forward, and feel success every time they complete a course.
Now we moved on to the A2 level, where we only have 2 courses at the moment. One is completely dedicated to the locative case. We go step by step with the locative case, because it has a lot of different endings. So first you learn only singular nouns, then plural nouns, then we add adjectives singular, and finally adjectives plural. And of course, it goes with a lot of examples, sentences, texts, and dialogues. My plan is to move on like that and complete the A2 level and add B1 next year.
I will complete A1 and A2 levels. For B1, I will at least have a drill support, because you cannot possibly make up for real conversation practice on a website or in a book. For that reason, we will have companions and workbooks, for example, for B1 and B2 levels, but they’re not to be used alone. Because you have to use the language – to speak and to write it.
And there is one more thing that we added to Serbonika. All of the main courses now end up with a test that you can take and that requires you to write and to speak your own sentences. At the beginning to answer questions freely and record yourself answering questions. And we have a real teacher looking at that and sending real personal feedback to the learners. That’s how we can make up for the lack of lessons.
On the other hand, we started organizing group courses with people who are going to use the Serbonika platform and work with a teacher. Each group has its own Skype room where they can exchange in Serbian. They can meet outside of class to practice or to work through the material together and they have scheduled lessons with the teacher, because that’s what really makes you move forward.
Also, we are preparing A1 level video series in Serbian. That’s going to be fun and useful.
Serbian Immersion Camp for B1+ learners
Another thing that we have is Serbonika Summer School. This is new and I’m so excited about it. It’s in about two weeks. Students are coming to our town on September 12th and on 13th we start off with the lessons.
They will have lessons every working day from 10 am to 1.30 pm and in the afternoon we will visit different institutions and we will have a host that will talk to us. He will hold a lecture, for example about Serbian literature at the library, then a lecture about Serbian history in the Museum, etc. In the second week we will have a lesson about Ancient Roman History, because our town Sremska Mitrovica was one of the major Roman cities. We will also visit the prison in Sremska Mitrovica. It’s a very old and huge prison with a museum hall. That prison was built in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and it was important in the First and Second World Wars. So we will also have lectures on History and see all the exhibitions. We will have excursions as well.
We have a group of B1 level students, but some of them are able to understand much more because they are Slavic speakers. But I didn’t want to make a beginner’s group because that’s not how you make the most of the experience. They must complete the A1 level at least in order to come and really learn. B1-B2 is an ideal level for this kind of learning.
I want the students to be prepared for lessons and discussions and we’ll do grammar drills as well, but I’ll also prepare them to get the most of their afternoon activities. In the afternoon activities, I will face them with natural Serbian speakers that are not used to speaking to foreigners. Of course, I’ll be there to help when needed, but they will be prepared beforehand and they will be aware of the vocabulary that will be used.
Are exams and certificates necessary?
Michael: Is this Serbonika course certificate official?
Magdalena: No, it’s not. We issue our certificate and when you get it, it means that you have finished a certain course and passed the exam, but it’s not an official certificate. You can put it in your CV, but you probably can’t use it to enroll in the university. Actually, I don’t know what their requirements are, but it’s not a state exam and I don’t want it to be.
And the reason is that the state and the official exams insist on Cyrillic. And I don’t want to force people to learn Cyrillic in a country where everything is written in Latin.
It’s an obstacle that some people are not willing to deal with, and I understand them. I’m fluent in Greek, at a C2 level, and I can tell you this: never in my life will I be able to read the Greek script with such an ease with which I read the Latin and Cyrillic script. Even though both Latin and Cyrillic scripts derived from this Greek script.
I’m not saying it’s that hard or impossible to learn Cyrillic, of course. It differs slightly from the Latin script, it relies on the same principles, it’s not Chinese! But some people don’t want to do it. They want to learn Serbian just to talk to their friends, to understand their family.
I treat reading and writing Cyrillic as a separate skill, because it definitely slows down the learning process. So, all the instructive material is in the Latin script and then if you want to learn Cyrillic, you can learn it separately.
From my perspective, it’s an advantage to be able to teach and learn Serbian in the Latin script. You will learn the language and get to use it quicker, and then you can learn Cyrillic even at the C2 level, if you want.
Michael: Do you think that getting an official certificate in Serbian is necessary to work in Serbia?
Magdalena: No, as long as you speak English, you can work anywhere except some positions that specifically require knowledge of the Serbian language. But still, I don’t think you have to have a certificate for that. I think you only need a certificate if you want to study at a Serbian University.
Watch the whole interview here:
Thank you very much, Michael, for this interview. It was the first time I was on the other side, it was always me who asked questions. So I was very excited about it and I’m very happy and thankful that you invited me. I hope that some people will get good ideas from this talk.
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