Vocabulary vs Grammar: An experience that changed my teaching philosophy

Vocabulary vs Grammar: An experience that changed my teaching philosophy

by Magdalena Petrović Jelić


When people start learning Serbian, or another new language, they often have a vocabulary vs. grammar dilemma. They realize that there is so much to learn, and they wonder where they should invest their time. What’s more important: the words or the rules for using those words correctly?

The old-school teaching method fostered grammar. And not so long ago, as a language student and a young language teacher, I too was obsessed with grammar.


Obsessed with grammar

I believed that a student needs to understand how grammar works in order to be able to learn the Serbian language. Even the books for teaching Serbian that were available didn’t prove me wrong: they were all centered around grammar and gave little material with lots of rules in it.

And I focused on grammar to the extent that, once, I even explained all the seven cases in a single lesson to a beginner-level student! I mean, he asked for it – but still I would never do that today.



An eye-opening experience: why vocabulary prevailed

In this video I wanted to tell you about one crucial experience that opened my eyes, offered a different point of view and helped me change my teaching philosophy.

/Transcript of the video/


I’ve wanted to tell this story for years. This is a story about a student who changed my teaching style, who changed my idea of teaching Serbian as a foreign language.


The student who changed my view of vocabulary vs. grammar dilemma

He was a Mexican, I met him in Belgrade, maybe five years ago or even more.

He wanted help with his Serbian, and told me that never before he had a lesson of Serbian language.

He was fluent in English and Spanish, but from the beginning I was able to talk to him in slow Serbian and he could understand me perfectly well.

He had been married at a time to a Serbian women for five years or so, and he had been learning Serbian by watching movies with Serbian subtitles. His vocabulary was huge because ha had learned the language from the people, and he had no idea, basically, about the grammar.


Life-changing experience

That encounter was crucial for me as a teacher. That encounter taught me how important vocabulary is for communication. For basic communication you can disregard the grammar and learn only vocabulary. Because you can speak Tarzan Serbian and still tell what you want. You can learn lexically and have no idea about the grammar behind the structures, but only know the meaning of the structures.


The Serbian Grammar

Serbian grammar is very complex and huge. For all of you who learn Serbian as your first Slavic language, you all feel overwhelmed by our grammar. And, as a teacher, I don’t want to give you everything at once, because that would kill you, that would overwhelm you. No. I give you one piece at a time, and I keep surprising my students with the complexity of the Serbian grammar they should understand and learn.

Often I hear from my students: „Wow, I thought I knew grammar!“ Yes. But with the Slavic languages, with Serbian or Croatian as with other Slavic languages, there are grammar things you didn’t even know existed if you only know Romance and Germanic languages.


My advice

My advice is to take it slowly on grammar. Because, you’re able to understand our grammar, of course you are – there thousands of wonderful books that will help you understand it – but to understand this grammar is one thing, and to use it efficiently is completely another.

So, take it slowly with the grammar, practice it bit by bit, and cram on vocabulary. That’s your task for the A1 level in Serbian or Croatian language.


Tako Lako Vokabular

That’s why I started the Basic Serbian Vocabulary project – “Tako Lako Vokabular” – with the aim of creating a bank of the most important words for you to learn at a beginner or A level.

It’s free and contains images to help your memory, audio files to improve your pronunciation, and quizzes to test your progress.

Come over to Tako Lako Vokabular and start learning right away! 





Starting Serbian? Discover When Is The Best Time to Start

Starting Serbian? Discover When Is the Best Time to Start 

by Magdalena Petrović Jelić


Making a decision to start a new language usually comes in slowly. First it occurs to us how cool would it be if we knew this new language. And we usually need some time to chew on that idea. If you’re thinking about starting Serbian, chances are that you love something – or someone – from the country, and that you’ve been thinking about that for some time.

That daydreaming will continue until you bump into a right trigger that will push you into taking the first step. And in my experience, the usual triggers coincide with two major periods when most people decide to learn Serbian or Croatian.

But are these really the best moments for starting a new language? In this video I explain when is the best time for starting Serbian and how to use that surge of motivation and avoid the disappointment many language learners face.


/Transcript of the video/


Two peak periods for starting Serbian every year

People often ask me when is the best time to start learning a language.

Over the years that I’ve been teaching Serbian, I’ve noticed that there are two peak periods every year when lots of new people contact me: in December and in May. These are the two periods when many people decide to start Serbian, or another language.


The first one is when they’re facing their winter holidays (and probably a New Year’s resolution), and the second is when they’re planning their summer vacation.


A heroic task

So, apparently, these people expect to achieve good results in a month or so: they want to start in May and get ready for their holiday in July, or they plan to start in December to get ready for January.


Then they try to learn as much as possible and they cram all the material they can find. Some even hire two teachers!

Eventually, they get tired and confused – especially if they tried to learn too much grammar at once – and they end up:

1) either disappointed,

2) or (which is better) resolved to take it all over again when they come back from their vacation.


Why this happens?

You probably ask yourself: Why this happens? The answer is simple. Because there is a limited amount of data our brain is capable of processing efficiently at a given amount of time. Also, because to remember a new word, one word, we need to see it or hear it between 5 to 10 times.


This is why we need to give ourselves plenty of time to learn a new language, especially if it’s a new language family for us – which is often the case with the Serbian or Croatian language.


Question the “miracle solutions” 

And anybody who promises miracles, like „learn this language in this many days“ is misleading you.

First, ask that person to define what does „to learn a language“ mean? To which level? Up to what point? What are you going to be able to do with what they’re promising.


Setting up a realistic goal

What you can do is that you can commit to get to a certain level in certain amount of time, like for example to get A1 in 4 months, so from 0 to A1 in 4 months, and you need a solid program to follow.


Also, you need to make a plan and stick to it: how to do it, what resources you’re going to use, how often you’re going to to study, if you’re going to take individual lessons, how many times a week, which days are you going to do that, when are you going to write your homework, how are you going to use your audio files, etc.


Anyways, give yourself at least 4 to 5 months to see noticeable progress.


The perfect time to start learning Serbian

And this is my answer to all of you who asked me „when is the best time to star learning Serbian“:

August or September is the right time to start getting ready for your winter vacation in Serbia,

and December is the perfect time to start getting ready for your summer vacation in Serbia!


In the meantime, visit serbiancourses.com and check what’s new.

I’ve made the Tako Lako Vokabular pages that you can use to start learning right away!


The Most Powerful Technique for Learning Serbian in 9 Steps

How to Learn Serbian in 9 Steps: The Most Powerful Technique

by Magdalena Petrović Jelić

If you’re wondering how to learn Serbian, in this article I give you the most powerful technique I use with my students. It’s an advanced story-telling technique that looks time-consuming, but it’s actually time-saving in the long run.

What is the most expensive commodity today? Time. If we could buy time, we’d pay for it as much as we could. I know I’d use at least 5 more hours a day.

But we can’t buy time. We can only use the time we have in the best possible way.

If you want to be efficient and have to use only one technique for learning Serbian, there is one you should choose.

Interestingly, this technique looks time-consuming. It’s huge! However, when you see how effective it is, you’ll realize it’s actually time-saving.

What I’m going to reveal here is an advanced story-telling technique I’ve developed with my students.


But I must warn you, it might not work for you in the beginning. Especially if you’re not experienced in learning languages. You should try it anyway and give yourself some time.

Because once it starts working, you will enjoy learning efficiently.


How to learn Serbian in 9 steps: My Advanced Story-Telling Technique for Learning Serbian


Here’s what you should do:


How to learn Serbian – Step 1. Find the right text

First you need a text that is slightly more advanced then your level. You should be a little uncomfortable reading it, but not too much.

It’s the relative difficulty of the text what determines how much the whole task will be difficult and how much you’ll eventually learn. The more difficult the text for you, the more difficult to understand it and more time-consuming the exercise.


The Most Powerful Technique for Learning Serbian in 9 Steps 1

It’s like weight-lifting: if the weight is too light for you, you won’t advance. If it’s too heavy, you’ll break down. It’s important to find the right weight.

You want the text to be challenging, but not mind-blowing.


How to learn Serbian – Step 2Read and Translate

Focus on understanding the story line even if you don’t know the structures yet. It’s even more efficient if you have someone to help you translate it – a teacher or a friend. It’s important to understand the general idea, but also the meaning of individual phrases and words.


How to learn Serbian – Step 3. Copy the text to your notebook

Underline new words. Write their translation in the margins. Optionally, write a list of new words in your notebook. Write example sentences with them. You can be creative, or simply describe your reality. 


How to learn Serbian – Step 4. Read the text again

Several times, if you need. Especially after taking a break for several days. Repetition and breaks are both important, because that’s how new words are getting into your long-term memory. The story line that you’ll remember should help you recall the meaning of the words you didn’t really remember.


How to learn Serbian Step 5. Listen to the audio repeatedly

If there’s no audio, have a friend record it for you in a reasonably slow pace. Try to remember the words. Use your memory of the story line to get the meaning of individual words you may not recognize at first. You can use the audio to practice your pronunciation. Simply click pause and repeat aloud trying to imitate the pronunciation. You can also use it to practice dictation. Again, click pause and write what you hear.


How to learn Serbian – Step 6. Ask questions

Come up with a subtitle or a question for each paragraph or idea of the text. Try to cover all the main points of the text. You can use this as a speaking exercise with your teacher or friend.


How to learn Serbian – Step 7. Tell a similar story

Use the same words, even whole sentences, if they apply to your new situation. Answer the questions from the previous activity. Start simple, imitating the sentences from the original text, and add as many details as you can.

For example, after reading a text about Belgrade, write about your town. Or even better: compose several short texts about the cities you like.


How to learn Serbian – Step 8. Make sure your text sounds natural

Have a friend or a teacher read and correct what you’ve written. Serbian is grammatically very complex language. Especially in the beginning, but also later, do not stress over all the corrections of your text. Your task is to deliver understandable messages, not to write perfect sentences. But for your text to be a useful learning material, have someone correct it and learn from those corrections.


How to learn Serbian – Step 9. Review

Return to your text a few days later, and again after a week or two. Read it to recall and retain all the new words you’ve used. Try to talk or think about same topic but a different situation. For example, choose another city and try to describe it. That will give you the feel of how much you’ve learned.


This is a powerful technique. It makes you exercise all four skills important for learning Serbian: reading, listening, writing and speaking, while enhancing your memory.


You’ll practice speaking even if you don’t speak – because when you write, you practice forming sentences and prepare yourself for communication. Especially with questions and answers, since that’s what communication consists of.

You can follow this technique step-by-step, or you might choose to skip or add something.


The most challenging part is finding the right texts and audios – the right weight.

That’s why I’ve made them an integral part of my Serbian course for beginners!

The Tako Lako Beginner Serbian Course contains texts carefully designed to teach you the vocabulary and the grammar you need.

“Poznaješ li Srbiju?” (Do you know Serbia?) is the standard 7th section of each module. It consists of 2 informing texts that are a bit more advanced than your expected level.

Like this lesson about Belgrade, which is the first of its kind in the course.

Each text is translated and recorded as audio file. So you’ve got three steps solved: 1) finding the text, 2) reading and translating it, 5) audio. The rest is up to you.

These lessons are the key part of my method!

You’ll get the most of them by following my advanced story-telling technique throughout the Tako Lako Beginner Serbian Course.

Try this technique for yourself and let me know how it worked!

3 Basic and Often Neglected Tools for Learning a Language

Three Basic and Often Neglected Tools for Learning Serbian (or Any Language)

by Magdalena Petrović Jelić


When we learn a language, the main issue is to remember an incredible amount of data. Today we often rely on technology, we use apps and watch videos.

But is that really effective in helping us retain the knowledge? Are we doing our best?

3 Basic and Often Neglected Tools for Learning a Language 2

In the modern world, we are flooded by all sorts of information from countless sources. Our attention is under constant attack. There are distractions everywhere. We’re prone to lose focus and click away.

Many people rely on new technology, apps and videos. And these are helpful resources, by all means – but they are not enough for learning.

If we find an information on a website or in a video, in a few days we will probably forget what was it about. As a recent study showed, passive internet users will only remember where they’ve seen it. 

When you learn a language from an app only, it is usually difficult to go back and find a specific piece of information you need for a specific situation.

To remember new words and grammar rules – and we have to retain so many of them to learn a new language – we need to review. When we’re trying to use what we’re learning, we need a place to instantly glance at what we’ve seen the other day, or few minutes ago. Apps and videos take time to load.

To build our instant-memory-retrieving machine, we don’t need some super-expensive equipment, on the contrary!

It’s enough to get back to basics.

There are three loyal allies you can use for learning Serbian, or any other language.

These three tools are very cheap: almost free. Actually, you already have them at home!

They are simple to use and powerful.

And yet, they are often neglected.

These are: a pen, a notebook, and a box.


1# Basic Tool for Learning Serbian: A Pen

Use a pen, because writing by hand helps us memorize better. 

When we type on a keyboard, our brain will easily switch on autopilot. When we write by hand, our brain is fully engaged processing information.

New generations are growing on touch-screens and keyboards so today many people underestimate the power of a good old pen.

But you should use a pen to to scribble on printed materials and coursebooks, to underline or highlight what’s important. Use it to do exercises. Mark new words with it and write their translations on margins.

Here are three obvious benefits of using a pen:

  1. Only holding a pen will help you focus.
  2. Writing by hand will help you remember.
  3. Having notes will be useful for reviewing.

There are many kinds of pens and pencils you could choose, but you can also get by with only one.


2# Basic Tool for Learning Serbian: A Notebook

Use a notebook, because holding it in your hands is far more pleasurable than opening a Word document.

Pick a special notebook dedicated to the Serbian language. Whenever you find an important information, a word or expression you want to retain, write it there, right away! 

Underline headlines and draw grammar tables. Jot down words and example sentences. Write notes, letters or stories. 

That way you’ll have your notes in one place, readily available, and you’ll know where to look when trying to recall a word or a grammar rule. 


Here are three obvious benefits of writing in a notebook:

  1. Organizing information in a notebook will help you organize them in your head.
  2. You’ll have a physical track of your improvement.
  3. It will be easier to pick up where you left after an inevitable break.

Later on, you’ll want to leaf through your notebook and review. In a year or so, you’ll love to take a look at it and see the progress you’ve made.

#3 Basic Tool for Learning Serbian: A Box

Find a box, or a large folder, where you’ll keep your “Serbian stuff”, because anything with words is a language-learning material.

As you advance in learning, there will be an ever-growing pile of

  1. papers,
  2. booklets,
  3. leaflets and ads,
  4. even napkins, and
  5. magazines.

You’ll want to keep that in one place. Save those materials in your “Serbian box” as a little linguistic treasure. 

You can use folders, envelopes and clippers to organize it.

You can decorate the box itself and write important words or phrases on it.

You can pin grammar rules on it, and after learning them, put that paper in the box, too.


Yes, I’m suggesting you should get physical in the digital era

Internet and modern technology are an incredible source of information. And that’s how you should treat them – as a source of information, and not studying material.

Since any data is just a click away, the human brain has become lazier then it used to be.

We need to trick it into remembering something that it feels there’s no need to remember – since it’s developed a habit of remembering where to find information.

I’m not trying to talk you out of all the modern-age utilities, they are very helpful. Continue watching videos, reading websites and using apps, by all means.

But to improve how you retain information, have your basic tools handy to make physical track of what you’re learning.

Tactile experiences with the three basic learning tools could be crucial for improving your memory and Serbian language learning.

Try for yourself and let me know if this advice has helped you!

What is your favorite basic tool for learning Serbian?