How Hard Is It To Learn Serbian?

A girl is standing in front of a brick wall and holding a book over her face.

Balkan, I have a question for you guys. Today somebody said to me: Kako da ne bre. How yes no?! Kako?! Ne razumem! How does this make sense?! Lele!

We know you can relate to this baffled guy trying to comprehend silly Serbian phrases. Have a look at his video here. If you’re trying to learn Serbian, you’ve noticed that it’s a roller coaster ride.

While some parts of the Serbian language are easy-peasy (no articles, loose word order), others are daunting and will make you cry at some point. We’re going to focus on the latter. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Almost all Serbian language learners encounter the same stumbling blocks.

We’ll guide you through the most terrifying segments. Let’s jump in and enjoy the crazy ride. Don’t forget to have fun along the way!

Can Your Background Impact Your Serbian Language Learning?

Before we start heavy weight lifting, let’s warm up first and answer the following questions: 

  • Odakle si? Koji je tvoj maternji jezik? Where are you from? What’s your native language?
  • Gde živiš? Where do you live?
  • Da li govoriš neki strani jezik? Koji? Do you speak any foreign languages? Which one?
  • Zašto učiš srpski? Why are you learning Serbian?

 

If you’re a native English speaker, it’ll be easy for you to learn other Germanic languages. The same goes for other language families. If you’ve tried learning one Slavic language, you’ll get the gist of the others quickly. Southern Slavic languages are so similar that foreigners often see no difference between them at first glance (e.g. Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, Bulgarian).

According to The Foreign Service Institute (FSI), our language falls into the Category IV level of difficulty for native English speakers. It means that it’ll take you 44 weeks, or 1100 class hours to reach professional working proficiency in Serbian (roughly B2/C1 levels).

But the most important questions are what you need Serbian for, how motivated you are, and how much time you’re ready to invest. You might not need to reach those high levels for your life and work in Serbia. Maybe you just want to converse with your Serb friends and neighbors. Whatever your drive is, remember – the more you surround yourself with the language and practice, the faster you’ll learn.

Where To Learn Serbian Online?

Now that you’ve recognized your motivation and started your research, you might stumble upon the lack of free and accessible learning materials. There aren’t many. We recommend you the top 5 resources to learn on your own. Although the search can be frustrating, it isn’t a mission impossible.

Did you know that you can’t learn Serbian on Duolingo yet? The Ling app can be an alternative for beginners. Moreover, there are some other amusing ways of learning:

  • Listen to Serbian music. Singing is relaxing and it’ll teach you new vocabulary.
  • Find a Serbian TV series to watch. We recommend this one.
  • Share your suffering with fellow Serbian language learners and laugh together.  
  • Tell a Serb that you want to learn their language. They’ll be honored and impressed. And you’ll learn curse words in no time.

 

However, if these suggestions don’t satisfy your insatiable hunger for learning, a patient Serbian teacher will gladly help you and guide you.

What Are Ćirilica (Ћирилица) And Latinica (Латиница)?

Can you imagine using two completely different alphabets in one language? And switching between them with ease? Well, Serbs have this superpower. We use ćirilica (Cyrillic alphabet) and latinica (Latin alphabet) interchangeably on a subconscious level.

These two alphabets (azbuka – Cyrillic and abeceda – Latin) can cause you nightmares, but we’re the speakers of the only European language that has full synchronic digraphia. How cool’s that?

Serbs often use Cyrillic in official documents and at schools, while Latin is used in everyday chatting and on the Internet in general. Don’t worry if you don’t master both alphabets at once.

We have the most perfect system: one sound = one letter. We apply this rule in azbuka and abeceda. Our motto is:

“Write as you speak, and read as it is written.” 

Piši kao što govoriš, čitaj kao što je napisano.

Пиши као што говориш, читај као што је написано.

(Johann Cristoph Adelung, German grammarian and philologist)

Headache Called Serbian Pronunciation

Two people sitting on a couch and reading a book
Find a speaking partner to practice Serbian pronunciation

Đurđa i njena ljubav Ćira umorili su se čekajući abe Ljiljanu.

Đurđa and her love Ćira got tired of waiting for Ljiljana in vain.

Does your tongue hurt after trying to pronounce this sentence?

“Make sure to forget what you think you know about pronunciation that comes from English and be open to using tongue and facial muscles the way you never have before.” 

Redditors share all sorts of fun facts and experiences about learning Serbian, like this one that tells you that our language is fantastic for working out your facial muscles and tongue. So don’t give up, it’s worth the effort.

Here’s how to write and pronounce the letters lj and nj.

These pairs of voiced (zvučni) and voiceless (bezvučni) consonants can also be tricky to say:

DŽ (Џ)

Č (Ч)

Đ (Ђ)

Ć (Ћ)

Ž (Ж)

Š (Ш)

A hack that can help you master these sounds – once you learn how to pronounce the voiced consonants, try whispering them. What do you hear? That’s right – their voiceless counterparts. You’ve just killed two birds with one stone.

Serbian Cases - Riba Ribi Grize Rep

If English is your mother tongue, you’re used to the existence of nominative, genitive, and accusative cases. You know that you can best differentiate between them when you use pronouns. Well, Serbs took the case system to a whole new level. We’ve got seven of them.

Have a look at the tongue twister from the subtitle. The meaning is ridiculous (A fish bites the tail of another fish), but once you say it, you’ll never forget it. What are the cases and their functions in the sentence?

Riba – nominative, subject

Ribi – dative, indirect object

Rep – accusative, direct object

These are all seven cases and the questions they answer:

  1. Nominative (Who, what? – subject)
  2. Genitive (Who/what from?)
  3. Dative (Who/what to/for?)
  4. Accusative (Whom/what? – object)
  5. Vocative (Hey! – calling, addressing someone)
  6. Instrumental (Who/what with?)
  7. Locative (Where? About whom/what?)

 

If you try memorizing all Serbian cases at once, you’ll be lost and confused. Instead, learn them step by step and you’ll see it’s not that hard. Serbs from Southern Serbia will comfort you by saying that in their part of the country you won’t even need to use cases. They often joke that they get by just fine without them.

What On Earth Is Verbal Aspect (Glagolski Vid)?

Čitao sam knjigu juče. I was reading a book yesterday.

Pročitao sam sedamdeset stranica. I read seventy pages.

The English verb read can be translated into Serbian as two different verbs – čitati and pročitati. These two verbs have different verbal aspects – čitati is imperfective (evolving, repetitive action), while pročitati is perfective (completed action).

The verbal aspect denotes if the action is ongoing or completed. This comes naturally for native speakers, but it’s challenging for Serbian language learners. As a beginner, you’ll start learning imperfective verbs first, and then you’ll get used to the perfective ones.

Here are some common examples of imperfective and perfective verbs in the Serbian language:

  • pisati – napisati (write)
  • crtati – nacrtati (draw)
  • jesti –  pojesti (eat)
  • piti – popiti (drink)
  • otvarati – otvoriti (open)
  • zatvarati – zatvoriti (close)
  • učiti – naučiti (learn; study is only the imperfective version)

I’ll Never Learn Serbian! Nikada Neću Naučiti Srpski!

Don’t stop learning Serbian despite the obstacles

You will. Mark our words. Even though you’ll feel you’re hopeless at times, don’t quit. Find a speaking or a texting partner, and you’ll be rewarded. Serbs enjoy sharing the love and knowledge they have for their native language. Take smaller steps and learn Serbian phrases. And shhh, we have something that English doesn’t allow. Have a look at the sneaky double negation in the subtitle. If you want to find out more secrets about our language, contact us for online Serbian lessons and courses

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