Why you can't learn Serbian like you learned your mother tongue

By Danica Gómez Marković

Why you can't learn Serbian like you learned your mother tongue

Language learning has progressed a lot in the last decade. Still, many people are reluctant to speak the target language when they finish their language course. This happens with Serbian lessons too. Why is that?

Is it because people are busier than ever before, swamped with endless tasks at work and home? Or maybe language learning methodologies are not fully adapted for giving practical knowledge?

On one side, people are busy and dedicate little time to practice and learning outside of the classroom. But also learning methods are too far away from the real-life rhythm. Is it possible that the way we learned our mother tongue is the only proper (and least painful) way to learn a language?

Is learning a mother tongue a painless experience?

Learning a mother tongue is indeed a natural process. However, just because it’s natural, it doesn’t mean it was painless (and let’s be fair, you probably don’t remember a lot of it). Looking at my two-year-old trying to make a sentence, I can confirm it’s everything but painless. 

He hates it when people don’t understand what he wants to say. Even though he’s in a stage when he can almost perfectly repeat the word you tell him, after five minutes he is not able to perfectly pronounce it until he hears it again! Which means they are not as fast of learners as everyone thinks. They also need to be exposed many times before perfecting their knowledge.

Why you can't learn Serbian like you learned your mother tongue 02

Advantages of toddlers learning their mother tongue compared to adult learners of a second language

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s see the environment a toddler has when learning a mother tongue, compared to you learning a second language.

  • Starting from scratch

Toddlers are a linguistic tabula rasa – a clean slate. They don’t have any knowledge of any language and are just observing how people around them communicate. 

Adult learners are not as good observers as toddlers. Your mother tongue already formed the way you think and expose your thoughts, which is a great obstacle in your learning process. To overcome it you need to get in touch with a lot of content you can understand in the target language.

  • Need for communication

Babies and toddlers are so eager to communicate with you because their survival depends on it. They learn the most when you communicate with them within a context. That way they can connect with others. 

What is your motivation for learning a language? Do you do it because you like it, or do you have time-specific goals with deadlines? 

If you don’t, try creating some objectives and stick to them. For example: 

Make one piece of writing on a weekly or monthly basis. It can be like a diary, you can write about your life, work, or whichever you like. Set a minimum number of words. 

Connect with other people who want to teach their language. You can exchange your writings with them, practice speaking, and similar.

  • Immersion 

The language toddlers need to learn is around them and they are completely immersed in it. As I mentioned, their survival depends on understanding and being understood. 

People trying to learn a foreign language without leaving their country have a huge problem with immersion because it’s practically impossible to simulate these conditions even for a limited time. How to overcome this?

The best thing would be to go to a country where the target language is spoken and not to bring anyone who speaks your mother tongue. 

Of course, for many people, this is not a possibility. Another option would be to absorb all kinds of content in the target language – movies, music, books, and podcasts. 

While I was giving Serbian lessons, my beginner students had a huge problem because there wasn’t much content for their level. Something they could enjoy and learn from outside the classroom. That is why the TalkIn’ Serbian Podcast exists!

Apart from podcasts, you can learn from other types of content, like texts, books, movies, and music. If you’re at the beginner level, you will need to make sure the content is adapted for you. 

  • No rules, no shame

Kids don’t care about rules. They don’t even know what the word “rule” means. They are learning from situations and consequences. I ask my dear toddler: Hoćeš vodu? (Eng: Would you like some water?). He nods his head and answers: Hoćeš (Eng:Like). In two hours he will come to me to ask for water by shouting: Vodu!

What happens when, after some time, he realizes he made a mistake? He will hear the correct version and immediately adopt it.

The adult version of this would be to feel embarrassed about the mistake and then probably insecure when you have to use the same sentence again. Not until you realize mistakes are the only path to success, they will represent an obstacle in your learning journey.

  • Pronunciation 

Their vocal apparatus is still not formed and developed. On one side it means that they are still learning how to pronounce sounds and are more clumsy about it. On the other, it means their apparatus will probably form to pronounce all the sounds they hear and practice. This process finishes more or less when they are 6 years old. For this reason, there is a saying that the earlier you start learning languages, the better.

An adult student has a disadvantage to start with because their vocal apparatus is long formed, so successful pronunciation is a questionable matter. To make it even worse, coursebooks and teachers usually don’t pay enough attention to this topic. Apart from that, how well is your pronunciation in another language will depend on several factors like:

  • the number of sounds your mother tongue and your target language have in common 
  • the range of sounds you can hear and pronounce. 

Luckily, this is not set in stone and you can work on it. This is why it’s important to immerse yourself and listen to the language, let your ear get used to it. If you don’t hear the sound well, you won’t be able to pronounce it correctly. Also, as you see the words without the sound, your brain will most likely read them as you would read them in your mother tongue. 

When my friend Sergio told me I wasn’t pronouncing his name correctly I needed a couple of years to actually hear the difference between the Serbian sound /h/ and the Spanish (peninsular) one. Work on it, but be aware it needs time.

You can’t learn a language yesterday

I remember one student telling me: “My boss told me I had to learn Serbian yesterday”. As bewildered as I felt at that moment, I realized it was not a joke. Even though this was a student from a culture much different than Serbian, a culture where things happen fast, you cannot rush learning a language. It’s an ongoing process.

Despite toddlers having all of these advantages compared to adults, people seem not to be aware of the fact that toddlers still need years to perfect their language skills. Then they go to school where they work on their writing, reading, listening, speaking, and pronunciation skills. 

You are in a more difficult position. But that is why it’s so amazing and inspiring when adults learn a second language!

Let’s wrap it up

Now you know the circumstances toddlers have when learning their mother tongue. It can help you realize the disadvantages you have and how to overcome them. But it also makes you aware of why you can’t learn a second language like you learned your mother tongue.

What you can do is adapt the process of learning to yourself and make it more fun. The secret is not to get more spare time but to integrate the language into your life. You need to find a way, not time. And remember, my way might not be your way.

I learned Spanish and English with series and podcasts. I would pause each time I hear an interesting expression or something I don’t understand. Then I would write it down, search for the meaning and connect it with the story. 

Learning this way is one of the reasons Chris and I started the TalkIn’ Serbian Podcast. We wanted to give people a chance to learn the real Serbian language. To hear a foreigner making mistakes, but still having an amazing conversation. Something adapted to your level and that you can integrate into your life. 

So, what will be your way to learning Serbian?

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