One of the downsides of being bilingual in a language nobody in the States speaks is a total inability to use the language. Just based off of demographic history, it is far more likely to find places to speak Spanish, Hindi, Japanese or even Italian than it is for Serbian. While I lived at home with my parents I never really noticed this, as they insisted I spoke in Serbian with them and I retained a pretty good understanding of the language. It was not until I moved out upon transferring to Michigan, and moreover, going back to visit, that I realized just how much my language skills were slipping. It was embarrassing for me, not being able to string together sentences in Serbian with my parents. I don’t know if it was that way for my brothers, but for me my language was one of the only things that tied me to a vaguely Serbian heritage. I always got a kick out of Serbians in the States who danced the traditional dances, drank rakija (traditional Serbian plum brandy), but spoke below an elementary school level with seemingly no desire to improve.
This slippage was obviously one of the things that drew me to a Croatian internship. I would get to work in a beautiful location AND practice Serbo-Croatian (the difference really is negligible)? Sign me up. That’s why, when I arrived, I appeased my family by speaking English primarily for the first week or so. But when it became clear that people were way more comfortable with a Serbian dialect than they were with English, I jumped at the chance. I told my coworkers to address me only in Croatian, and I would endeavor to do the same. In terms of interactions with total strangers, everyone is way more comfortable too. While Croatia is a country driven by tourism, I have noticed that German and Italian are actually more common than English, and so my ability to speak Serbian has often been a requirement more than a luxury. And it feels good to be able to thank a lovely old lady at the market for apples, going to show just how much language is a part of where you are working. Could I get along if I only knew English? Sure, one of my bosses does. But to me, the ability to actually feel like I was regaining something I thought I lost meant more than work experience. The highlight of the experience was calling my mom on her birthday (July 2nd). I knew I wouldn’t be there but I called her after work to see what she was doing, how her summer was going, tell her I missed her, ect. After rattling off questions, responses and clarifications, my mom paused and said, “I’m so impressed with how much better your Serbian is.” She went on about it, but that was enough for me. I (as many people my age, I think?) have been developing a more personal relationship with my parents, and even 20 years later there seem to be things that they cannot tell me in English, and feeling like I could be closer to them through work was really special.