Anytime you stay in a country where the predominant language isn’t English, you’re faced with the dilemma of communication. Do I try to blunder my way through the local language and hope I’m endearing enough to not seem offensive or stick with English and fit the bill of “that American”? Now what happens if you know the local language but in a different dialect? What if that dialect might not be one locals care to hear? This was basically my conundrum when deciding how to best communicate with a Croatian population as a Serbian.
Amplifying this was the discrepancy in expectation. My dad encouraged me to take it easy with the Serbian, while my boss on the other hand told me I would find no issues here. Given this dichotomy, I decided to embark on a social experiment with myself as the guinea pig. One week, I would speak to strangers exclusively in English, the next in Serbo-Croatian. What I found (the first week) taught me a little something about travel and belonging.
In my social life, my interactions with people my age changed very little. Most of them had seen me speak Serbo-Croatian to an extent, and were satisfied I knew it well (not that it really mattered to them). To them speaking English became natural. Of course I would speak the language I was most comfortable with, and what’s more, it gave all of them a chance to practice their English with a native speaker (not an everyday occurrence, beyond pleasantries). It was this “beyond pleasantries” where I found my friends extensive knowledge of English to be particularly useful as well. I know their language well, especially for someone who left as a toddler, but I do struggle a bit when I have to think about what I say. Speaking in English is an extension of thinking to me, and the few seconds that I needed to think over what I was saying in another language always threw me off, so in Croatia as well.
Overall, I had much more of an issue when speaking to people on the street. Most waiters and service workers had some understanding of English, but asking someone to move on the bus? Asking an old lady at the market for a basket of strawberries? I often got a very confused reaction and a long delay in what I was asking for. On the rare occasion that the breakdown in communication was so severe that I had to break into Croatian, I was met with a facial expression that I can only sublimate as “Why on earth were you not doing this the whole time??” And what’s more, those interactions were always sublimated down to the bare essentials of conversation. There was nothing there that gave me an idea of how people felt, what their lives were like, or any of the nuances you pick up speaking the native language. In my opinion, in that week, I missed more of the immersive aspect of living somewhere. I could function and I survived, but whereas before I was maybe concerned with how people might react to a Serbian dialect, now I was worried about whether I was integrating properly with a community that saw me as just some guy in a Hawaiian shirt speaking English.