Finding a Voice & Casual Coherence in A Foreign Language

Long-time readers may know that, as part of the MA program I am on pace to complete this academic year, I am learning Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian. I suppose new readers know this now, too. Having covered the grammatical basics last year and over this past summer, I’ve now reached the point where my learning comes predominantly via pseudo-realistic practice: reading articles and short stories (often with the help of a dictionary) and getting together with my professor and other students to talk about šta god. This speaking component is routinely the best part of my week – the thrill of realizing you can express yourself with some degree of facility in another language refuses to get old, and it (usually) gives me hope that one day I might actually learn BCS well enough to be able to use it in the service of more than ordering beer and buying bus tickets (activities that comprised the majority of my linguistic successes this summer).

But it’s also revealed two challenges of acquiring a foreign language, the first of which especially I suspect is frequently ignored, or at the very least under-considered, and the second of which, though likely intuitive to anyone who has attempted to acquire a second (or third, or fourth, etc.) language, is rarely explicitly addressed by pedagogy.

The first challenge is that of acquiring not only an accent that sounds decent, but one that sounds like you; one in which your voice doesn’t just sound like your voice, but in which it sounds like your voice.* It’s one thing to be able to say a sentence and pronounce the words well enough to not be immediately pegged for a foreigner – it’s another thing entirely to do the same thing and be pegged for the person you want to present yourself as. Until you’ve heard a language spoken in a variety of different ways by a variety of different people, it’s exceedingly difficult to even know what your verbal possibilities are, and where you should locate yourself amongst them. My teacher this summer was wonderful, but using his pronunciation as a guide for my own just didn’t feel right – trying to recreate his accent left me feeling like I was actually mispronouncing things, or sounding too American (which was odd since he’s from Serbia and lives in Bosnia and speaks English as a second language and with an accent).** It’s only now, after doing more speaking myself and hearing (via the radio, talking to other BCS students here, meetings with my professor) how a host of other speakers convey themselves, that I’m starting to feel like I can say things and sound like me speaking BCS and not me doing an imitation of somebody speaking BCS.

The second challenge is that of sounding coherent and casual at the same time. Anybody who’s tried to learn a foreign language in a classroom setting eventually gets to a point where you can coherently discuss, say, the plot points of a short story but where you just mumble into your shoes when the conversation necessitates all the half-formed sentences and casual phrasings you would deploy in an average social exchange in your native tongue. I can do a decent job of explaining, in BCS, the topic of my thesis, but if you had me over to your folks’ place in Belgrade for dinner I wouldn’t be able to say, “thanks for having me, I love your place.”*** Obviously the remedy here is immersion and repetition but both are pedagogically difficult to achieve, and even if they weren’t the results are so difficult to measure one suspects teachers would quickly abandon them anyway.**** Still, grading challenges aside (or perhaps in part because of them – “we can’t test you so As for everyone!”), I’d be pretty excited to take a class on navigating common social situations. BCS 500 – Chatting in Bars, Bus Stations and Stores? Sign me up.

*For example: I do a reasonably good (if I do say so myself) Boston accent, but I can’t do it as “me” – I can only do it as, like, “Donny O’Connor from Dorchester who chain smokes and says fuck every other word and calls things wicked retarded” (though to be fair, I do use wicked in everyday speech)
I only mention this to head off readers’ wondering if perhaps his BCS pronunciation was in fact American-inflected/not that of a native speaker
***Instead you might get something like: “Thanks that you have had me like a guest. Your apartment pleases me a lot”
****You can test facility with declension endings pretty easily by asking people to write down declension endings on a test. It’s a lot harder to fairly assess how casual somebody sounds while greeting friends at a bar