Learning to speak Slovenian is not impossible. It’s just really hard.
Fortunately, the University of Ljubljana’s Faculty of Arts offers a summer school program that makes it fun. I was among 107 participants from 31 countries in the 35th annual summer school of Slovene language in July 2016. A placement test is part of the application, and the first morning of the school is devoted to placement interviews.
Starting from rock bottom, I was placed in the most basic beginner class, consisting of eight people and one dog. Our little group reflected the demographics of the summer school as a whole, ranging in age from college students to retirees. The international breakdown included four Americans, one Canadian, one Argentine, one Thai and one Austrian (who brought the dog). The native English speakers had it relatively easy because those speaking Spanish or German or Thai had to juggle a third language in their heads while the class toggled back and forth between Slovene and English.
The only reason we didn’t all suffer mental breakdowns was the immense patience of our teacher, Tanja Jerman. As the co-author of our textbook, she undoubtedly could have taught at any level and I admired her cheerful willingness to take on raw beginners. There was a more advanced beginner class for people such as the Serbs and Macedonians who already spoke another Slavic language, but our group had no such advantage.
Wrestling with the sounds of š, č and ž, I struggled with something as basic as the correct pronunciation of my last name, Anžur. The word for the number 6 (šest) tripped me up every time. Then there are the words like trg (sqaure) and vrt (garden). May I please buy a vowel? The fun really begins when you realize there are no articles before the nouns, like “the” or “a.” Every new word must be classified as feminine, masculine or neutral and the ending of the word can change, depending on the number and how it is used in the sentence. Asking a question involves deciding whether to use an informal or more polite form.
Adding to my misery was the fact that my son was taking the course for the second time, speaks fluent Polish, and was placed in a much higher class. Eager to show I had learned something, I proudly announced to him in Slovene that “I rode the dog to school this morning!”
After a few days of games, drills and practice we could all ask and answer basic questions like what’s your name, where are you from, what’s your job, and how many languages do you speak. The four people in our group who enrolled in the optional afternoon conversation and practice course made faster progress.
Fortunately, the school provides plenty of opportunities to blow off a little steam, with an excursion or cultural activity planned every day and included with the course:
Outdoor activities included a picnic and this trip to enjoy standup paddleboards, rowing, and relaxing with drinks at Lake Zbilge.
A walking tour of the national cemetery with monuments designed by the acclaimed Slovenian architect, Jože Plečnik.
Making štruklji at a culinary workshop with Cook Eat Slovenia. And of course bowling!
By the end of the course I had achieved my modest goal of learning the basic structure and sound of the language. The textbook has an app on Memrise that will help me continue to study on my own. My family lost the language after they emigrated to the United States in 1911 and wanted their kids to speak only English. For most of its history Slovenia has been more of an ethnicity than a country with its own borders, and the question of who is a Slovenian was answered with another question: do you speak Slovene? I’m working on it. Govorim malo Slovensko.
Update: Jezikovno Mesto Conversation Class
I attended the summer course twice and then tried the winter 2-week course, which seems to attract more serious students and fewer people combining the course with a holiday. By this point, however, I felt my progress had stalled. I wasn’t a raw beginner anymore, but I also couldn’t keep up with students who already spoke another Slavic language fluently. I found myself in a catch-all intermediate level class, struggling with cases and word order like most other foreigners.
I also had done all the cultural activities more than once and didn’t want to pay to do them again. Even more discouraging, the teacher for this level enjoyed playing games instead of helping us wrestle with the complicated grammar. Questions like, “How do you teach a dragon to ski?” seemed useless to me. By this time my family had rented an apartment in Ljubljana and I needed practical vocabulary for dealing with everyday problems in our lives.
The weekly conversation class at Jezikovno Mesto turned out to be a great solution. Bojana Petkovic is the immensely patient teacher who presides over the multi-level class. Students are encouraged to submit short essays about topics of interest, which she returns with corrections. She also asked us to speak about our everyday lives: what we did last weekend, what we are planning for summer, and our opinions about all things Slovene from food to famous people. Email her for more information. You can pay by the class, or get a reduced rate by paying for a package.
Once again, I am making progress on every visit to Slovenia, only to fall back when I return to California where I have no one to speak with. Učim se Slovensko. Počasi. I am learning Slovene, slowly.