Learn Serbian Online! An interview with e-word’s Ivana Marinković

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It was back in 2013 that I decided to start learning the Serbian language. With my fiancée being a native speaker of Serbian, and a move to Novi Sad, Serbia, firmly on the cards, it seemed like the logical thing to do. It was with huge fortune that a google search threw up Belgrade-based Serbian and English language school e-word. At the helm of proceedings was Ivana Marinković. Ivana booked me in for a trial lesson on Skype. First impressions? I trusted that I would be in safe hands from the get-go thanks to Ivana’s professionalism and knowledge of Serbian. My instincts were right … This was how I wanted to learn Serbian online - methodical, engaging and immensely satisfying. 

Since I stopped taking Serbian lessons in 2015, Ivana and I have kept in touch. Ivana recently agreed to be interviewed, thus adding a bit of flavour to PELC’s otherwise English language focused blog.

Ivana Marinković - the floor is yours:

STEVE: Describe how your language school e-word came into being and how it’s evolved over the years

IVANA: e-word was first called “Iris” and it was the first step in e-word’s natural evolution: idea - testing - testing again - moulding the forms that work the best. It soon became clear that “Iris” was the perfect “beta version” of e-word. My colleague/university friend and I set up “Iris” as an idea to see if online classes were an option back in 2011. It was a great unknown - how would people react to completely online classes? Would the Internet be stable enough for everything to run smoothly? How would we explain how things work?

Back then, in 2011, we didn’t call the classes “online” as we usually do today. We called them “Skype” classes as, more or less, that was the only app stable enough to support video conferences. The very combination of words “Skype” and “classes” soon attracted the very type of students we were looking to interest - professional, modern people in their thirties. It was a delight.

Our very beginnings had elements of guerilla-style marketing - we printed out flyers that looked like the Skype interface and in the chat were Q&A - all about the classes. Soon after that, English language lessons gained momentum (not only online classes, but we also gained corporate clients). At that point, we were still not ready to open a physical space as we didn’t strive for typical groups, teenagers, and children. We really enjoyed working with all the young professionals we encountered.

However, we did want to advance, and as we knew from the very beginning that we only wanted to teach English as a foreign language and Serbian to foreigners, the next logical step was to find more international students who wanted to learn Serbian online. It is not a widely spoken language, and we weren’t sure if there were foreigners interested in learning Serbian. I was really surprised with the outcome of our efforts - our students came from various backgrounds: those with ancestors from the Balkans, those with Serbian/Bosnian/Montenegrin/Croatian partners, people with a professional interest in the region, and those who moved to the region for various reasons. 

We contacted people and organisations from all over the world - the Serbian diaspora, universities, language schools, etc. We wanted to inform everyone of our existence. Then, we went locally, wrote to embassies, companies, and groups of foreigners living in Serbia. People were generally kind and inclusive, and, again, things soon took off. We started teaching in embassies, organised exchange students and published our first booklet for foreigners learning Serbian.

By 2013, it was clear that there was a demand for our services, that we had the right approach, and that we were ready to move on. In 2014, we opened a physical school, under the “e-word” brand. Managing a physical school meant giving more energy and investing more time. The focus was no longer on individual and corporate clients. We had to attract people to come to us and fill the classrooms. Before that, we were going to them - either by the power of the Internet, or to their office spaces. 

There were, and still are, many language schools in Belgrade, so the competition was tough. We wanted to stay true to our ideas but still manage financially. Instead of blending in, we decided to take a risk and be completely different and unconventional. e-word soon became a hub for freelancers during the day and a creative workshop centre in the evenings. We collaborated with the Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club and took on the task of managing their “Stranac Academy” short courses in English. These courses included workshops in art, languages, various skills, IT, etc. We also had great cooperation with the American Councils and covered the Serbian language teaching part of their activity. It meant that we could teach all of their exchange students. Besides these collaborations, we also had the usual offer of group classes both for children and adults, both in English and Serbian.

In 2015, my university friend decided to move back to her hometown in Montenegro. However, I was lucky enough to have met a colleague who would soon become my business partner. She managed the education and logistics of the classes while I managed branding and marketing. We shared everything else - from finances to shopping and cleaning. It was a match made in heaven.

In 2017, my husband got a job abroad and I decided to move with him. e-word continued to function as normal. My business partner managed the physical school and I continued doing all I could online. I also travelled back to Belgrade a lot, especially in summer when we had our exchange students onboard. Still, managing everything alone is never easy, and it became too much for my colleague as well, so in 2018 we switched back to working only online. We’ve made the full circle. 

I am happy to say that after almost ten years of its existence, e-word is now mature and thriving. We don’t have to do any marketing as we only rely on word of mouth. It is such a joy to be able to concentrate only on teaching. Of course, online classes are now more than acceptable, even preferable. We don’t have to explain any longer how things work, and we don’t have to use only Skype for people to learn Serbian online. 

About a year ago, I did some research into our beginnings back in 2011. I sought to find out if we were really the pioneers of our trade. I wanted to know exactly how early we had started as a purely online school. It filled me with pride when I discovered that “Iris” was the only completely online school in Serbia at that time. It was small (as it still is), but it was ahead of its time. 

The early days of e-word at Hilandarska Street, Belgrade

STEVE: One book really had an influence on my mindset with regard to learning and teaching languages - The Lexical Approach: The State of ELT and a Way Forward, by Michael Lewis. Looking back, were there any teachers, professors or books which had an impact on your approach to language learning and teaching?

IVANA: Of course. I remember  a guest lecturer who came into my university one day. It was an author of an ELT book who talked about styles of teaching. He said that there are usually two main factors that influence a teacher - a role model (our own teacher) or a method learned at university.

I belong to the first group. People inspire me. As you can imagine, I had a wonderful English language teacher in elementary school. Her explanations were simple and effective. Most importantly, she taught us about British culture, customs, and history.

Later on, especially at university, I was surrounded by inspiration. So many knowledgeable people eager to share everything with our young minds, it was all very inspiring. I believe that I was able to learn and form my teaching style from each one of them.

On the other hand, there has always been a handful of teachers/professors who just aren’t cut out for that calling. I think it is also important to learn from them and always remember what we don’t like in teaching, what doesn’t work.

In addition, adding something that’s just our own, a personal signature, is also important. That way, we can contribute and help the process evolve by, hopefully, inspiring someone else.


STEVE: Would you say your teaching style is the same for both the English and Serbian languages, or do structural and lexical differences between the languages call for a different approach?

IVANA: e-word constantly strives to seek out new and improved ways of teaching. We don’t believe in constantly using the traditional and repetitive methods of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. These methods are crucial in a way that they are the building blocks of practicing a new language. However, with these stable foundations, we can build up and play around with the design and layout of the “structure”.

Teaching different languages is quite similar. I would say that it’s the different personalities of our students that bring out the major differences in the teaching style that we implement. In order to learn something new, we need to listen carefully. Some students find that easy and some find it hard. It is the teacher’s job to find ways to explain a concept so that the student can hear and comprehend it.

In practice, we try to find each student’s personal interests and use that as our aid. Learning a language means that the very same language becomes both a tool and a goal. By using that logic, we can take advantage of that tool and tailor it to each student. Whether it is done in English, Serbian, or any other language for that matter, it doesn’t make much of a difference in our approach to teaching.


STEVE: Most native speakers of a language tend to say that the grammar of their own language is “not too difficult” to master. How objective are you when it comes to the difficulties associated with learning Serbian grammar?

IVANA: Just as Serbs sometimes find it hard to wrap their heads around the idea of a foreigner learning Serbian, I think they are also quite harsh when it comes to Serbian grammar. My fellow Serbs usually say that our grammar is too complex.

When Serbs learn English, they usually struggle a lot with spelling, articles, and tenses. These are real stumbling points that many cannot completely overcome. For foreigners learning Serbian, it is other aspects of grammar that give them headaches. Indeed, for those more versed in grammatical terminology, Serbian cases and verb aspects are notorious snags for foreigners.

My point is that every language has some grammatical bits that are difficult and some that are easy. It is also a matter of a person’s perspective. Namely, we judge a new language depending on our mother tongue and other foreign languages that we’ve learned.

To answer the question more directly - when parts of Serbian grammar are truly difficult, I always prepare the student by saying in advance when something requires more of their attention than usual. And then, we both sweat - when things become too complicated, it is hard for both sides!

Legendary linguist, Ivana Marinković 

STEVE: Do you try to gently acquaint your students with the Cyrillic alphabet, even if they’re primarily focused on speaking Serbian? Would you agree with the essence of this article - that Cyrillic is “on life support” but not dead yet?

IVANA: This is a very interesting question. The answer is an easy one when it comes to e-word’s approach towards our foreign students learning Cyrillic - we just ask them if they wish to learn it or not. This approach is not implemented in order for me or my colleagues to conform to students and keep them happy no matter the cost. Foreigners learning Serbian shouldn’t be bothered with the complexities that the Serbian language might be facing at any given time.

However, if we begin to consider whether Cyrillic is “on life support”, the topic becomes more complicated. To make it perfectly clear, I don’t think the Cyrillic script is “on life support”. Whether this view of mine is subjective or not, maybe only psychologists could say for sure. But I do have arguments that support this statement. The first argument is that schoolchildren learn Cyrillic as the primary script.  As a rule of thumb, all kids’ books are written in Cyrillic. So, the knowledge is there. Now the question is, how do people decide which script they prefer to use? The second major argument is that our nation is very traditional and not prone to changes. Even though the Latin script was introduced a couple of centuries ago, we are still struggling to process it. Indeed, we are still firmly clinging onto the Cyrillic script.

This topic is, in my opinion, better directed to politicians and psychologists than to philologists. People of my trade have no doubts about it - Serbian Cyrillic is the main script of the Serbian language.  Historically, it is the ONLY one. 

I am not competent to write about the political and psychological side of this topic. However, I would like to say that the Emerging Europe article in question is very interesting and tries to sum up a very complex topic. Hence, the task was not easy for the journalist, Nikola Đorđević. 

I would like to add a couple of footnotes to the article. 

  • “But Cyrillic is stubbornly refusing to give way, and is still used widely, at least in official government and municipality documents where it is was made mandatory by a 2005 law.” - I have a friend that often makes a joke that Google nurtures the Serbian Cyrillic script and the language itself (by translating the IT terminology to Serbian) better than the Serbian state (government).
  • “The Serbian script – Serbian Cyrillic – needs to be nurtured like all other heritage of Serbian culture. In our community, Cyrillic has a nearly thousand-year tradition and throughout history it has represented, along with religion, a cornerstone in the preservation of the Serbian national identity,” - Of course! Just like in England there are documents about 500-hundred-year-old doorknobs, just like the Irish language is nurtured, and Hebrew brought back to life, we have to take care of our own, even if it is just a relic (which it is not, yet).
  • “Some who consider themselves cosmopolitan and liberal opt to use only the Latin script.” - In theory, that sounds logical. In practice, it is quite the opposite. Cyrillic has become the script of the hipster population. So, many posh cafes and boutiques in central Belgrade or Novi Sad might have their brands written in Cyrillic. Also, those who are in the opposite box (not so much cosmopolitan and liberal) really, truly don’t use the Cyrillic script, at least not when writing online. They actually use what is in slang called “ošišana latinica” (the trimmed Latin script, so only the English alphabet, which does not have enough letters to support the Serbian language phonetics). It is exactly that kind of neglect and, maybe, laziness that we should be fighting against. So the real moral of this story is - we should, maybe, fight for literacy first, and then for the Cyrillic script.
  • “Today, Cyrillic doesn’t so much need ‘protection’ as positive discrimination. Protection itself needs to be understood as constant care about its state and modernisation. It wouldn’t do good to impose Cyrillic, it [the script] should be presented as something fully modern and functional,” Dr Sokolović says. - I couldn’t agree more. Just like the Scandinavian design has made it “cool” to use graphemes like “ö” and “ø” in branding, so should we (with the help of our downtown hipsters) make it “cool” to use “ж” or “љ”, for example.

And to sum up - yes, the Cyrillic script is in danger, but we have to understand that it is not because it is inferior in any way, quite the opposite, the letters “lj, nj, dž” in Latin don’t have any adequate graphemes. In Cyrillic, these letters are perfected - “љ, њ, џ”, so Cyrillic in its form is superior to Latin. The question is purely political and psychological. Once those issues have been resolved on a national level, the topic of the script will, in my opinion, resolve itself naturally.


STEVE: Are there many distinct dialects and accents in Serbia? What are some of the characteristic features of the Serbian spoken in your city, Belgrade?

IVANA: Many different dialects can be heard in Serbia. For example, in the north, people speak slowly and clearly (which is perfect for beginners). In the south, people tend to speak fast and not use all of the grammatical features of the language. This is not because they speak broken Serbian. It’s simply because of the influence of the Macedonian and Bulgarian languages. In Belgrade, you can hear many dialects and accents as it is a big city. In general, our speech is just a bit faster than in the north, and still grammatically quite correct.


LEARN SERBIAN ONLINE WITH E-WORD - WRAPPING UP

It was a pleasure to interview Ivana. So many good points to think about here.  I must say that it was useful to speak with Ivana in Serbian at the start as it got me used to a quite different accent. My wife is from Sarajevo so I was gaining lots of varied dialectal input.

As an improving learner of Serbian when I moved to Novi Sad in 2014, it was quite easy for me to understood people there. People from Novi Sad and other places in the northern Serbian region of Vojvodina do tend to speak slowly and prolong certain vowel sounds.

 As for cyrillic, it might well be time for me to give it the credit it deserves and read up on the history of the script. 

You may follow e-word in these online locations:

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNBeXeHmusX_X0TJeyQMdIQ?

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/eword.co/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/e.word.school/

e-word Blog: http://e-word.co/serbian-language-and-culture/

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