I walked up to the cashier with my ice cream bar in hand. “Okay, Harrison. You’ve done this before. You can make it through this interaction without being too embarrassing,” I thought to myself. I handed the caramel treat over to the stoic-faced lady working the cash register. She rang my item up, and I already had the 200 dinars I needed in my hand – almost threw it. And then she said something. Just a short simple phrase that probably resembled something such as ‘It’s a hot one today’. It was probably such a simple phrase, but I had no idea what she was saying. All I could do was laugh and indicate with my expression of confusion that I didn’t speak Serbian. She laughed in a good-hearted manner, and I continued on my way to enjoy my purchase. The interaction had been fine, but I could not shake the feeling I had experienced too often since coming to Serbia — that I was being rude. I am a guest, a visitor eager to learn about the people’s culture and lifestyle in this country, but I cannot even properly communicate.
The frequency with which you can find someone who speaks at least conversational English is astounding. My coworkers can hold a conversation with me about various paths I might take with my major. My host family can argue with each other on whether they’re being “too hospitable” (read: how out of shape can we make Harrison by serving him delicious food?) or not. Even waiters at authentic Serbian restaurants can understand our confusing jumble of orders whenever the group goes out. Yet, they all claim that their English is “poor” or “broken” or, in the case of one of my coworkers “6 years out of practice” (not using quotation marks because I don’t believe her; rather, I’m extremely envious that her English is this good after 6 years while I have virtually lost all my Spanish after 2 years).
Despite constantly underestimating their own English, all of these people practically applaud when I manage to say “hvala”, the Serbian word for “thank you,” properly. They happily quiz me on Serbian vocabulary I’ve picked up over the last three weeks, and everyone ranging from my host brother to bakery cashiers find my attempts at learning the language very flattering. This attitude sharply contrasts what I’ve found to be common in the United States- one of impatience toward the use of any language other than English and a feeling of inferiority if one’s English isn’t as good as another’s. I’m awestruck by the extent of what I refer to as my English privilege. I can go almost anywhere in the world and at least communicate a general message to someone because I am a native English speaker. It’s a privilege that I have taken for granted so far in my life.
This experience thus far has made me aware of how simply lucky I am to be native English speaker in today’s global community but also renews my desire to become more culturally and linguistically aware.