Bridging the Language Gap Between the Serbian and Albanian Communities

Interaction in their native languages between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo is increasingly falling because of the language barrier, with younger generations no longer learning each other’s language. But some are still trying to bridge this language gap.

At first, Serbian language was associated with violence in Genti Behramaj’s mind. “I was very scared of the cyrillic alphabet, because during the war my village, Kotorr [near Skenderaj], was burnt. When we came back, my house was still burning, with a lot of writings in cyrillic all over it ” remembers the 30 years old Kosovo-Albanian.

It took him some time to overcome his trauma. Later, he came to live in South Mitrovica. “That’s when I started to challenge myself, ” he says. An internship in Belgrade of 3 months and a volunteering programme in Brezovica offered him the possibility to live in Serbian families and start learning the language. He was then involved in a peace-building programme and the creation of a cultural center in Mitrovica called Social space for Deconstruction, SSD.

In his efforts to break the invisible barrier between both sides of the city, Genti has become a regular in the northern part. “I go to coffees, I order raki, I have conversations with the locals” describes the young man.

His Serbian is not perfect, but he can talk decently and understand most of it, which facilitates the interactions: “People are very friendly with me, and very curious. It starts from “where are you from” and then ends up in “everything.” Including sometimes the controversial topic: politics.

While older Kosovo-Albanians usually can speak Serbian, because they learned it at school during Yugoslavia, those who were born in the 90s and after, cannot usually speak it. The reason is quite simple: it is not taught anymore in public schools. Genti is one of the few examples of young Kosovars who still try to learn the language of the other side for ideological reasons.

Illustration for Prishtina Insight: Diellza Gojani

In Gjilan, where many different communities live together, Blend Bllaca wishes he could speak Serbian. Not only because his best friend is a Serb, but also because he thinks it would be a very valuable asset for him as a director of RARE, a local NGO promoting human rights and minority rights.

Blend notices that learning Serbian is not a widespread preoccupation among people his age: “It is only for peacebuilding activists. There is still nationalism among young people. They don’t want to learn or even understand the other’s language.”

The other motives that can drive people toward learning a language usually have to do with the job opportunities associated with it. To that regard, Serbian does not do as well as German or English.

In Prishtina, where several private language centers offer Serbo-Croatian classes, the few young learners are usually planning to study in other countries where it is spoken: “Most of those who take Serbian courses with us want to go study in Croatia” explains Arian Zaneli, teacher at the Academic Education Center in Prishtina.

This solution, though, is not affordable for everyone. It remains the alternative of courses offered by some NGOs. The International Organisation for Migrations, IOM, is one of the most active with regards to this topic. In the past, this NGO has organized special courses for public officials.

“Nowadays, most interactions between Serbs and Albanians are through shopping and public services. There is a lot of need for language courses in mixed municipalities” says Igor Rasic, project coordinator at IOM.

In 2019, the organization launched a public call for both Albanian and Serbian courses, to which a thousand citizens applied on a voluntary basis. A survey carried out afterwards showed that “Albanians mostly wanted to increase the job opportunities while for Serbians it was for better interactions”.

IOM is also trying to fill the gap in learning resources. The organization has created the first Serbian-Albanian digital dictionary. The last version of such a dictionary dated back to 1984.

Since 2018, IOM also lent its support to the creation of an online platform, VOCUP, designed for Albanian and Serbian speakers. The online platform was created by the NGO, Center for Social Initiatives, and supported by UNMIK, IOM and the British Embassy, and  has around 80.000 unique users and offers courses in both languages from A1 to C1. The C2 level is still in development, but is expected to be ready by March 2024.

The organization also got involved in 2021 in relaunching the Balkanistics department, which is the first programme that offers the possibility for students at the University of Prishtina to learn Serbian since the war. It focuses on the study of languages and cultures of the Western Balkans through a 4-years cursus.

The programme, though, is off to a rocky start which clearly illustrates the difficulties involved in promoting the teaching of Balkan languages in Kosovo. The lack of good language teachers is a recurrent issue. This situation is made worse by the administrative obstacles. The Serbian teacher from Belgrade recruited cannot be granted a full time place since her diplomas are not recognized in Kosovo.

On the other hand, no more students from the first generation are still attending the courses, while in the second generation, there are only 4 out of the 15 who registered at the beginning. “I think that many had no clue what Balkanistics is. They just came because it was free” says Lindita Rugova, dean of the Faculty of Philology. Many of them also found jobs in the meantime.

The University of Prishtina is planning on creating a line of scholarships, to make the program more attractive.

Suzana Maric Sejdija, a first year student in this programme who works in a peace-building organization in Prishtina at the same time, thinks that a lot of things should be improved. For example, the Albanian language professor at the University does not speak good English, and Suzana has to take up private classes in addition to the university courses.

Because high school diplomas from the Serbian parallel system are not recognized by Kosovo’s state, the Balkanistics programme cannot welcome Kosovo Serbs. “But I, a Serb from Serbia, was able to apply, which makes no sense. I know some young Kosovo Serbs who were interested,” points out Suzana.

The only remaining alternative for Kosovo Serbs is often to move to the University of North Mitrovica or in Serbia for studies. Learning Albanian there is neither a common or an easy thing. Dimitrije Obrenovic and Andrea Todic, two 25 year-old Serbs from Serbia studying in North Mitrovica, can now understand it a bit thanks to the Albanian friends they made in the South.

But they are always cautious when they speak Serbian in an Albanian-majority area. In the bus for example, they would only speak English: “We are afraid that it might trigger something we don’t want to trigger” explains Dimitrije. In many cases, this fear proves to be unjustified. Older Albanian people are often happy to speak Serbian with them.

In Serbia, the Albanian language is not popular, but it is possible to learn it at the University of Belgrade. Tomislav Lulzim Perusic was one of the students in Albanology a few years ago.

“My generation broke the record with 15 students registering in 2015, because these were the years when the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia looked promising and people thought there would be jobs.”

He testifies that learning Albanian in Serbia is often a sign of open-mindedness: “Whoever studies Albanian either has less or no prejudices at all,” thinks Tomislav. The latter turned out to be only one in his generation of students to show a true desire to study further Albanology, and went to Tirana for his master’s degree. He now lives in Prishtina and is one of the few translators of his age for Albanian-Serbian.

Eddie RABEYRIN is an intern journalist at Prishtina Insight. After working for several years in the French local press, he resumed studies to do a Master’s degree in international relations at the University of Strasbourg, France.

The article was edited on July 12, to include UNMIK and the British Embassy as financial supporters of the online platform VOCUP.

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