Life in Slovenia

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Week of 7 November

We both have been sick with a sore throat, cough and fever this week. Every Slovene we know has this fall virus so we decided to assimilate to be just like them. Actually I think we let our guard down when we came back from London. It was so comfortable to communicate even casually in our own language that we both felt a little depressed returning to “Struggle to make a sentence” land. I lost some of my positive perspective and allowed the germ of doubt to creep in. And when that germ is through the door the little bugger holds it open for every errant virus to take up habitation. So I am pretty determined to wear the cloak of positive energy all the time, because I know that the struggles will pass. Our language skills can only get better [believe me there is no way they can get worse] and we will begin to connect with more people now that they are getting to know us. And one of these days we will be able to read the labels on products we want to buy.

We went to the pharmacy to buy some vitamin C tablets. All of the medicines were behind the counter [even the over the counter are behind the counter] and as we stood in line contemplating the difficulty of requesting medicines without our dictionary, a line was forming behind us. There on the counter were cylinders of vitamins for children with a bright yellow Vitamin C label on one. This was easy. Bob picked up the vitamins neatly priced and with almost no communication skills needed. We bought the vitamins and were on our way. We walked home on this brilliant blue day and he opened the vitamins and gallantly offered me one. They are round and chalky and seemed kind of large for children, about the size of a $.50 piece, but we popped them in our mouths anticipating instant healing. The tablet started to fizz and explode in my mouth, frothing and sparking. The flavor was vitamin C’ish, but the sense of effervescence was unexpected and unbearable. We tried to let the entire tablet dissolve in our mouths, but as we passed a potted plant we both gagged the thing out. When we got home and finally read the label with dictionary in hand, it said to dissolve the tablet in a class of water to create a fizzy vitamin C drink. It was like sucking on an Alka Seltzer tablet.

Every time I start to feel sorry for myself for my pathetic language skills I think of the woman who sits next to me in Italian class. I think she is a Muslim woman from Bosnia. She seems to speak Italian with some confidence, but when we have assignments that involve reading she doesn’t do them. This week the assignment was to write a description of someone in our family. I began describing my husband Bob who is tall, thin with gray curly hair and a long nose, when I noticed that she was copying what I wrote. Her writing was reminiscent of 5-year-old Aaron trying to draw the letters without any understanding of how they are used. Each letter was formed with slow difficult strokes after glancing between each movement at my words. Bosnian uses the Cyrillic alphabet and she may be struggling with a new alphabet, but my instinct tells me that she is not only coping with a new world, a new culture, a new language, a new alphabet, but she is also learning to read and write for the first time. I am always overwhelmed and amazed by the determination of people to create a better life for their family, and what they are willing to give up for that dream.

This week was the best week Bob has had at school. He had a number of classes alone without the co-teachers, and he was able to find the “zone” of his unique classroom style. He has honed his style these past 30 years but here he has not been able to get into full Raplenovich dramatic presentation mode when the responsibility of the classroom lies with someone else. It is his nature to be very organized, teach subjects in sequence, provide the students with a wide range of varied opportunities to demonstrate their skill, assess their skills regularly and have a personal energized relationship with his students. None of these things are regular criteria for many of his colleagues. He has not been enlightened with the scope and sequence, provided with curricular guidelines or involved in departmental planning sessions [they are all held in Slovenian, and his ability to order dinner and ask for the receipt is not pertinent to these discussions]. . When he tells the teachers the number of graded assignments he had each grading period in Ashland their immediate reaction is “That is too much work!” The teachers do not assume the parental role of being responsible for the student’s learning, but they do have conferences together with both the parents and the students every trimester. The approach is more like our university system and although Bob is struggling with wanting to be more involved in the guarantee that the students learn the material, they seem to learn it as needed and are surprisingly knowledgeable and articulate.

Because of our experience with enlightened exchange students he was certain that he would find a more effective design for instruction in European schools. Instead he finds that students are given graded assignment and tests once every trimester [12 weeks]. Students are given homework, but no one checks or grades the work. The assignments are mostly “fill-in-the-gap” with words provided and a key in the back of the book. The students are seldom asked to create writings without very specific guidelines and they are proficient in copying the work belonging to their friends. The teachers do not seem to have a master plan, or they haven’t shared it with him. One teacher who was absent from classes this week gave him lesson materials that he had covered in the same manner with the same students a couple weeks ago. H e found himself without a sense of direction but went to the classes wearing his improvisation mask and engaged the students in some enlightening dialogues. Like all that we are doing, his experience in school is keeping him challenged and interested and working hard to figure it all out.

I have begun working with a math teacher at Bob’s school on my Slovenian [not on math!!!]. From the first meeting I liked Irina and felt a connection with her. She speaks multiple languages and is happy to help me with Slovene if I help her with singing. Everyone tells us with a certain amount of pride that Slovenian is a very difficult language. I wonder if the difficulty of their language is the reason they are able to learn other languages so easily. It seems to me that the language we learn as our native tongue effects the development of the dendrites in the brain and the way our articulators form the words. As we learn the structure of a language the brain has to wrap itself around the complexities of communication. If one is learning Slovenian, and needs to know how to use the appropriate ending and placement of each word based on the masculine, feminine or neuter gender, the nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, locative and instrumental case, and how to use it in singular, plural and dual, then the calisthenics of this brain is different than mine. As an example: Robert is a teacher. Robert je profesor. But Kay loves Robert. Kay ljubi Roberta. The [a] on the end of Robert is because he is the object of my affection and not the subject, and even though all feminine names in Slovenian end in [a] when a male name is an object the last vowel is [a] and when a feminine name that naturally ends in an [a] is the object the [a] is changed to an [o]. In other words I can have this language wrong in a multitude of combinations!

There is a real movement to protect the uniqueness of this language from the invasive words from other languages. The people on this border town naturally have Italian influences, but English words are also creeping into their daily conversation in strange ways. The influence of the monoculture of our world for the youth is going to make it more and more difficult for this small county, with only 2 million people who speak the language, to hold on to, not only their culture, but their language too.