Aid Kelmendi has had an interest in the Serbian language since early childhood.
While the reason behind that interest has shifted as he’s grown older, his original desire to learn Serbian didn’t stem from perceived economic benefit or a desire to make cross-cultural connections. It was the result of basic childhood curiosity.
“Serbian was the language my parents used when they wanted to hide something from us,” says Kelmendi, now a 22-year-old video editor living in Prishtina.
For his parents’ generation, learning Serbian wasn’t just a curiosity, it was essential for getting by, and it began at an early age. Although Albanians made up around 90 percent of Kosovo’s population, Serbian was the official language of the state in which they grew up, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and was a compulsory subject for all children from elementary school onward, even in Albanian-language schools.
Kelmendi’s parents would later complete their university education in Serbo-Croatian, his mother studying teaching in Montenegro and his father studying music teaching in Zagreb, Croatia. Their story was a common one for Kosovar Albanians wanting to continue their education in Yugoslavia, particularly before the University of Prishtina opened its doors in 1970, making it possible to complete university studies in the Albanian language.
“I want to break the mentality that the Serbian language is a taboo among Albanians.” Aid Kelmendi
But as Yugoslavia began to break up during the ’90s, ethnic segregation emerged in all areas of life; Kosovar Albanians were largely expelled from state institutions including schools and universities as part of violent oppression by the Serbian regime led by Slobodan Milošević, leading to a knowledge gap between younger generations and that of Kelmendi’s parents. As part of the resistance, Kosovar Albanians established their own parallel education system in basements and houses, operating solely in the Albanian language and language became a symbol of resistance and division.
Born in 1996, by the time Kelmendi began attending school, the war was over, Milošević’s regime had been forced to withdraw from Kosovo, and Albanian had become the predominant language used in public life, including in the education system. Almost three decades after the enforced segregation of the early ’90s, and almost two decades since the end of the war, the Serbian language remains an official language in Kosovo, but its day-to-day use is largely limited to those municipalities with a Serb majority population; Serbian has never returned to Kosovo’s core curriculum, just as the Albanian language is not taught in Kosovo’s Serb schools.
Now, as a young adult, Kelmendi is one of a growing number of young Albanians and Serbs taking steps to learn each other’s language.
While his efforts hold greater significance now than they did as a child, at their foundation remains a simple desire to increase access to information and to strengthen connection between Serbs and Albanians by overcoming the language barrier that has served as a point of conflict for more than 20 years.
“When we speak each other’s language it means that we respect each other’s culture, tradition and customs,” says Kelmendi, who began taking formal Serbian lessons two years ago through a private course. “I want to break the mentality that the Serbian language is a taboo among Albanians.”
Aid Kelmendi says that his very first urge to learn Serbian came from wanting to understand what his parents were saying when they were trying to hide something from the children. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
He adds that since he’s begun learning the language, he’s tried to incorporate Serbian words into conversation with friends, saying that doing so helps to counter a negative stigma that has been associated with the language in the past, and acts as a step toward creating an environment in which Serbs and Albanians can “all move and talk freely.”
His favorite word, so far? Živeli (meaning ‘long life’ and ‘cheers’).
While he may still be in a minority, Kelmendi is far from the only young Kosovar Albanian learning the Serbian language. Filloreta Hoxha from the private language school Prishtina School of Language says that despite interest in learning the Serbian language being far from overwhelming, in recent years the take-up of Serbian classes has increased.
Hoxha says that the average age of those who want to learn Serbian is between 20 and 30 years old. “Young people who come to learn Serbian usually need it for work, whether in public institutions or in the private sector, but we have also had journalists from different media, especially print media,” she says, adding that many of their attendees see knowledge of Serbian language as an advantage for a better job in the future, given that Serbian is an official language in Kosovo.
Language, identity and reconciliation
During different periods throughout history, Serbs and Albanians have adopted many elements of each other’s cultures, language included. But with the suppression of Kosovar Albanians in the ’90s, language became a clear delineator.
As Marija Mandić and Ana Sivački from the Faculty of Philology at the University of Belgrade argue in a study on the presence of Albanians in Belgrade, language is one of the most important collective identity markers. Therefore, from an ethnic political conflict perspective, because of its connection to identity, language can contribute to the development of conflicts, in terms of one group attempting to suppress its use by another.
But is it possible, in more recent years, that language could instead contribute to peace?
Stefan Filipović is a 25-year-old civil society activist who resides near Prishtina. An ethnic Serb, Filipović has started learning Albanian, but says he’s still a beginner.
“My first contact with the Albanian language was through an internship project in the Municipality of Gračanica established by the [local governance NGO] Center for Peace and Tolerance,” Filipović says. “That was a formal language course, but now I’m learning every day through work.”
Stefan Filipović stresses the importance of Serbs and Albanians learning each other’s languages to aid everyday communication and to create better relations between ordinary citizens. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
In the past, with Serbo-Croatian having been the language of Yugoslavia and Albanian having been a minority language within the larger Federation, Kosovar Albanians necessarily knew Serbian, whereas Serbs were much less likely to learn Albanian.
But Filipović says that he can’t stress enough how important it is for Serbs and Albanians to both work to learn each other’s language.
“We could spend the whole day listing reasons that it’s important, and still not to be able to finish the list,” Filipović says. “Everyday communication is key for creating better relations between ordinary citizens, and could help to open the urban centers of Kosovo to the Serb community much more than they are now.”
Filipović added that it’s not easy to live with everyday tension between Belgrade and Prishtina without having a tool to impact change.
“Maybe language could be that tool,” he says.
“Without communication, cooperation is not possible. We have the same issues, the same needs, we should be united and communicate them with each other.” Manuela Petrović
Like Filipović, Manuela Petrović first began learning Albanian through work.
“I started learning Albanian by being in contact with young people speaking Albanian through summer camps, work and studies,” says Petrović, who is from Macedonia but has been living in Prishtina since 2003. “I never felt that I should be closed off to other communities and not be interested in communicating with Albanians.”
Petrović says that the more languages a person speaks, the more valuable they become.
Having graduated with a degree in public service management, Petrović knew she would likely be working in public institutions and she says she wanted to be able to meet the needs of all citizens. Speaking their language, says Petrović, was necessary to fully doing so, and so she attended a free Albanian course organized by the Municipality of Fushë Kosovë for three months while completing her internship.
“Without communication, cooperation is not possible,” Petrović says. “We have the same issues, the same needs, we should be united and communicate them with each other.”
Ivana Stevanović began learning Albanian through listening to music and watching films in the Albanian language. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
Ivana Stevanović, who is from Serbia but currently living in Prishtina and working as a librarian, echoes that. Unlike Filipović and Petrović, Stevanović started learning Albanian through music, films and, later, Albanian speaking friends and colleagues. “I combined that with reading news to get a better and faster understanding of the grammar,” she says.
Stevanović hopes that if more Serbs and Albanians make an effort to learn the other’s language, they’ll begin to reflect on “so-called differences,” which she believes to be “historically pushed onto all of us as constructs of public discourse.”
“There is basically no difference between us — we have the same hopes, dreams and daily struggles,” says Stevanović, adding that it is only when people find common ground with those who they perceive as “the other,” that the mindset of “us vs. them” can shift.
And it’s not just conversation that will lead to that change. It’s a greater level of cross-cultural media literacy, too.
“Since I constantly follow Kosovo-Serbia political developments, it’s very important for me to understand the Serbian language without mediation or translation.” Gresë Sermaxhaj, journalist
Gresë Sermaxhaj, a young Albanian journalist from Gjilan, but working in Prishtina, has begun learning the Serbian language so she can read news from a variety of perspectives without being limited by language.
“Since I constantly follow Kosovo-Serbia political developments, it’s very important for me to understand the Serbian language without mediation or translation,” Sermaxhaj says. “My interest in the Serbian language is both a need and desire — the need to be more informed, and the desire to know the culture of neighbors beyond, that which is limited by the barriers that lie between us.”
Sermaxhaj says that for younger generations, learning Serbian means moving in the direction of interethnic reconciliation. “Language is the first step toward knowledge exchange,” says Sermaxhaj, whose favorite word in the Serbian language is mir (peace).
In nextdoor Albania, Tirana-based anthropologist Armanda Kodra Hysa’s fascination with Albanian-Serbian relations, and particularly studying interethnic marriages, also led her to learning Serbian. She says that she started learning the language as a strategic choice to aid her research as an ethnographer, as it allowed her access to material from across all former Yugoslav states.
“To deal with traditional culture means that you need at least one Balkan language to compare relevant literature, but also to find source material,” she says.
However, finding a Serbian language course in Albania proved impossible. After following a long trail of contacts, from the Serbian Embassy to the universities, Hysa eventually found a Montenegrin-Albanian private teacher to help her learn, complementing her lessons with watching Serbian language media and making friends with Serbian speakers on Facebook.
Increased interest met with lack of opportunity
Organized opportunities for Albanians and Serbs to learn each others’ languages are hardly widespread in Kosovo either, despite both Albanian and Serbian being official languages.
For civil society activist Filipović, it’s work, not formal classes, that has served as his primary means for learning Albanian. His job takes him all over Kosovo and as a result he learns through everyday conversation and from listening to the radio while he travels.
“Music can be very interesting,” says Filipović, who says that there have been limited opportunities provided to Serbs in Kosovo to learn Albanian.
For that, Filipović is critical of the government in Kosovo, which he believes could be doing more to create better conditions for Serbs in Kosovo to learn the Albanian language.
Librarian Stevanović says that her experience has mirrored that, adding that the Albanian language should be listed as an option for pupils studying in Serb schools. Currently, it is not, since most Serb schools in Kosovo don’t follow the Kosovo curriculum but the one set by Belgrade.
Jana Minochkina, a youth focal point and political affairs officer for the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), confirmed that while she’s noticed a heightened interest in learning Albanian from Serb youth, very few opportunities for Serbs to take Albanian language classes actually exist.
Jana Minochkina, a youth focal point at UNMIK, says that she has noticed more and more interest from young Albanians and Serbs to learn each other’s languages. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
“No matter what the political situation is, [Serbs and Albanians] will be living next to each other. There’s more and more interest among them to learn the Albanian language [because of that],” Minochkina says. “The group that I’m coordinating, Youth Task Force, is a group of young leaders who come from different communities and this year we’ll try to find an opportunity to cover Albanian and Serbian languages for them.”
Minochkina, from Russia, is no stranger to the challenge of learning Serbian and Albanian. Having lived in the Balkans for seven years working in peace building, it was important for her to learn both languages. Like many of the young Serbs and Albanians interested in learning, today, she is primarily self taught.
“I started learning Albanian when I was in Albania in 2013, so it has been quite a while,” Minochkina says. “When I go anywhere, I try to learn at least some basic words because language is something that helps you to understand the culture and tradition of the people. I learned the Albanian language through meeting people and without any formal education in this respect.”
Albanian Culture Club opens door in Belgrade
Over the border in Serbia, there is also a small but gradually increasing number of people looking to learn Albanian.
One route is through the Albanian Language Department in the Philology Faculty at the University of Belgrade. The foundations of Albanian studies at the University of Belgrade were laid as far back as 1925 when Dr. Henrik Barić, a prominent Albanologist of the time, established an Albanian language seminar at the university. A dedicated department within the Faculty of Philology was opened in 1960, initially as the Department for Albanian Language and Literature before later becoming the Department of Albanian Language, Literature and Culture.
The department remains small compared to others in the Faculty of Philology, with just 10 students beginning their studies annually. As part of the course, the Serbian students studying Albanian visit Prishtina every year.
Naile Mala, a professor at the Albanian Language Department says that the department has certainly grown in recent years, but in order to see a more notable indication that interest in the Albanian language among young Serbs is increasing, one must turn attention away from the traditional academic program and look to participation in an independent cultural association.
The Albanian Cultural Club was established in 2016 for the purpose of strengthening Albanian culture and language in Belgrade. An Albanian language course was opened through the club earlier this year and, according to Mala, the response has been encouraging.
“We opened a course for the Albanian language and 50 young Serbs immediately enrolled,” she says. “What has impressed me is that most of them are not philologists, but come from natural science studies.”
“They want to learn the truth and not rely solely on what is served to them.” Naile Mala, Albanian language professor
Mala points out that half of the participants of the course are members of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), an NGO active throughout the region that works in building connections between young people across the Balkans. The initiative’s exchange programs are often the first opportunity for young people from Serbia and Kosovo to visit each other’s countries.
Mala says that many of the students involved in the Albanian language club are motivated by the desire to read news from multiple sources; they want to learn the truth and not rely solely on what is served to them.
“Many of these young people openly and proudly write on Facebook that they are very happy that they are learning Albanian,” she says, before pointing out a lack of financial assistance. “Unfortunately, we do not find support from the Serbian state.”
Support from Albania and Kosovo isn’t much better, she says.
“Prishtina and Tirana are forgetting that while it’s easy to embrace Albanian culture in Prishtina and Tirana, it is difficult to do something like that in Belgrade due to the continuous rise of nationalist elements,” says Mala, noting that the club is looking to get support from foreign foundations in order to sustain itself.
A vicious cycle
While the momentum and opportunity at the University of Belgrade is encouraging, back in Prishtina, the situation for Albanians hoping to learn Serbian is more grim.
Lindita Rugova, the dean of the Philology Faculty at the University of Prishtina, says that the university has a history of taking steps to offer Serbian courses, only to have the programs cut short.
According to Rugova, the Department of Serbo-Croatian Language and Yugoslav Literature started in parallel with the Albanian Language and Literature Department in the 1960-61 academic year, as part of the Faculty of Philosophy, and in 1989 it became part of the newly established Philology Faculty.
“After [Kosovar Albanians were] forcefully expelled from the university facilities [in the early ’90s] and the development of the parallel university system, it ceased to function as a result of very little interest in this language,” Rugova says.
In 2015, a four-year Balkan Studies BA program was accredited for a new generation of students. The program offered courses in the Albanian language, alongside a Balkan language chosen from one of the Slavic languages of the former Yugoslavia, known as BSCM languages (Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian and Montenegrin).
“This project was initiated by the professors of the Albanian Language Department and the first generation of students was registered in this program,” Rugova says. “When we applied for re-accreditation, the external accreditation experts gave a positive assessment for repeating the course in 2016.”
But despite the positive report, the program has yet to be re-accredited due to a lack of staff, and the absence of accreditation by the Kosovo Accreditation Agency — the independent body responsible for guaranteeing the quality of Higher Education Institutions in Kosovo — led to the discontinuation of the program in the 2016-17 academic year.
“The Balkan Studies program has remained in a vicious cycle." Lindita Rugova, dean of the Philology Faculty at the University of Prishtina
In 2018, Rugova says another attempt to bring Serbian language courses to the University of Prishtina was made, when the Faculty asked to receive new staff to help revitalize the program in order to re-functionalize it. But because the program had still not gained re-accreditation, it was legally impossible to announce a vacancy.
“The Balkan Studies program has remained in a vicious cycle because without the program bearer [academic staff specifically for this program], it can’t be re-accredited and, on the other side, without being accredited, there can’t be a vacancy announcement for academic staff,” Rugova says.
According to Rugova, other attempts to make Serbian courses possible have been made, including potential collaboration with the Philology Faculty at the University of Belgrade, but she says that when they officially asked the university in Serbia to send professors, they did not receive an official answer.
Despite repeated efforts and obstacles, the Faculty at the University of Prishtina has not sat idly by, and Rugova says that she is hopeful courses will be offered in the future.
“Seeing this interest from students for regional Slavic languages, the Faculty of Philology initiated a request for an inter-university cooperation with Zagreb and we agreed to have a mutual lectorat — the Albanian language to be taught in Zagreb and Croatian in Prishtina,” says the dean, adding that in the first week that this class was offered earlier this year, more than 50 students expressed a desire to attend.
There’s no doubt that the number of young people trying to learn their neighbor’s language is still small in this part of the Balkans. But, having lived alongside each other for centuries, exchanging songs and cuisine, fairy tales and legends, some Serbs and Albanians are beginning to resuscitate the interest in learning more about the culture and language of their neighbors. K
Edited by Lauren Peace and Jack Butcher.
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.