November 14, 2019 - Steve Arrick has been Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy Podgorica since June 2019. Helen Reynolds-Brown spoke to him and his partner Meriem about their experiences learning Montenegrin, and how it has helped them since their arrival in the city.
TMN: How were you prepared in terms of the language, before you arrived?
Steve: I was quite fortunate because in the summer of 2018, I went on a short course organised by the Montenegrin Ministry of Foreign Affairs that included regional and cultural activities, as well as language.
Meriem: To be honest, I didn’t know much about Montenegro before Steve got the job, but then I found out that it had been part of Yugoslavia, and also found out a bit about the local language. I also managed to get free language lessons through the UK Foreign Office before we came here.
Steve: Generally, for us, there are ten months of training in London, and then one-month immersion. We want to do this in Montenegro, but as we don’t have many diplomats here, we tend to do it in the region instead. I spent two weeks in Banja Luka and two weeks in Mostar living with families.
TMN: Do either of you have a language background?
Meriem: I am Algerian, and speak Arabic and some French. China, where we lived for six years, was the first completely foreign country where I was forced to learn a language. After China, nothing is as scary. People here speak great English. China was very different from that, and you were basically stuck if you didn’t speak any Mandarin. We got pretty good over the six years we were there.
Steve: Before I transferred to the Foreign Office, I had school-level French. Mandarin was the first language I took to a decent level. The Foreign Office has “language slots” and “non-language slots”. Both here and China for me were language slots, but even for non-language posts, there is some optional language training provided.
TMN: So how much do you use your Montenegrin here in Podgorica both personally, and professionally?
Steve: I use my language every day, but not as much as I’d like to. I’ll often introduce myself in meetings, but I’d like to be able to make all my speeches in the local language. In a personal capacity, we use the language every day in restaurants and shops, so it’s super-useful. I’ve never found that people feel pushed to switch to English with us, but I’m not quite pushy enough myself to insist they speak their language to us either. People are always pleased to hear you’re learning their language, even when you make mistakes.
Meriem: I’m a teacher of English as a second language in an international school, which is what I did in China. I don’t use the local language at work at all, as we all speak English, however, I do use it a lot in taxis and shops. I’ve only had one or two instances when people have got frustrated with the speed of the conversation, but other than that people are really understanding. We’re also trying to keep up with the Mandarin, which we speak with some friends who are still in China.
Steve: I think the Mandarin was something that we were worried about losing. I had grand plans of signing up for weekly lessons, but I haven’t got round to that yet!
TMN: What do you find most difficult about learning the language?
Steve: It’s the grammar for me. Even in school, that was the part that I didn’t really like about languages. With Chinese, there is some grammar, but not very much. So when you start a Slavic language, well, there’s a lot of it! Cases (padeži) are the worst. Our press officer told me he frequently questions himself if he got it right, so I know it’s not just me!
Meriem: I would say the grammar as well. I try to get it right, and end up spending more time thinking than actually speaking. By the time I’ve worked out what I want to say, people are like, “Look, we’ve already figured out what you want…!”
TMN: Have you had any proud moments learning the language?
Meriem: Well, I’m taking my driving theory test in Montenegrin, which is a challenge! I do evening classes, and the teacher doesn’t speak any English. I did a sample test recently, and I did pretty well on it, so I felt very proud of myself! It’s that immersion style of learning, and you just have to get on with it.
Steve: I hadn’t had anything as impressive as that, although a couple of days ago, one of our local members of staff from Tirana took me for a local here when I spoke the language. That felt good, but my local colleagues found it hilarious! You get the odd moments like that, and it feels like the effort’s paying off.
TMN: What, in your opinion, is the general impression of the UK and the British here?
Steve: It seems very positive. People seem to have a lot of respect for British history and culture and there’s generally a very positive image of what the UK does here, which I’m sure is in part because of the work of the Ambassador and her predecessors.
TMN: And do people ask you about your background, Meriem?
Meriem: Yes, because a lot of my colleagues had never met an Algerian before. I was pleasantly surprised, people know more about Algeria than I expected. From what I know, our previous president Boumediene was very good friends with Tito and that’s one of the reasons. A lot of the small cultural things are also similar. I don’t know whether it’s a Mediterranean thing, but there are lots of everyday things that remind me of Algeria.
TMN: How much of Montenegro have you managed to visit together since you arrived here in June?
Steve: We’ve done quite a bit, but there’s still a fair list of things we’d like to see. We’ve been on road trips over the summer, to the coast, and then up into the national parks, but many places we've only visited for a day. I’m keen to try the skiing here, but we’ll see how the winter goes (looks at the rain outside).
Steve and Meriem have very much enjoyed their time in Montenegro so far, and are looking forward to what more the country, and the language, have in store for them.