How to Start Learning a New Language when Playing Abroad

One of the many challenges (but also beautiful aspects) of playing in a foreign country is learning a different language. Never would I have imagined that I would be learning Serbian in my lifetime, but here I am now with a Serbian vocabulary of about 500 words and slowly starting to piece together small sentences!

As a professional player, learning how to communicate on the field is the first priority and is completely necessary in order to quickly adapt to a new team. If you cannot communicate with your teammates/coaches or understand what they are saying, then your playtime and overall experience are at risk. The first couple of weeks of playing in a new country are very intimidating because you must adapt to a new country, style of play, team culture, and completely different language. You really have to go in with an open mind, willingness to learn, and a positive attitude.

I have been so fortunate that most people in the world speak English, but even with that, it is necessary to learn the basics of the country’s language. Learning at least the basics will help you on and off the field, and make the new country feel more at home. In addition, people really appreciate you trying to speak their countries’ native language. Just trying shows that you care and want to make an effort. People really respect that and in my experience, it has helped me form deeper connections with people even if we cannot fully understand each other.

In Serbia, half my teammates speak English, while the other half do not. Being in this environment has pushed me outside my comfort zone. I’ll be honest, I can barely speak Serbian but I know enough that I am able to communicate on the field, understand the general idea of what my coaches/teammates are saying, and get by while living and traveling in Serbia (like communicating with the taxi drivers, ordering at restaurants, day to day interactions etc…).

So in the post, I will be sharing how I’ve started learning Serbian and the order in which I did so. I’ll also be giving tips and resource tools for what has helped me learn Serbian on and off the field! I hope this helps any athletes who are interested in playing overseas gain a better idea of what is important to learn first and make learning a new language seem a little less intimidating.

Willingness and Wanting to learn: this is the first thing you must have in order to learn a new language. You have to put in the work, a new language is not going to come to you without trying. Not being afraid to make mistakes or sound funny is also key.

Greetings/Basics: Learning how to say: hello, goodbye, how are you?, please, thank you, I don’t speak _(insert language)__, and do you speak English?. These are the most important and most used words/phrases you will use every day, on and off the field. Dialing down how to say these before you leave for your trip is really helpful and easy. These words/phrases just take a quick google search!

Futbol Commands: My first week of training I learned the basic commands on the field: left, right, man-on, alone/time, up, and down. These are the words I decided to learn first because as a central defender, I use them the most. However, depending on your position and team, you will have to figure it out for yourself. Phrases and words used on the field are tricky because they are impossible to google beforehand because each country has its own lingo. For example, to tell your teammate there is an opposing player near them, “man-on” is said in the U.S., while in Spain they say “cuidado”, meaning careful, and in Serbia, they say “leda”, which translates to back.

To learn these words, I asked my teammates and coaches to type them into a notes page on my phone. Next to the Serbian word and its English translation, I spelled it the way it sounded to me because the Serbian alphabet and pronunciations are very different than English. Being observant and paying close attention to what your teammates and coaches are saying is super important. Throughout the weeks of playing, I started catching on to more words and phrases my teammates/coaches were saying, so I had my teammates also write those down for me and practiced them.

Alphabet: Learning the alphabet and correctly pronouncing its letters is an important step in learning the language because that allows you to be able to read and sound words out. The Serbian language uses 2 alphabets equally: Cyrillic and Latin. I have figured out the Latin alphabet, but not the Cyrillic. In my own notebook, I made 3 columns and wrote down the Latin alphabet letters in one column, in the next column I wrote how they sounded in English, and in the last column, I wrote a Serbian word that used that letter (and it’s meaning). I looked over this a couple times a week, practicing the sounds aloud until I finally got it down. Once I was able to learn the Latin alphabet, it gave me a great base to learn more and at a faster rate.

Cussing: Curse words are always something that people are excited to teach you lol! I wouldn’t say they are necessary to know, and it wasn’t my plan to learn these first, but it’s part of the experience! One of the first things new Serbian people ask me when I tell them I live here is, “do you know Serbian curse words?”. And they always get a lot of enjoyment out of hearing me saying all the cuss words I’ve learned. So cursing is something I learned very early on and have the pleasure of understanding. Hearing it on the streets and on the field gives me a greater idea of everyone’s true emotions! So, I’m going to end this section by saying… Piška ti materina <3.

Numbers, Colors, Days of the Week: learning these topics is crucial for playing and navigating the world. On the pitch, numbers, colors, and days of the week are used every day to describe practice drills, communicate who’s number you’re marking, give important information for schedules (games/practice times), … the list goes on. Of course, if you do not understand, coaches and teammates will translate for you. But it makes life easier and the practice flow smoother if you do learn these. What helped me learn these was breaking them up in sections by weeks to slowly learn them. So the first week I memorized the numbers, the next week I learned colors, and the following week I learned the days of the week.

Food: Learning the foods in Serbian has been one of my favorite parts of learning the language! Being able to read a menu and know what I’m actually ordering is so empowering. Food is one of my favorite things in the world and a huge part of the Serbian culture, so being able to be a part of a conversation surrounding food has been important to me. I also spend most of my meals with my teammates so asking them what traditional foods we are eating has been a good way for me to connect with my teammates who do not speak English.

Small words and Question starters: And, but, or, good, bad… and Who, What, Where, When, How, Why?: to start piecing together what people are saying or very simply ask a question, these are the necessary basics. It’s super helpful because you can point to something and simply say Šta? (“what” in Serbian) and begin communicating that way.

17 Minute Language: Once I had a base of the language, I decided I needed a little more help in order to continue learning Serbian. The unfortunate thing about the Serbian language is that most of the free apps, like Duolingo, do not have Serbian. So I had to look elsewhere for help. I found an online website called “17 Minute Language” which is essentially like a more advanced Duolingo that has about 100 different languages you can learn from it. You do the course on your own time and schedule and its catch is if you practice just “17 minutes a day” you can become conversationally fluent in your desired language in a few months. It’s not free, but I decided it was worth it to buy the course. I actually bought access to all of the language courses the site offers which gave me access to every language course, from French to Albanian, whenever I want for the next 10 years. I thought it was a good investment because who knows where I’ll be next few years and what language I’ll need to start learning. So the next bullet points are what I have learned through the help of this online platform.

  • Verbs: In Serbian, you have to conjugate each verb like in Spanish. So, it takes a while to learn these and get the hang of them. The course started with the most basic verbs of “to be”, “to go”, and “to have”, and how to conjugate them.
  • Small/Filler words: the small words like for, but, with, and, to, from… don’t get a lot of love until you begin learning a new language. Then you realize how important they are in language. Knowing these small words further helps in formulating small sentences.
  • Vocabulary: 17 Minute Languages provides vocabulary on many different topics that is useful in everyday life. The Vocabulary is broken into sections like food, travel, family… so it is easier to learn.

Important Learning Tools and Resources

  1. PEOPLE: learning from teammates, coaches, and friends, has been the most important and informative because they are the best teachers! They have helped me learn the correct fútbol terms, important slang, and food. It’s also a good bonding moment learning from the locals because they love when you show interest and genuinely want you to learn. They also get a good laugh at you incorrectly pronouncing everything.
  2. Notebook: I am someone that has to write things down in order to learn them. There’s no way a teammate could tell me a word or phrase during practice and at the end of practice, I’ll remember it. Some people work that way, but unfortunately, I do not. So everything I learn or hear, I write down in my notebook or notes page on my phone. That way I can always look over it and practice it until I have it down.
  3. Travel Book: Getting a travel book that has the basics of the language is so so useful. This really jump-started my Serbian learning, because the back pages of my Serbian travel book showed me the Serbian alphabet and gave me the most important words/phrases to know. It’s how I learned the colors, numbers, days of the week, foods, greetings, and important phrases. It also gives a lot of other cool travel information on the country!
  4. 17 minute language: The course mainly helps with vocabulary and verbs. It’s essentially like a big flashcard game where they show you pictures or the English words and you have to say the Serbian word. It then gives you tables on how to conjugate certain verbs. I recommend if you want to learn a new language fluently, to take a class with a teacher. 17-minute language is good if you just want to get by or want to keep up with a certain language.
  5. YouTube: watching youtube videos on the Serbian alphabet helped me correctly pronounce and hear the words.
  6. Google Translate: To whoever invented Google Translate… I love you and thank you! I have been able to hang out with my teammates who do not know English with the help of google translate. It’s such a funny experience. We will literally type out paragraphs for what we want to say in google translate and they will try and recite it in English then I will type my answer and try to reply in Serbian. The translations are sometimes funky but it works! I would not be able to have these experiences with my non-English speaking teammates without Google Translate.

Thanks for reading everyone! I hope ya’ll found this useful if you are trying to learn a new language or found it at least a little interesting. Subscribe to my blog for more content and I’ll be posting more soon!


Published by

Adyson Willett

A professional soccer player and blogger from the United States.

One thought on “How to Start Learning a New Language when Playing Abroad”

  1. Ady,
    Another great and informative blog. I love how you keep embracing each challenge thrown your way and thrive in spite of it!
    Love from mom!


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