After thinking about it, Croatian isn't the first second language I've tried to learn. And I'm not referring to the German course I took in college. No, it was in the summer of 1998 - the same year 2 phonies brought baseball back to the fore and I was stuck in U.S. Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island South Carolina.
Four men with Smokey Bear "covers" began pounding new values into my life. One was the importance of a rifle. Short of sleeping with it, I learned that it was my best friend. (We've since parted ways.) Another was physical toughness and endurance. I never won any of the pugil stick fights, but at least I could run. The third was learning a new language.
Every sentence began and ended with "sir". I had been reduced to a "recruit" at best, while the people in charge of me had at least 4 words that came before their name: "Drill Instructor Staff Sargeant so and so".
Beds were "racks". Heads were "grapes". Floors were "decks". People outside our elite club were "civilians". I only had 3 months to learn the new Marine language.
And learn it I did. When I got home, not even my family or the baseball playoffs could loosen my grip on my new set of values. Don Zimmer was a "nasty civilian" because he had put on a bit too much weight and I would soon have to educate my brother in the skill of eating breakfast in under one minute or he would have no hope of becoming like me one day.
I was assigned to recruiters assistance soon after completing boot camp. My duty was to help the recruiter. Because I was on the lowest possible rung of the ladder, I had to do anything he told me to do. All of a sudden the nice guy who promised to do whatever he could to get me in to the Corps was giving me "missions" that didn't make any sense.
On the first day however, my recruiter wasn't there. There was another Marine (of even higher rank) who saw me walk in and started giving me orders. One of the things he told me was even though I was on time, I was to be early the next day. I responded with "Sir, yes sir". He continued by explaining that I would no longer need to use "sir" as a prefix and suffix. "Sir, yes, sir!" I exclaimed. It was only after the conversation ended that I realized my mistake.
Sure I knew the language, but I had been taught to respond in a way that was less than genuine. In fact, I had been taught to answer without thinking. I wasn't expressing myself. The military ought to be proud of themselves. They're able to teach new behaviors, a new language, even a new way of life. But in only 3 months it's close to impossible to make those behaviors genuine if they weren't part of your daily life before boot camp.
The biggest reason I'm struggling with Croatian is that I have a hard time acting. If I sit down for coffee with a friend, I want to get to know them. How can I be genuine when the focus is on me creating a sentence with correct grammar, pronunciation and up-to-date vocabulary that fits the context of the conversation? I can't. So I resort to English - because that's how I know how to express myself genuinely.
Or take prayer for example. As a proper Evangelical, I grew up praying from the heart. That certainly didn't mean we couldn't pray the Lord's Prayer or occassionally read prayers from a book, but still I was encouraged to pray with my own words expressing my own gratitude, needs and praise. How can I pray in a languae that I hardly know? How can I communicate with God in less than genunine way?
Practice. The more I acted like a Marine, the more I became a Marine (for better or worse). The more I act like I speak Croatian fluently the closer I come to speaking the language. It's not an overnight change. It's going to take more than 3 months - more than 3 years for crying out loud! But eventually I will speak Croatian fluently and genuinely.
In the meantime, Croatian friends, thank you for helping me become a better actor.