Jelena was certainly the one to stand out at the orientation meeting for international students and scholars at Montclair State University back in late August. It might have been her very womanly style and posture or a small group of us just looked distinctively more mature than the rest of the people who were mostly undergraduates.
Jelena’s home country of Montenegro for me is still remaining a place yet to explore. Set in Southeastern Europe, I imagine it to be an enchanting and puzzling combination of the Mediterranean relaxing vibe, which is so enticing and foreign for Russians, and the language heritage that ultimately unites us all speaking somewhat related Slavic languages. Jelena appeared to have the whole package of her country’s charm – a very expressive manner with expansive body language making her reminding me of an Italian woman, and her name that sounds almost the same as one of Russia’s most typical one (only the stress is different) and the accent that evoked the homely linguistic feeling for me.
I had a feeling Jelena was very keen to make new friends but somehow backed away. I was soon to learn that it wasn’t only the separation from her family and particularly a young son that made the transition to a new country a bit lonely and painful. Another thing was that it was also her lack of confidence in her English proficiency that set her apart from people she was so eager to meet in order not to be alone all the time.
Jelena is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Business Studies at the Mediterranean University of Montenegro as well as the Vice Dean of the Faculty. It is really fascinating how someone so accomplished in their field might come to feel insecure like that. It is easy to guess how so much more challenging and trying it could be for someone more mature to embark on their Fulbright experience. I really admire Jelena’s strength and courage as one of her main objectives here is to improve her English that she gets a chance to use in a totally different setting. As someone dealing with Marketing Management, Jelena has had English as part of her research and teaching career that took her all around Europe, but as “weird” as it might seem, being here in the USA and having to deal with the peculiarities of American English is something Jelena has enjoyed a lot. The fact that English is “entering her brain” causing her to think in it shows that a lot of progress has already been made.
Due to a whole host of political and economical reasons (Jelena knows a good deal about the latter), my native language was taught in Montenegro for many years leaving few opportunities of Jelena’s generation (yes, never in the world would one believe she is 40!) to learn English that was slowly making its way to the Mediterranean coast of Montenegro. Even where English was being taught, it used to be approached in a traditionally impersonal and dry manner and merely reduced to grammar. Jelena agrees that as one gets more mature and advanced in whatever career they are pursuing, they might find it harder to master a new language. She sees her young son picking up English and internalizing whatever accent he is exposed to a lot quicker.
With still a lot of Russian people living on the coast, now German and surprisingly Chinese find their way into this Mediterranean country. This is all due to direct investments coming from this Asian country for building a highway. Economy does have a way of impacting linguistics after all making it “crucial” for people like Jelena to study English to keep track of the latest investment trends around the globe. According to Jelena, it is being flexible that makes one a success in this big and complex world. She obviously practices what she preaches and teaches her students as she is ready to embrace the changes her stay in the USA is making and it certainly comes with a big sacrifice as Jelena is counting down days till her family are here for the festive season. It is funny to hear Jelena say she is not talented for languages, as she speaks Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian. Montenegrin is based on all of these languages and it wasn’t until 2007 that it became the country’s official language. That was also a combination of political and economic motivations that got the language to where it is now. It is amazing how people born in this part of the world have to be capable of navigating an array of similar yet pronouncedly different languages. Jelena believes that as long as you “inhale deeply” and just go with the flow, you can be a success! I wish her all the best in her future research endeavors and hope that her confidence levels will be on the rise.