June 23, 2009

Back in Sarajevo: Music jolts memory and language learning

Music must be one of the most powerful forces of nostalgia!

Yesterday, I had a lot of fun dancing to the gypsy music of Goran Bregović, a Sarajevo-born musician and composer. He has collaborated with Iggy Pop and Cesaria Evora and created the soundtracks for Emir Kusturica’s films (Time of the Gypsies, Arizona Dream, Underground).

While listening to the concert, I felt like I was back in Sarajevo in my small cottage learning the local language (Bosnian, Serbo-Croatian-Bosnian) from my dear Bosnian friend, Damir Imamović. He taught me to sing popular songs from the former Yugoslavia. We would sit by my small table with its plastic red table cloth trying to keep warm in the cold Balkan winter listening to songs on my small cassette player. Often, our “language lessons” turned into English language gossip sessions. I was supposed to teach him English poetry in exchange for Bosnian language lessons through music. Not only did I learn the language through music thanks to Damir, but we developed a profoundly deep friendship. He is the brother I never had.

Now, Damir has his own Bosnian music band, the Damir Imamovic Trio, and can help other people learn the language through his sevdalinke and traditional Bosnian music.

Music activates a part of our brains that not only ignites nostalgia, but also language memory. At the concert, the thoughts in my head were in Bosnian. That’s surprising since Bosnian is the language I speak the least. Because of Bregović’s music, I felt as though I had never left Bosnia and hadn’t forgotten any of the language.

Damir taught me to sing the sad Balkan love song, Ruzica. Unfortunately, Bregović didn’t perform this dear song last night. But I was singing it my head, just like I sang it on many a snowy night sitting on my lone heater by my window watching the snow fall on the well in my courtyard.

Music moves the soul and brings us back to the past.
—-Susanna Zaraysky blogs for about language learning and music. She has just published a book, Language is Music, about how to learn foreign languages using music, TV, film, radio and other low-cost resources.

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