5 Staten Island students getting crash course in Bosnian culture (Staten Island Advance, July 7, By John Stillman)

Five Staten Islanders are among a group of 18 New York City public high school students that set off last month on a journey of over 4,000 miles — to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they will live until July 19.

The cultural crash course — organized through a group called Global Kids — pairs them with local students and houses them in the residences of local families. Their goal is to lay the groundwork for cross-cultural understanding by cooperating with their Bosnian peers on social media projects.

Ms. Lewis admitted that she knew nothing about Bosnia before being accepted into the program…None of the five spoke the Bosnian language. None had ever traveled to the country.

In preparation for the trip, the students did some cursory reading on the nation’s tumultuous history — Sarajevo, where they will be spending part of their time, was under siege as recently as 1996…Most of the lessons will take place on site. Having memorized only a short list of basic phrases in Bosnian, they plan to pick up the language on the fly, as well.

Also on the trip are Islanders Alexandra Galdi, Paulina Jedrzejowski and Albert Mushkilli. [Ah, another Albanian volunteers to go to Bosnia.]

According to the organization, Global Kids exists for the purpose of challenging students in this way. The program offers intensive cultural immersion on a relatively short timeline and expects the teenagers not only to meet their Bosnian peers, but to contribute to the organization’s over-arching objectives: “community building,” “peace-building,” “citizen diplomacy” and “social change.” […]

How edifying could this trip be if the kids’ multi-cultural horizon-expansion didn’t start with the basic fact that there’s no such thing as a “Bosnian language”?

When someone brought this point up in an email exchange with Richard L. Kent, who authored the essay “A Srebrenica Christmas” in 2000 (reprinted in 2010), when he was deputy political advisor to the commanding general in Tuzla (he’d written that a boy had given “a short speech in Bosnian”), Kent countered that it’s only polite for a visitor to refer to a host country’s language as their own. Paraphrasing him from an email: If I were in Croatia, I’d call it the Croatian language. If I were in Serbia, I’d call it Serbian. But I was in Bosnia, and so it was the Bosnian language.

That seemed fair enough on the face of it — finally, a polite American ignorance. But then the following questions occurred to me: Do the Belgians speak Belgian? Do the Swiss speak Swiss? Do Austrians speak Austrian? No, Belgians speak French, and Swiss and Austrians speak German. Just like the Bahamians don’t speak Bahamian, but English. As do the Irish and Scottish, as opposed to speaking Irish and Scottish. And have you heard the Kosovar language being spoken recently? Or is it Albanian?

So why is it only the Serbian language that’s called something else — out of deference to the people on the lands taken from the Serbs?